Artistic Intelligence: New Zealand’s film and television industry has produced nothing remotely like the Australians’ highly political series Secret City and Pine Gap. Under examination in both of these series is the vexing problem of how Australia should manage its relationship with the United States of America, on the one hand, and the Peoples Republic of China, on the other.
THE BEST MEASURE of a nation’s maturity is its willingness to submit its biggest challenges to the audit of art. For all their political boorishness, the Aussies can boast a much more favourable auditor’s report than we can. I can’t remember the last time this country committed significant resources to a dramatic examination of its domestic and international political relationships. Certainly, New Zealand’s film and television industry has produced nothing remotely like the Australians’ highly political series Secret City and Pine Gap.
Under examination in both of these series is the vexing problem of how Australia should manage its relationship with the United States of America, on the one hand, and the Peoples Republic of China, on the other. How deeply have the Chinese penetrated Australia’s governing institutions? Is honouring Australia’s security relationship with the USA worth the fundamental destabilisation of the Australian economy which an acrimonious break with China would entail? The first question inspires the plotlines of Secret City; the second, of Pine Gap.
Now, if these questions sound at all familiar, then well done You for keeping abreast of current events! New Zealand’s relationships with China and the United States are similarly fraught with ambiguity and risk. All the more so today, following the emphatically pro-American speech delivered yesterday (16/12/18) by Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, to a high-powered American audience assembled at Georgetown University’s Centre of Australian–New Zealand studies in Washington.
Except we Kiwis have one more player to consider than our Aussie cousins: which is Australia itself. Our countries have been so close, historically, that it is very difficult for ordinary New Zealanders to conceptualise a situation where the Australians might look upon us as something less than a mate. Sure, we spar with one another on the sports field and tell obscene jokes at one another’s expense, but the idea that the Australian political class might already have fallen out of love with their irritating Kiwi cousins would strike most New Zealanders as ridiculous.
But what if the Australian “Deep State” already regards New Zealand as an enemy? It’s a thought more likely to seize the imagination of a novelist, playwright or screen-writer than the average Kiwi citizen. Which is why a mature NZ-on-Air would be badgering this country’s writers for scripts dealing with New Zealand’s growing economic and diplomatic vulnerability in the face of the US-Australia vs China stand-off. Anywhere else but here, Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s run-ins with the Chinese would have commissioning editors salivating. The screen-play is practically writing itself in real time!
But, no, NZ-on-Air doesn’t do political thrillers dealing with the moral duty of the news media to expose the dark deeds of the state security apparatus. Nor will it commission a TV series exploring the consequences of discovering Chinese and/or American “assets” embedded at the heart of our major political parties. As for a series examining the contradictions inherent in having our indispensable security partner asking us to spy on our indispensable economic partner: Good God! What would MFAT say?
The Australians are more fortunate, because the challenges outlined above are precisely the challenges confronted and explored in Secret City and Pine Gap. (Both currently available on Netflix.) Aussie viewers can watch these dramas and argue with friends and family about the issues driving their plots and characters forward. How much room for manoeuvre do our political leaders have between China and America? How far should Australia go in honouring One Hundred Years Of Mateship? If the US fires shots in anger at the Chinese, should Australia do the same? Are we really willing to have the Chinese crash our economy in retaliation?
It’s what grown-up countries do. Think not only of the American and British film and television industries, but of the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians and the Irish. Think of Borgen and its international success. Think of Scandi-Noir. These are countries not much bigger than ourselves, but unlike us they have the wit to resource their film and television industries to a level where making series like Borgen becomes something more than the wistful pipe-dream of writers condemned to turning out endless variations of Outrageous Fortune.
Thirty-five years ago the Aussies commissioned a series dealing with one of the most traumatic events in their country’s history – the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government by the then Governor General, Sir John Kerr. The screening of the six hour-long episodes of The Dismissal began on 6 March 1983, the day after Bob Hawke’s Government was elected – the first Labor Government to take office since the bloodless coup d’état that toppled Whitlam’s eight years earlier.
New Zealand television was given the opportunity to perform a similar artistic service in relation to the national trauma of Rogernomics. The renowned novelist and playwright, Dean Parker, pitched a series to the networks exploring the reactions of a typical group of Labour Party members to the devastating “reforms” of the Lange-led Government. Parker’s working title was “The Branch”. The chance was there for a New Zealand audience to confront in Art’s mirror not only the moral and political choices forced upon Labour Party members, but the whole nation.
The networks weren’t interested.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 December 2018.