IN COMMITTEE TVNZ: Hush or Brush

How much do Paul Holmes and Susan Wood spend on their wardrobe? What expenses did Bill Ralston charge to his company credit card? Why did TVNZ bosses clam up before the Select Committee? Why are they being dragged back to Parliament for “a briefing into their responsibilities”? Will they face the full wrath of Mr Speaker? It may sound like an atrocious soap opera; but, behind the hilarity, TVNZ is actually challenging Parliament’s right to know what goes on in Crown Entity.
Most New Zealanders are unaware that they can be summoned before Select Committee, compelled to answer questions under oath and/or to provide any documentation in their possession which the Committee decides is of interest.
For most, the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim, but if you are senior manager working for government organisation, including an SOE or Crown Entity, the chances are you will find yourself in Select Committee room sooner or later. As our story demonstrates, it is best to go prepared.
When TVNZ chair Craig Boyce and CEO Ian Fraser appeared before the Commerce Committee on February 12 this year, they faced barrage of questions about staff expenses. Given the recent controversy surrounding those of the organisation’s former chairman Ross Armstrong, this was inevitable.
One of the key subjects canvassed was that of the issuing of credit cards and what checks were in place to guard against inappropriate use. MPs wanted to know if TVNZ executives and performers were wining, dining and travelling at the public’s expense.
No interrogator was more curious than NZ First’s Winston Peters who was understandably inquisitive on the question, since he himself was the subject of an ongoing investigation by TV One News into whether or not he had accepted free meals at restaurant owned by the directors of fishing company who were key players in the ongoing Scampi Inquiry.
Peters sought to turn the tables by demanding to know what hospitality expenses were being incurred by his nemesis, TVNZ’s head of news and current affairs Bill Ralston. He was also fascinated by Paul Holmes and Susan Wood’s wardrobe allowances.
Boyce and Fraser did not have all this at their fingertips at the time but they agreed to discover what they could and it eventually emerged that TVNZ provides limit-free credit cards to some staff and that 11 senior managers had racked up $316,000 on them in the last financial year. No details of Mr Ralston’s expenses were forthcoming. Ian Fraser argued that the information was “commercially sensitive”, and that TVNZ, as Crown-owned company, was exempted under law from providing it to anyone; including Select Committee.
It was an intrepid move, given that MPs do not take kindly to challenges to their powers; which, in this case, Parliament’s Standing Orders make no bones about. The Committee reported back to the House that it was “concerned that TVNZ declined to answer its questions concerning executive credit card use and expenses and is dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response”. It had, at the time of writing, invited TVNZ back for briefing as to its responsibilities to provide information to Select Committees undertaking financial reviews.
It can be assumed that the State-broadcaster’s attention will be drawn to Standing Order 199 (2) which states that if “the Speaker is satisfied that it is necessary for summons to be issued and that the Committee has taken all reasonable steps to obtain the evidence, papers or records, the Speaker may issue summons accordingly”. If that happens, and TVNZ still refuses to reveal the information sought, it may be held to be in contempt and end up in front of the Privileges Committee whose powers are potentially quite draconian.
Where all this leads is anyone’s guess. But, in the meantime, if you’re called up before Select Committee for financial review, you may care to take your credit card statements along. TVNZ representatives, by contrast, may choose to take toothbrush.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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