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When Facts Get In Way Of A Photo Opportunity

Marc My Words...
Political comment by Marc Alexander

When facts just get in the way of a photo opportunity

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Folole Muliaga's death was a tragedy not only because of the devastating hole she leaves behind for her family but because it was preventable. At least for the short term.

We all know the basic story because the media have turned a very private misfortune into a national event. They jumped on the item with the fortitude of a flock of ferrets at feeding time; each trying to outdo the other in an outpouring of feigned grief to touch the hearts of viewers and readers up and down the country.

Call me a cynic but there's money in ratings. And boy what a tale could be woven out of this one!

We have an emigrated family trying to make good in their new country. From a narrative point of view we have an exceptional villain – a faceless evil energy company, 'Darth' Mercury, consumed with corporate greed whose actions have trodden on the innocent battler. They, the personification of the evil empire that is the profit motive, unplugged a woman who didn't pay her bill, and she died. 

Of such magnitude was the incident that even the Prime Minister dropped her important prime ministerial duties to go pay a visit to the deceased's family. She accused Mercury Energy of unfathomable heartlessness citing the "hard-nosed commercial attitude" which she presumably blamed for the death.

The police in trying to investigate have been accused of institutionalised racism by the family. It's all because the New Zealand police were alleged to be "hugely insensitive" by not knowing how to deal with Samoan culture. Not to be too indelicate but I wonder, if I went to Samoa could I justifiably condemn their cops for being racist if they dealt with me according to their culture rather than mine?

Yes I know that's just being silly, it's only we who are ethically bound to honour every other culture above our own. We shouldn't expect the same reciprocal courtesies. It won't be long before all new arrivals will have to fill out a précis of their cultural proclivities for us to condemn to memory on the off chance we might have cause to offend along with the usual documentation requirements. Of course that may not change a thing as the Ahmed Zaoui episode has taught us at great cost.

The prime minister made a number of interesting if debateable assertions. First of all, she said plenty of nice things about the poor woman and her family at her very public funeral for a very private misfortune. I'm not one to quibble about looking on the bright side at such times but coming from a person who never met her nor even heard of her till after the event, nor might I add, spent more than the bare minimum with the family other than to sew up another photo opportunity.

It's hard for me to be convinced that it was a genuine but clumsy way to look as though she understands the plight of the little people. I don't think the public is that banal that they could have their legitimate sympathies for the family manipulated to real believe that Helen Clark would care as deep as she wants us to accept.

After all, where was she when Karl Kuchenbecker died as a consequence of her government's abysmal eight year failure in dealing with our criminal justice system?

I didn't see her hot-foot it to explain to his family why under her regime murderous thugs like Graeme Burton could be given parole despite being an obvious continuing risk. I'm being a tad too picky perhaps?

I'm also equally sure that none of her actions have anything to do with her low polling aren't you?  Well anyway, she also claimed that "we want New Zealand to be a compassionate and caring place; we want to be our brother's keeper."

Yes and no prime minister. We most certainly want this country to be kind-hearted and empathetic but, truth be old, the current government makes it difficult. They have knobbled us in every way imaginable. Each time we want to exert our initiative or be self-reliant, a law is hastily passed to stop us.

And no, our primary objective is not o be our brother's keeper by government decree. We want the right to be our own keeper. It's the prime minister who wants to be our brothers...or should that be sister's keeper. And she's got the full state bureaucracy trying to do just that. Most of us would far prefer to be left in peace to get on with our own lives.

Now as to who had the moral courage, Helen Clark or the Mercury suits, I'd say the latter hands down. Why? Because even though we don't have all the facts yet, Mercury Energy general manager James Moulder, Doug Heffernan, chief executive of parent company Mighty River, and Mighty River chairwoman Carole Durbin, quickly fronted up to the family, offered unreserved sympathy, money for the funeral, and showed up wearing Lava lava's in a nod of protocol to a culture foreign to them.

Helen Clark on the other hand jumped on the sympathy bandwagon, shooting off her mouth about who was to blame without the benefit of evidence, and this was after buttoning up the mouth of one of her ministers, Trevor Mallard, who initially (and for once sensibly), suggested caution before making any allegations.

And with the reactive enthusiasm typical of a soviet-style artist never quite happy with her socialist realist artwork, Herr Clark has breathlessly opted to pursue more electricity industry regulation.

But as National's state-owned enterprises spokesman Gerry Brownlee has pointed out, "Laws written as a knee jerk response to an event are seldom good laws, especially if they're being decided before all the facts are clear". Yes indeed.

Given past performance I wouldn't be at all surprised if the prime minister's answer will be to ensure that all board members of state owned enterprises will be micro-chipped and allowed out in parks only on leashes. It worked for dogs didn't it?

As to the facts which have been artfully set aside in the media ruckus to see who could well up the tears faster, what do we really know?

We know that 44 year old Folole Muliaga died around three hours after the electricity supply was pulled from her house. Earlier in the month she had left hospital having been treated for cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle, which may have been caused by various factors, including heart disease brought on by obesity.

Certainly her lifestyle choices led her to carrying more weight than would be considered healthy. A newspaper claimed further that the obesity-related disease which was killing her was being kept in check by a cocktail of drugs but that she had chosen to stop taking medication in favour of so-called traditional Samoan healthcare (the efficacy of which evidently rivals that of crystal therapy, howling at the moon, or chasing moonbeams in crop circles).

We also have the assurance from Counties Manukau District Health Board chief medical officer Don Mackie that Muliaga would not have been sent home had she needed the oxygen machine to keep her alive.

There are some serious questions that nevertheless demand an answer. Chiefly, why did the family choose to continue paying a tithe to their church instead of the power company? Why didn't the church return the favour and help out?

One of the most vocal of the 'evil company does good family wrong' brigade is, not surprisingly, a member of the family himself: Brenden Sheehan. He's married to one of Muliaga's nieces and I wonder if his outrage masks his own feeling of complicity in not helping the family out of its financial bind?

Perhaps he really didn't know, in which case you would have to ask: why would we expect the company to know what even a family member didn't?

Sheehan was initially the public face of the 'moral effrontery'. Good choice if that's what was wanted. He cut his teeth in the union movement waging battles against the evils of corporate greed by leading PSA strikes against TVNZ, Radio New Zealand and the Public Trust. He's now a national organiser for the Public Service Association (PSA).

Why didn't the family go to the neighbours? How difficult can it be to find an extension cord to get the machine going again? On the flip side we should ask how it was that the usual seven week process of disconnection was handled by both the parent company and the Muliaga family. 

All these are if's and buts. No doubt the conflicting accounts of what happened will eventually make its way into the media but I doubt with as much of an impact. We still need to wait for the police and the coroner's inquiry. But these will make for dry reading. Unless something startling emerges the 'facts' will play second fiddle to the human interest aspect of compensation payouts and political posturing.

In the end we will all lose. The Muliaga family lost a wife and mother – nothing can ever mitigate that. They may even be charged for not providing the necessities of life to Mrs. Muliaga. Mercury Energy will be hit by costs and loss of confidence irrespective of whether or not they are guilty of wrongdoing.

The public will be hit by higher costs brought on by more invasive regulation. And of course Helen Clark will now find herself on the wrong side of the issue in trying to orchestrate a re-connect to the people who will decide her governments fate at the next election.

The only winners will be the lawyers who will milk this for all its worth. The Muliaga's have apparently already engaged the services of one

Our attention spans are terribly short. We crave entertainment and quick hits of emotional overload. What better than when news and amusement intersect to punctuate our daily grind for a brief moment - human drama as respite from reality.

And facts just get in the way of that sometimes.


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