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Labour starts to divide before rule

Labour Party employment policy includes repealing the “Hobbit law” which, said National, created “stability and certainty” around the status of workers. Take a deep breath and smell those old wounds reopening.

SPADA and Equity, the two industry bodies most directly involved in the dispute around The Hobbit were both swiftly out of the blocks with statements of their own in response to Labour’s announcement. One supported Labour’s proposals; one didn’t. There are no prizes for guessing who lined up on which side.

“SPADA is strongly opposed to Labour’s policy to re-visit the screen industry labour laws,” fired off the producers’ organisation, before continuing

We operate in a competitive international industry so it is imperative that NZ demonstrates stability and certainty … It is time to look forward and build on the real opportunities the recent changes to the New Zealand Screen production Grant offer.

Both SPADA and Equity agree that it’s important to have “stability and certainty” although they differ on what constitutes that situation. Stability and certainty apparently wasn’t massively important during the three and half years of negotiation that led to the recently-introduced Individual Performance Agreement and Backend Agreement.

President Jennifer Ward-Lealand said in Equity’s statement, “It is well and truly time that these grossly unfair and discriminatory laws be removed from the books, and real certainty be restored to the film and television industry. Film and television workers have been treated like second class citizens under the law for far too long, leading to instability and greater uncertainty within the industry.”

Wherever one’s beliefs or sympathies lie, the sudden focus on stability and certainty is a sideshow, both to the election and for the industry. Stability and certainty don’t deliver work on their own.

At the conclusion of the Screen Sector Review, government maintained the Large Budget incentive rates at 15% – a decision that delivered both stability and certainty.

Did that stability and certainty herald the arrival of a procession of inbound production? No, not until after the rates were changed late last year. Did SPADA argue for stability and certainty back then? Did Equity? Did Fox say, “Cheers for the certainty, John. Here, have three Avatar movies”?

No. All of them argued for change: for more money.

It is also worth noting that the situation that National considers so potentially destabilising, the ability of an individual to contract their services under a collective agreement, is common elsewhere. Many of the countries with which NZ competes for inbound production allow it.

Some argue that collective agreements specifying minimum terms and conditions offer inbound productions greater certainty than not having such agreements.

The UK allows it, and that country is busy doing happy dances to celebrate the amount of film and TV work pouring in. Australia allows it and, while the production sector is not as buoyant there, a very high dollar is the main culprit, although last week – according to Aussie producers’ organisation SPA – cheap TV drama imported from NZ under the Closer Economic Relationship Agreement was also to blame.

One might suspect that what really concerns government is that, in an industry almost totally reliant on state subsidy, government would be forced to spend more money for the same level of local content creation if people worked under terms and conditions common elsewhere.

Arts & Culture Minister Chris Finlayson was quick out of the blocks with a statement, saying Labour was “promising to undermine the progress of New Zealand’s screen sector”.

The statement went straight for the old wounds, spraying around the vituperative terminology guaranteed to poke at those slow-to-heal sores: ‘Australian’, ‘unions’ and ‘derail’ all painted the foe succinctly before the soothing (‘This government saved the production of the three Hobbit films in Wellington’). The statement concluded with a couple of quick kicks in the nuts: ‘Labour MPs don’t care’ and ‘They are looking back, not forward’.

If National should somehow snatch electoral defeat from the jaws of victory, Finlayson’s press secretary isn’t going to be out of a job for long.

Labour has to win the election before it can implement policy so the whole contract/employ debate is likely to be dead in the water come late September. That Labour is willing to re-open an argument it lost before the last election suggests it’s woefully short on strategy savvy.

Get elected, then announce the stuff that’s going to get messy is electioneering 1.01.

An oft-repeated piece of business advice is to “test and measure”.

NZ measured the effect of not changing incentive rates last year, and the results were bad. It’s now in the early days of testing the new rates.

Whether revisiting the Hobbit law is right or wrong, doing so in the immediate future would muddy the waters and prevent a clear understanding of the benefits the changes to the incentive schemes have had – which would be useful information regardless of one’s political hue.

Any kind of review would also encourage productions considering NZ as a destination to wait and see what happened. That would only diminish the amount of work available for cast and crew across the board, when much of the industry is still recovering from a very bad year.

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