Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has weighed into the Eden Park chief executive affair, questioning the park trust’s behaviour as a statutory body with government-appointed directors.

Clark, whose home is near the park, believes the way the trust has lobbied locals to win support for a big concert in February, and then to stage more music events has been manipulative – and she partly blames the chief executive Nick Sautner.

Sautner’s background is under scrutiny after details emerged of a damning judgment of the Australian Federal Court, which found he was rightly dismissed from Etihad Stadium in Melbourne for serious misconduct with ‘elements of dishonesty’.

Eden Park is backing him, saying he has been the ‘model of propriety’ since joining in 2016 and being elevated to the top job late last year. It says it did extensive reference checking before appointing him and the chair Doug McKay declared: “There hasn’t been a single incident which has given me cause to doubt him – and unless he proves me wrong, Nick Sautner has our full support.”

Clark says the trust’s appointment of him and backing of him now is “absolutely inexplicable, knowing of the Australian finding”.

“It’s a systematic pattern. Would not any employer think ‘Hello, hello, hello … we have got a problem’?”

“I’m just left open-mouthed at the way the trust is handling the mandate given it under an Act of Parliament. This is an entity that acts under the Act of Parliament and has government-appointed directors. Is that the kind of standard the public should expect? I say no.”

The trust is independent under its 1955 Act, but its directors are appointed by the Government and Auckland Rugby and Cricket. Given her status and personal standing within the Labour Party, the strength of Clark’s comments could give the Government pause over the appointment of trust board members and the direction it is taking.

Five of the nine trustees are appointed by the government. All were appointed under the Key government and the terms of two, former National Party president Michelle Boag and Morris Pita expire in two months, both having served nine years. The others, including chair Doug McKay, are in place until 2020 and 2021.

Speaking to Newsroom from Georgia, where she is at a conference “ironically promoting honesty and ethical behaviour by government and all entities”, Clark said the actions of the trust in using a public relations machine to go after opponents of its plans, including her, were following a practice of divide and rule.

“I’ve been concerned for some time about the tactics in the neighbourhood where they throw their PR outreach, barbecues and who knows whatever inducements. It is to try and turn it into a major entertainment hub right in the middle of a densely settled area. 

“When one puts one’s head up on a serious submission to the council, you then have the full volley of abuse showered on you.”

Clark said the planned concert for the Sir Ray Avery baby pod fundraiser was a “Trojan horse”. “I’m under no illusions that the Eden Park Trust has seen this Avery application as a wedge – a foot in the door for an aggressive commercialisation of Eden Park.”

Clark’s comments come as Eden Park Trust prepares to host its ‘Hood’ neighbourhood group tonight for a barbecue where it will share ‘intel’ on its latest polling of public attitudes to the park, concerts, and the Avery baby pod event. The Hood website says park sponsors Resene and Philips have prize giveaways to its members, and 125 Blues tickets are made available for neighbours in the Hood each home game, they get Mitre 10 Cup tickets free, and benefits including free coffees.

The poll results are set to go public tomorrow morning and are roundly supportive of both the expansion to six concerts a year and the initial Avery concert, with suggestions the support for the latter have been put at Saddam Hussein-esque election victory percentages.

Clark and others have called the survey ‘push polling’ in which the telephone questioning has been steered towards a pre-determined outcome.

One person called by Ask New Zealand Research, on behalf of UMR, tweeted: “they reeled off a list of people who I’d trust to lead the redevelopment of Eden Park – @jacindaardern, @JulieAnneGenter, @phil_goff, @AklCouncil, and then a list of current and former @AllBlacks. Bizarre.”

Clark claimed one suggestion on the phone interviews was that if Eden Park was not commercially successful, the park would be sold to developers and could be rebuilt for “horror of horrors” state housing.  

McKay told Newsroom this morning he had not seen Clark’s comments and “I don’t want to comment too much on that. I’m not on Twitter or any of that rubbish … and nothing to say, really”.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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