In the Court of Clayton: a rare day of select committee drama

He came, he strutted, he conquered occasionally, and could ultimately claim to have done a solid day's old-fashioned parliamentary work.

Labour's Clayton Cosgrove, one of Mike Moore's notorious "Beagle Boys" coming up for 20 years ago, comes on like a poor man's Winston Peters, except for one thing – he was actually associate minister of state-owned enterprises once upon a time.

So when Mighty River Power, Solid Energy and Genesis turn up together, each with its own set of political boils to lance, he's not about to turn the opportunity down.

He marshalled David Clark, one of Labour's smartest recent finds, and pesky Clare Curran like a well-oiled machine, while their effortlessly supercilious mate, Green MP Gareth Hughes, fell into line nicely with some pithy follow-ups of his own.

Mr Cosgrove has the experienced political operative's eye for what will create most outrage in the formal confines of select committee theatre and what will make the public sit up. The media will be there, he reasons, and the political strafing will take care of itself.

Saw it coming

Everyone in the firing line saw that coming, so that the three biggest risks appeared in one day.

Whatever headlines might be generated from hearings involving soon to be privatised MightyRiverPower, troubled coal company Solid Energy, and a public appearance by Genesis Energy and former Mainzeal companies chairwoman Dame Jenny Shipley they will drown each other out in the media.

Genesis should be a good news story. It is hitting an earnings sweet spot and could be part-privatised this year, but is hampered by the fact Dame Jenny is now better known as the former chair of Mainzeal group companies than as a gutsy minister of health and former prime minister.

Dame Jenny has made two public appearances since resigning her final Mainzeal connections on February 6, the day Mainzeal Property and Construction went into receivership. The first was at last week's Genesis earnings announcement, where media pressed her on her suitability to chair Genesis.

Voice was quavering

The second was at the commerce select committee. The way her voice was quavering, it was clear she wasn't looking forward to it. She had the biggest media presence of the day there.

She went media-trained to the earnings briefing to say "this is about the Genesis result and this company's performance". 

She went to parliament ready to say the same thing, with one addition. As a former MP herself, she parried Mr Cosgrove's questions by asserting: "I am very familiar with Standing Orders, as you would expect, and relevance is a key issue here.” 

Commerce select committee chairman Jonathan Young agreed and the questioning moved on.

Before Dame Jenny, Mr Cosgrove had led the charge against Joan Withers and Doug Heffernan, the chairwoman and chief executive respectively of Mighty River Power, just days after finally getting the green light for its IPO.

Mr Heffernan's admission to thinking it was a waste of time answering the select committee's check-list of 113 questions, since he runs an SOE and isn't either a government department or an agency, was a stunning own goal as this largely unknown company seeks mass investor appeal. 

To his credit, he saved nicely by revealing to the media scrum afterwards that the company operates precisely three credit cards. Three. 

Mr Cosgrove, naturally disappointed by this puny haul, still managed to be outraged that Mr Heffernan had informed the media before it had told the select committee. 

Next up was Genesis and Dame Jenny. See above.

Board replaced

Then it was Solid Energy, where everyone who knew where the bodies are buried has disappeared. Virtually the whole board has been replaced since Solid first reported a shock $40.2 million loss for the year to June 30, and is about to unveil more big write-downs at its half year result, now due.

Here, Mr Cosgrove had little to work with beyond arm-throwing frustration at the fact Solid Energy's new chairman, Mark Ford, has no knowledge of the previous era, having been in the job for just three months. 

"And here, Mr Chair, is where our problem lies," he must have said 10 times as Mr Ford said he really didn't know how things got like that and his job is just to fix it. Usefully, he talked of a business plan that will return the SOE to profitability in 2015 as a much slimmed-down company winning coal for export.

While acting chief executive Garry Dyack was present and knows a fair amount about the past, the company was really the creature of its former chief executive, Don Elder, and its former chairman, Air NZ chairman John Palmer.

It was Mr Elder's shiny dome and piercing mien that was missing to explain just how his great, big idea went so horribly wrong. 

Mr Cosgrove muttered about having the committee subpoena Mr Elder, but he wasn't even able to extend the hearing by an hour, thanks to the National Party's committee majority. Such is the nature of life in opposition.

In the end, not much was achieved, although National's Sam Lotu-Iiga put up a good fight, accusing Labour of being "just lazy" for not updating the SOE questionnaire complained of, and chiding Mr Cosgrove for calling "our guests", the MRP executives, "smart alecks".

The most important energy sector of the moment was, in fact, never touched. 

First up was the Electricity Authority, which is presiding over industry-wide revolt over a radical plan it's come up with to carve up the $1 billion-odd of annual national grid transmission revenues.

That could affect both MRP and Genesis. It could see northern New Zealanders and households pay more than others, while shifting cost off industry, such as the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

If the Labour MP's knew about that issue, they weren't showing it and the EA certainly wasn't venturing to brief on it.  But for the rest of the political theatre, it was a job well done. 


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