8 Mar 2023

RNZ/TVNZ merger: Minister defends ongoing payments on scrapped project

6:02 pm on 8 March 2023
Labour MP Willie Jackson

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson says the government now knows the direction it needs to go with media public. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson says millions of dollars spent on the cancelled RNZ / TVNZ merger had been "money well spent", and is defending payments still going to the board set up to establish it.

Jackson was quizzed at select committee about the wash-up costs for the Strong Public Media project, after the new entity was scrapped in early February.

The total recorded spend, so far, is just over $16 million. Private contracts are being wrapped up but there is still a binding lease for office space, in place until the end of May, with an annual price tag of $1.19m.

The minister said the Establishment Board had met a couple of times as part of the wrap-up process and would deliver him a 'close out' report by the end of March.

"My understanding is that they met for a day-and-a-half since the announcement was made, and it's cost $10,300," Jackson told the committee.

"They don't meet every day. These are people who are highly skilled, have huge experience, have been working on this merger for the last year ... so just because an announcement was made doesn't mean that challenge is still not in front of them.

"They'll get one more payment and they'll tie things up and that'll be it," he later told reporters.

But Jackson was not so clear cut when pressed on whether board members would be paid for the work that still had to be done on the report.

"They'll be paid for their time until the end of March... my understanding is they'll be paid for any time that they put into closing this off," Jackson said.

Officials from the lead ministry, Culture and Heritage, told MPs other contracts had break clauses and were being wrapped up, but there were still a few more months to pay on the lease for office space in Plimmer Towers in downtown Wellington.

The ministry had also spent "$94,000 on providing IT equipment and furniture for the contractors and consultants supporting [it] to do the Strong Public Media programme". Officials would "redeploy" any of that where possible.

'Zombie policies?'

National is launching a full court press against government spending; homing in on money spent on consultants and contractors, but also on projects it railed against last year as a waste of money - that have since been scrapped or put on the back burner.

One that had temperatures rising in the House was the income insurance scheme; a policy Finance Minister Grant Robertson had been working on for some time, on which $20.7m had already been spent, with final costs to be confirmed "through the usual parliamentary accountability processes".

Dubbed the "jobs tax" by National, the idea was for a 2.77 percent levy on pay packets - split between employees and employers - set aside to support worker who lose their job through redundancy, sickness or disability.

It was not abandoned altogether, but put aside for a possible time in the future when there is the necessary money and political bandwidth to revive it.

The merger has been parked rather than scrapped, the government says. Photo: RNZ / Michelle Tiang

"How much money in addition to the $36 million already poured down the drain will this government throw at these zombie policies?" asked National Party's Nicola Willis during parliamentary question time.

"I appreciate the fact - which she's just confirmed with that question - that she doesn't care about those people made redundant in New Zealand, or those people who lose their jobs through health conditions or disabilities," Robertson fired back.

Willis concluded with Robertson so "emotionally attached" to the insurance scheme, "even he acknowledged that slapping an $800 average tax on New Zealanders will never be a winner".

"I will stand proudly on being emotionally attached to having New Zealanders in work and to having New Zealanders looked after, so that when they get sick, we look after them, and so that when they lose their job, we look after them," he countered.

"So the member might think it's all a political game or some part of the Wellington High School debating society... but for me, it is an emotional matter to have New Zealanders in work and to look after them."

Formed business case for media merger 'was really important'

Of the merger, Jackson said the money spent on the set-up of the new entity had not been wasted - "we know a heck of a lot more now".

"We've got a framework, we've got a fully formed business case, in terms of where we're going, which evaluates the multiple options for strengthening public media.

"I think that was really important."

The focus now would be shoring up RNZ in particular; Jackson said.

"Historically, it has served some of those audiences but it has been starved of funding for a number of years now, so we can have a look at really injecting some resources and funding that way".

He said there was an immediate need to give RNZ some catch-up funding, then set a sustainable course for the future. Specific details could be expected at the "end of March, early April" after Cabinet sign-off.

Looking to the future, Jackson said "while we don't have a merger, we know where we're going".

"And in a better time, when we don't have a cyclone and we don't have the floods of the century, who knows, we might be able to roll that merger out."

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