Lee gaffe sets back her poll chances

BY MARTIN KAY
Last updated 05:00 15/05/2009

Defining moment in by-election

ROSS GIBLIN/The Dominion Post
MELISSA LEE: Her comments were 'silly', Prime Minister John Key said.

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Melissa Lee has damaged her chances of winning Mt Albert with a bizarre claim a motorway through the electorate would keep out criminals from South Auckland.

The first-term list MP has also tarnished her image as one of National's rising stars after Prime Minister John Key was forced to publicly admonish her when she initially stood by the comments.

The remarks came on Wednesday at a heated meeting in the electorate, where a byelection is being held to replace Helen Clark, and a planned motorway extension that will see 360 homes demolished is a defining issue.

Ms Lee, who struggled to be heard above loud heckling, said: ''People coming in from South Auckland get to Mt Albert ... hopefully, we divert some of that traffic and criminals away from Mt Albert.''

Labour leader Phil Goff said the comments were ''ridiculous and insulting''.

Mr Key was forced to distance himself after Ms Lee said early yesterday that she did not resile from the comments, though she later issued a formal apology.

"I was wrong to have implied that crime is solely a South Auckland problem, or that the new motorway would reduce crime,'' she said.

Mr Key said she had made a mistake under pressure and he still had faith in her.

"Her comments were silly, but often in the heat of an election campaign, sometimes people say things when they're provoked that are silly and they later on regret, and I think she regrets it.''

The comments undermined the decision to axe a tunnel planned for the route and build part of it over ground. Mr Key is unlikely to be impressed with her making them on the day the decision was confirmed.

Ms Lee's gaffe came as she faced claims her production company, which received $1.2 million from NZ On Air last year for Asia Down Under, used public money to make a promotional Internet video for National.

She says the film was made by staff who volunteered their time out of hours, and no NZ On Air funding was used.

NZ On Air began reviewing the company's work records yesterday. Chief executive Jane Wrightson said initial examinations suggested everything was above board.

The Electoral Commission is investigating a complaint from Greens co-leader Russel Normal  who is also contesting Mt Albert  that the video should have been declared as an election expense.

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National general manager Mark Oldershaw said he was confident all relevant expenses were declared.

Meanwhile, former UnitedFuture MP Judy Turner was yesterday announced as the party's candidate in the June 13 by-election.

 

- The Dominion Post

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