Monday, June 2, 2008


Curmudgeon column - first published Dom Post and ChCh Press, May 27

FAIR GO is one of TVNZ’s longest-running and highest-rating programmes. Its host, Kevin Milne, was included in last year’s Queen’s Birthday honours list. It’s the sort of show TVNZ’s publicity department would doubtless call iconic.

To suggest Fair Go is anything less than sainted is about as unpatriotic as calling for an open season on the little spotted kiwi. Yet whenever I watch it, I feel uneasy.

Over the years it has acquired a tone of smug self-righteousness. It panders to the public appetite for clearcut heroes and villains to the extent that you can sense the viewers at home booing and hissing on cue – as in an old-fashioned music hall pantomime – whenever the bad guy is mentioned.

Not content with exposing greedy business people and heartless bureaucrats, the show demands that they undergo a purifying confession in front of the nation.

The format seems to demand an admission of guilt, a grovelling apology and an offer of reparations. “Be a good boy, make an offer of compensation, and we’ll let you off with a friendly warning,” is the usual message. It’s a form of bullying that takes advantage of television’s enormous power.

Well okay, you might say; of course a consumer rights programme is going to expose bad business practices. That’s its purpose. But I get the feeling, watching Fair Go, that virtually every story matches a pre-ordained template.

There seems a built-in bias in favour of the complainant; an underlying supposition that the underdog is always right. The presumed wrongdoer is on a hiding to nothing.

The weekly moral fable is completed by the ritual capitulation of the “guilty” party, at which point Milne and his team pat themselves on the backs for having righted another wrong.

Of course whomever Fair Go has lined up in its sights can refuse to go on the programme, but these are the people for whom a special punishment is reserved. Their names and pictures go on “the wall”, where they may be named and shamed repeatedly in successive weeks.

Refusing to play Fair Go’s game is considered the greatest sin of all. Not only is it taken as a tacit admission of guilt, but it deprives Fair Go of its moment of triumph – the denouement when the black-hearted villain recants and promises to be nicer in future.

What concerns me is the possibility that some recant not because they believe they have done anything wrong, but because they daren’t risk vilification on a top-rating TV show in which the dice are overwhelmingly loaded against them.

THE brouhaha over the attempted reshuffling of the Green Party list is a perfect example of how, under MMP, politicians treat the public – even their own supporters – with contempt.

The plan was for sitting MP Nandor Tanczos to resign from Parliament, which would have cleared the way for co-leader Russel Norman to become an MP and thus become eligible for a parliamentary salary and associated perks such as free travel. All very cosy and convenient for the party leadership, and uncontaminated by anything so untidy as giving the voters a say.

Trouble was, Mr Norman was ranked only tenth on the Greens’ list at the last election, before he became co-leader. Two Green stalwarts, Mike Ward and Catherine Delahunty, were above him. And while Ms Delahunty (at number nine) reportedly agreed to stand aside so that Mr Norman could be fast-tracked into Parliament, Mr Ward – ranked eighth on the list in 2005 – deliciously dug his toes in and refused to relinquish his place.

I am no cheerleader for Mr Ward. He’s not exactly one of the Greens’ hard grafters and by some accounts led a splendidly cruisy life when he was an MP from 2002 to 2005, being noted for the frequency with which he was seen grazing in the fashionable cafés of Lambton Quay.

In refusing to make way for Mr Norman he might be motivated by hubris or sheer cussedness, but the inescapable fact is that he has principle on his side. Green supporters voted for a list that placed him ahead of Mr Norman, and if the Greens had any respect for the voters’ wishes they wouldn’t have tried to tinker with the rankings.

The irony here is that a party that likes to claim the moral high ground has been caught out attempting to subvert the election result for its own convenience.

I HAVE realised lately that what offends me most about telemarketers is not that they interrupt my dinner or mispronounce my name.

No, what sends the needle right off the irritation meter is the way they try to soften you up by feigning interest in your wellbeing. “How’s your day going?” they ask with contrived bonhomie, or “How are you today, Karl?” As if they cared a toss.

They would get a more civil response if they came straight out and said: “I’m sorry to interrupt whatever you’re doing, but I’m desperate to sell you something that you’re not remotely interested in.” That would command my attention because at least it’s honest.


Steve Withers said...

I don't watch Fair Go, so can't comment usefully there. Your comments on the Green Party are interesting.

The Green Party has no local seats, so any Green voter would have cast a meaningful vote for the party and its list in order to win representation.

In that context, a Green vote is for the whole list - and the party itself - and not for any person per se.

For minds schooled under First Past the Post, that can be a very difficult thing to accept. For someone now used to MMP, it makes perfect sense. I voted for them all - whatever party I vote for. Whether or not they actually got in on the night is another matter.

"Retiring" Green MP, Nandor Tancszos has been quoted in media reports as saying he believes that any list MP planning to not stand again should stand aside to allow people on the previous election's list who will be standing again, (but who didn't make it in), a chance to get their feet wet in the House prior to an election. That sounds very sensible and practical.

There is no way to have a by-election for list MPs, so this is most practical alternative.

Nandor says he offered to stand aside for this reason. It makes even more sense to do so in order for one of the party's co-leaders to enter Parliament.

Co-leader, Russell Norman, was on the list in a high rank at the last election, so Green voters have already endorsed him along with all the others on the list. If they support their party, they will certainly support their co-leader being able to take a place in the House as soon as practicable.

The idea that this is in any way shonky is hard to account for. Under MMP, a party with only list MPs can't have an MP in a safe seat stand aside for a new leader as the two major parties can do. Even if they wanted to have some form of by-election, it simply isn't possible.
They also could not expect the opposition party to not run against them in a would happen for the two major parties should the same issue arise for them.

Allowing the list to operate as normal and for people on the list - who have already been voted on as a group - to declare themselves as available for service (or not) - is entirely appropriate. In the event, Mike Ward placed himself above the interests of the wider Green party and they - collectively - will see him in that light going forward.

It's worth noting that for candidate selection, every Green party member gets to vote on the entire party list ranking. No other party does this. It is arguably the most democratic party of all.

Karl du Fresne said...

Fair enough, up to a point. But I think you're overlooking the high level of personal support for Ward in Nelson. People who voted Green in Nelson (where support for the party is relatively high) presumably did so on the basis of a party list that placed Ward at number eight, and therefore gave him a pretty good chance of getting into Parliament. To then arbitrarily replace someone they knew well (Ward is a former Nelson city councillor, and known to everyone in town by virtue of his main street jewellery stall) with a candidate who was ranked 10th and probably isn't at all well known in the electorate is, I would argue, an arrogant breach of faith with those Nelson voters.

Steve Withers said...

Thanks for the comment. I guess it would boil down to whether a Green voter in Nelson consciously saw their Green Party party vote as primarily a vote for Mike Ward or for the entire list. You may be right for some, but for many others a vote for the Green Party on the party side is a vote with national import....whereas their local vote would be their explicit support for a single candidate. I would hope that no voter for any party cast their party vote thinking it was mainly for a single person on the list. Events, as we see in this case and others (Paul East in 1999?), may change things.

From a democratic perspective, it has been interesting watching some very vocal National Party supporters criticising the Greens' democratic credentials.

The Greens allow every member to vote to elect both their leaders, ALL list candidates AND their rank.

National voters can't do any of that. At best, they get to chose one local candidate who MAY decide to allow is/her name to also appear on the list. Members play no role in ranking....or party policy. These are the people criticising the Greens? Hypocrisy must come in deep blue.