A bad week for Lee just gets worse

by intheloopnz

It seems, in all likelihood, that Melissa Lee’s chances of winning the Mt Albert by-election are dead and buried. At the start of the week she took a public slap from Mr Key over the Waterview tunnel.

And then there was a (mostly) hit and (a bit) miss story on Campbell Live last night: Of the four charges made by the programme, there appears to be a prima facie case for three. Those charges, given her political role, are serious.

Firstly, the charge that she is somehow rorting the system by receiving Government funding whilst at the same time being an MP for the National Party is a little hollow. As she rightly notes, the company in which she is a majority shareholder has been receiving funding for the Asia Down Under programme for quite some time. If she is able to publicly show that she has divested herself of all editorial and managerial decisions relating to programmes produced with public funding, and that she does not benefit from any professional relationship with her colleague the Minister of Broadcasting, then there should be no problem.

There is nothing to suggest of any impropriety, to date, from knowledge that she may or may not have gained from attending caucus. But note that she would, for example, have received warning in advance of other similar production companies of the establishment of the new Platinum Television Fund by virtue of her attending National Party caucus, which must agree to Government proposals before they are enacted. Did she profit from this foreknowledge? Almost certainly not. Did she relay this information to her company prior to the release? It’s impossible to tell at the moment.

The fact of the matter is that conflicts of interest in politics are as much about the perception of a conflict as they are about any real conflicting roles. And they’re about how you deal with them. It would be interesting to know whether the National caucus implemented any conflict of interest procedures around Lee when discussing broadcasting policy or commercially sensitive information in the field. But, given the chance to plead her case last night, she pulled out of the interview. Not a good look.

And on to the other charges.
2. That Lee should have declared her candidature when applying for funding last year.

Of course she should have. It is a breach of ethics to not have declared this, and it would be interesting to note whether NZ On Air was aware of her candidature prior to awarding funding. That she was a candidate for National should not have ruled out her application for funding. But alerting the agency to a potential conflict of interest, and assuring them that steps had been taken to remove any conflict, are steps that should have been taken.

3. That Lee did not remove herself completely from a political story in the lead up to last year’s election.

The evidence here presented by her colleague Jesse Guranathan that Lee stood over her during the editing process and behaved in a way that the presenter felt was inappropriate, would appear to suggest otherwise and directly contradicts Lee’s statements that she did completely remove herself. As does Gurunathan’s statement that Lee had final approval on the story. And if Guranathan is right, then Lee has lied.

4. That NZ On Air money was used to produce an Asian-oriented campaign video for the National Party.

This is the most serious of the allegations as it amounts to an allegation of not just impropriety, but illegality. If, as Gurunathan says, people and resources funded by NZ On Air to produce Asia Down Under were also used to create this video, then that amounts to the fraudulent use of public money. It also begs the question of whether the true costs of producing National’s campaign advertisements were disclosed in their election expense return. The return filed by the party is vague on just what the total sums of TV production money were spent on. If it doesn’t include this product, then that is a contravention of the Electoral Act 1993.

In all, this has been a very bad week for Lee. And it’ll probably get worse as the Opposition starts to dig. One thing is for sure, Lee’s cancellation of her interview for the story last night, which could have cleared up some of these allegations (for at the moment they are only allegations), leads to the very obvious question: is she hiding something?