Culture Minister coy about Film Commission appointments – but she must decide on Dame Kerry’s role as leading lady

No appointments or reappointments to the board of the New Zealand Film Commission have been announced by Carmel Sepuloni, Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, and declared in ministerial press statements since early 2019.  Yet the appointments of two board members she announced then (when she was Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage) should have expired on 30 March last year.

Meanwhile the commission has become embroiled in a conflict-of-interest controversy which has resulted in its governance procedures being subjected to an independent review and its chief executive being on “special leave”.

Its website says the commission is governed by an eight-member board appointed by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

Members represent the film industry and the wider business and arts community. The Board meets every two months to set policy and budgets, monitor progress and consider applications for feature film financing.

Fair to say, board appointments and reappointments have been made since March 2019 but:

  • Neither Sepuloni nor her associate ministers seem to have announced them in press statements;
  • None of the appointments and reappointments have involved the two board members whose terms expired in March last year;  and
  • Dame Kerry Prendergast’s term as chair expires on June 30.

Prendergast might want to quit, because things have become a bit messy at the commission in recent times.

This is reflected in a Stuff headline early last month:  Film Commission boss should step down, says industry body alleging unmanageable conflict.

This alerted readers to questions raised in the securing of funding for a project with which David Strong, the commission’s chief executive, is involved.

It also raised a question about which boss should be stepping down, although critics were calling for the head of the chief executive:

The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) boss’s involvement with a script that’s being turned into a television series with funding from NZ On Air is an unmanageable conflict of interest, and he can no longer continue in his role, an industry body says.

David Strong wrote The Pilgrim as a feature film in 2008. In July last year, he became the Film Commission’s chief executive. A month later, an application by Great Southern Television for funding to develop his script into a television drama series was approved by NZ On Air.

So, what’s the problem when a bigwig at the Film Commission is associated with a project funded by NZ On Air?

An article at The Spinoff addresses this:

While NZ On Air’s chief has a much larger budget, it’s likely no single public servant has more power to make or break a screen project than the leader of the Film Commission. 

This is why an apparently run-of-the-mill letter sent in March of this year set off a furore within the industry that continues to boil to this day. The letter is signed by Dame Kerry Prendergast, the former Wellington mayor turned governance star who chairs the Film Commission board. It’s just a few paragraphs long, and breezily drew the attention of Spada, the Screen Production and Development Association, to The Pilgrim, saying that Strong’s relationship with the project was declared from the start, but that “the conflict has been appropriately identified and continues to be appropriately managed”.

Spada responded with a four-page letter from a barrister which set out the guild’s several objections to what it perceives as an unmanageable conflict.

This and articles published by Stuff raise questions about which Film Commission boss should step down, because Prendergast and the board were aware of the conflict:

The Stuff report says:

Strong’s involvement in The Pilgrim was disclosed to NZ On Air before the funding decision was made. It is also noted on the Film Commission’s website.

The Film Commission has launched an independent review of the conflict of interest process put in place for The Pilgrim to ensure it is “fit for purpose now and in the future”.

The Stuff report quotes from the Spada lawyer’s letter to the Film Commission on March 24:

“SPADA has grave concerns about the scope and seriousness of Mr Strong’s conflict of interest … and does not believe it is possible for this conflict to be managed. 

“SPADA also considers the fact that Mr Strong’s conflict of interest was ever considered to be manageable constitutes a major governance failure. As a Crown entity and custodian of public funds the New Zealand Film Commission’s integrity must be beyond reproach.”

Strong is a director and shareholder of CraftInc. Films, which entered into a commercial relationship with Great Southern Television to develop The Pilgrim into a drama series, the letter says.  And:

“It is … unacceptable for Mr Strong to be in direct competition with producers whilst he is contemporaneously also exercising influence over their funding applications to the NZFC”

The letter points out that previous Film Commission staff were required to surrender their interests in production companies to avoid such a conflict arising.

This industry contretemps should be among Sepuloni’s considerations as she addresses the expiry of Prendergast’s term in the chair.

But how will we know if and when the Minister appoints a new chair and members, or reappoints current members?

Sepuloni has not announced appointments to the commission since March 5 2019, when Aucklanders Sandra Kailahi and Anthony (Ant) Timpson became directors.

At that time Paula Jalfon, Brett O’Riley, and John McCay were reappointed and joined three other  members Kerry Prendergast (chair), Pania Tyson Nathan and Tom Greally.

The press statement concluded:

Ant Timpson and Sandra Kailahi’s appointments are until 30 March 2021.

The Beehive website records no announcements of their reappointments, nor of anybody else being appointed or reappointed to the commission since then.

But we can’t rely on Sepuloni issuing press statements to inform us on these matters.

Her March 2019 press statement did not indicate when Prendergast’s term would end but a Gazette notice at that time advised:   

Appointment to the New Zealand Film Commission

Pursuant to section 28 and Schedule 5 of the Crown Entities Act 2004, I appoint:

Dame Kerry Prendergast, of Wellington

as a member and Chair of the New Zealand Film Commission, for a term commencing on 1 September 2019 and expiring on 30 June 2022.

Dated at Wellington this 19th day of August 2019.

Hon CARMEL SEPULONI, Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

Prendergast was first appointed chair when Maggie Barry was Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister.

Announcing this on June 23 2016, Barry said:

“Mayor of the capital from 2001-2010 and now chair of both the Environmental Protection Authority and Tourism New Zealand boards, Ms Prendergast brings extensive experience in governance to the role.” 

She replaced outgoing chair Dame Patsy Reddy, who was to become New Zealand’s Governor-General.

“Ms Prendergast is soon to complete her term as executive chair of the NZ Festival of the Arts and will take up this new appointment on 1 July, effective until 30 June 2019,” Ms Barry says.

She is still there, along with John McCay, who was first appointed on 28 September 2015.

Sepuloni reappointed him on 30 August 2021 for a term commencing on 1 September 2021 to 30 June 2023.

This was recorded in The Gazette on 15 September 2021 but was not mentioned in press statements that Point of Order could find.   

And the others?

Brett O’Riley and Paula Jalfon were appointed by Maggy Barry in July 2017.  Their reappointments by Prendergast late last year were recorded in  a Gazette notice in January this year which says their latest terms began on 1 February 2022 and expire on 31 January 2025.

Pania Gray and David Wright were  appointed in January 2020.  This was announced not by the Minister but by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

These commissioners have become embroiled in something The Spinoff described as The curious case of The Pilgrim, a decade-old script tearing the screen industry apart. 

Referring to the conflict-of-interest concerns raised by the Screen Production and Development Association of NZ (SPADA), the article by Duncan Grieve says:

While some in the industry suggest that Strong was naive to think such a conflict was ever manageable, no one is suggesting that he ever hid his association with The Pilgrim. In fact, it’s there proudly at the centre of his bio on the Film Commission’s website, and is in some ways among his more impressive achievements in what is a very tough industry to climb in.

Instead, the chief focus of industry ire is the board, particularly Prendergast. As far as governance roles go, the Film Commission board has always been an attractive one, with its association with a glamour industry, but also one with a manifest need for rigour.

That need for scrutiny explains the presence of John McCay, a partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, Brett O’Reilly, former CEO of Auckland tourism board Ateed, and Pania Gray, who worked in the office of the auditor general for some years. 

Still, it’s the chair who is ultimately accountable for issues of this nature, and ultimately makes the call on the appointment of executives.

The article cites unnamed industry sources as saying they were surprised by the way legitimate concerns around conflicts of interest were minimised in a letter which Prendergast’s wrote to Spada, and Spada’s reply, which “clearly demonstrated a depth of feeling within the production sector”.

The Film Commission has agreed to an independent inquiry “to try to placate an always restive, currently incensed industry”.

But has the Minister been placated? And does Prendergast want to stay?

Prendergast has plenty of other jobs to do if she steps down, according to the commission’s website:  she is a Director of Oceania Healthcare, Compass Health PHO, NZ Conservation Authority and NZ China Council, and a Trustee of the New Zealand Community Trust, National Army Museum, the Wellington Free Ambulance Board, and the Victoria Foundation.  She is also a Board member of the Phoenix Football Club and the NZ-US Council Advisory Board.

In the absence of reports to the contrary, meanwhile, we assume David Strong remains on special leave.

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