Friday, February 10, 2012

Cosying up to the big money

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 31.)

IF THE National Party has an Achilles heel that makes it vulnerable to attack, it’s a fondness for cosying up to big money.

First there was the unseemly eagerness with which it prostrated itself before emissaries from Warner Bros in the 2010 row over Sir Peter Jackson’s production of The Hobbit. Then came the sweetheart deal with Sky City, whereby Auckland will gain a new convention centre in return for regulatory concessions that will allow the company to install extra gaming tables and 900 more poker machines.

Any competent government will look for ways to promote tourism and create new jobs; but there’s a counter-argument that if it results in more gambling addicts squandering the family grocery budget on pokies, it’s not worth it.

Meanwhile another Sky, Sky TV, has benefited from a hands-off regulatory regime (admittedly adopted by Labour as well as National) that has seen Sky’s audience multiply at the expense of publicly owned broadcasters. Benevolent market conditions enable the pay-TV company to outbid free-to-air rivals for sports broadcasting rights and all the best new drama programmes. As a result, we have witnessed the gradual death by strangulation of public service television.

National has also exposed itself to the accusation that it’s too matey with Australian-owned TV and radio operator MediaWorks, which was the beneficiary last year of a $43 million government loan guarantee. What made that deal look particularly dodgy was that Steven Joyce, then Minister of Communications, is a former managing director of MediaWorks’ radio subsidiary – although to be fair, it was reported that Mr Joyce initially advised against the arrangement.

Now we've learned that the grotesque German known as Kim Dotcom, who is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of internet piracy, purchased New Zealand residency in 2010 by investing $10 million in New Zealand government bonds. Immigration officials knew of his convictions in Germany for insider trading and embezzlement but weighed his criminal record against “potential benefits to New Zealand”.

We don’t know whether political influence was brought to bear in the decision to grant Dotcom residency, but perhaps direct involvement wasn’t necessary. Officials often take their cue from what they know to be the attitudes of their political masters.

Of course everyone expects National to be business-friendly, just as Labour ingratiates itself with trade unions. But it’s one thing for a government to promote a prosperous economic environment, and quite another to roll over for big business or any sleazy entrepreneur waving a cheque book.

* * *

HOW DISPIRITING that a country as dynamic and full of talent as the United States couldn’t produce a more impressive set of Republican challengers for the presidency.

Virtually all the contenders are encumbered with compromising baggage that journalists were bound to unearth. With early frontrunner Herman Cain, it was a history of sexual harassment. For Newt Gingrich, it’s his marital record and apparent predilection for adultery. For Mitt Romney, who tried hard to present himself as Mr Clean, it’s not so much his great wealth – Americans have no problem with that – as his evasiveness over how much he pays in tax.

Rick Santorum has been accused of living in one state while claiming school subsidies for his large family in another; Ron Paul has been embarrassed by bigoted views expressed in a newsletter published under his name. And on it goes.

But it’s not just that. Conspicuously absent from the Republican campaign is any hint of inspirational vision.

Where are the successors to the great American political speechwriters of the past such as Ted Sorensen, who crafted John F Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech with its appeal to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”? Or Peggy Noonan, who masterfully recycled the poet John Magee’s line about aviators who “slipped the surly bonds of earth ... and touched the face of God” in a speech by Ronald Reagan honouring the astronauts who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

Certainly there’s been no sign of soaring rhetoric so far from the Republican hopefuls. At this rate all Barack Obama has to do is turn up and the White House will be his for another four years.

* * *

VERY FEW men look better with their shirts off than on. (The same is true of women, but I’m not allowed to say that.) So why do Wellington Phoenix fans insist on baring their torsos when their team plays? All that pale, flabby flesh, all those man boobs and scrawny chests … it’s not a pretty sight.

I note with alarm that Gareth Morgan, one of the team’s new owners, demonstrated his solidarity with fans by getting his own top off at a game last year. It’s all very well wanting to prove that you’re one of the boys, but surely this is going too far.

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