Of Angels and Demons: Is it really possible that a small group of individuals can get together and manufacture a national controversy? If the tale being spun involves 'angelic' national icons and 'demonic' trade unionists? You betcha! (Drawing by M.C. Escher)
WHAT JUST HAPPENED? How did a tiny union’s attempt to improve the lot of its members end up convulsing the entire nation?
What NZ Actor’s Equity tried to do here would scarcely have rated a mention in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland or Australia. Actors, film technicians, specialists of every kind in those countries negotiate with the big film studios all the time.
Only recently, Irish film-makers successfully concluded an industry-wide collective agreement. Ireland, you’ll recall, was identified by Sir Peter Jackson’s people as one of the places to which location shooting for The Hobbit might be shifted.
Why would you shift location filming to a country that already has an industry-wide collective agreement because workers in your own country were attempting to negotiate something very similar for themselves?
It doesn’t make sense.
Unless the entire controversy has been manufactured: unless all that we have witnessed since 28th September, when Sir Peter Jackson launched a very public broadside against the actors’ union, is a cleverly spun fiction. A tale replete with noble hero (Sir Peter) and evil villains (the unions) designed to exculpate its authors from any and all blame for taking The Hobbit offshore.
Can people really do that? Is it really possible for a small group of individuals to sit down and plan a whole series of actions designed to secure a predetermined set of outcomes? How on earth could they be sure that something wouldn’t go wrong: that they wouldn’t be found out? Wouldn’t the certain and catastrophic costs of having such a conspiracy unmasked vastly outweigh the potential benefits from its successful execution?
In most cases that would be the case, but The Hobbit is not "most cases" – far from it.
For a start, the principal player in this drama is an internationally acclaimed movie maestro, a national hero and a knight of the realm.
As citizens of a tiny nation located at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders are fiercely protective of such folk, and the news media, more than ever anxious to reflect the likes and dislikes of its readers, listeners and viewers, is not about to contradict them by criticising an "iconic" figure like Sir Peter.
For another thing, the designated villains of this drama – NZ Actors Equity and the Council of Trade Unions – are tailor-made for the role of "patsy".
Less than a month from now, on November 12th, trade unionists will commemorate the 98th anniversary of the murder of striker Fred Evans by a gang of scabs and thugs in the little mining town of Waihi. Ever since that bloody day in 1912 the New Zealand trade union movement has been subjected to an unending campaign of vilification and persecution by a combination of extremely powerful economic and political interests.
Farmers, business leaders, conservative politicians, right-wing editors and journalists, and (almost reflexively) a considerable portion of the New Zealand middle-class have never had a good word to say about trade unions. In any stand-off between capital and labour (and especially if capital is represented by a national hero) those in the strongest position to influence public opinion can be relied upon absolutely to blame the unions.
This extraordinary anti-union bias was on display as recently as last Sunday when viewers of the Q+A current affairs programme on TV One saw the show’s host, Paul Holmes, hector, browbeat, talk-over, interrupt and generally bully CTU president, Helen Kelly, as she stoically attempted to explain the union’s position on The Hobbit.
Small wonder, then, that 87 percent of respondents to a poll on the Stuff website blamed the unions for The Hobbit’s woes.
From this practically unassailable position, Sir Peter and the American studios putting up the money for The Hobbit, are well-placed to dictate the terms and conditions upon which the production remains in New Zealand.
If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet refuse to increase the subsidies on offer to match those available overseas, Sir Peter and Warner Bros. can depart these shores with their reputations unsullied – confident that it’s the "bloody unions" who will cop all the flak.
If the Government accedes to their demands, not only will Sir Peter be able to bask in the warm approbation of a grateful nation, but so, too, will John Key. New Zealand’s reputation as an effectively "non-union" filming location will be restored – along with generous state subsidies.
Also happy will be that permanent combination of anti-union interests. Thanks to The Hobbit controversy, the CTU’s "Fairness at Work" campaign lies dead in the water.
I especially enjoyed the irony of Sir Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshops-organised "Save The Hobbit" rallies on – of all days – Labour Day.
From beginning to end, it’s been a marvellous tale, masterfully told.
Perhaps, one day, Sir Peter will turn it all into an award-winning film.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 October 2010.