Television has not been kind to the government this week

It's pretty easy to get caught up in the hype over how the "new media" are changing everything. Twitter, You-Tube, Facebook, MySpace, blogging—these "social media" are the way of the future (or so we are told). And who am I to disagree, as I sit here tapping out my own personal contribution to that movement?

But three stories this week inadvertently demonstrate that, for the moment at least, old-fashioned TV still rules supreme in the mediaverse.

The first was the revelation of an apparently accidental oversight by National MP Melissa Lee's production company regarding the repayment of some $80,000 of unused NZ On Air funding. The fact this money was meant to be used to fund the making of the Asia Downunder programme for TVNZ isn't my point. It is rather that the "whistleblower" (i.e. leaker) who revealed the matter chose TV3 as her or his preferred vehicle for publicity. It's a useful reminder that if you want to create maximum embarrassment for someone in New Zealand, getting the issue on that evening's TV news broadcast is still the way to go.

The second, and more serious, matter is the debacle over who will control the free-to-air broadcast rights to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Back at the start of the year, if asked to bet on which issue would create the greatest rift between National and the Maori Party, who would have staked money on it being this? The Foreshore and Seabed, sure. Maori representation on elected bodies, no doubt. Even negotiations over climate change legislation could have been predicted to create tensions. But how a few rugby matches get screened to the public?

Of course, the issue wasn't really just about the bland mechanics of content delivery to eyeballs. It was about mana, and in particular a Maori Party concerned that National has forgotten the adage ko main kai atu ko maru kai mai ka ngohengohe. It was about fear, including National Ministers' concerns about how "mainstream" New Zealand (remember that particular phrase?) might react to having to view "their" national game through the lens of Maoritanga. And it was about control, with the success of the 2011 event considered just too important to trust to the hands of anyone but the "real" broadcasters.

But even so, how on earth could matters get to the stage where the government was on the verge of effectively bidding against itself for the right to screen these matches on competing publicly owned television channels? And while good sense finally has prevailed, the entire episode is a stark reminder of what happens when coalition management breaks down and ministers start running their portfolios based on starkly competing agendas.

I've posted before on the issue of how coalition government under a proportional representation electoral system poses a challenge to orthodox notions of "collective responsibility". Nothing in this present saga changes my view that open disagreement amongst coalition partners, even those in ministerial positions, raises a political rather than a constitutional problem. Nevertheless, suffice to say that when disagreement gets to the level of ministers spending public funds in an effort to stymie each others' goals, government becomes unworkable. Which is why John Key very wisely, albeit quite belatedly, has given way on this matter and let the Maori Party win.

I've a final, admittedly somewhat tangential, comment on television and politics from this week. In the course of announcing changes to the ACC scheme at a televised press conference, ACC Minister Nick Smith claimed that cutting payments to the families of suicide victims was necessary as:

Frankly, if my doctor told me I was terminally ill and had 30 days to live, with the ACC rules the way they are I'd be finding myself a train to throw myself under on the 29th day because my family would be treated so much more generously than under the current law...

The clip of the comment is here (from 3'10" on). Given the reporter's follow up comments, it probably wasn't meant to sound as bad as it reads. However, watch the expression on the face of ACC Chair John Judge, sitting next to Nick Smith as he is speaking. Priceless.

Comments (7)

by Bruce Thorpe on October 15, 2009
Bruce Thorpe

Sadly, and it might even be my fault, my capacity at Translating unfamiliar Maori is less than adequate, especially to be sure you have the nuances of traditional saying. My confusion was increased by the use of an unfamiliar Maori word that untypically ended in a consonant.

It would  have been helpful if you had translated the adage, however by going to the original site, I recognised the source for the uncorrected error.

by Dean Knight on October 15, 2009
Dean Knight


Apropos the collective responsibility point, I think perhaps we've seen a further loosening of the principle / political practice, with a more clearer acceptance that Minister's can publicly disagree within their portfolios.  It's clear there has been greater ventilation of dissent the previously regimes, but, as you suggest, the sky hasn't fallen and our constitution hasn't cracked.

However, I'm not fully prepared to concede that there isn't a constitutional dimension to the practice or indeed that it isn't (or is no longer) a constitutional convention.  It might, though, be more limited to implementation of collective wishes, rather than public support of them. 

For example, imagine Cabinet had decided to support the TVNZ-TV3 bid and required TPK to remove their support for the Maori TS bid.  Key makes announcements accordingly in his post-Cabinet press conference.  Sharples, however, is strident and continues to back MTS's bid, and TPK's financial support of the bid.  You are the CEO of TPK or Chair of the board of MTS.  What do you do?  

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2009
Tim Watkin

And I thought from the headline you were going to be writing about the demon drink... I understand how ludicrous it looks for two government-owned channels to be being against each other and the potential waste of taxpayer funds, but isn't that a core part of the model?

TVNZ and MTS are meant to be independent, commercially minded organisations. If they want to compete, isn't that exactly what the state-owned model encourages, and what a business-friendly, free-market loving government should permit? Universities spend millions in marketing budgets alone competing with each other. Electricity companies compete. Why are we getting wound up because it's telly?

by Andrew Geddis on October 16, 2009
Andrew Geddis


"A more clearer acceptance"? I trust you hold your students to a higher standard of writing than this! But seriously ... I guess my answer would be that public servants do what their Minister says. After all, even under orthodox notions of Westminster government, lines of accountability run through individual ministers, not Cabinet. The problem of outright conflict between a support minister and Cabinet would then be political, shading into constitutional - after all, government just couldn't work with the kind of conflicts you describe, and the point of a constitution is to make government work!



Television, drug of the nation! Isn't the point not that TVNZ and MTS were competing for the rights (as you point out, this is a core part of "contestability") but rather that different ministers effectively were competing to outbid each other to get the rights, and not on any commercial grounds?

by Dean Knight on October 16, 2009
Dean Knight

@AG.  Fair cop  - a C+ for writing style for me!  But "shading into constitutional"?  Is that the beginnings of a concession - albeit a limited, narrow one?

by Andrew Geddis on October 17, 2009
Andrew Geddis


I concede nothing! Nothing, I tell you!!

But OK ... if you had a situation of outright conflict between (say) Pita Sharples and the National cabinet, with Sharples flatly refusing to abide by a cabinet dictate such as "don't fund a MTS bid", it would necessitate action to remove the conflict to avoid government collapsing into a sort of anarchy. So in that regard, pushed to its extremes, collective responsibility is "constitutional".

But the same thing would be true if, say, cabinet meetings were to shift from being held every Monday to being held on John Key's whim, with whomever happened to be in the room attending. You simply couldn't run a government that way. But does that make the practice of Cabinet meeting on Mondays "constitutional"? I think not.

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