Upton Online: Back Online From Waipuna
Upton-on-line has been off-line at the Waipuna Hotel and Conference Centre overlooking Auckland’s distinctly tidal Panmure Basin. Not off-line in the sense of having mind out-the-window, you understand. But off-line in the sense of bringing you this week’s edition a tad late.
National MPs listened first to Rod Carr (Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank) who skirted the outer reaches of the financial systems (quite a lot of theorems, paradoxes and some straight mysteries). He was followed by Guy Salmon who found a lack of chlorophyll in our souls. Karen Devonshire (from Telecom) then explored connectivity and some very technojargon that had Maurice Williamson very excited.
That inspired one of the most lateral and open-ended discussions I can recall for a long time. Certainly, the very few old hands present (Kidd, McKinnon, upton-on-stick and Smith, L) agreed that the contrast with 1984 couldn’t have been more graphic. Many old memories of Muldoon’s slow retreat from Moscow were chortled over.
In fact, the general view was that the united state of the caucus means that there is little that can really be learnt from the 1984-90 period. Given that there are no internal fires to snuff out we can, in Doug Kidd’s memorable image, quickly go about transforming ourselves from ministerial fire-fighters to back bench arsonists fighting the new government.
Jim Sutton’s Salvo
How are we to interpret Jim Sutton’s outburst about people opposed to free trade having rocks in their heads? It was scarcely calculated to preserve peace and harmony within the broad orbit of left-green politics in which the government must continue to win support.
There are two theories. One is that it was an authorised outburst, designed to keep the terrorists from the gates of the citadel. That’s certainly the tactic that Jim and fellow travellers (Prebble, Douglas, et al) deployed in the late 1980s and there was a familiar resonance about it. The trouble is that those fellow travellers aren’t there.
Which leads to the second theory. That it was an emergency flare from a beleaguered Minister who desperately needs to call on reinforcements from the wider community.
At this stage, I’m in two minds. But it was uncharacteristic from a government that has, to date, been seamlessly lubricated in its public pronouncements.
Seeing TVNZ grinding to a halt in a political hailstorm brings back some pretty unpalatable memories of the days commercial decisions were taken on the ninth floor. And it throws an arc light on why governments shouldn’t own businesses.
The reason isn’t ideological; it’s practical: governments can’t act swiftly enough to take sensible risks. TVNZ’s digital strategy was always risky. But asking a political shareholder to make sensible judgements was probably always asking too much.
Funnily enough, I share Marian Hobbs’ hankering for substance over ratings. But substance costs big dollars. And she doesn’t have the dollars. So she can’t pretend that TVNZ should do anything other than pursue ratings. Without ratings it’s dead. And before very long, you will need to employ a palaeontologist to unearth an analogue television broadcaster.
For a party that spent so long in Opposition, Labour seems curiously ill-prepared to deal with TVNZ’s digitalisation plan. It has been on the cards for long enough. Surely someone in Labour had spent their time before the last election sorting out a clear plan? Surely someone had done some more thinking about the future and speed of the communications revolution to stop the PM saying that TVNZ’s value “won’t be harmed for some years yet”.
The Government will still be ruminating about public service broadcasting and the pay packets of top presenters when TVNZ has ceased to exist. Remember, all those egos are super-mobile – no minister will be able to tell them to sit in front of a camera on one third of the pay with no viewers out there.
Labour shouldn’t try to save TVNZ for the public broadcasting fold. It bolted long ago when Labour set up NZ On Air as the funder of public good broadcasting. The position Labour inherits is a small pot of money for public broadcasting ($90 million which covers all media, including radio) and a state owned company still worth $1-2 billion but evaporating fast.
With barrow loads of money already earmarked for a bonfire of social spending initiatives, the chances of buying some more public service broadcasting look bleak. Why not face reality, sell TVNZ while it’s still worth something and put the proceeds into a trust fund so NZ On Air can do a few things properly.
Radical? Perhaps. And there are a lot of issues to be worked through. But without some pretty swift thinking we’ll end up with the worst of both worlds: a moribund company and no dough to buy some decent public service output.