Gordon Campbell on Len Brown, trust, and Simon Bridges

Leaving aside the tawdry details of Auckland mayor Len Brown’s extramarital affair, the oddest feature is the timing of the revelations. By Brown’s own account to John Campbell last night, the affair ended mid year, just before the election campaign began. Yet the story did not emerge when it might have affected the election campaign. Instead, it broke on the second working day after the outcome had been announced. If, as Brown hinted darkly, there was an element of “political endeavour” in the timing, it looks like a rather inept shot at sabotage. Yes, the affair will cast a shadow over his administration – but that shadow will recede as the media shifts its focus to matters of administrative competence, and away from issues of personal morality.

This shift of focus will inevitably happen – but only if there are no further revelations. During the TV3 interview, Campbell made the good point that there had better be no other skeletons in the mayor’s closet. The timing, as Brown said, does suggest an element of political endeavour, but one that could cut both ways. What would be fatal for Brown would be if any evidence should surface that he managed the termination of the affair – which, as he says, ended just before the campaign began – and the subsequent silence of those involved, over the course of the election campaign proper. If it exists, such evidence would implicate Brown in a process of information suppression and in effect, in a deception of the public. There is no evidence that such a process of deception and damage control did take place. These days, election campaigns are increasingly presidential, with personality issues to the fore. On the timetable he revealed on television last night, he ended the affair mid year – but is that when he told his family about it? Or were they told closer to the eve of the affair becoming public knowledge?

Brown’s personal morality is an issue for himself and his family, but not entirely so. Brown has campaigned on being an honest, hardworking upholder of Christian family values. He deserves to be judged if he has betrayed the image he has promoted. Trust is an essential ingredient of the powers bestowed on the person who sits at the apex of the local government pyramid. This is especially the case in the light of the reforms that will now take effect in the wake of this year’s local government elections, whereby mayors have been granted extensive new powers to manage council business. By a wide margin, Auckland voters believed that Len Brown was the person most competent to wield those powers. Despite the revelations to date about his affair, they probably still do. Yet they also have a right to feel disappointed, and aggrieved at his behaviour.

Solid Energy
Just when the government’s management of its asset sales programme looks like it couldn’t get any worse, it has. Spectacularly so. Despite Finance Minister Bill English’s recent assurance that all the main players – including the key lenders – had agreed to Solid Energy rescue re-financing package, one of those key lenders has begged to differ. The Bank of Tokyo has now gone to court to challenge the government’s plan which now looks less like a done deal, and more like a hopeful punt that was trying to become a self fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t a done deal, and has now come publicly unstuck and puts Solid Energy and its 1,000 jobs once more at risk of liquidation and/or needful of a major government bailout. And, English says, he knew the court action was pending all along.

English said the court action had been anticipated and the legal advice he had received was that it had only a small chance of success. However, he said, success would be likely to work against the company.

He just never told us, that’s all. In fact, rather than warn about a likely legal challenge, he claimed the deal had been agreed by all key parties. Which, as with Len Brown, does raise a matter of trust. How can one believe anything that this government says publicly – in this case, about their stewardship of our assets, and the security of the jobs of those directly in the firing line ? Solid Energy has been a sorry tale of mismanagement by its own highly paid executives, and by its political masters. And it’s not over yet.

Bridges to Nowhere

What a week. Its only Wednesday, and we’ve already had the multiple catastrophes at chez Brown and Solid Energy, and with the spending habits of the kohanga reo leadership elite. Monday night and Energy Minister Simon Bridges’ bizarre performance on John Campbell’s TV3 show already seem a very long time ago. That interview shouldn’t be lost to the vagaries of the news cycle. It deserves to get used as a cautionary staple of journalism courses for years to come. As we speak, Bridges’ press advisers are probably seeking out the horse sedative that’s been linked to some of our recent show jumping triumphs, for addition to the Minister’s feed bag, forthwith. If you haven’t seen this interview already, you should. You really should.

As regards the journalism course aspect… in the interviewer’s role, should Campbell have tried more energetically to contest the Minister’s refusal to answer questions, and his peddling of blatant misinformation? No, I don’t think so. Having two people shouting at each other – and there was room for only one shouted monologue on Monday night – would have revealed less than what eventually transpired. Like most viewers, Campbell seemed genuinely surprised and aghast at what he was seeing, and understandably, it left him with a “where do you begin?” kind of response. Even so, viewers who were attentive to the content would have got the message. These wells will be at depths double what we have ever experienced in this country before, and our – or the oil company’s – response to a major spill would be neither timely, nor adequate. It is strictly a casino punt by government, that nothing major will go wrong.

During the interview Bridges tried to peddle false claims about Anadarko’s level of responsibility and oversight for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf Of Mexico. It was only a “passive investor” in BP’s Deepwater Horizon activities, Bridges claimed. So how come, John Campbell pointed out, Anadarko had paid $4 billion [in 2011] for its share of the responsibility ? Good point. In fact, Anadarko has consistently been found liable by separate Congressional and presidential investigations, as Werewolf reported in detail earlier this year.

‘…the Congressional Energy Committee’s Interim Report criticized the decisions taken by the co-owners’ [ie BP and Anadarko] to use the risky long string casing design on the Macondo well, as well as decisions to use only six centralizers, to conduct only a partial circulation of the drilling mud, and to not run a cement bond log. The Interim Report concluded that of particular concern was the “lack of a systems approach that would integrate the multiplicity of factors potentially affecting the safety of the well, monitor the overall margins of safety, and assess the various decisions from perspectives of well integrity and safety.” Repeatedly, Anadarko has sought to pin the entire blame on BP for such failures. Yet this is not what the Congressional Energy Committee found in its Final Report. They found joint responsibility existed:

“A series of questionable decisions in the days preceding the blowout . . . had the effect of reducing the margins of safety and . . . evidenced a lack of safety-driven decision making,…The actions, policies, and procedures of the corporations involved did not provide an effective system safety approach commensurate with the risks of the Macondo well. The lack of a strong safety culture resulting from a deficient overall systems approach to safety is evident in the multiple flawed decisions that led to the blowout. Industrial management involved with the Macondo well/Deepwater Horizon disaster failed to appreciate or plan for the safety challenges presented by the Macondo well.”

Again, blame was attached to both BP and Anadarko:

“Neither [of] the companies involved . . . made effective use of real-time data analysis, information on precursor incidents or near misses, or lessons learned in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide to adjust practices and standards appropriate.”

In similar vein, the National Commission report prepared for the US President Barack Obama concluded that “systematic failures in risk management” had been evident. Finally, sworn testimony by Michael Beirne, (the main liaison between BP and Anadarko over the Macondo Well) showed that in the summer of 2009, Anadarko had been provided with the well design plan and the well permit applications, and Anadarko had expressly approved them for use. Throughout the drilling process, Anadarko has been given immediate and continuous access to detailed information concerning all operations on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Given the above evidence, the assurances that Anadarko has given to New Zealand that it was only a “passive investor” seem deliberately misleading and disturbing, in the light of their intended activities here….’

Bridges also sought to limit the blemishes on Anadarko’s record to the Gulf Of Mexico disaster, and cited its allegedly good record elsewhere. Would that include – as the Werewolf story documented – Anadarko’s actions in the Tronox case with respect to how it has assisted its subsidiary to evade responsibility for paying the US government the cleanup costs for its past environmental damage, and for which Anadarko is now facing court-imposed penalties that are expected to run into billion of dollars?

The residents of Kaikoura might also be interested in how this small community in Columbus, Mississippi has been faring at the hands of Anadarko. Plainly, these guys cannot be trusted to be good corporate citizens. Again, what we are dealing with in the case of Simon Bridges is the same issue – trust – as we are dealing with regarding Len Brown. Can we trust someone willing to serve as a corporate shill to hold the same business to account, later, at the sharp end of their operations in this country? Hardly.

Len Brown’s story is more complicated. His family have had their trust – that the long hours foregone with him was all for the greater good – betrayed by him. Up to them of course, to decide whether to extend that trust to him again. Yet in passing, the Campbell interview with Brown provided us all with a glimpse into the mindset of the career politician. At the outset of the interview, Brown had claimed to be there on behalf of his family, but he was plainly there to save his job. He made a reasonably good fist of it. In doing so, he made it clear that the job, and the hours it entails, will not change. Nor will his commitment to it. Yikes. As with Walter White, one was left with the feeling that this family is in some need of protection from the man who protects this family.