Hamish Rutherford: SailGP comments show how far ministers will go to avoid being blamed for hard decisions

OPINION:

Grant Robertson’s statements about why a top international sailing competition will not be coming to Christchurch will not threaten his position in the Government.

But the Deputy Prime Minister’s handling of it does him no credit.

Back in August, Robertson, who is both Finance Minister and Sports Minister, provided a statement to media which strongly suggested the decision to reject an application for a large chunk of MIQ space to allow SailGP to race near Christchurch did not reach the level of being made by ministers.

“The decision was made by the Border Exemptions Officials Group not to progress the proposal for ministerial consideration,” Robertson said.

All Governments like to take credit for anything good that happens and avoid blame for anything bad, but the statement simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Robertson, who will never quite shake off the air of a student politician when in an argument, is right when he says that officials did not recommend the application, which would have required well over 100 MIQ spots. But that is more or less irrelevant.

MBIE very clearly recommended that the application not be approved because officials (rightly) assumed that it was what the Government wanted.

This is not the same thing as not progressing the decision for ministerial consideration. Bureaucrats know better than to do that when making anything resembling a decision of public interest.

Documents released under the Official Information Act show that not only was the decision put to a group of ministers for consideration, Robertson himself attended a meeting where officials checked whether they had correctly second-guessed the Government’s priorities.

Robertson’s office, and the minister himself on NewstalkZB on Monday night, have tried repeatedly to explain away the confusion by pointing to the fact that ministers agreed with MBIE’s advice.

The only way that would be relevant would be if Robertson was claiming that his Cabinet colleagues are so captured by officials that ministerial briefings are simply where the bureaucracy tells the Government where to sign.

He took a different line on his regular Monday slot with Heather du Plessis-Allan, insisting he had told the truth then, claiming he had said something other than what he did.

“I stated the truth, which is that officials advised us of a package of group bookings for sport related and cultural related activities that didn’t include SailGP.”

This is true, but Robertson overlooks his earlier claim about MIQ officials deciding “not to progress the proposal for ministerial consideration”.

Even though Robertson was insisting there was no difference between what MBIE said and what he said, his dancing over the questions betrayed the classic tell which many debaters fall into. In short, he forgot to pretend to be upset.

Questioning the truthfulness of the Deputy Prime Minister would, presumably, be offensive if he thought it was untrue.

Robertson’s confidence in discussing the issue leads to the conclusion that he was more focused on how clever he was in shifting precisely what was said.

In the end it matters little. It is not a major point in the scheme of the many decisions of Covid.

Although the rules around MIQ seem certain to change within weeks, at the time of the decision, back in July, approving an application for more than 100 people for an elite sporting event would have created its own headaches.

In truth, anyone close to the mechanics of Wellington would have spotted at the time that the statement Robertson made could not possibly be right. His office seems to have done nothing to try to correct claims made in a letter from MIQ management pointing out his statements to media were wrong.

Even if it were more significant, the Government is so dependent on a handful of ministers that it is hard to imagine Robertson’s position being questioned under almost any circumstances.

But his refusal to simply accept that the statement was wrong does his reputation no good. He could have quickly passed it off as an error.

By insisting that night is day, even when called on it, it seems the Finance Minister believes trying to prove himself right is more important than being truthful.

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