All Solid Energy players at fault

20:00, Mar 17 2013

The appearance of Don Elder and John Palmer before Parliament's commerce committee was meant to draw the last veil off the true story of Solid Energy's fall.

The men, as the company's former chief executive and chairman, know the detail of what happened and who did what. Blame was also on the committee's agenda as politicians sought ammunition to damage their opponents. What emerged was less clear-cut than they, and a public wanting final answers, were hoping for.

Elder and Palmer seemed frank and detailed in answering the committee's questions, but the issues are too complicated for detailed assessment. High levels of debt, plummeting coal prices, investment in alternative energy, a gung-ho management and a hovering Government combine to produce murk that will probably never be wholly cleared.

That unsatisfactory prospect is made more likely by the Government's determination to distance itself from events. It understandably does not want its reputation for competent financial management - which together with the prime minister's personal popularity is a main strength - to be damaged by association with Solid Energy's messy decline.

Thus the Government is responding to the stream of revelations rather than providing a comprehensive account of its involvement. That is shown most clearly in its failure to disclose its letter ordering state-owned enterprises to increase their borrowing; it was only Labour's Official Information Act request that brought the document to light and thereby identified a major cause of Solid Energy's problems.

Together with the Government's defensive stance has gone a determined attempt to blame the company's management. The words have been so accusatory that Palmer seems to have been prompted to contradict the prime minister.


John Key accused the former chairman of nagging away about the need to sell Solid Energy, wanting a buy-in from other companies and demanding a loan of a billion dollars. Palmer was portrayed as a wide-eyed nuisance.

Such provocation elicited one of the most damning revelations at the committee hearings - that Palmer had no recollection of asking for a billion dollars. He seemed to be saying that the prime minister had not been honest.

That is a slight against Key, who has been forced to produce documentary evidence, but not illuminating about the cause of the company's fall. It might, though, encourage the Government to further disclose all its dealings with Solid Energy, and thereby staunch what is likely to be a prolonged series of revelations that will increase the sense that Key and his ministers have something to hide.

The potential source of leaks is extensive: The humiliated board, shamed senior executives and sacked staff. They would have their powder dampened were the Government to make a full disclosure.

Even that would probably not reduce the damage that has already been done by way of the reality that under the watch, albeit at arms-length, of the Minister of State-owned Enterprises, Tony Ryall, and the Minister of Finance, Bill English, the company continued speculative investment in lignite and bio-fuel, continued to borrow excessively and did not build up funds sufficient to see it through the inevitable downturn in the price of coal.

The ministers' fault was one of insufficient oversight and intervention; the company's fault was one of exuberance and imprudence. The latter is at least as bad as the former.

Prudent management would not have indulged in such extravagant investment in alternative energy, would have kept debt to modest levels and prepared for fluctuations in the coal price. Solid Energy's senior executives and board failed on all those counts.

The result is not just a bankrupt company with huge debts that will have to be met by taxpayers but also stressed lives. Its laid-off workers - all 450 of them - must find new jobs in a tight employment market. The miners will probably find work only overseas. That wretched human toll could have been avoided.

The Press