John Key had a simple line and he stuck to it whatever question was asked. He laid all the blame on Labour for the failure of New Zealand to create a free-trade pact with the seriously wealthy oil-rich Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Labour had imposed the ban on live sheep exports which created the problems that National was left to sort out.
He didn’t mention that National could have simply overturned the ban. The official papers reveal ministers spent considerable time discussing that possibility but had been reluctant to upset the powerful animal rights lobby.
This is broadly correct. National inherited the problem, and to solve the issue they could either decide to allow live exports for slaughter to resume, or try and soothe the Saudis. I can understand the reluctance to allow live exports for slaughter to resume.
The other reason National’s opponents failed to make an impact was that the thrust of their attack was that National’s payment of $4 million to a Saudi businessman, who had taken big losses as a result of the export ban, amounted to a bribe to make him stop using his influence to block free-trade talks.
But the notion of a bribe in most people’s minds is that the briber gets some personal benefit. In this case those offering the money – the New Zealand Cabinet – could be seen as acting in the national interest rather than personal interest.
That to me is the key. The deal may well be unorthodox and even wasteful (especially if we don’t get trade access), but there is no personal benefit involved in this. The only motivation is to help NZ exporters, and unless one can find some personal gain, I can’t see this being a scandal.
However I do think it would be desirable for the Auditor-General to investigate fully. Even if well motivated, it is far from clear that it was a prudent “investment”.