Friday 29 October 2010

Mean Things

Our work here is done: John Key and his allies have haggled over the price, but the world has been left in no doubt as to what New Zealand has become: a country willing to prostitute its national sovereignty for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children's movie.

AND SO IT ENDED – as we all knew it would. With a few million more for the studios; a big slop of salve for Sir Peter Jackson’s wounded pride; and an entirely gratuitous and opportunistic raid on the rights of New Zealand film workers.

That latter outcome – the changes to our employment law – could also be seen as part of Sir Peter’s pacification. After all, it was a contract drawn up by Sir Peter’s own company that the Supreme Court ruled against in the case (Bryson v Three Foot Six) which has inspired the Government’s Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act.

One should never overlook the role which pure spite can play in human affairs.

But, by far the most tragic outcome of The Hobbit debacle, is what it has revealed about 21st Century New Zealanders.

How have so many Kiwis lost the capacity for critical thought? When did they lose their historical memory? Who stole their moral compass?

The answers to those questions are located, to a degree that shames us all, in New Zealand’s so-called "mainstream" news media. Critical thinking and historical awareness, informed by a strong moral purpose, have for long been the hallmark of truly effective journalism. Without them the news media inevitably falls prey to either crude sensationalism or calculating partisanship – sometimes both.

Throughout The Hobbit saga, with one or two notable exceptions (take a bow Gordon Campbell) the reportage of the New Zealand media was woeful. Print and electronic journalists alike displayed an alarming unwillingness to critically examine the claims of any individuals or groups other than the trade unions and their spokespeople. Sir Peter Jackson’s accusations were treated by far too many reporters (and, to their shame, editors) as Holy Writ. There was almost no attempt to place what was happening in some sort of historical context (other than rote references to "the days of the Cook Strait ferry stoppages"). The only discernible moral purpose on display was the public punishment and humiliation of anyone foolhardy enough to challenge the version of events handed down from on high by Sir Peter.

This kind of reporting is fast becoming the norm in the United States, but it was profoundly disturbing to witness the "Fox-News-ing" of our own media. The relentless appeal to the audience’s emotions; the refusal to critically examine the protagonists’ claims; the general contempt for "fair and balanced" news coverage; and the sense that the newspapers, radio talkback hosts and television networks were all attempting to goad their audiences into taking some sort of action – "Save The Hobbit" – was truly frightening.

Right-wing bloggers made much of the "peaceful" march by Sir Richard Taylor’s technicians. But to describe a column of people who headed into downtown Wellington with the intention of intimidating – and quite possibly invading – an Actors Equity meeting as "peaceful" is disingenuous. Nor was I the only one to find the querulous, passive-aggressive video harassment of Simon Whipp, Frances Walsh and Robyn Malcolm as they attempted to return to their hotel from Wellington’s Matterhorn Restaurant late on the night of 20 October, deeply, deeply creepy.

This is what happens when the news media is permitted to use its enormous power to whip up public antagonism against a designated "enemy". That it ended in death-threats against Whipp and Walsh, and the verbal intimidation and harassment of the other Equity representatives was entirely predictable.

And where were the voices of restraint? Where was the appeal for tolerance from the Minister of Labour – the calm reaffirmation of the rights of workers to bargain collectively? Ms Wilkinson was invisible. What we saw, instead, was the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Economic Development openly siding with film industry employers and, at times, even joining in the abuse of the actors. The anti-trade union witch-hunt was given its very own Government seal-of-approval.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was no better. As I have stated elsewhere, the Labour Party simply couldn’t summon up the courage to defend the actors against Sir Peter. Even when the anti-union backlash caught the CTU’s Helen Kelly with the back of its hand. Even when it had morphed into an ideological and political assault upon the entire labour movement, Phil Goff (no doubt channelling the spirit of Sir Walter Nash) maintained a shameful "neither for nor against" neutrality.

The news media, the politicians – all are guilty. But if they are guilty, then so are we. When Paul Henry vilified non-white New Zealanders, the response was instantaneous and unequivocal. Not so with the vilification of Actors Equity. Overwhelmingly, New Zealanders were happy to howl for the blood of Robyn Malcolm and Helen Kelly. Overwhelmingly, we were willing to endorse the demonisation of Simon Whipp.

And what had these unionist done? No more than unions have been doing since the 1880s. They had asked for a show of international solidarity on behalf of their members’ campaign for basic improvements in wages and conditions.

A nation whose children had been taught about the Great Maritime Strike of 1890 would have found nothing at all remarkable in New Zealand and Australian workers co-operating in this way. A nation capable of remembering that its most beloved prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage (and a third of his cabinet) was born in Australia would have laughed at Sir Peter’s crude xenophobia. A nation with even the slightest understanding of the meaning of Labour Day would have scorned the transparently anti-union "Save the Hobbit" rallies.

But we didn’t. And that is the extent of the intellectual and moral corruption which a quarter-of-a-century of neoliberalism has wrought upon the New Zealand character. And it is the young who have fared the worst – for they have nothing against which they can compare the society of selfishness into which they’ve been cast adrift. The spokespersons for their "wired" generation, utterly enthralled to the cult of individualism, had nothing to tell them.

But Ian Mune did. Hunched on the Breakfast programme's sofa, this rumpled ambassador from "Old" New Zealand delivered what was easily the best, the most eloquent, and the most quintessentially Kiwi defence of his fellow actors – and of working people in all walks of life – that we had so far heard. God bless him!

All that remains to be done now is for the Governor-General to give the Royal Assent to the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act. John Key has shown the world exactly what New Zealand has become. He has haggled about the price with Warner Bros., but what we are is now beyond dispute. We’re a country that’s willing to hand across its citizens’ taxes and trample all over its workers rights for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children’s movie.

And those few of us who have raised our voices against this travesty; this tragedy; this gross prostitution of our nationhood and sovereignty; we have been taught a lesson.

It’s the lesson the powerful have taught the powerless for centuries uncounted. In his novel The Given Day, the American writer, Denis Lehane, spells out the nature of the lesson with brutal succinctness:

What he’d found out, lying there in the dirt while those fists and feet rained down on him, was that if you bucked certain things – the mean things – they didn’t just buck back. No, no, that wasn’t enough. They crushed you and kept crushing and the only way you escaped alive was through pure luck, nothing else. The mean things of this world had only one lesson – we are meaner than you’d ever imagine.


Tiger Mountain said...

Oh yes it is rough stuff alright. One persists however, I was at Telstra stadium and am quite happy to keep organising despite the wishes of the cardigan wearers of Matamata. Not to distract from the import of your column, but can the following really be so? From PAS.

“Oh, looks like the press release is out:
This year’s SPADA conference kicks off with a hiss and a roar with the key plenary session on The Hobbit – What Really Happened. Chaired by Russell Brown, the panel will include Philippa Boyens (co-writer The Hobbit), SPADA’s CEO Penelope Borland and Executive Member Richard Fletcher.
I hope there's someone a but more "other side" added to the panel, or I might have to go rogue on them ;-)”

Nic Farra said...

Don't let's open the 'sovereignty' can of worms. Soc-dems and lib-dems alike bleat on about it when it does not exist! As soon as the lands stolen from the indigenous people of this country are returned, as soon as those people are recognised as having the sovereignty over their own affairs (ie justice, education trade & exchange, citizenry, defence etc), as soon as you recognise that any government this country has had has been a gang of thieves and murderers, then maybe, just maybe you may see the truth about our enslavement. Until then you are just selling your own snake-oil, no make that poison. Open wide and say "AAAAAHHHH!"

Adrian said...

I agree with your comments about Ian Mune, that was brilliant stuff.

Phil Goff has been utterly spineless over this. C'mon Phil, you are leader of the LABOUR party - the clue is right there in front of you!

barry said...

I recall another government changing legislation for a particular dairy group - avoidance of the various anti competitive rules and the like.
That dairy group is now buying up large in several overseas countries - even the chairman is buying in south america rather than NZ.
Whats good for the goose is surely good for the gander................

Olwyn said...

This style of emotive and biased reporting has been building up for some time in NZ - look at the hounding of Peters before the last election, the quasi scandals about credit card usage and so on. Now its who do you love? The cute hobbits or the big bad unions.

One thing we can take heart from is the election of Len Brown in Auckland, which offers evidence that people do not reliably think what they are told to think - we voted for him despite being treated to endless repeat footage of him beating himself about the head.

Trevor Mallard did, to at least a limited extent, taken up the cudgels in parliament on the hobbit issue, even if he got less reportage than we might have hoped for. Furthermore, I think that the best approach for Labour at the moment might be a collegial, team approach rather than the presidential focus on the leader. This approach would challenge National's tendency to hide behind brand Key, as well as queering the pitch a little for the all too easy, who do you love? The smiling man in the lavender tie whom we have flooded with light, or the earnest man in the beige jacket, whom we have cast in shadows.

SB said...

Dear Chris, I've had to split this into multiple posts to fit:

Well the Old Class Warrior strikes again. It is appropriate that you call yourself an 'Old New Zealander' - because that's what you represent.....Old New Zealand.

Lets boil the Old Class Warrior's argument down to its core:

New Zealand should have kept its pride, and sent the Hobbit (and all future movies) elsewhere. That is right, destroy an industry, but keep your pride. That is a pretty stupid position for a small country on the bottom end of the world with limited natural resources to take.

We have natural beauty, and have found a small niche in the movie making business where scenery is useful, and we have a few talented people to attract the business then say that we prefer pride over feeding our families is flabbergasting.

Even the Old Class Warrior knows what a stupendous mistake killing off the movie making business in New Zealand would be; high paying, highly skilled jobs bringing in transfer payments to the economy. Its a macro-economists wet dream.

The thing that really galls me however, is you patronizing claim that we of the younger generation (I'm 40, so I guess younger here is a relative term) a. don't know history and b. have lost our moral compass. I learned my left wing liberal history at the teat of Mr Anderson (Rosehill College, 1987), and his Old Class Warrior credentials were impeccable !!!

Its simple Chris, the younger generation in New Zealand has learned to do things differently. We have learned how to get high paying, high value jobs (the movie making industry being a great example) here to New Zealand, and we have done it without holding the gun of organized industrial relations to anyone's head. We have learned that a small country at the ass end of the globe can get by quite well with smarts...and perhaps a little humility.

We understand the history of labour relations, and we know that the union movement was necessary, and did good. We just know that its no longer as relevant as it once was. That's natural - all organizational structures stagnate and are eventually surpassed.


SB said...

The reason unions are no longer as relevant as they were, is that they are founded on the premise that employers have oligopoly power in the employment marketplace, and that therefore individuals need to band together to balance out that power (you allude to this in your statements about the 'powerful and powerless at the bottom). That is simply no longer the case, and for a number of reasons. One is that employers themselves have splintered, there are far fewer of the big industrial concerns (think massive meatworks or think big infrastructure project), and many more of the smaller employers. So the oligopoly has splintered into a real competitive market. Our economy is driven by small employers, and they compete for the best employees. Employees have learned that if they don't like what this employer offers, they can go to the next employer. And just as importantly, the employer knows that as well. The free market really does work both ways - and don't toss out the old canard of unskilled labour needing protection etc...thats just patronizing and not true. Everyone knows their value in the employment marketplace. We know that bargaining with an employer who is at the table out of their self interest and free will is far preferable to negotiation with an employer who is there with the gun of mass organization at his/her head.

Secondly, we have learned that with our small exporter employing concerns, it is in fact all of us against the big outside world. We picked sides, and worked out that its us against them, not us against us. We have a much more global focus and understanding - we know that its not all about us in our little land...there's that humility again....we know that the interests of employer and employee coincide much more than they used to. So confrontational labour relations just are no longer that appropriate to our relationships with employers these days. We understand that we can BOTH do well, we can in fact increase the size of the pie, rather than fighting over the portion sizes.

Then there is a cultural shift....with more small employers, that means more of us have been on both sides of the employment contract we have a better understanding of the positions on each side. Bottom line, the way the employment market is structured, employer and employee have pretty much equal power (actually that is being generous, many employers would argue that the legal machinery of the labour court is stacked very much on one side of the scales, and the facts there are tough to argue). So that's three arguments about why we have a new way of doing things, there are more, but we don't have time or space today - later perhaps.

So we haven't lost our moral compass you incorrigible Old Class Warrior, we have just changed, and unfortunately you haven't.


SB said...

Don't blame the 'mainstream media' either - that's an old trick of the loony right in the US (actually Sarah Palin was more innovative that you, she calls it the 'lamestream media'). And don't pull on some disingenuous horror at the 'peaceful''ve manned your share of barricades in your Old Class Warrior days I'll dare say. You ask rhetorically "And what had these unions done ? No more than unions have been doing since the 1880's". And there you have it Chris, the argument in a nutshell. Old. Irrelevant.

Warner's of course, once they had the upper hand, milked it for all it was worth. Key, handed a right mess and the prospect of losing an entire industry in one blow, did what he had to do. Don't blame him for the mess that was not of his making.

And finally, don't give us the rubbish about the 'powerful' and the 'powerless'. You don't get it - we don't measure winning and losing in this way - we measure winning and losing by the hundreds of jobs, by the industry and reputation we are creating, by the increased interest in tourism and by the specialized knowledge that is allowing us to take one of our very few precious natural resources - our natural beauty - and turn it all into something that puts food on the table. That, my Old Class Warrior friend, is a victory. And a sweet one at that. Thanks for the lecture about pride and prostitution of our nationhood, we choose a different path than our respected forebears, and we like where we are going. Which is why the media are not leading the charge against the rogue union, but simply reflecting the national consensus that unions are the Old New Zealand, not the future of New Zealand.

Kind regards,
Sam Barclay

markus said...

Spot on, Chris.

Unsurprisingly, the DomPost remained rigidly (indeed, enthusiastically) wedded to the official spin throughout. Even going so far as to try and neutralise your 'Critical Failure' opinion-piece (DomPost, October 29) by juxtaposing yet another agressively anti-actors union editorial ('The Best Deal From a Poor Hand'), in which we learn that heroic John Key's pragmatism has "undone the union foolishness that nearly cost New Zealand the Hobbit films" by "striking a deal that will provide work for thousands of New Zealanders, have hundreds of millions of dollars spent here..." Key has, apparently, "...achieved the best possible outcome" and the credibility of both the unions and Trevor Mallard are, it seems, " in tatters."

Even when Vernon Small departed from the standard line, making an argument not too far from Gordon Campbell's, the DomPost editor (or sub ?) mischievously attached an utterly misleading headline: 'It's not all the film union's fault but they picked the wrong fight'. A more accurate description of Small's argument would have been 'Film Unions Scapegoated'.

A real whiff of 1950s McCarthyism to this manipulated populist hysteria.

James said...

"One thing we can take heart from is the election of Len Brown in Auckland, which offers evidence that people do not reliably think what they are told to think - we voted for him despite being treated to endless repeat footage of him beating himself about the head."

Also, don't forget Len's Jesus comparison, but anyway, what I really want to comment on is the staggering intellectual narcissism on display in this quote. To paraphrase, 'if you picked my guy you're pretty smart, however, if you picked the other guy you're obviously a dullard who is easily swayed by the evil machinations of the right wing media cabal'.

Olwyn said...

@Sam Barclay: perhaps you have not lost your moral compass, but you have certainly acquired a set of blinkers if you think the picture you have outlined represents a clear and unbiased view of modern New Zealand. Firstly, our minimum wage bears little relation to a living wage. Secondly, houses are unaffordable for many, and our rental market is incapable of offering permanency or security, while state housing is regularly under "review." Thirdly, if we did not have Australia next door to absorb a large portion of our work force we would almost certainly be faced with a crisis.

Your post reminds me of the old people who say, "I don't know what has got into Maoris, they used to be so happy." It is easy to attribute happiness to those who have been deprived of a voice, and so are not in a position to be heard should they disagree with you. Now that the unions appear to be reclaiming their voice there are many that are keen to silence it and you seem to be one of them.

Olwyn said...

@ James: You really had to lean on what I said to extract that a message from it. I was saying that people voted for Len Brown despite the negative images and the aspersions cast upon him by some of the media. I did not specify a type of person, and given that he won, I would assume that many types of person voted for him.

Adze said...

Call me a cynic, but the unions seem to find their voice soon after National became government; and only because they became government.

Unknown said...


Sam, I just don't know where to start, you are wrong on so many fronts. Suffice to say I think your understanding of power needs some updating; the oppression of the many by the few is still the way of the world. There is widespread poverty and inequality in NZ (even your uber-capitalist friend John Key admits to the existence of an 'under-class'), with low wages and poor working conditions the norm for a large proportion of the

You would argue the fault lies with the individuals: "cleaners, get yourselves out of bed tomorrow morning, have a meaningful conversation with your boss and ask him (yes, gender specific) to pay you $20 an hour, which is what you need to pay the living costs of your family (on top of the night shift you do at the supermarket and the weekend work driving taxis). If he says no, just walk away and find yourself another job in the low-skilled service economy that is NZ". Strangely, Sam, that's not the reality for most working people in this country who face a daily struggle to make ends meets and whose working conditions are
constantly under threat.

You live in la-la land with your descriptions of the green and good land, this ''small country of ours at the bottom of the world", where anyone who wants one can get a job and get paid well to do it, thanks to Warner Bros et al. Sure, the film industry has brought many well-paid jobs to NZ, but only because the NZ taxpayer has subsidised this investment. An odd thing really, the public paying for private profit of the very very wealthy. The profit to New Line Studios on "The Return of the King" alone was 1408% of the studio's original investment. My suspicion is that the film companies are pretty eager to repeat that kind of performance and will do anything to ensure that nothing (such as a bunch of workers asking for a collective contract- shock horror) jeopardises that. And because we live in a capitalist economy, we the working skivs empty out our pockets, and rush legislation through parliament to help them make those billions of dollars of profits to spread around a few. That's what capitalism is about - the many helping the few get rich.

Anyway Sam, the rich are getting richer and the poor and getting poorer and that's the way its always been. The system is there to support this arrangement and will never change without collective action.

Unknown said...

You know what's next, a law will be passed making criticism of Peter Jackson, or his movies, illegal. The scary thing is that many NZ'ers would see that as entirely justified.

Victor said...

Sam Barclay

Like Sarah, I'm not sure where to start

Firstly, you are not 100% wrong about everything. We do live in a small under-resourced country, many thousands of miles from our markets. Nobody owes us a living and we have to accept that wages and salaries here are bound to be lower than in, say, Switzerland, just as they are going to be higher than in Moldova.

I would also agree with you that unions are no longer the powerful agent of social progress that they were, say, eighty years ago, when they spawned Socialist and Social Democratic parties across the developed world; parties which subsequently ushered in thirty years of unprecedented affluence and economic security following World War Two.

But unions remain an important part of our social fabric, as do the conventions of collective bargaining to which unionism gave rise. Take those conventions away, or substantially limit them, and we become a less consensual, less humane and less civilized society.

By the same token, of course, we can become less consensual, less humane and less civilized by investing unions with too much power. But, after 30 years of disempowerment, there is no sign whatsoever of them becoming over-mighty subjects. So, I think we can discount this danger, at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of your cosy picture of employers and workers banding together in their common interest against the world?

There are undoubtedly some companies (often quite small ones) where the interests of employers and workers are largely co-determinous.

But, typically, the "We're all in this together" mantra is just a nice way of dealing with 'human resources'. When employers need to make redundancies, to limit entitlements or to put the squeeze on individual workers, the velvet glove tends to come off the mailed fist with some alacrity.

Moreover, the alien 'them' has a tendency to become 'us', as and when ownership changes hands, often to overseas buyers.

None of this means that employers and employees need to constantly view each other as enemies. But a degree of edginess and wariness is inherent in the relationship between them. Where it is absent, it's normally because the employees are having wool pulled over their eyes.

It's fair to add that the most consistently successful Western economies over the last 60 years have been those with strong, legally protected unions and a strong sense of the 'dignity of labour' (e.g. the Federal Republic of Germany).

Tauhei Notts said...

Chris writes about New Zealanders not knowing the history of the union movement.
I live in the Waikato. The fastest growing town in our region in the thirty years up to 1980 was Tokoroa.
Then, in 1980 there was a big strike at Kinleith and the unions had a huge win. Yes the workers were victorious. United we stand - divided we fall and all that claptrap that people like our host on this site espouse with an almost ecumenical fervour.
Answer; in the thirty years since that famous victory for the workers Tokoroa has the worst regression rate of any town in our region.
That, Chris, is what the union movement is all about.

Anonymous said...

Of course, if Key is willing to bribe movie studios to film here with $20-$30m of taxpayers funds, why couldn't the Nats simply give the $20-$30m extra to the actors? Even a cast of 1,000 would get $20-30,000 if evenly split, which I'm sure would have guaranteed no industrial action. Perhaps there were other motives...