Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The Government’s urgency in repealing the ‘Hobbit law’

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The Government’s urgency in repealing the ‘Hobbit law’

Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The Government’s urgency in repealing the ‘Hobbit law’

Dr Bryce Edwards.

Like any sector in society, those who own and operate businesses have a vested interest in influencing governments to make rules that favour their operations. And not only is the power of business extraordinarily strong, many argue it has increased significantly in recent decades, alongside worsening economic inequality in most countries. This is a point made strongly by French economist Thomas Piketty in his best-selling and highly influential 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s book is currently being made into a film by New Zealand documentary-maker Justin Pemberton – see Steven Zeitchik’s news report on this, Cannes: Thomas Piketty, movie star? The documentary is scheduled for international release next year.

One of the stories being told to illustrate Piketty’s theories about the power of business is the infamous 2010 “Hobbit crisis”, and “Hobbit law” introduced by the National Government to appease Hollywood and Wellington filmmakers. Last week I gave an interview for the documentary about what happened, and explained how through manipulation, a powerful foreign company had obtained huge government payouts and a change to the law to help them make bigger profits.

Why Labour wants to repeal the Hobbit law with urgency

The Hobbit law – or “The Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill” – is also now back in the news here, because the new Labour-led government has promised to repeal National’s legislation in its first 100 days in office.

In her background profile on what happened, Kylie Klein-Nixon says “How it came about is a convoluted tale which changes, as all good tales do, depending on who’s telling it – the filmmakers or the actors. But in a nutshell: the New Zealand actors union, NZ Equity, used the filming of The Hobbit – a high profile, multimillion dollar internationally funded production – to push for the right to bargain collectively, despite most actors being on individual contracts” – see: Hobbit law repeal: How did we get here?

For a much more critical examination of why the Labour Party and the labour movement feel so strongly about repealing the legislation, it’s worth reading an article in the Hollywood Reporter: New Zealand Poised to Repeal Anti-Union ‘Hobbit Law’.

The article is by Jonathan Handel, a Hollywood entertainment and technology lawyer who wrote a book in 2012 titled, The New Zealand Hobbit Crisis: How Warner Bros bent a government to its will and crushed an attempt to unionize The Hobbit. The book highlights how the 2010 industrial dispute is “an unusually dramatic example of corporate leverage exerted against a nation-state and its workers.”

In Handel’s latest article, he explains how the film business was determined in 2010 to reduce the employment rights and conditions of film workers in New Zealand, and threatened to pull the production of The Hobbit out of the country if they didn’t get their way. They came to New Zealand to lobby the National Government for a law change, as well as for additional subsidies.

Handel says: “It was a potent threat against a tiny island nation of then-around 4 million people, particularly in light of the tourist boom sparked by the earlier Lord of the Rings films and expected from the Hobbit prequels — and the law dovetailed with the Kiwi government’s pro-business tilt under the then-prime minister, former Merrill Lynch executive John Key.”

The article celebrates the new coalition government prioritising the repeal of the Hobbit law. New Workplace Relations Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway is quoted explaining that the soon-to-be-repealed law “is a breach of International Labour Organization Convention 98 which New Zealand has ratified and must therefore adhere to”.

And Equity New Zealand president Jennifer Ward-Lealand is reported saying “This is a law that is deeply unfair for workers, so it is wonderful to see our new Government make its repeal a priority”.

The Labour Party and union movement were particularly incensed by the Hobbit crisis because it involved so much duplicity by the film business and the government of the day. This is explained very well by Brent Edwards who points to the fact that the whole crisis was manufactured in order to get the public on side: “That law was rushed through Parliament overnight as the government bowed to the demands of the powerful Hollywood studios. Even worse, the government told the public the Hobbit dispute was unresolved despite knowing that days earlier the actors’ union, Equity, had agreed to lift the international boycott on the film” – see: ‘Hobbit law’ change vindication for late union leader.

Edwards explains that evidence was later released under the Official Information Act, which confirmed all this: “the papers showed the government initially had seen no need to change employment law relating to film and television workers. But Sir Peter and the Hollywood studios continued to pressure the government to do so. So late in October it bowed to those demands and changed the law in a day to make it absolutely clear actors and crew were independent contractors, not employees.”

Gordon Campbell has also written expertly about the latest developments, bemoaning that “one of our leading digital industries of the 21st century continues to labour under 19th century work conditions” – see: On the TPP outcome, and the Hobbit law.

Many on the political left are celebrating the government’s determination to dump the Hobbit law so quickly. On The Standard, Greg Presland declares: “I would like to jump up and down and dance on its grave and remember the victims and curse the villains. And I hope there is a sophisticated analysis by the main stream media of what happened and why repeal is important” – see: The repeal of the Hobbit law. His blog post then goes through in detail what happened.

It might, however, seem a little odd that Labour is giving the repeal of the Hobbit law such a priority. After all it’s a law that affects very few people, and is hardly of immediate concern to voters. Martyn Bradbury explains: “This wasn’t going to make the list of things to do in the first 100 days but the symbolism of telling a multi-national corporation that we won’t write our laws for their benefit was too compelling for NZ First” – see: The Hobbit strikes back! Huge win for NZ Actors & workers.

Industry and political right respond

The National Party hasn’t made much effort to defend the Hobbit law in the wake of the announcement that it’s to be axed. National-aligned blogger David Farrar has blogged to say “This law change will drive productions out of New Zealand, and destroy jobs” – see: Smaug wins, Hobbits lose. Farrar also argues that the film industry is better suited for contract arrangements rather than employing workers, and the repeal of the law is a “huge win for the Australian union that tried to blackmail Peter Jackson with a global boycott.”

According to the Herald, “National has previously criticised Labour’s vow to repeal it, saying that would deter major film companies from coming to New Zealand” – see: Film industry heavy-hitters meet as axe hangs over ‘Hobbit law’.

The same article reports on the thoughts of Lord of the Rings film producer Barrie Osborne, who disputes that National’s law change led to exploitation: “It’s not like you have a big industrial company coming in taking advantage of the workers. I find in fact the wages here in the film industry are higher than they are in Australia which has a very unionised position.”

Similarly, a 1News TV report emphasises that the billion-dollar New Zealand film industry is divided by the proposed repeal of the law – watch: Government reaffirms commitment to scrap ‘Hobbit Law’ which saw an end to collective negotiations for film industry workers.

Back down by Labour?

The Herald article also explains that since the Labour-led Government announced the urgent repeal of the Hobbit law, film business executives have been lobbying Lees-Galloway to do a U-turn. Film boss Barrie Osborne is quoted saying he had made progress with the Minister after initially being alarmed, saying it was “concerning when you read just the bold print” of Labour’s repeal.

Osbourne explains: “We got in to see the minister in his first week in office. So that is encouraging that they are aware of the issues and what is at stake in the industry, and the infusion of dollars some of these big international pictures bring into New Zealand.”

Recently Lees-Galloway has been promoting a somewhat different view of what the government is going to do: “What we are absolutely not going to do is repeal what currently exists and leave a vacuum … [the new framework] will recognise that contracting is the normal way of doing things in the film industry, and most importantly provide certainty to producers and people who plan to invest on making films in New Zealand.” And the newspaper reports that Lees-Galloway “told the Herald a repeal of the Hobbit law may not be needed”.

On Thursday last week, the Government made it clear that a straight repeal was no longer happening. RNZ reported: “Today, workplace relations minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced he was working with a number of industry groups, including the Screen Industry Guild, to consider options for replacing the legislation. He said the film industry brought millions of dollars to New Zealand and a collaborative approach was being taken to ensure the laws affecting them were fair” – see: Working group formed for ‘Hobbit law’ replacement.

According to John Drinnan, Lees-Galloway now says: “A lot of people have said they are really happy with the contracting arrangements. We are fine with that” – see: First ‘The Hobbit’, now for the sequel. And Drinnan cites other businesspeople from the film industry who have been lobbying the government to change their mind.

The most definitive announcement that the promise of repeal within the first 100 days is gone is in Simon Smith’s article, Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says replacing Hobbit law will be ‘a joint solution’. This reports that “Lees-Galloway said it was more important to get new legislation right than to do it in 100 days, and that was what industry and unions wanted.” The minister is quoted explaining, “It would be pointless to stick to a manifesto commitment that didn’t actually get us the result that we were looking for.”

Mike Hosking is using this Hobbit law repeal back-down as an example of how Labour is less reform-minded than might be expected: “The Hobbit law around the movie industry – they were repealing it. Whoops, no they’re not. Those in the industry have told them they’re nuts, and so to their credit, they’ve put the brakes on” – see: This government is specialising in window-dressing, not reform. Hosking then puts forward three explanations for Labour talking radical but acting moderate.

Finally, Helen Kelly’s son, Dylan, now works in the film industry, and has just written about his mother on the anniversary of her death. He also talks about the Hobbit drama, which he says “led to Mum being described as ‘one of the most actively disliked women in the country’ at the time” – see: On a new government, kindness and the (unfinished) legacy of my mother, Helen Kelly. On the repeal of the Hobbit laws, he says, “for those who think this move will kill the film industry… It won’t. Most overseas film industries are heavily unionised. The next 25 Avatar sequels will be just fine”.

Bryce Edwards’s Political Roundup: Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Bryce Edwards’s Political Roundup: Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold

Bryce Edwards’s Political Roundup: Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold

Dr Bryce Edwards.

MMP has a major problem – it’s killing off the minor parties. Smaller parties were supposed to revive and shakeup the party system, providing a diverse array of ideological options for voters. Instead, since 1996, no new parties have managed to make it into Parliament, except by splitting off from existing parties that already had representation.

New Zealand Parliament.

At this year’s election, the presence of minor parties has further reduced. Two minor parties were ousted from Parliament, and the three remaining ones suffered poor results as voters shifted back to the two major parties. In fact, a record low proportion of votes were cast for the minors, and on final results, only 18 minor party MPs were elected. In contrast, Labour and National won 102 of the MPs, by swallowing up over 81 per cent of the party vote.

For the best overview of the decline in minor party strength, see Richard Shaw’s We’ve elected fewer parties than ever under MMP. He says, “the 2017 election is a reminder that the two traditional parties continue to dominate New Zealand politics.”

Of course the simplest explanation for the decline of the minor parties is that voters simply didn’t vote for them. This is a point well made by the No Right Turn blogger – see: This is MMP working, not failing.

Here’s his main point: “I share the disappointment at the lack of diverse representation and the apparent narrowing of our political sphere, but that isn’t due to any failure of MMP. With a Gallagher Index of 2.7, this election wasn’t especially unrepresentative in terms of votes equating to seats. MMP seems to have done a better job at ensuring that seats reflected public support than it did last time (when the Gallagher Index was 3.82), or in 2008 (when it was 3.84). Instead, the reason there are so few minor parties represented in Parliament this time is because people didn’t vote for them.”

There are a number of reasons voters rejected the minor parties. And since the election these have been identified as issues relating to media coverage, a residual first-past-the-post mentality, the aggressive strategies of the major parties, the poor performance of the minor party leaders, and the financial superiority of the major parties.

However, the factor that has dominated the debate about the decline of the minor parties is the role of MMP’s five per cent threshold, which everyone agrees helps keep the smaller parties out of Parliament. And there now seems to be an emerging debate about whether this is good or bad thing.

Arguments for ditching the threshold

The must-read argument for change is Michael Wright’s column, It’s time to ditch the MMP threshold. He outlines the problem, and then declares: “One change can fix this. It’s time to dispense with the 5 per cent threshold. Not just lower it, ditch it altogether. The rule that under MMP political parties must win at least 5 per cent of the party vote to enter Parliament is holding us back. The threshold exists to ensure the right mix of stability and proportionality in government. Right now it is providing neither of those things. After last month’s election, Parliament is home to four political parties and the rump of a fifth – the lowest-ever total under MMP”.

Wright points out that the threshold doesn’t simply prevent parties below the magic five per cent from getting any seats, it suppresses the public’s consideration of those parties at all: “Media coverage was often framed in the will they-won’t they context of the threshold, an immediate turn-off for swing voters. TOP polled 2.2 per cent on election night but would surely have got more were it unencumbered by the threshold stigma. The same goes for other minnows like the Maori Party and Act.”

The most interesting point he makes in favour of more minor parties in Parliament is there would be a better allocation of power, and more stable government: “More smaller parties in Parliament means less chance of one of them holding all the cards after election day, which is exactly what has just happened to New Zealand First.”

On this topic, blogger No Right Turn agrees, saying “If you’re upset about Winston Peters having “all” the power (or rather, as much as the other parties give him), then the answer is to eliminate the threshold” – see: Time to ditch the threshold.

Also in favour of jettisoning the threshold entirely, Julian Lee questions how well the system is working, given the poor results for the smaller parties. He says this has “cast doubt on the point of MMP – greater representation of the public in the democratic process” – see his article, The election was a minor party bloodbath, so has MMP done its dash?

Lee compares the 2017 result with the high point for the minors, which was the 2002 election “when six minor parties took out 41 seats in Parliament, a third of the total number of seats.” And he ponders whether the state of the party system will get worse in the near future: “As for the two remaining minor parties, there is no guarantee the Greens will survive the next election given this year’s result, nor is there any guarantee New Zealand First’s Winston Peters will contest the next election at age 75. This leaves the potential for a 2020 election without minor parties. A 2020 Parliament of National and Labour.

So, Lee, points to other MMP countries like Japan and Lesotho that don’t have a threshold, and suggests we emulate them. It would be relatively simple, as a “natural” threshold would be needed to get one seat – based on 1/120th of the total party vote: “all that was required to get a seat in Parliament was a .83 per cent vote, that is 18,000 votes”. And he says, “If the threshold were removed this election, two extra parties would have made it to Parliament – the Opportunities Party with three seats and the Maori Party with one.”

Another blogger, “I’m no fox”, has also written this week about the problems of the threshold: “The biggest problem is the ridiculous threshold. The threshold is an unfair bar that numerous political movements, with tens of thousands of voters backing them, have failed to meet, keeping them locked out of the debating chamber. Both TOP and the Māori Party lost out because of it in this election; the Conservatives, Internet Mana, and the ALCP all lost out last time. You can have 4.99% of the population behind you, but because you didn’t have just a handful more people ticking your box, you have no direct legislative influence” – see: The problem isn’t just MMP, but how we use it.

Prior to the election, I was also quoted by the Otago Daily Times’ Bruce Munro about the need to have more minor party representation: “Our democracy has a major flaw if we don’t have a full array of different options that we can seriously consider voting for. And ultimately the public is going to be less engaged in politics and in voting if the options on offer are boring, bland, and highly-restricted in range” – see: Minorities of none.

Retain the threshold, but reduce it?

There are plenty of other advocates at the moment for ditching the threshold, or at least lowering it. AUT’s Julienne Molineaux has published an excellent overview of coalition formation under MMP, and also discusses how well MMP is working for getting minor parties into Parliament – see: How MMP Works: Freestyle bargaining.

Molineaux argues that the 5 per cent threshold “needs to be lowered because it wastes votes; it needs to be lowered because it has, so far, made it impossible for (completely) new parties to make it into parliament.”

And in his review of how well MMP is performing, Peter McKenzie also cites the threshold as a major impediment to diversity in Parliament, saying that reducing the threshold to three per cent would have the most “significant effect on the ability of minor parties to grow and challenge Labour and National’s power” – see: MMP: How does New Zealand stack up?

Finlay Macdonald complains that the electoral system still isn’t working properly and, amongst other fixes, he advocates a reduced threshold, adding “Our parliament would be better off for having the likes of Gareth Morgan on board” – see: Mixed-member proportional and the 2017 election.

Three per cent is the magic number according to blogger Martyn Bradbury – see: In defence of MMP and how to fix it.

But Bradbury strongly opposes getting rid of the threshold entirely, in case radicals get elected to Parliament: “Some have suggested we should scrap the threshold altogether, I think that is a dangerous suggestion that opens the door to political radicalisation and extremism. You only need to look at Israel who has a totally representative voting system and it leaves them hostage to tiny religious splinter group factions who hold any Government to ransom for hardline brutality against Palestinians. No threshold allows extremism, what we need to do in NZ is lower the threshold, not abandon it”.

Bradbury’s arguments are supported by Mike Hosking, who would prefer to retain it at the full five percent, saying, “The last thing we’d want to do is to add to the madness by making it easier to access power” – see: For heaven’s sake don’t drop the MMP threshold.

Hosking’s main argument is worth quoting at length: “Even at 5 per cent we still seem to have had ourselves a fair old selection of odd balls. Lower the 5 per cent – you’re merely inviting more madness into the place. Look at the countries who operate lower thresholds. Italy has 3per cent. That’s a stable democracy – not. Greece is another with 3 per cent surely another example of sensible fiscally responsible and longstanding stability – not. Cypress 3.6 per cent, Bosnia 3 per cent, Albania 3 per cent – now yes some of them run different systems, and some of them have other issues at play, but join the dots. The easier it is to get to parliament, the madder the place tends to be, the more parties end up in parliament, the more uncertainty and instability you tend to have.”

Finally, for my own view on the threshold, as well as the MMP “coat-tails” rule, see my Herald opinion piece from 2011: Undemocratic 5pc threshold at fault, not MMP.

Vanuatu government hopes new laws will save it on global finance ‘grey list’

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Vanuatu government hopes new laws will save it on global finance ‘grey list’

Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz

Will legislation passed last year be sufficient to remove Vanuatu’s financial sector from international grey listing? Image: Vanuatu Daily Digest

By Bob Makin in Port Vila

The Vanuatu government’s Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Committee is confident that the submission of some 31 Bills to Parliament last year should improve Vanuatu’s position on the international reviewers’ “grey list”.

Some three major review groups are involved. The legislative requirements were made on time.

Vanuatu was congratulated by the international examiners during a recent review of Vanuatu’s progress, the Daily Post reports.

The government intends to introduce a Transport Infrastructure Maintenance Fund, reports Radio Vanuatu. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities has been meeting with stakeholders in the transport industry from the road, maritime and aviation sectors. The roles and objectives of the fund have been explained to the stakeholders, but not, it would seem, with the media.

The question raised in yesterday’s Daily Post about who is funding the planned luxury Bauerfield air terminal seems to be answered. The MG Group Hotel project from Hong Kong, involved with government and CCECC in airport discussions and agreements, is the backer. And this despite their plans to steal the view of a Ni-Vanuatu hotelier with a magnificent 3-storey view on a hilltop overlooking Daily Post.

MG’s harbour views will block those of Vila Rose Hotel just as it is starting in business.

Japanese tourists will begin arriving in Port Vila in April, on flights from Tokyo’s Narita airport via Port Moresby, PNG. Air Niugini is arranging the flights. A special night trip to Tanna has sold out already.

Mismanagement claimed
Radio Vanuatu reports the Opposition is claiming mismanagement of the Seaside Sanitation Project to assist the Seaside Paama, Tongoa and Futuna communities. The Opposition claims it has received many complaints concerning the quality of the local work. MIPU has dismissed all of the allegations saying the tender is being properly managed. A supervisory committee continues at work.

The Agriculture Department will be offering planting material, especially many varieties of manioc and kumala, tomorrow at Tagabe Ag Station in an effort to improve access to local and more nutritious  kaikai. Farmers and the general public will be able to meet together and discuss garden issues along with food production and security. There is a day-long programme starting at 7:30am.

The Media Association of Vanuatu is planning to become a full member of the International Federation of Journalists. Until now MAV has only been an associate member.

Re-elected MAV president Evelyne Toa saw the move as able to assist local journalists as regards their rights and freedoms.

Bob Makin writes for the Vanuatu Daily Digest