TVNZ/RNZ: 'Ludicrous' spending on establishment board weeks after merger canned

By Jane Patterson of RNZ

The merger between RNZ and TVNZ was cancelled weeks ago, but the board set up to establish the new entity is still being paid out thousands of taxpayer dollars - with more to come.

After years of planning and millions of dollars paid to private consultants and nine establishment board members, the government cancelled the merger less than a month before the formal start date of 1 March 2023.

Under political pressure over the cost of living, Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media was one of the first casualties of new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' policy reset.

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson has confirmed the board has not yet been disestablished and was still being paid, weeks after the public announcement the merger would not be going ahead.

The board "held its final meeting virtually on Thursday 16th February to endorse deliverables from the programme as its point of closure", he said in a response to written parliamentary questions from National MP Melissa Lee.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage said the board was still working on a final report, due before the end of the month, and then its work will be finished.

Lee said it seems "ludicrous that they are still getting taxpayer money, considering the fact the whole thing has actually been cancelled".

"It's exactly an example of wasteful taxpayer money spending by this government.

"When the prime minister actually says that they're going back to bread and butter things - this is one that certainly is not bread and butter; wrapping up a failed merger and paying people in excess of $1000 a day is huge waste of our taxpayer money," she said.

In his response, Jackson said "issues in our wider media eco-system that led to the desire to establish a new public media entity have not gone away, and it is important to ensure a true and accurate record of material from the programme is available for future reference".

"The board is now in the process of completing a close-out report for my consideration, reflecting what it has learnt through the course of the establishment phase."

An early 2022 Cabinet paper had the daily rate for board chair Tracey Martin at $1150 for work done, and the other eight members $865 each.

Lee sees no justification for continuing to pay the board: "What's the point when the government has already cancelled the merger, and the work they were actually doing was to establish a new entity...when there is no work.

"Their work should be stopped."

Minister Willie Jackson refused to comment when asked about the wrap-up process for the establishment board and any payments still being made, referring RNZ to a select committee hearing later this morning, with a spokesperson saying that would cover "operational costs, including contractor spend and Establishment Board costs".

"The SPM [Stronger Public Media] programme has closed. Its costs will be publicly released on the website in due course."

The lead ministry, Culture and Heritage, issued a short statement when asked what justification there was for ongoing payments to the Establishment Board.

It said after the prime minister announced the government would be "halting the establishment of the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) entity on 8 February 2023...the Establishment Board - an advisory board to the minister - then set about making final close down decisions for the programme".

It said the board met on 16 February and then again on 6 March "in a final close down meeting with the minister".

"The advisory board will produce a final report to the minister before the end of March, and then their work will be concluded."

Forty million dollars had been allocated to set up the new entity and for the transition period. Late last year RNZ revealed the eye-watering sums being paid out to private contractors; on contracts worth up to almost $9000 a week, at an average of almost $6000 a week.