I sometimes get the feeling that the lobby group that calls itself the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union is seen by journalists as a front for the National Party. This would explain why it doesn’t always get the media attention it deserves.
The perception of political partisanship is understandable, given that one of the NZTU’s co-founders was opinion pollster and Kiwiblog owner David Farrar, who is closely associated with National.
But it’s also unfair, because since its establishment in 2013 (under a National government, as it happens), the NZTU has generally been consistent and even-handed in its attacks on the wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. It was often critical of National when the party was in power and has even supported Labour policies.
If anything, this places it more in ACT’s ideological territory than National’s. National may profess to believe in limited government, but the party has often been happy to spray money around if there was political advantage to be gained.
The NZTU has further demonstrated its worth by monitoring local government spending. Some of the outrageous rorts perpetrated by councils and their misnamed bastard children, the so-called council-controlled organisations, might have escaped public attention if it weren’t for the union’s vigilance.
Whistle-blowers such as the NZTU should be especially valued in an election year, when political parties go all-out in a shameless bidding war for votes. The public needs to be constantly reminded that it’s our money they’re generously volunteering to spend – and in many cases, waste.
The Provincial Growth Fund calls for particularly close scrutiny, although we probably have to accept that we’ll never know the true cost of the prize demanded by Winston Peters in return for his puny 7 per cent share of the vote at the last election.
That’s because the PGF – alternatively known as the New Zealand First Survival Fund – makes nonsense of all normal rules relating to transparency and accountability.
But it wasn’t irresponsible spending that prompted one of the NZTU’s recent public statements. Demonstrating that it also keeps an eye on wider public-interest issues, the union asked some sharp questions about the government’s proposal to merge the two state-owned broadcasters, RNZ and TVNZ.
People forget that we have been down this road before. State radio and television co-existed under the same organisation, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, until 1975, when they were split into separate entities.
What’s more, both radio and TV earned revenue from advertising without compromising the public service broadcasting ethos – so contrary to broadcasting purists’ fears, it’s possible to manage the conflict between the two.
But the media environment is very different now, and as the NZTU statement pointed out, the prospect of a TVNZ-RNZ merger raises other issues. These relate to such crucial democratic concerns as freedom of expression and diversity of information sources.
At a time when most privately owned media outlets are struggling to survive, a taxpayer-funded super-broadcaster would wield enormous power. Cushioned by state funding while still free to earn commercial revenue, it could push private competitors to the wall. A probable consequence is that New Zealanders would be deprived of alternative sources of information and opinion.
Almost inevitably, such a monolithic broadcaster would lean politically to the left. That’s the default setting of state-owned broadcast organisations internationally, and there’s no reason to suppose things would be different in a New Zealand super-broadcaster. The evidence is there already.
As NZTU spokesman Louis Houlbrooke said: “In today’s opinion-led, personality-dominated media environment, journalism tends to push one political narrative or another.
“This is tolerable when audiences have a choice of outlets – we can always switch to a different channel. However, problems arise when the government tries to convert commercial operators into ‘public service’ platforms, with taxpayers forced to fund material they find politically distasteful.”
Houlbrooke urged Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi to instruct consultants PwC, who are putting together a business case for the merger, to include a requirement for political diversity.
Well, I won’t be holding my breath. As things stand, there’s a real risk that a left-of-centre government will green-light the merger proposal without much, if any, consideration of the need for an informed democracy to have access to a wide range of information and opinion. After all, it suits Labour and the Greens to have a powerful broadcasting organisation that’s broadly sympathetic to their political agenda.
All of this raises another important issue highlighted by NZTU chairman Barrie Saunders, a former journalist with public broadcasting experience. [Disclosure: Barrie Saunders is an old friend of mine and a former colleague.]
As Saunders says, the future of state broadcasting is too important to be left to politicians and broadcasting chiefs with their own agendas. Labelling the proposed restructuring process “disgraceful”, he called for cross-party involvement and public input. Proper practice, he said, would be for the government to issue a White Paper for public discussion.
After all, as Saunders pointed out, there’s no urgency – unless, of course, the process is being driven by political self-interest.