Not So Fast . . .

Warner’s Law of Privilege

Even those of us with the merest smidgen of compassion find ourselves metaphorically weeping over John Minto’s angst. Poor guy. (For our non-Kiwi readers, Minto is what we call here in NZ a “veteran activist” which means that he has spent all his life protesting publicly for any cause as long as it is on the radical fringe of the left-wing.)

Reflecting on the imbroglio over The Hobbit soon-to-be-made movies, Mr Minto confesses to being embarrassed by his country–not the first time, we are certain, and not the last, to be sure. But embarrassment nevertheless. He has been quoted as saying:

I can’t remember another time I’ve felt so embarrassed to be a New Zealander. Crowds of people fawning before Warner Brothers. Solidarity to these people means siding unreservedly with big business against workers. They seem to be unaware that Jackson and Taylor stand to make much more money from these movies than all the New Zealand actors and technicians put together.

If this dispute damages the New Zealand film industry or the careers of the actors who have been s*at on from a great height then Jackson and Taylor must carry the lion’s share of the blame. If we could export these two across the ditch in exchange for just a bit of Australia’s bolshy union attitude we could begin clawing back some of the 40 per cent wage advantage they have on us.

Of course Mints is afflicted with acute cognitive dissonance, even at the best of times. Never let the facts get in the way of an extreme ideological position, we always say. So, here. Mints, in yet another of those “moments”, has conveniently overlooked that the fawning crowds, allegedly siding with Big Business, were actually film workers and actors. No doubt traitors all, in John’s hoodwinked eyes.

Like most people in this country, we are pleased that The Hobbit movies are going to be made in NZ. We are not pleased with the process. But, the end justifies the means, right? Actually, if we would actually take our heads out of the sand for a moment what it lights up on a big screen is something which we have yet to face. A genuine Balrog. Movies are a globalised business. New Zealand has some tenuous competitive advantages (experience, technology, highly skilled labour force, Matamata, and, arguably, a global movie making brand of sorts. And Peter Jackson. Let’s not forget him). But in the end, money counted. And not just any kind of money. Government money–which is to say, our own property.

Although New Zealand (in the film sector) is a high-tech, globally competitive business, once gummint was overlaid with its high taxation charges, we could not compete with low-tax jurisdictions elsewhere in the world. We were beaten. We were blown off the park. So, Warner Brothers would only agree to do the movies here if the gummint lowered its fixed, dead-weight taxation costs.

If not, Warner would have packed everything up and moved to, say, Ireland or Czechoslovakia. Movies are a fungible business. They can be made anywhere in the world, after all. Skilled labour is mobile. Intellectual property is extremely mobile. We know Peter Jackson operates in a global village. He has a private jet, non?

But what we have seen played out in microcosm in the movie business is true for every New Zealand business. Talk about building up clusters of high tech excellence in New Zealand is myopic. It is as ideologically blinkered in its own way as Mints himself. The fact is we cannot compete globally. Our workers are overpaid for what they are able to produce. Our dead-weight of gummint rules, regulations, and taxes (all to sustain the “great” but increasingly ephemeral Kiwi lifestyle) makes the real cost of doing business in and with New Zealand Inc. far, far too high.

Class war mongers, like Mints, rail against “Big Business” and the huge influence of the evil galactic Warner Brothers Empire. And they have a point. The fact is that Warner is big enough; The Hobbit project is so big it hits the national screen, if you would excuse the pun, and focuses the attention of the gummint. Warner is big enough to force negotiations with our Prime Minister. And once again we are left in the invidious position of the gummint picking winners and bestowing privilege on those deemed worthy.

But the fact remains that the Warner Brothers “clause” would be grabbed by every business and every employer in this country, if they were big enough to have negotiating traction. So, our call is this: we have no objections to Warner’s deal. We have vociferous objections to it being a Warner’s only privilege. The same terms, deals, conditions must apply to all. If not, the gummint will have acted unjustly. It will have extended the bribe, on behalf of us all. But if the deal were extended to all business, it would be neither unjust nor a bribe. It would be a just case of the nation meeting the global marketplace–as it must, to survive economically.

A similar point could be made with respect to a special change in the labour laws to be done for Warner Bros–carving out the movie industry as requiring an urgent piece of legislation to be rushed through Parliament in one day–a concession–or, more accurately, a reform that justice requires for all employees and employers.

But now the film sector is going to have its rights of contract restored. Great. How about the rest of the independent workers in this country who prefer to operate under contract law than employee laws? Unless the government moves with celerity to address this now-glaring anomaly, the unintended consequences of Warner’s Law will be very high indeed, not the least of which will be even more cynicism towards the rule of law itself.

Do we see a pattern emerging here? The Prime Minister running the country as if it were a business, and that issues of justice are inconsequential? But The Deal, ah yes, The Deal is everything.

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