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A Second Look At Bill Ralston's Bills

A Second Look with Kevin List

At TVNZ Brass Being ‘Called Back’ to Commerce Select Committee

Yesterday, May 6 2004, various ‘top brass’ at Television New Zealand were supposed to have appeared before the Commerce Select Committee. Unfortunately due to TVNZ Chief Executive, Ian Fraser, being reportedly ‘under the weather’ this meeting between Parliamentarians and broadcasting executives was called off at the last minute.

The reason why the meeting needs to take place at all is somewhat unusual.

To be called back to Parliament after a ‘financial review’ of one's organisation is a relatively rare occurrence. And when it does happen, the motivation behind the ‘calling back’ is seldom to slap the executives on the back.

In this instance TVNZ's top brass have been invited back because of concern expressed by MPs regarding TVNZ's decision to decline to answer questions concerning executive credit card use and expenses.

TVNZ has thus been ‘invited’ back for a briefing into their responsibilities to provide information to select committees undertaking ‘financial reviews’.


Official Information Requests to TVNZ

TVNZ News Chief Bill Ralston

The background to the credit card saga began with an Official Information Act request by the National Business Review for, “details of all corporate credit card expenditure and expenses up to and including 30 January incurred by Bill Ralston since his appointment.”

This request was refused by TVNZ who considered their ability to refuse the request was correct on legal grounds. TVNZ also considered that their right to withhold information also applied to any request made by a Select Committee in respect of the above information.

When replying to the Select Committee on the subject of Bill's bills, TVNZ also pointed out that the, “figures would prejudice or disadvantage its commercial activities”, and rather more worryingly that the figures would be, “too hard to piece together.”

By then the Commerce Select Committee had broadened the initial request asking TVNZ to provide details, “especially relating to usage of credit cards by the TVNZ executive team.”


The Senior Executive Team’s Expenses

TVNZ CEO Ian Fraser

The Chief Executive was willing to give the total amount charged to corporate credit cards by the 11 member senior executive team for the year ending 30 June 2003.

In that financial year the ‘team’ had managed to clock-up $316,000 in expenses charged to company credit cards. Mr Fraser also pointed out that TVNZ had ‘strict rules relating to the use of corporate credit cards’.

The claims made by the 11 members of the ‘team’ were reviewed and approved by the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive’s claims are reviewed by the Chairman.

Presumably this means that at a practical level Ian Fraser would sign off Bill Ralston’s legitimate company expenses that were allegedly, “too hard to piece together”, while Craig Boyce would sign off Ian Fraser’s legitimate company expenses.

As to the nature of these expenses - much like Paul Holmes and Susan Wood’s wardrobe, the details of which were rashly offered to the Commerce Committee by Fraser, whilst under parliamentary attack - these remain a mystery.


TVNZ’s rationale for using company credit cards

What can be gleaned from TVNZ’s replies thus far is that the use of company credit cards reduces small value invoices and labour intensive processing of employee expense claims.

What happens to large expenses on company credit cards with ‘no limit’ was not traversed in TVNZ’s replies to the members’.

The use of company credit cards was also handy when TVNZ sends employees to broadcasting conferences around the globe. In the interest of avoiding ‘intensive processing’ the $80,000 bill for sending nine TVNZ staff to Broadcasting conference in Amsterdam (three of whom paid their own airfares) was presumably charged to the company credit card.

According to answers provided to the Select Committee, when using their company credit cards all TVNZ employees should, having taken note of the expenditure guidelines, be mindful that: " TVNZ is a public entity, accountable to Parliament and as such is expected to comply with generally accepted principles of probity, waste and performance."


Enter The Ghost Of Ross Armstrong

When the TVNZ executives eventually make it to Wellington, the outcome of their ‘chat’ may prove enlightening as to how the charter driven public broadcaster regards its responsibilities to the general public.

Many questions remain unanswered.

Were the former Chairman Ross Armstrong’s credit card gaffes (the odd meal while entertaining the Prime Minister at Vinnie’s) and financial ‘forgetfulness’ a mere blip in a brave new era of no holds barred public accountability?

Will the mystery of the company cards be revealed?

Given the need to reduce costs and staff in News and Current Affairs and a desire to move on from the “culture of exorbitance” of the latter 90s it is hoped that TVNZ will turn up and lay the credit cards on the table.

The public may then discover that all the travel costs relate to ‘much needed’ broadcasting conferences. And if there is any entertainment and dining expenditure that it was all incurred during efforts to o make ‘news’ and ‘business’ contacts.

Should the state broadcaster decide to ignore the wishes of the MPs’ and withhold the information requested, the public should be very wary of just how TVNZ finance’s work and whether anything has changed with regard to governance at executive level since the ‘Hawkesby fiasco’ (When former TV3 news reader John Hawkesby received close to $6 Million for not replacing Richard Long as a presenter.)

Withholding the information will also smack of the utmost hypocrisy – especially in light of the recent ‘investigation’ into Winston Peters’ dining habits and allegedly free dinners.

It is also worth noting that if TVNZ had refused the information, following the passing of the Public Finance Bill as it is now, they may very well have escaped chastisement.

This Bill, described as undemocratic by National MP Richard Worth and criticised by the Clerk of the House David McGee, will have serious implications for members’ access to information such as this.

Whether anyone at TVNZ, especially the Head of News and Current Affairs would desire this sort of protection however is a moot point.

In ordinary circumstances we might expect the TVNZ news boss Bill Ralston to turn up to make a submission against the new secrecy provisions in the Public Finance Act. Now however he may be beginning to feel a bit conflicted.

**** ENDS ****

- Kevin List is a Scoop staff writer. A Second Look is an occasional column which endeavours to look a little deeper into the background of current events.

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