Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th February 2001 - Spinning on the Spot

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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I'll keep it snappy because I've had a crappy week. You'd think a holiday on a Tuesday would help, but it didn't. If anything, it only added to the sense of dissolution because the holiday in question was Waitangi Day.

It was, evidently, another shambles. The government, having vowed to stay away from Waitangi, was represented at the last minute by Parekura Horomia and Tariana Turia, who arrived ostensibly to attend a hui on the future of Waitangi Day.

You might argue that they couldn't decently stay away from such a hui, and that they both have the mana to attend in their own right, rather than as ministers of the Crown. But then Turia, with her customary frankness, told the Dominion that her and Horomia's attendance did mean the Crown was there in all but name.

Helen Clark, who chose to attend multicultural events in Auckland and Wellington, might have had her no-show vindicated by yet another interruption to ceremonies at Waitangi by protestors; this time a group led by the mad and annoying Annette Sykes, who gatecrashed a church service.

But even Clark was reduced to saying stupid things, claiming she could never attend a ceremony where protestors were "demanding a different sort of government". Pardon? She went to Apec, didn't she?

We are stuck with a national day that spins around on the spot and which is therefore impossible to celebrate. I think Clark's idea of spreading the focus, of taking it out to the people has merit, but she needs better advice if she's going to try and rewire Maoridom.

The Treaty is the nearest thing we have to a founding document, but, especially as we become more multicultural, its shortcomings in that respect become more apparent. We celebrate nationhood without benefit of any particular text on what it means to be a New Zealander. That doesn't mean we declare the Treaty to be a historical document and just ignore it, as some on the right would have it.

It is quite possible that conflict will never be absent from this issue - as Cliff Curtis pointed out last year, Maori don't just embrace conflict, they go looking for it. But Maori also know how to handle conflict.

I would therefore ask Jenny Shipley to engage her brain before she sounds off again about the government damaging "race relations" by variously being too nice or too nasty to Maori. This is politics, society, land and identity - it's not a race war. As Ranginui Walker argues in this month's Metro, there isn't a race relations crisis in New Zealand. We might bicker a bit, but let's keep a sense of proportion, shall we?

Waitangi Day was also a landmark in TVNZ's effort to do the government's bidding and behave like a public broadcaster, for which it was rewarded with a drubbing in the ratings.

Nga Tohu: Signatures, the Treaty-themed documentary-drama that went on to win its category at the TV awards after being first canned in favour of yachting by TV One and then screened in some afternoon wilderness, got a timely second screening. It was well beaten by Roswell, a programme about UFOs and teenagers, on TV2, and Special Victims Unit, a worthless and loathsome cop show about sex crimes, on TV3.

TV One is now apparently faced with giving disgruntled advertisers free plays to make up for the unexpectedly low viewing figures. So does that mean it ought to have celebrated Waitangi Day with something safe and foreign? No.

Nga Tohu was good - well-written, moving and blessed with great lead performances. It might have fared better had it been promoted to the viewers in a slightly less onerous fashion - it did have a love story at its centre, after all. And imagine - and this is the comparison we ought to be making - if it had enjoyed the budget and the endless promotion of the hopeless pretend-history Greenstone.

TV One followed up Nga Tohu with - ta-da! - a debate on Waitangi Day, hosted by Mike Hosking. The first of an occasional series of Issues 2001 shows, it was a fairly depressing display of minds utterly failing to meet.

It wasn't the producers' fault, or Hosking's. The thing was innovatively set up, with the combatants grouped in sets of two according to their viewpoints - and, oh, how did Chris Trotter feel being sat with Stephen Franks from Act? - and Hosking was sharp, but an hour's worth was a hard watch.

The upshot was a pitiful audience handed over to Late Edition, the new Linda Clark news vehicle, which has gotten off to a rather poor start, being well-beaten by TV3's B-Team effort, Nightline. Ouch.

The programmes so far in TV One's other big effort to raise its game, the NZ Festival Monday night doco series, have similarly failed to match the ratings for the last programme in their slot - a programme about airline pilots who drink before flying. But they've hardly been failures. A Taste of Place, which screened on the eve of Waitangi Day, was a rare acknowledgement of Auckland's cultural diversity, it had loads of food in it, and even when it was irritating it was interesting.

You can't just ignore the ratings, because the ratings, whatever they mean, are the currency of the business. They're the money. But let's not be throwing our hands up in horror just because an initial venture away from Television-by-Touchdown hasn't caught the attention of the masses.

Speaking of people who don't attract the masses, Richard Prebble. Commenting on his party's new relationship with the National Party, Act leader Richard Prebble says he'd like to see National concentrate on electorate seats and Act to pursue the party vote - which might sound reasonable to anyone who didn't have the faintest idea how MMP works. Just make sure you still have all your fingers after you shake his hand, Jenny ...

Act is only a list party because it couldn't win any electorate seats. Prebble was the only Parliamentary party leader who couldn't take his electorate, even though National didn't stand a candidate against him.

It is looking like a struggle. Even at a time when the governing parties are behaving a bit like their left their brains at the beach, Act remains as popular as leprosy and National has dropped five poll points against Labour in the Auckland electorates.

As if that weren't bad enough, unemployment is at its lowest rate in 13 years. When the last quarterly rate came in at 5.8%, the economists scoffed, insisting it was bad data and that the rate would be back above six. Instead, it has dropped again, to 5.6%, on the back of actual job growth. The rate of Maori unemployment has dropped by a third in two years. Whatever is happening is good. Shame the same can't be said for the cricket. How awful.

But to finish on a happy not, big ups to my friend Todd, who launched New Zealand's largest rocket in a paddock near Huntly on Sunday. About four metres high and 50kg - and damn it was great. And only hours later, I was at the King's Arms watching Geoff Mangum and Chris Knox. Metro's bar listings might consider the KA "a rancid, beer-soaked fleapit" - while Deschler's is apparently "surprisingly intimate" - but that version of 'Nothing's Going to Happen' was so spellbinding I'd listen to it in a public toilet


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
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