Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wellington City's inducement to Singapore Air

I'm not surprised the Auditor-General has declined to investigate Wellington City Council's underwriting Singapore Airline's extension of its routes into Wellington. There was a trail of decision-making stretching back 9 years that supported the actions of WCC CEO Kevin Lavery when he wrote SIA a big cheque in secret. Morally the whole process is pretty shabby but legally it is OK.

I guess many Wellingtonians were a bit stunned when they found out that the CEO of their council had paid Singapore Air a lot of (ratepayer) money to extend their Singapore-Canberra route through to Wellington. This payment would underwrite the commercial risk SIA were taking to trial this new route. There was no consultation, no public council meeting, and so no opportunity for the public or the majority of elected members to be involved.

Although it looked bad Lavery's action was perfectly legal. Council staff can spend money without recourse to elected members under certain conditions. In Lavery's case he was delegated to spend up to $1m in any one transaction as long as it was for an item in the already approved plan for the year. The main purpose for this delegation is to allow contracts for approved works to be accepted without all the delays formal council approval would require. But a delegation is a delegation. So, as long as the payment to SIA was pre-approved, Lavery was entitled to negotiate and sign the deal. In February 2016 Dave Armstrong wondered whether the tail was wagging the dog at WCC. He may have been right but the CEO's delegation also allowed a small group of elected members to bypass their colleagues as long as the CEO went along with them. It's not clear who was wagging what.

Elected members (mayor and councillors) have no executive power. Even Wellington's mayor could not have signed this deal alone. But, by dragging the CEO along, a small group of councillors could strike a deal and get the CEO to use his delegation to sign it. As I say the only stipulation is that the deal had to have already been approved in a Ten Year Plan or Annual Plan.

I couldn't find any reference to this plan in Wellington's 2015-25 Ten Year Plan. It turns out they consulted on it in the 2012-22 Ten Year Plan. There was no attempt to hide it then. This from the Strategic Direction section of the plan:

The Council has also made provision to support long-haul flights to Wellington by retaining funding of $200,000 (for the Council to administer for this purpose) and identifying a funding mechanism to rapidly respond to an opportunity should it arise.

Once this plan was approved by the Wellington City Council after public consultation in 2012 this deal was on the work plan and only required implementation. The only thing I would note is that this $200k is per annum and probably budgeted for in every year of the TYP. In a city the size of Wellington no-one would raise an eyebrow over a one-off payment of $200k but $2m over ten years? As for the funding mechanism for "rapidly respond[ing]", it could be anything but a guaranteed stream of revenue in perpetuity for this purpose would enable WCC to secure a credit line with any lender should they need it.

And there is a little more detail down in the Economic Development activity description:

Long-Haul Airline Attraction – we will continue to support the attraction of a long haul carrier to Wellington in the near future at a level of $200,000 per year. The Council will oversee the budget and work with the Wellington International Airport and Positively Wellington Tourism to achieve our long-haul objectives. Any costs associated with establishing a longhaul attraction fund as part of an agreement with an airline to provide long-haul services to Wellington, will in 2012/13 be met by retaining a portion of the Wellington International Airport Limited dividend, with future funding decided through the annual plan process.

What does "continue to support" mean? It turns out that the idea was first consulted on in the 2006-16 Long-Term Council and Community Plan. And the $200k ratepayer contribution started in the 2006/7 year. Their goals:

Positively Wellington Tourism and Wellington International Airport Ltd have developed a strategy aimed at attracting at least one daily longhaul air service to Wellington from a south-east Asian market. In the past, Wellington’s development as an international visitor market has been restricted because long-haul aircraft couldn’t land on the airport’s relatively short runway. From 2008, that will change. New Boeing and Airbus aircraft will be able to provide long-haul services from the existing runway

And the performance measure was having daily long-haul services to Wellington by 2008/9. As we know they never met their promise (flights to Australia don't count as long-haul) but WCC continued with the line item in each year's budget anyway.

By 2011 the idea got a new lease of life as a crucial (if not the most crucial) component of the Wellington City Economic Development Strategy:

Improving long haul air services, especially with Asia, is critical to improving Wellington’s access to international markets and to attracting talented people, international students and investors
 Once that strategy was adopted the idea of attracting long-haul flights into Wellington had morphed from a plausible idea that failed when tried into a sine qua non without which Wellington City would enter into a death spiral. And within a few months the proposal got that second airing in the 2012-22 LTP.

By the time recent immigrant Kevin Lavery got invited to the party the accumulated funds totalled millions and the proposal had the same orthodoxy as building an ocean outfall to improve sewage disposal. So in a legal sense Lavery was only doing his job.

The only legal quibble would be that consultation was conducted on the basis that direct flights to Asia were the goal. I doubt that a two-step flight via Canberra would comply given that existing trans-Tasman carriers serving Wellington such as Qantas could supply equivalent services already.

Personally I think the processes that lead to the deal were questionable given that they start a decade beforehand with some vague concepts and only tiny (but perpetual) funding. Without much public involvement the proposal initially fails then, rather than being canned, it gets incrementally changed from direct flights to SE Asia to long-haul flights to anywhere with the right to find emergency extra funding if necessary to make it happen. Promises were made in the Economic Development Strategy to providing business cases and further justification if extra funding was needed. If those analyses were ever carried out they have not been published by WCC.

There is a very good case for a joint investigation by the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman to determine whether (i) the overall decision-making process complied with the Local Government Act and (ii) whether the payment when it was made represented a good use of public money. It would be useful for the whole country to have light shone on the process as this incremental changing of goals is common enough in the public sector. Too often there is a gap between what was initially proposed and what was delivered. Our government and councils need to start over if they cannot deliver on their initial proposals. We shouldn't have to shake our heads and wonder how we got to some strange place.

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