Saudi sheep revisited

Another old story that has curiously popped up in the middle of an election campaign.

The Saudi sheep deal was embarrassing for the government and deserved scrutiny, but I have suspicions when a story dating back to 2013, that was a big thing in the media in 2015, suddenly pops up right now.

RNZ: Saudi sheep deal: MFAT didn’t provide legal advice on lawsuit risk

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not provide legal advice to the government on the risk of being sued by a disgruntled Saudi Arabian businessman, documents reveal.

The admission that no legal advice on the lawsuit threat ever existed directly contradicts comments in 2015 by then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully that the ministry had taken advice on the issue.

The National government did an $11.5 million deal with Saudi businessman Hamood Al Ali Al Khalaf after Cabinet was advised in February 2013 that the Al Khalaf Group was threatening to sue New Zealand for $20-$30m. Mr Al Khalaf had invested heavily in New Zealand and believed New Zealand’s 2003 ban on live exports had left him misled and out of pocket.

In a 2015 interview on TV3’s The Nation, Mr McCully was asked repeatedly what the advice said and whether he would release it.

He replied “it’s the ministry’s advice” and “I’m not going to release the ministry’s advice”. When asked if there was any legal basis for a lawsuit, he said “the advice was that those circumstances did provide such a basis”.

Yet an Official Information Act response from MFAT “following discussion with the Chief Ombudsman” has revealed “it did not seek or provide advice on the extent of the risk of a claim in the New Zealand courts for compensation from the Al Khalaf Group against the government”.

“Effectively, the minister had misled the public,” said Labour’s David Parker.

“This confirms that the $4m cash payment was never legitimate and thanks to disgraceful covering up by MFAT and McCully it has taken more than two years to get an answer.”

So why is this story timed now? McCully is out of Parliament in a week.

Has the timing of the information being released been designed to hide the story in the mass of election coverage?

Or is it timed to try and influence the election by embarrassing the government?

A $4m cash deal should be questioned, but amongst the current lolly scramble it may be seen as just a few more of our dollars thrown around by politicians.