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Gordon Campbell on the tension between health and defence

Gordon Campbell on the tension between health and defence spending, and Batman v Superman

What is the more rational use of taxpayer money? In one instance, we have New Zealanders with orthopedic problems living in pain until they can get access to the surgery they need.

For many, their condition is being allowed to deteriorate to the point where they may belatedly qualify for more complex, and less effective, surgery. A few million dollars would fix this problem. Instead, a policy of “explicit rationing” of joint replacement surgery appears to be in place.

"Patients undergoing primary elective total hip and knee replacement in Otago in 2014 are more severely disabled than between 2006-2010. Patients currently being returned to a GP would have qualified for publicly-funded surgery during that period."

[Dunedin hospital orthopaedic surgeon Associate Professor David Gwynne-Jones] also said that it had been predicted that the demand and projected numbers of hip and knee replacement would rise significantly, because of the ageing population.

"It is unclear how this can be funded. While the Budget announcement of increased numbers of total joint replacement from 2016 onwards is welcome, the numbers are inadequate to match demand."

Or on the other hand, should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars instead on new submarine spotting equipment for the military’s Orion airplanes, to enable them to operate in regions far from New Zealand, and in a threat environment where the actual threat to this country is acknowledged to be currently so low as to be virtually non-existent. Now, guess which of these options is more likely to be funded.

The Ministry of Defence's outgoing deputy director of acquisitions, Des Ashton, said the current equipment was past its use-by date. Defence spending was a matter of priorities and he expected a decision in the next few months. "The strategic assessment that was carried out in the 2010 White Paper identified that this was a requirement that we needed to have. "The old equipment has outlived its day and the new equipment that's available is far more capable and matches contemporary threats."

It is as if Defence operates in a vacuum that is immune to rational scrutiny. Because it has had certain roles dating back to the Cold War – Defence “ needs” to keep on playing such roles, and it must be funded accordingly, regardless of the minimal threat environment in the real world, and regardless of this country’s existing social problems. The usual experts are weighing in on the grave necessity of pouring scarce money down this particular sinkhole:

Victoria University professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson said the upgrade was necessary. "The South Pacific is not a heavy submarine area but New Zealand also operates further afield." China and other Southeast Asian nations were increasing their underwater capabilities, he said.

Do we really think that China and ‘other Southeast Asian nations’ – Vietnam? Malaysia? Indonesia? – pose such an existential threat to this country that we have to underfund the pressing health needs of New Zealanders in order to purchase military gear that is (a) fantastically expensive and (b) prone to obsolescence shortly after it is bought. (The Orions themselves are set for replacement early next decade. Will this hideously expensive gear even be transferable to whatever aircraft we buy to replace them?)

Yes, we “need” to spend all this money on Defence if we assume we still operate in a Cold War environment – in which our main trading partner (China) poses a significant threat to our very survival. Most of us don’t live on that planet. But we do live on the planet where the health system is being systematically starved of the resources it needs. To repeat : this thriftiness is being enforced to sustain the spend envisaged on anti-submarine war-fighting that is little more than a videogame delusion dreamed up by our allies in Canberra and Washington. In reality, the defence threats we actually face – to the national interest and to corporate wellbeing – are emanating from state and private sector cyber hackers, not from Asians in submarines. Purely taken on its own terms, the Defence spend seems entirely misdirected.

Still, if it does nothing else, the extravagance of the spend on new defence equipment - estimated to be $NZ11 billion over the next decade - gives the lie to the claim that government spending on social services has to be rationed. Plainly, that is not the case. Because when it comes to the pursuit of business as usual in Defence, the sky is the limit.

Talcum powder can kill

This week’s other medical horror story is this one, which traces the links between the prolonged use of Johnson and Johnson’s talcum powder, and ovarian cancer.

For a different kind of horror story, here’s an analysis of how the very survival of the Warners studio (those nice people who brought you The Hobbit and the related degradation of workers’ right in this country) will hinge on the box office performance of Batman v Superman.

Despite the critical drubbing the film has received, the first week’s returns brought good news for Warners. Currently though, Box Office Mojo indicates that the film is making most of its money offshore: 60.5% to 39.5% in American theatres.

So the mooted $US1.15 billion domestic box office return being sought still looks a long way off. One hates to feel ill will towards Warners, but it would be nice to think that sometime, somehow, the era of comic book superhero movies might be coming to an end.

And as for the political subtext. Hmmm. How relevant to the presidential campaign of 2016 could a choice possibly be between two would-be superheroes – neither of whom are likeable, and one of whom seems psychotic? In an against-the-critical-tide article, Salon focused on the film’s (stunted) political subtext:

Aside from shots of anti-Superman protesters carrying protest signs modelled after the anti-Mexican rhetoric that contaminates our discourse today, there isn’t much of an exploration of xenophobia vis-à-vis Superman’s origin story (a missed opportunity in any ostensibly politicized Superman parable). There are similarly fleeting references to drone strikes and civil liberties violations, all dutifully ticked off as vestiges of a security state run amok before quickly forgotten. The movie does include commendably strong female characters like Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, but they receive such insufficient attention that they barely make an impact (a shortcoming more likely attributable to its cluttered narrative than outright sexism).

At the same time, there is actually something very intelligent, even subversive, about a superhero film that is so brazen in challenging the political legitimacy of those who would-be superheroes. It is the central conflict that drives the narrative and keeps the audience engaged in the on-screen action, even if the flat characters make it hard to invest on a deeper level. This isn’t a movie that simply includes those elements to make itself seem more profound; without that political subtext, the film barely exists at all.

Frightened Rabbit return

For years, the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit have made music about the darker, danker aspects of romantic obsession, without leader/songwriter/vocalist Scott Hutchison ever losing track of his self-flagellating sense of decency. From the striking early tracks (“The Modern Leper” and “The Twist”) on through the political stuff ( “Scottish Wind”) to the sincerely romantic (“Candelit”, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” ) the band has steadily worked its way towards ever more symphonic versions of their dour Scottish idealism. This process culminated in 2013’s Pedestrian Verse album – which was a brilliant dead end, but a dead end just the same.

The group has now regrouped, stripped things right back, and released a new album this month called Painting of A Panic Attack. As that title suggests, Frightened Rabbit are still as obsessive as ever, but this is definitely a new sonic direction for them. Online there’s a good clip of them doing the “Get Out” song on the Colbert show, but here is the official video, some of it shot near the huge Motherland Monument in Kiev, Ukraine:

Typical Scott Hutchison lyric too, in the precision of the torment involved:

I'm in the arch of the church
Between her thumb and her forefinger

I’m a worshipper…
Get out of my heart
She won't, she won't
Get out of my heart
She won't, she won't

I saw a glimmer in the dark
And now I know she won't get out of my heart
She won't….

Poor old Scott. It just doesn’t seem to get any easier for him. And for old times sake, here’s “The Twist”:

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