Jane Clifton: Wheels within deals

by Jane Clifton / 28 February, 2013
Unless the Government makes its actions transparent, how can it defend them?
Cartoon by Chris Slane


If they knew what was good for them, politicians and big-business tycoons would spring apart like oppositely charged atoms whenever they so much as crossed paths at cocktail parties. But fortunately for the illuminati conspiracists among us, the two foolish atoms persist in thinking they can do good works together. It almost always ends in tears – very often ours. (Although sometimes they’re tears of laughter.) So it was unusual and rather touching that Alan Gibbs hosted the Act Party’s conference at his fantasy farm last week – on which he also keeps giraffes, tanks, a life-sized and staffed Western town complete with saloon and cowboys, and a sculpture collection visible from outer space.

Adding his own (by now nearly imaginary) political party to the safari/Western/war-play stable must have been bitter-sweet, however. It was a thriving political force for many years after he helped found it in the late 1980s, and exerted influence on government, public debate and even, for a brief period, ballroom dancing. Now it must seem to Gibbs rather like a battered old train set from his youth – its batteries flat, many of the moving parts lost forever – that should really be packed up in its box for a final time. Spirited talk of reaching the 5% MMP seat threshold could not disguise the fact the party has been on its uppers for years, barely registering in the polls.

The one hope, another Epsom win by leader John Banks, was probably scuttled the instant he claimed to have forgotten the safari animals, helicopter and other ostentations on another fantasy estate, that of entrepreneur and former hacker Kim Dotcom.

All of which would tend to dent the popular assumption that big business is always conniving to buy power, on the grounds that here’s proof it doesn’t always succeed. Gibbs has been ferociously generous to Act over the years, and all there is to show for it are a couple of as-yet imaginary charter schools.

HOBBITS, POKIES AND MINES


However, the deathless narrative about MPs being in the grovelling thrall of big business has had a right old stoking in recent times. The SkyCity convention centre-for pokies deal can’t be seen as anything other than a big corporate and a government exchanging favours. A chummy photo of Finance Minister Bill English with former Solid Energy chief Don Elder hasn’t helped the Government’s protestations of plausible deniability about the company’s disastrous management. It is now clear it was patted on the back by the Government and allowed to do what it liked – including behaviour that was high risk and decried by some as anti-competitive.

But the doozy for the irreducible public appetite for big business/government conspiracy theories is the Hobbit correspondence. At first glance, the documents appear to show the Government, Warner Bros and Sir Peter Jackson connived to crush a poor little union with a legislative sledgehammer, even after they knew the union’s threat to blacklist the movie had been lifted. It probably shows that at a second glance, too. The timeline of who knew what and when seems pretty clear.

However, like a movie storyboard of the third or fourth draft of the script, the documents don’t tell the full story. The movie-makers’ faith that the embargo had been lifted, and would continue to be lifted, was pretty much non-existent. Jackson, for instance, had been turned away from a local union meeting where he had hoped to give some assurances about his negotiations on actors’ pay and conditions. There was a distinct lack of good faith all round by the time, in October, the documents suggest the ban was to be lifted.

The Hollywood executive who in the documents says her company remained committed to filming The Hobbit in New Zealand must have had her reasons for writing this. But behind the scenes, plans were afoot for picking a new location. An auction was well under way, with a slew of other countries offering sweeteners to get the project.

So the documents give a snapshot, but not the panorama. We did nearly lose that production. Like it or not, the Government’s showing that it was prepared to nip potential labour problems in the bud by legislating steadied the movie execs. This might have been an overreaction, but it opted for better safe than sorry.

JUST MAN UP


The Government doesn’t help itself by playing peek-a-boo with the facts. In resisting the release of documents till being ordered to by the Ombudsman, and by being offhand with media enquiries about the timeline, ministers have fed the conspiracy theory as though it was a Strasbourg goose.

To borrow a phrase newly beloved of David Shearer, the Government should just “man up”. As with the SkyCity deal, it had decided to make a trade-off with a big corporate, in a way that was going to raise questions about our sovereignty being for sale. Ministers should have been prepared to defend that decision openly, with the facts and documents laid bare – especially inconvenient ones.

The Government can make a perfectly rational argument that neither it nor the film-makers were confident the project was safe, so opted for a belt-and-braces approach. It’s for voters to decide whether it was the right call. What’s so maddening is that difficult and unpopular political decisions like this take leonine courage to make, but the very same politicians turn into snivelling ninnies when called on to justify them.

National seemed to think it could fudge the central question: should we sell a little bit of our sovereignty to get one of the world’s most prestigious movies, and/or a world-standard convention centre in Auckland? Is the sacrifice/concession involved here justified by the gain, or not?

Because the Government has acted by turns furtively, high-handedly and just plain paranoiacally around these issues, the prevailing impression is of grubby backroom deals with fat cats, at the expense of, rather than for the good of, New Zealanders.

The Opposition can’t believe its luck. From being derided as Hobbit haters, it is now able to market yet another dirty-deals story.

RAKING OVER THE WORTHLESS COALS


Less gloat-worthy, however, is the mortifying condition of Solid Energy. Although the Opposition is cock-a-hoop that the jewel in the Crown of the state’s energy sector was somehow mysteriously replaced with a tatty old bit of cracked coloured glass, the loss of hundreds of millions of value to the taxpayer is not much fun. Nor is the realisation that the monitoring of one of this country’s major assets was so lackadaisical that the bareness of its cupboards came as a shock to ministers.

Something that should be making us money is now going to cost us money because somehow, despite the collective might of the big-business, political and bureaucratic brain power that was brought to bear on this corporation, no one remembered that the price of coal, having gone up, could also come down.

Unlike the benevolent Gibbs, the New Zealand economy can’t afford to maintain failing entities for sentimental reasons. Alas, there is no choice but to maintain our now merely ornamental coal corp – and no, we won’t be having any giraffes or tanks with that.
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