Politicians and NZ Film and Television

A little history lesson …

I don’t want to get into a boring political argument … but … but … please don’t try to seriously tell me that Labour is better for TV and Film than National.

I don’t believe it, and … I’m not even a National Party supporter!

This is not a party political rant. NZ political parties? I think they’re ALL a bit of waste of space when it comes to the arts generally, and film & TV particularly. Read on for a completely balanced appraisal.

Labour – ah those connotations of good old cloth capped working class brotherhood; and that pleasant wet liberal misty eyed fondness for the arts. Who could ever forget that poll of politicians conducted by the NZ Listener way back in 1981, asking MPs to name their favourite movie? most said they had no time to watch movies. One (National) stalwart nominated The Towering Inferno. Egg. A young Helen Clark stuck out like a hammered testicle when she named Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana.

Then and there I bought into Labour as the great hope for Kiwi culture.

Well, it’s been decades of disappointment since.

IN the cold light of day, Labour’s record looks distinctly shaky.

Just when NZ TV had reached a breakthrough accommodation with local indy film makers, who shook up the whole system in 1975 and created a monolithic local TV culture that has practiced cultural apartheid ever since?
Labour (1975 – thank you Roger Douglas – you gave us a choice of channels and colour, but you set up a lack of diversity and cultural colour, a Stepford Wives TV culture that has persisted ever since).

Then, who shook up TV again and ushered in the era of poisonously lowest common denominator programming. 1988. That was Labour too.

Who created the Broadcasting Commission (soon to be rebranded NZ On Air), and then made sure that uncounted millions in taxpayer funding would forever more be controlled by the needs and whims of a handful of commercial broadcasters? Oh dear – Labour again. The then Minister of Broadcasting (and Wine and Cheese) Jonathon (Taxi Chit) Hunt was told (by me, amongst others) that he was laying the ground for a flawed and contradictory system that would foster decades of mediocrity.

Doesn’t make me anything but sick to my stomach to be proven right.

Meantime. Who created the NZ Film Commission? National*

Who divested TVNZ of the golden eggs which became today’s Platinum Fund? National. See more on this below.

Who prevented a splinter labour union from Australia dictating terms of engagement for NZ actors and technicians? Wooo … yeah. contentious one this. But hey, before the pitchforks and flaming torches come out, let me say, believe me, I’m no union basher. Belonged to a couple myself. Still do, in fact, as a paid up member of Directors Guild. But in a country this small, the exclusionist model of collective bargaining is much worse than the alternative – a contract based system where freelancers tender for work in an open and competitive labour market. Hey, I’d love to carry a union ticket that protected my job and kept out eveyone else, but I can’t do that. Firstly, because it’s bollocks, and secondly, because I have a conscience.

Anyway, yeah … that was National. For which they and Peter Jackson got assholed by a whole lot of know-nothings with absolutely no skin in the game. Last I looked, anyone working for Jackson and Warner Brothers wasn’t exactly being exploited. Know any different? My mind is open.

And who STILL wants to push the wind back the other way – against the wishes of, oh, roughly 99% of freelance film contractors – that’d be Labour.

Oh yes, Labour, whose broadcasting policy, incredibly, appears to be … Public Broadcasting. That’s right, the same centrist, monolithic, Reithian model they pissed and crapped on back in 1988?

Maybe current Labour MPs are just too young to remember that?

They seriously are STILL whacking off to thoughts of a commercial free TV channel? Lovely idea … 40 years ago. Now, someone ought to explain just how SERIOUSLY DISRUPTED terrestrial free to air TV services are about to get. The last thing Kiwi taxpayers need now is to be buying ruinously expensive real estate in that particular hood.

Streaming is happening folks. Hello? If you want NZ identity and culture on screens, better forget about paying TVNZ and TV3 to grudgingly give up slivers of their prime time to host it. Their prime time isn’t going to be worth shit in a few years. It’s time to invest in quality content, and then place it on streaming sites that demonstrate respect and commitment to promoting it.

NZ politicians have a long and consistent history of screwing with the arts, fixing things that aren’t broken, breaking things that should be fixed, and shamelessly grabbing every glorious coat-tail they can reach. I remember a scrum of heavy set besuited tossers at a parliamentary screening, stuffing their faces with canapes,and jocularly dismissing a speech given by Peter Jackson. They had no concept of what this guy could do. Not a clue. Six months later he was making a 35,000,000 film in Wellington, and four years after that he was starting Lord of The Rings.

It’s a big mistake to try and pick goodies and baddies along political lines. As far as I have seen over 35 plus years, they’re all various shades of insincere, mealy mouthed ,or plain incompetent; and often the worst have been those who haven’t got the excuse of crass ignorance to explain their actions or lack of. Namely successive weak and pathetic Labour ministers of Broadcasting.

For instance, does anyone remember the TVNZ Charter? Canada, UK, Australia all had local content quotas. And still do. We had a virulently commercial state owned network – a gigantic living oxymoron – that hugely resented any requirement placed on it to temper its commercial ends with some cultural humanity. The Labour Government of the day could have eased up on its demands for a commercial dividend, They could have legislated for a local content quota. And they could have removed the ridiculous clause in NZ On Air’s operating legislation which gives broadcasters the whip hand in dictating content choices. But they didn’t.

Against that, contrast the decisive and immediately effective termination of TVNZ’s entitlement to 15 million in annual taxpayer funding by the incoming National Government. Money that TVNZ cynically applied to its own commercial ends, rather than funding programming as it was intended. This money was then allocated to NZ On Air as contestable funding available to all free to air networks. It became the Platinum Fund, which has been an engine for high quality local content on air ever since.

This alone indicates at least a tiny breath of fresh air in the thinking of National MPs. Sadly, no signs of anything equivalent has been detected on the other side of the house.

And those ‘incentives’? This most recent indication of decisive and positive thinking on the government benches? I do harbour mixed feelings about the cultural subtext. Clearly, National are betting on more and bigger Hollywood extravaganzas shooting here. Which does not much for local creatives, except via roundabout trickle down means; but where there’s life, then work and culture can happen. I am old enough to remember a time when hardly any films were made here at all. I don’t kid myself that we could not slip back to such times very easily.

As for ACT, NZ First, United Future, Maori, Mana, and (ugh) Internet Parties??? These are truly the blasted wastelands. Don’t bother going there if you want to hear a lick of sense regarding Film & TV.

*Find and read the speech given by then Minister of the Arts Alan Highet. Inspiring stuff. “New Zealand needs its own voices, its own language, its own heroes …”

Indeed. We still do. A powerful call to arms. It sounds like the Gettysberg address in hindsight. Noble, and high minded, but oh so distant …

The problem is that since then (1978ish) the world has changed. Monetarist reform and crypto fascist liberal capitalism have not only changed money markets, They have changed the way we think and value … everything.

Nowadays, the height of media comment on film usually involves a summary of box office figures. That is truly cause for sadness.

About Costa Botes

I'm a freelance film maker based in Wellington, New Zealand. I make mainly long form independent documentaries about characters I find interesting.
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5 Responses to Politicians and NZ Film and Television

  1. Phil Darkins says:

    Costa, some facts for you and some comment:

    “Who prevented a splinter labour union from Australia… ”
    Equity New Zealand has never been a splinter labour union from Australia. Since 2006, it has been and remains a fully autonomous branch of MEAA (Media & Entertainment Arts Alliance). It makes it’s own decisions concerning issues in New Zealand and always has. It is not run by Australians. It is 100% run by New Zealanders in NZ with access to MEAA resources, which are shared amongst all of the MEAA branches across Australasia.

    “…dictating terms of engagement for NZ actors and technicians?”
    Equity does not and never will dictate terms to anyone. It does not act – yet – for technicians. It is a democratic and fully transparent organisation that acts with integrity on behalf of its members to encourage its industry fellow-organisations to enter into debate and negotiate over contentious issues. The Hobbit media fiasco was in fact a Dirty Politics PR campaign run by various interests who wished to crush the union for no other reason than the union wishing to enter into negotiations with SPADA over establishing legally enforceable standard terms and conditions of engagement of performers in their own nation. Rates of pay etc were not part of that. The negotiation was in fact focused on establishing RESPECT for performers because performers felt rejected by their own industry. Regardless of any other spin anyone involved in dirty politics or misguided PR wants to put on it, these are the facts of the matter.

    “I’m no union basher. Belonged to a couple myself. Still do, in fact, as a paid up member of Directors Guild. ”

    Yeah, right. I’m not a racist either. Some of my best mates are blacks. BTW, ‘your’ union isn’t called the Directors Guild anymore; it’s now DEGNZ – the Directors and Editors Guild of New Zealand.

    “the exclusionist model of collective bargaining”

    Collective bargaining in the modern world is anything but exclusionist; it’s inclusive. The benefits now afforded to NZ performers via the agreement that was eventually successfully negotiated between Equity and SPADA apply to ALL performers regardless of whether they are Equity members or not. There is no exclusivity in the agreement and never was it intended. That’s olde worlde unionism from an earlier age. If people want to take the benefits of what the union negotiates on their behalf – and not pay their union dues – let that sit firmly on their consciences.

    “a contract based system where freelancers tender for work in an open and competitive labour market”

    Surely you mean a contract based system where there are no standard employment practices decreed and agreed, no health and safety standards, and every contractor does precisely what they’re told to do at whatever rate the ‘contractee’ determines, or they find themselves another way of making a living. That sounds very familiar to me. It doesn’t sound like RESPECT.

    “Hey, I’d love to carry a union ticket that protected my job and kept out everyone else”

    If you were an Equity member, what you would be saying is that you proudly carry an Equity card because it means that you will be treated with RESPECT by your own industry and allow you to ensure that all of your fellows are treated thus. You will achieve this by collectively speaking as one powerful voice. As a result, you will be able to deliver a far higher standard of professionalism – as will your fellows – raising the standard of material produced in New Zealand.

    “but I can’t do that. Firstly, because it’s bollocks, and secondly, because I have a conscience.”

    My conscience tells me that Equity membership is steadily growing because the strong values espoused by the organisation, and its stated purpose – to make performers’ lives better – fit those of the vast majority of professional performers not only in New Zealand but around the world.

    These are facts. There is a rightful place for modern unionism in the New Zealand entertainment industry. As Dylan famously sang, “Please get out of the new world if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a changin'”.

    “First they ignored us, then they laughed at us, then they fought us, then we won.” – Mahatma Ghandi.

    There will be RESPECT for New Zealand performers and it will be sustained from hereon in.

    Phil Darkins
    Proud Member
    Equity New Zealand

    • Costa Botes says:

      Good on you Phil. Fair enough, to a point. Respect is key to keeping things working in a small vulnerable industry. The real problem here is lack of paid opportunity. There’s a fine line sometimes between being exploited and given a chance. It’s a chancy playground. I don’t endorse poor behaviour, but tying up the field with red tape, regulations, and rules will suffocate the can do, innovative and egalitarian spirit that has always driven kiwi film. Forcing producers to treat actors and Techos as employees makes no sense in an industry that deals mostly with short term one off projects. Should we treat plumbers and electricians as employees if we hire them to fix a tap or put in some power points? Gaffers, grips, and actors are needed for short defined periods for specific projects. A freelance contract system is the most flexible way for all parties to get what they need. A job. And skilled labour. Where is the problem, actually? As opposed to theoretically? Shortage of work is the complaint I hear about, not so much poor terms and conditions. Of course it’s different if you work for TVNZ or full time at a production company.

      • Phil Darkins says:

        Thanks for your response, Costa. We agree on the vulnerability of our industry and that we have to work respectfully together within that precariousness, which I believe we do; for the most part. There are some errant players who need restraining. They are a minority but they exist. Equity will restrain them and retrain them into a more respectful M.O. We will do that by fair negotiation. We’re good people with good intentions.
        There should be no suggestion that anyone is forcing producers to treat performers as employees. Every negotiation held to date has respected current law. What we have a looming problem with is the threat of a National led government making collective bargaining illegal; and it is a very real threat. If that goes, then we can kiss New Zealand’s democracy goodbye. When our own nations’ Law Society is writing to the UN to report human rights violations by our government’s policies and legislation, we know we have a serious problem. The UN’s employment arm, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) – is closely monitoring the behaviour of this administration and strongly objecting to it.
        A freelance contract system without the ability for contractors to negotiate collectively over their terms and conditions of engagement – not wages because that would be price-fixing – is a neoliberal tactic to atomise a workforce; making every worker a vulnerable and powerless individual who is unable to advance their concerns by taking demonstrative action. The result is twofold: ever-worsening conditions that workers can do nothing about and lowering of wages. It is a race to the bottom and will destroy precarious industries because the workers will be forced to find other ways to make a living for themselves and their families.
        I believe that it is possible for our industry to become self-sustaining. Most people think I’ve lost my mind when I say that. But that’s only because they’re looking at New Zealand the way it is now and asking, how? The answer to this complicated problem is – like most answers when you study a problem closely and consider reinvention – simple in theory; a complete re-envisioning of our nation’s understanding of the cultural significance of performing artists, and the industry that employs them. It doesn’t necessarily need public money.
        The reason that the impossible becomes possible is through a collective decision – by the industry was a whole – to achieve a known and quantifiable outcome. When that decision is made, it will be supported by legislation that paves the way for the necessary injection of capital (not necessarily public money) to build it.
        Step 1 is for New Zealanders as a nation to tell their lawmakers that this is what they want. Getting them to do that is a huge job but it is more than possible. We need every guild to work with Equity and start planning the messaging. We need to make it a campaign so loud, positive and visible that it cannot but become reality. The only way that will happen is if we stand collectively, using one voice, insisting upon change.
        The political will is there. There are voices in parliament today who will support it. There are highly skilled professionals working within government agencies who have privately championed the work of Equity to date. “Keep it up! We’re with you! Don’t become disheartened!”, they say. The industry has many powerful friends. What we lack is enough voters telling their parliamentary representatives that they support us. We have to work together to change that. We can do this.

      • Costa Botes says:

        It’s not in my heart to disagree with anything you say. But I’m all about choice, and avoiding the creation of impossible conditions in the name of idealistic but unaffordable outcomes. Most people in the TV and film industry value their independence, and we are freelance contractors by choice. It can be a parlous existence, but there are considerable compensations. I do not expect the NZ public to do anything other than choose or not to see my work, and if they do want to see it, to pay the requested ticket price. As an ethical producer, I see it as my responsibility to treat all my collaborators fairly. You’re right, not all producers behave with integrity. But believe me, they become known and reap what they sow. It’s a small country. It’s my opinion that the pragmatic interests of actors in this country are best served by a good agent. The wider struggle of of organised labour against neo liberal attempts to erode and destroy hard won rights is not my immediate concern, but I do not decry it, though I fear I may be giving that impression.

      • Phil Darkins says:

        Thanks for the debate, Costa. It’s helpful to learn how each of us see the same issue. I understand your position and fully respect it. Things will improve for NZ performers because it is their collective desire. The question that remains in my mind is what the landscape finally looks like. And I should close by saying that I know that you and many others are people of integrity who treat performers as the committed professionals that they are. Thank you!

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