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Gordon Campbell on John Key, and The Hobbit

Gordon Campbell on John Key, and The Hobbit

by Gordon Campbell

By now, we’ve come to recognize Prime Minister John Key’s typical response to bad news, which is to (a) claim the real figures aren’t in yet, so any verdict would be premature. A job loss spiral in manufacturing? Let’s wait and see what the Household Labour Force Survey says. And if that’s bad, we’ll call it a trough and express optimism that the upswing can’t be far away now. We just have to stay the course.

The (b) option is to claim that the good news wasn’t so good anyway, and the bad news is therefore just a reality check. Polluted New Zealand rivers? Signs that intensive dairying is not environmentally sustainable? Credibility problems with the ‘100% Pure’ tourism brand? Let's just lower our unreal expectations here, people. Is anyone here dying in the street from river pollution? Let's just be grateful we’re not living in some places where the rivers catch on fire. Now that’s river pollution. Let's move on, and show a bit a bit of Kiwi pride in The Hobbit premiere tomorrow night why don’t we…. After all, trying to find a solution suggests that problems exist and no one votes for anyone who seems to have problems.

This “what me worry?” approach to governance is, of course, always an option for someone who can afford to live in denial. On one level, being a politician has always been something of a hobby for Key. No one has ever accused him of having the vision thing. How long it will work for the National Party is another question, and so far, National can point to polls showing that a huge proportion of the public still likes John Key. The more interesting question is whether John Key likes them. We have come a long way from the “Golly gee” excitement Key showed on election night 2008, when the reality seemed to have hit him that he, a kid from Christchurch, was now the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The excitement seemed genuine that night.

Increasingly now though, Key just looks bored, irritated, out of sorts. Not with being PM or with the chance to hang out with Barack Obama and the really important people. That’s still fun. The drag is the less important people – us – with our constant worry, worry, worrying that we can’t find a job, or keep a job, or pay the bills, or keep our kids out of trouble or swim in the river or save the planet or whatever other problem we bring to him and require him to fob off, day in, week out. And yet even though nothing gets better, and his government keeps on fobbing them off, the same mob still seem to keep on liking him.

This must be a real puzzle for Key. Does he ever wonder what would it take to convince the public that he doesn’t like them at all? Should he liken their treasured “100% Pure” brand to a McDonald’s commercial? Maybe he should say that the stats on manufacturing job losses don’t matter if you shut your eyes and refuse to see them. Ultimately, the real risk for Key is that his relationship with the New Zealand public will become one of co-dependence, and that he’ll fall back on his shtick because he’ll begin to think it’s the only thing that he can do. Hey, what about that Hobbit premiere? He’s stoked. Are we stoked? Etc etc.

I think we all have to find a way to Free John Key and convince him that he can do more with the next five years of his life – and beyond – than this. If we do, he might feel grateful. He might even start to like us.

Hobbiting
Hey, that Hobbit premiere. It has been a bad fortnight for the production, publicity wise. The accusations of animal cruelty seem to have had little in the way of conclusive evidence to support them – but the allegations received wide and possibly damaging exposure in the international media, regardless, to the point where Google by a couple of days ago, had listed 840 related stories on the subject. Normally, one could treat this sort of thing as Jackson’s problem but a lot of tourism time and money has been sunk into The Hobbit in the hope that lightning will strike twice, and that the tourism gains from LOTR will be repeated. All along, that was wishful thinking. The LOTR related tourism benefits were the byproduct of a global economic boom when the NZ dollar was set relatively low against the $US. It is now up around 80 cents to the greenback, and the global financial crisis continues to affect the numbers willing and able to afford the long haul Down Under.

The animal cruelty stories and tourism outlook are not the only issues in contention. The Observer, in an article headlining the “ storm clouds” said to be gathering over The Hobbit, referred to a law suit allegedly filed in Los Angeles by the Tolkien estate over the “exploitative merchandising” for the film:

Earlier this month it was also revealed that the Tolkien estate plans to sue the producers of the new trilogy for what it regards as "exploitative merchandising". Their lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles and seen by the Hollywood Reporter, argued that "morally questionable" digital marketing includes an online slot machine. "Not only does the production of gambling games patently exceed the scope of defendants' rights, but this infringing conduct has outraged Tolkien's devoted fan base, causing irreparable harm to Tolkien's legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works," the family's suit claims. The estate contends that the agreement it had with the producers only covered the production of tangible items, such as figurines and clothing, and so it is seeking $80m from the production companies and the rights holder.

In 2009 the estate settled a lawsuit over the Lord of the Rings movies for an undisclosed amount, allowing production to proceed on The Hobbit. The suit had claimed that Tolkien's trust received only an upfront payment of $62,500 for the trilogy, but was later due 7.5% of the gross receipts.

Jackson at least, seems aware that the success of The Hobbit is no sure thing. His handling of the mini-row over the RNZ reporter Cushla Norman was exemplary – and a far cry from his prickly relationship with the press in recent years. All too often, Jackson’s public persona in recent years has made him seem more like the Goblin King of Miramar than wise old Gandalf. Let's hope the apparent mellowing proves to be long-lasting. Attitude, as John Key has shown, can take you a long way in the entertainment industry.

ENDS

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