By FRAN O'SULLIVAN
It's time for a reality check over Michelle Boag's role in the winebox affair.
The PR operator has deftly stepped over some adverse findings by a commission of inquiry as she skilfully builds media support for her tilt at the National Party presidency.
But if she takes the presidential contest at the National Party's July annual conference, Ms Boag will need some smart advice of her own to prevent the current party whispers erupting into open hostility.
At issue is how she would handle the inevitable conflicts of interest a party president faces - particularly when it comes to the selection of list candidates and corporate fund-raising - with her track record as Fay, Richwhite's flack.
Stylish, a sharp-shooter and a media courtesan par excellence, Ms Boag was the National Party presidential contestant whom news reporters chased when the vote for the Auckland division's vital nomination was announced at yesterday's regional conference.
Mr Slater held on by 164 votes to 125. But the media went with the action - Michelle Boag.
A solid and decent, if uninspiring leader, Mr Slater has held National's top organisational position for five years. But he is not the media darling in this race.
National in all probability faces another term in opposition after next year's election. So the party's scruples have become less rigid as activists and long-time members alike weigh their options over which candidate is more likely to ensure a victory.
It is fair to say that without her corporate baggage, Ms Boag would be a shoo-in. She is a good campaigner presenting a fresh approach more in tune with younger voters and their aspirations. She is street-wise, and has rightly faced down allegations of personal misjudgment over her first marriage to a con-artist.
Her website-based campaign is in tune with the times as she lines up new people to breathe new life into a moribund organisation.
But no matter how hard she spins, Ms Boag cannot overcome the fact that she wilfully misled the Davison Commission over the secret filming of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at the tax-dodging inquiry.
In seeking to defuse these findings, she now risks compounding damage to her reputation by dissembling over the commission's findings.
In a news report yesterday, she is quoted as saying she did not try to deceive the inquiry commissioner.
Fay, Richwhite had just wanted a filmed record of what Mr Peters was saying.
"Every time Winston Peters said something, we didn't know what he was going to say next - and we were intensely interested in what he was saying." she was quoted as saying.
The reality is somewhat different.
Fay, Richwhite had a bevy of legal counsel present during all the inquiry sessions.
Evidence was transcribed, and transcripts on disk or printout were available at the close of each session.
Fay, Richwhite hardly needed a film company for record purposes.
The reality was that while Ms Boag took the corporate fall for a strategy that Fay, Richwhite principals must have been well aware of - any operative working otherwise would have been sacked - she personally instructed the film crew.
Despite her reported comments that it was untrue that the film was to be used in a hatchet job on Mr Peters, the film crew certainly gave the impression to the inquiry that its film would ultimately be used for more than simple record purposes.
Also skipped over in news reports is the fact in the fallout from the inquiry, she subsequently stood down as a Television New Zealand director and as National's communications chairwoman.
The reality was that both organisations were compromised by the way she had handled her high-profile role as Fay, Richwhite's operator.
A Public Relations Institute ethics committee probe was foiled when Ms Boag resigned her membership.
Behind the scenes in National Party forums, Mr Slater's team has made much use of a Management magazine article which it claims provides further questions over Ms Boag's moral authority to lead the party.
The article quotes her illustrating how she would fob off journalistic questions over an imminent deal by saying "No, that's rubbish" or "You've got that entirely wrong."
But when National Party mandarins mutter into their tea-cups over Ms Boag, they should also spare some moments for a broader look at their party's record on the winebox affair. National's performance was a triumph of political expediency over highly principled governance.
National leader Jim Bolger was finally forced to call for an inquiry after Mr Peters repeatedly lifted the parliamentary temperature culminating in the tabling of the winebox documents in early 1994.
Justice Minister Sir Douglas Graham refused to take action on parliamentary questions on insider trading relating to Fay, Richwhite, giving the fatuous response that the company would face double jeopardy as it was already taking defamation action against this correspondent.
For the record, it should be pointed out that Fay, Richwhite withdrew its $8 million defamation claim in 1997 without putting up any evidence.
Likewise, National's Auckland division, which Mr Slater led, failed to keep the parliamentary wing honest in this affair by following through on grass roots members' concerns over the Bank of New Zealand bailouts and ensuring action was taken after the winebox inquiry findings.
Ms Boag can point to her established credentials as a long-time party activist as giving her credence beyond that of a potential chief bag-woman.
But much of her suit is based on her ability to open corporate doors and extract dollars to run National's political machine.
Boag loyalist Geoff Thompson - a former National president - has urged private donors to use the New Zealand Free Enterprise Trust to funnel party donations to avoid identification. But without transparency, National's opponents will question whether deals are being done to secure financial backing.
The political reality Ms Boag faces is that her former employers are still strongly involved in at least one thorny public issue, the resolution of the Tranz Rail imbroglio in which the Labour Government is considering the effective buyback of the company to preserve national rail coverage.
Fay, Richwhite itself had a conflict of interest in both being an adviser on the privatisation of NZ Rail and a member of the acquiring consortium.
What advice will Ms Boag tender to the National Opposition on such issues?
The most fundamental question is whether Ms Boag also represent the soul of the National Party and develop it to the point where there is again the battle of ideas which politics ought to represent and which is obviously lacking in New Zealand at this time.
If her record on the winebox affair calls into question her overall moral authority, Ms Boag will find it very difficult to deliver on the battle for ideas. Which will be a pity - because she has many more of these than Mr Slater.