Put your money where your mouth is, Phil: The Labour Leader's failure to come out swinging on 20 October in defence of the labour movement in general, and NZ Actors Equity in particular, ceded the political advantage to Sir Peter Jackson, Warner Bros. and their National Party allies. To guarantee its long-term credibility, Labour must rediscover the courage to endure short-term unpopularity.
SIR PETER JACKSON surely deserves another academy award for his masterful direction of The Making of The Hobbit. Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens similarly merit an Oscar for their superb script. And, of course, Sir Richard Taylor and his team at Weta Workshops must be honoured for their amazing special effects. (The "protest march" down Lambton Quay and the "rally" in Civic Square were both superb examples of the PR illusionist’s art.
Less impressive, however, has been the labour movement’s critical response to Sir Peter Jackson’s production.
Coming straight off a remarkably successful Labour Party conference and into a week where the core values of the New Zealand labour movement were about to be given mass reaffirmation at CTU-organised "Fairness at Work" rallies across the country, Phil Goff should have been champing at the rhetorical bit.
Because, let’s face it, if the Leader of the Opposition can’t persuade the rest of New Zealand to join Labour and the CTU in reaffirming the values of fairness, solidarity and egalitarianism. Well then, he’s not going to be elected Prime Minister – is he?
Now, to be fair to Phil, I don’t think he could have anticipated everything that took place on the day of the CTU rallies.
For a start, his contacts in the CTU would almost certainly have let him know that the industrial relations problems afflicting The Hobbit had been all but resolved. And only the most cynical of union negotiators could have anticipated the DHB bosses’ self-defeating decision to publicly trash all chance of a settlement in their dispute with the medical radiographers and hospital lab technicians.
Even so, Sir Peter’s dire warnings about the imminent fate of The Hobbit on the morning of Wednesday, 20 October, followed up a couple of hours later by Fran Walsh’s and Phillipa Boyens’ utterances on Radio NZ’s Nine-to-Noon programme, should have alerted the Leader of the Opposition’s Office that something potentially very damaging was afoot.
Clearly, a whole new drama was being overlaid across the drama of thousands of trade unionists turning out to demand "Fairness at Work". If all of the sweat and effort that had gone into mobilising so many union members was not to be utterly wasted, both wings of the labour movement needed to reposition themselves – and quickly – to meet their opponents’ surprise attack.
This they did not do.
Though the agreement she thought she’d negotiated in good faith between NZ Actors Equity, Sir Peter, SPADA and the studio bosses was clearly being shredded before her eyes, the CTU President, Helen Kelly, nobly attempted to stick the pieces back together.
Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, like a possum caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck, made no visible attempt to avoid the looming collision. Terrified at the prospect of having to attack a national "icon" like Sir Peter, they simply closed their eyes and hoped that the fearsome anti-union juggernaut now bearing down on the entire labour movement would somehow miss them.
Then Sir Richard unleashed his special effects – with devastating results.
At this point it should have been clear to both labour leaders that their forces were sustaining enormous losses. Constrained by the legal and moral undertakings pursuant to her agreement with the Hollywood moguls, Ms Kelly’s options were limited. But with Parliament in session, Mr Goff could have made full use of parliamentary privilege to launch a devastating counterattack against Sir Peter and his growing chorus of anti-union acolytes.
By refusing to fight back, the Opposition transformed what was rapidly escalating into a full-scale, Government-led attack on the entire union movement into a complete rout. In the absence of unassailable Labour counter-arguments, the mainstream news media stuck slavishly to Sir Peter’s anti-union script.
The week, which had begun with such high hopes for organised labour’s triumph, ended with its total, ignominious and unnecessary defeat.
If The Hobbit offers its audiences even half as much white-knuckle excitement, its box office takings will be huge.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 29 October 2010.