Speaker by Various Artists

25

Christchurch: how did it come to this?

by Greg Jackson

You can't help asking “how did it come to this?” as Christchurch  faces possible asset sales along with brutal rate rises for years, if not decades, ahead as the price of  earthquake repairs and rebuild.

A $1.2 billion gap in funding is estimated for the Christchurch City Council, leading to proposed rate rises averaging just over 8% per year for four years, plus a proposal to raise up to $750 million though either partial or full sell-downs in Council-controlled companies.

Consultation on these grim options is happening now, with submissions closing on Tuesday, April 28.

How did what was lauded internationally as the best-run city in the world in 1993 come to this a little over 20 years later? 

To put the natural disasters in context, since the Greendale fault popped on September 4, 2010, more than 16,000 aftershocks have hit. The February 22, 2011, Port Hills fault earthquake devastated the Christchurch CBD and vast areas of the suburbs. The main shock period went on for over two years.

There is no risk comparison for a Western city like Christchurch, which at times was three main water and sewer junctions away from infrastructure collapse; where the ground forces exceeded twice the force of gravity. The risk is still elevated, with a 5 to 5.9 magnitude shake very possible in the next year.   

So far, the comeback story for the Council since Mayor Lianne Dalziel took over in late 2013 has been remarkably positive, given the fractured state of affairs Dalziel inherited. The previous Council, beset by the horrific and prolonged Christchurch quakes and an effective gelding by the Government with the establishment of CERA, had struggled to cope.

That Council had even managed to lose the power to issue building consents, a failure of  a key competency that left even critics like myself open-mouthed in amazement. The consents debacle also provided an impetus for a clean-out of top management and the hiring of some fresh talent.  A fractious set of councillors under the old administration has given way to an outbreak of peace that testifies to great management skills from Dalziel.

The council is evenly split between the independents, who tend to back Dalziel, and People's Choice, the Labour-led grouping who also generally back her, and the balance of power is held by Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck. A three-term Christchurch Mayor, Buck came out of happy obscurity to help recover Christchurch.

Another of this Council's unlovely inheritances was the agreement signed by the previous Council with the Government about who would pay for what is in the rather pharaonic CERA-decreed rebuild plans for the central city. This deal basically contracted the Christchurch City Council to pay set shares of the builds before knowing what monies it might claw back from insurance claims. Or even having a full assessment of the massive infrastructure damage that is still being revealed.

The road ahead for the Council as it puts up its proposed 10-year plan is rocky and full of “unknown unknowns”. Publicity material on behalf of Dalziel aptly sums some of these up as: “We still don't know the true cost of fixing city pipes, roads, services and community facilities. Nor do we know how much we will receive from insurance proceeds or what external funding we may be eligible for.”

The word around Christchurch is that the insurance payments from the under-insured Council facilities are not going to be a pleasant surprise. 

It was publicly revealed at the weekend that the Council's insurer, Civic Insurance, has decided that $50 milllion would fix what was Lancaster Park, which was sum insured with Civic for $143 million. Unsuprisingly, this impasse is heading for mediation. 

With the central Government surplus shimmering off into the future again, the prospects of salvation from Wellington also look dim.

I've been able to have a deluxe sniff around this issue because of my past incarnations as a political reporter and as a three-term adviser for former Christchurch Mayor  Garry Moore. It means doors open and people tell me things, knowing that I will understand the complexity and scope of the issues. And after weeks with a range of people, listening and asking questions and analysing,  I have come to the highly qualified and maturely insightful conclusion of “buggered if I know”.

My head says it may just be time to bite the bitter bullet of partial asset sales. 

My heart says  there has to be some other option.

It looks like when the consultation is done, the options are reviewed, due diligence undertaken, and hopefully a gang of axe murderers is unleashed on the Council accounts in search of savings, we may have to let go of some of the family silver. The silver being the assets Christchurch kept when other councils around New Zealand sold theirs for short-term gain: Orion the power lines company, Lyttelton Port,  Christchurch International Airport; Enable Services, City Care Ltd, Red Bus Ltd, Ecocentral and the Selwyn Plantation Board Ltd.

That family silver was retained by the then People's Republic of Christchurch, under Mayors Buck and Moore, who defended it against government attempts to persuade the city into privatising public assets. Those asset yields helped keep rates down by about an average of 13% each year while Christchurch was praised internationally for its robust management. 

It is worth a trip to the trophy cabinet to see how world-class my home city was not that long ago. 

About  10 years ago the American local government Governing magazine made Christchurch its third-ever foreign cover story with “Is this the world's best run city?” 

Given that it was a local-body election year, the recognition got short shrift from the media, who had learned just enough about spin to detect it in everything that came across the newsdesks.

In 1993, Christchurch and Arizona jointly won the prestigious Bertelsmann Prize for democracy and efficiency in local government.

In 1994 we won the New Zealand Business Local Authority of the Year Award.

In 1996 Christchurch was judged the world's outstanding Garden City, outdoing this the next year with the award of Best Garden City In The World for a city with more than 300,000 people.

When I compiled all the awards of the 1990s onward for a book, it took several pages to list them all. I'll spare you the full march-past.

The rescue squad that took control as councillors after the last  election is an interesting mix of high-achievers, the highly motivated and a few less impressive careerist politicians.

Among this number and deeply embroiled in all the financials is first-time Councillor  Raf Manji who, as a former London money market operator like Prime Minister John Key, has no need to work if he doesn't want to. A gift to the conspiracy fans, Manji has worked with Key and knows him quite well.

He also backs a universal wage for everyone to replace the present benefit system, puts in lots of hours mentoring including prisoners' families, and he is gobsmackingly open if you ask him a question.

Manji understands money like few other councillors I can recall, taking the negotiations between the Christchurch City Council and the Government on to another level. The concern in some Christchurch circles is whether Manji has lived here long enough to truly understand the kaupapa and history of the People's Republic.

As I said earlier, I've come to a “buggered if I know” point on the asset sales as a means of preserving the city.

Some positions are predictably clear: the Green Party is agin it, the Labour/People's Choice ran on a no-asset-sales plank and will have to take lots of anti-nausea pills to change their minds, while the Independents incline toward a reluctant fire sale if forced. People's Choice has produced its own 10-year Common Sense Plan, which basically proposes putting off all non-urgent works to avert sales.

The general public views may clarify as consultation lumbers to a close next week.

Perhaps the only happy players will be the other end of the never-ending story, the National Party members, who will sing whatever happy song it is they sing when a long-term goal is hit if assets like part of the port or airport shares do go on the block. To this I should add the Greens who, having had the wit to propose an earthquake tax earlier on, can now indulge in told-you-so about our finances.

I get the impression there is a genuine wish among the brighter councillors for the consultation and submission process to come up with new ways of negotiating this fraught time in Christchurch rebuild history.

In what has turned out to be a fairly contextual piece, I need to point out that democracy in Canterbury is fragile after both the quakes and the Government's overt willingness to shut down councils they don't think are doing it right. With Environment Canterbury still under commissioners, and the Christchurch City Council having to work with the more powerful CERA, which is now run out of the Prime Minister's Office, there is a chill to democracy and politics in Christchurch.

There is also the reality that the “eternal council”, the full-time Council staff, will be pursuing their own agendas and ends, with the power struggle to resolve who really runs things yet still to fully play out.

Then there is the public of Christchurch and their wants and needs from their Council. The wish lists are ever-increasing. I have detected no discernible recognition from the public that the Council, and the Councils that went before, took more than 150 years to build the wider assets the city enjoyed before the earthquakes.  

Before this city was built on rock and roll, it was built by working bees and cake stalls. Community involvement rather than central planning. Small acorns rather than billion-dollar babies.

In normal times I would predict that this would be a huge scrap. Now, in battered Christchurch, I sense many are like my usually stroppy partner, who will not get involved and just wants things fixed. My last brainstorming attempt on this subject was rebuffed with “My brain hurts, shut up.” 

7

Hong Kong and The Matrix

by Suzie Dawson

"If that ship can still fly, we need it." Roland to Morpheus in The Matrix: Revolutions

Hong Kong reminds me so much of the final installment in the Matrix trilogy. It functions like a well-oiled machine in an apocalyptic landscape.

Steeped in history and the relics of ancient civilisations, it lays nestled in a cluster of peninsulas with a central harbour that is eerily reminiscent of the Auckland isthmus.

Other than the widespread accessibility of English language in the city, (a huge boon for monolingual tourists like myself) the similarities end there.

As a first-time visitor, I found many of the tales of Asia I'd heard back home were true. Yes, they are in fact spellbound by blonde hair and blue eyes, snapping away with cellphone cameras the second they laid eyes upon it. Yes, the apartments are tiny and stacked in clusters of identical buildings. Yes, Chinese New Year is a Really Big Deal - ostentatious, omnipresent and outright fun! But at no time had anyone in New Zealand ever accurately explained to me how metropolitan major Asian cities like Hong Kong really are. It's something that has to be seen to be believed.

Most Kiwis see Auckland as the 'Big Smoke' but Hong Kong makes it look like a semi-rural township.  Supporting untold millions of people within a similar land area requires a level of civic planning and execution that us Kiwis haven't a hope of matching. The city runs with a clockwork efficiency that is anathema to our culture. Yet it is also extremely cosmopolitan; providing a home to many races and cultures.

Very much a city of immigrants, be they from neighbouring mainland China or any of the dozens of other countries whose citizens find their way to Hong Kong, there is an ethnic diversity and a religious tolerance that I never could have guessed at prior to visiting myself. Multiple cultures exist simultaneously and co-habitate peacefully.

The horror stories of Chinese persecution of minorities and human rights abuses were nowhere in evidence. This may be due to Hong Kong's semi-recent history; only returning to Chinese hands as recently as 1997, the city's residents are very heavily influenced by the West, still considering themselves to be somewhat independent of or differentiated from the mainland.

Huge shopping malls of colossal structure house elaborate displays featuring happy and well coiffured European models marketing designer outlets, cars, and other Western consumer merchandise.

The standard of presentation is exquisite, there is Oriental art everywhere. Translucent hanging displays and sculpture. Running water and everything impeccably placed, with respect for Feng Shui.

The food is another dramatic point of difference. Beef is sparse, lamb is non-existent, and by-and-large everything is chicken and pork, pork and more pork. Surprisingly I found both Beehive ham and kumara in the supermarket, an unexpected treat.

Likely due to the large number of Chinese Buddhists, there is a significant selection of vegetarian restaurants, some of these quite famous and with delicacies capable of converting even the most ardent meat-eater.

The public transport systems also put Auckland to shame. When you have a population density like that of Hong Kong, with millions of people to move around daily, inadequate transport is simply not an option. Thus transport options are plentiful, efficient, punctual and cheap. There is plenty of hustle and bustle as the great swathes of humanity disembark from their subway trains, bearing down upon the public pavements and the shopping malls; easily 40% of them in surgical masks, a tide of purpose moving like a human tsunami in which no man, woman or child can remain still in its path.

Yet the sound of a single cough can scatter them - and that simple cough can invite murderous, horrified looks from all surrounding you, for in a place of such high population density, a flu strain can be a weapon of mass destruction.

Private vehicles are associated with the rich, and are often popular European imports. Billboards peddling luxury cars abound. Despite it very much having its own heritage and idiosyncrasies, the perceived glamour of Western societies seems coveted, and money is king.

Hong Kong Disneyland is like another world. A luxury hotel on a scale unimaginable to Kiwis, alongside a theme park the magnitude of which is not and may never be found upon our shores. Having visited the original Disneyland in years prior, I can confidently report the grandeur and commercialism in all ways exceeds the original. Even the food is art - the splotch of ketchup on the plate shaped like Mickey Mouse. The pancakes shaped like Minnie Mouse. The fresh fruit cut in the shape of Disney characters.

The famous fountain at the entrance - Mickey on a surfboard, elevated in the air by high pressure water spouting from a particularly cute Disney whale, surrounded by a half dozen or more smaller character statues, stunningly polished and clean in stark contrast to the swirling clouds of air pollution above it.

In Disneyland you are surrounded by colour, sound and lights but the sky above is opaque and foreboding. The sun forever blotted out.

The prevalence of TrapWire-style "bubble" cams the only reminder of the presence of centralised surveillance systems akin to those in the captive countries of the Five Eyes.

Venturing out on a day trip to the Tian Tan Buddha, we discovered a side of Hong Kong that is the antithesis of the commercialism of Disney. Riding the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car(what we would know in New Zealand as a gondola ride, akin to the Skyline Skyrides at Rotorua) for 5.7 kilometres over the harbour, and up and down rolling hills, we arrived at the peaceful sanctuary of the monastery, seated at the foot of the giant 34 metre tall (atop a three-story monument accessed by climbing 268 steps) Sakyamuni Buddha statue constructed between 1990 and 1993.

Walking beneath intricate prayer gates and drinking in the beautiful architecture of the monastery itself was bliss. The vegetarian restaurant onsite provided by far the best meal of our entire world trip to date. Juicy, organic vegetables including the best Bok Choi I've ever tasted in my life, were wrapped and molded into delicate packages, in dishes I'd never seen let alone experienced before. I would happily eat there on a daily basis if the cuisine was more accessible!

The dazzle of the deities alongside the fortune readings, the abundant offerings of fruit and other foods and the ever-present smell of the incense was enchanting. We were steeped in a beautiful foreign culture that was completely open and welcoming to all foreigners and newcomers and within minutes we felt very much at home.

Back in Wan Chai and Central District, we got our first glimpse of Bruce Lee's Hong Kong. Narrow streets with towering buildings on each side, bamboo scaffolding framing construction sites or renovations, the controlled chaos of big city life on all sides.

Despite the ever-present grey of concrete towers Hong Kong does have very attractive green spaces in the central city. Religious buildings of all descriptions are ever-present and children's playgrounds are easy to find. Down on the waterfront we enjoyed the European carnival and there are ferry terminals as far as the eye can see. We traveled to Lamma Island - a mecca of seafood restaurants, temples and beaches less than an hour from the mainland.

On entry and exit from the harbour the impossibly tall and imposing International Commerce Centre in Kowloon, the largest building in Hong Kong, stood in our view perhaps only a kilometre or two away, but was obscured by the dirty clouds of air pollution.

The result was profound. Here is the ultimate symbol of money and wealth; yet you can barely see it. Even the banks, architecturally ostentatious and powerful, cannot dissipate the damage we have done to this planet.

The vista was apocalyptic. The polluted wasteland of the "machine world" in the Matrix movies instantly sprung to mind. All I could think was - who can write the cheque that can fix this? Who in this world is rich enough to pay to reverse this damage? And if the answer is no one - then what value does money really have?

The experience made plain that some things are of limitless value. Some things once lost may not be regained, by any means. No amount of regret will regenerate the beauty that is gone. No desire to see will part the clouds. No memory of the view will allow others to share it.

And is China to blame for this? China, who the West paints such terrible pictures of, at its own convenience, while simultaneously taking every cent it can squeeze out of it?

I for one, remember enough of high school history classes to innately sense the root causes of this kind of environmental damage. The industrial revolution was not Chinese. The global thirst for coal did not begin in China. The systems which have been used to pollute and control were introduced to the so-called Second and Third worlds, by the so-called First. They have imitated our environmental crimes; adopted our earth shattering technologies, been empowered by our groundbreaking ignorance and lack of foresight.

Now we blame them for it in an attempt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. "But China pollutes more than we do" we are told, as if that exonerates us from obligation to work to right our own wrongs. As if as one globe we will not all feel the effects of ozone depletion, or global warming, of Fukushima.

Having only relatively recently regained the Hong Kong territory, China can hardly be liable for the entirety of its problems. Yet still they must be addressed. In mainland China, catwalk models were forced to wear surgical masksdue to the asphyxiating levels of pollution in the air. So now even the monied world of fashion cannot hide from the realities of our human environmental conditions. While presently some may think they can relocate away from such problems, if resolutions are not prioritised and acted upon, the day will surely come where we can run or hide no longer. Every generation who refuses to withdraw their heads from the sand only dooms its children and grandchildren to growing up in ever-worsening circumstance.

There are solutions available and it is possible we can mitigate if not reverse much of the damage. But we must have the courage to do so, before our own vanity and proclivity for the superficial becomes our final undoing.

Would I recommend people visit Hong Kong? Absolutely. It is a very clear object lesson on why all peoples of Earth must work together to reverse the historical damage we have done to ourselves, and seek a better, cleaner future, and it is evidence of how many different cultures and religions can co-exist peacefully.

For China is not just for the Chinese, as many in New Zealand have been led to believe. It is in fact a melting pot of cultural heritage and sustains this very well.

As for the smog? Well as in the closing act of The Matrix: Revolutions, all I can say is:

"Neo - if you're gonna do something, you better do it quick."

-----

Since joining the Occupy Auckland media team in 2011, Suzie Dawson has been a driving force behind many social justice and political movement media campaigns and events, including #GCSB, #NZ4Gaza and #TPPANoWay. Her work has been shared internationally including by RT.com, Wikileaks and Business Insider. She is currently traveling the world and writing about her experiences.

60

What has Neoliberalism Done for You Lately?

by Dave Hansford

I am stuck in a failed, dysfunctional relationship. I’ve heard promises for years that things will change for the better, but they never do. Sure, every now and again, my partner extends some small overture – a brief ray of warmth and propinquity. But these always reveal as the same contrivance; a ruse to win another week of tacit subscription.

Recently, it became clear that my partner has been lying to me, and doing things behind my back, almost like there’s a hidden agenda. I now accept that this relationship has not been good for me; it’s left me impoverished, undermined, compromised, distrustful. I’ve surrendered treasured assets and deeply cherished beliefs. I feel dirty.

We’ve been together now since 1978, when I joined the workforce. Back then, we got along well. We had a lot in common: for one thing, we shared a vision of a better place – a model democracy where everyone enjoyed equal rights, opportunity, security. That year, a guy called Bruce Beetham talked about modernistic government and progressive society, and ended up winning the Rangitikei by-election. So I committed to the relationship. I paid my taxes. I worked hard. I participated.

My partner – our beneficent state – enjoyed a reputation for egalitarianism and social mobility. Pretty much anybody who could work, did, and most owned their own home. If they couldn’t afford one, the state rented them one at negligible rates. I didn’t see a beggar until I did my OE. But it turned out my partner was bad with money: by 1984, New Zealand was nearly bankrupt. There was a drinking problem too, which led to a snap election that June.

The honeymoon was over. My partner became mercenary, dictatorial, at times savage. Empathy withered. The fourth Labour Government of David Lange and Roger Douglas lashed out, hurling decades of regulation to the floor and smashing the welfare state. I didn’t recognise this new tyrant, nor their ideology. Only later did I learn it was called neoliberalism, and that my partner had secretly been listening to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberalism, in a nutshell, is about stripping away the mantle of government, and handing the functions of the state to ‘free enterprise’ so that they can be performed at a profit. It’s about selling off Government assets, often at fire-sale prices, to private interests. Slashing public spending. Deconstructing the public sector. Privatising public institutions like schools, hospitals, prisons and state housing.

It’s about removing any impediment to international trade and investment, allowing multinational corporations unfettered access to markets through instruments such as free trade agreements. Reducing wages by undermining unions and collectives, imposing punitive contracts and annulling workers’ rights and conditions. Hacking down regulatory instruments such as price controls. Granting tax relief to the rich while lavishing handouts on corporations.

This, said the neoliberals, would create the right stimuli and environment to increase economic growth and build wealth. Yes, it would inevitably make the richer still richer, but all that money, they assured us, would eventually “trickle down” to the working classes and the poor.

The opposite has happened. For a decade after Rogernomics (including its successor, Ruthanasia) the New Zealand economy languished, stagnant, even as the global economy boomed. If you were born after those fateful few weeks in 1984, you became a citizen of a diametric state, a member of what has been called the “baby bust” generation. You would have arrived in the midst of economic crisis and the deepest recession seen since the Great Depression. You would have seen dole queues, closures, layoffs, mortgagee sales, evicted farmers. In the rapid shift from a production to a finance economy, roughly 76,000 manufacturing jobs vanished between 1987 and 1992. In 1987, former Government Departments became profit-driven state-owned enterprises: the Electricity Corporation shed 3,000 staff; the Coal Corporation 4,000; the Forestry Corporation 5,000; New Zealand Post 8,000.

Families were shattered by debt and desolation. Poverty, which had once been an aberration, was now an intergenerational blight. Home ownership rates, reliable indicators of economic health, began to tumble. You would have been handed a hefty bill for your tertiary education, and if you graduated anytime after 2008, you’d have been lucky to find a job. If you did, you would have discovered upon receipt of your first pay packet that you were being paid less, relatively, than your parents were at your age.

In fact, Household Economic Surveys compared before the Douglas reforms and for years after, show they left just 20 per cent of New Zealanders better off – those who were already wealthy. In other words, neoliberal policies enacted one of the single greatest transfers – let’s just call it theft – of wealth from the public estate to the coffers of the privileged since the colonial confiscations of Maori land.

Wherever the neoliberals have wrenched apart the cradling arms of the state, and left citizens instead to the tender mercies of the market, they have suffered. With protections gone, vulnerable New Zealanders are placed squarely in the path of ruthless speculators: a book released last month, The Child Poverty Debate, contends that the 2008-2012 Global Financial Crisis left 22 per cent of New Zealand children living in poverty. Entrusting the safety of mining operations to a deregulated market cost 29 miners their lives at Pike River.

Liberalisation of the financial markets opened the vault to massive profits for banks. People whose wages had frozen turned to debt to get by. By 2012, New Zealand’s household debt-to-GDP ratio was the fourth highest in the developed world, while Government overseas debt has nearly tripled since 2008. In New Zealand, banking is a protected oligopoly, one the most profitable in the world thanks to the political leverage they can exert on a tremulous economy. Last year, the big four Australian-owned banks recorded a record $4.1 billion profit. Yes, they pay tax and stimulate the economy, but the bulk of that $4.1 billion – desperately-needed domestic capital – was sent overseas to their parent companies.

Such profiteering is the very essence of Neoliberalism – policies that practically guarantee wealth for the elite condemn the rest of us. New Zealand once boasted one of the most egalitarian societies in the world (although nobody pretends that Maori and Pasifika people enjoyed anything like that status). But the neoliberal experiment has prised open the fastest-growing gap in the developed world between the rich and the rest of society.

The top one per cent of New Zealanders now owns three times as much wealth as the entire lower 50 per cent. In barely three decades, the average income, adjusted for inflation, of the top one per cent has more than doubled to $337,000. The average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10 per cent, after housing costs, is lower now than it was in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism has left most New Zealanders little to aspire to. Our social fabric is in shreds; our debt-driven economy now depends desperately on the fortunes of a single volatile commodity. Opportunity and social mobility, once abundant commodities, have all but vanished, replaced by grinding servitude and zero-hour contracts. Some of our proudest achievements, built up over decades of endeavour, with billions of dollars paid in taxes, have been torn down or handed over to corporate raiders as kickback for campaign funding.

I entered this relationship in good faith, emboldened and inspired. I signed a social contract. The free market promised me choices and freedoms, but delivers only faits accompli. I expressly asked my partner not to sell off the state electricity generators, pointing out that they were my property as well. So did a million other people, yet they were sold regardless – much too cheaply. I suspect too, that it is complicit in some secret hegemony being brokered with US oligarchs under the euphemism of free trade, but whenever I ask about it, it refuses to discuss it.

I pay more for electricity than ever before. I cannot take the transport of my choice because the national railways were sold off and stripped. The state was forced to buy the national airline back before it fell into total ruin. I lost tens of thousands of dollars to shysters wearing builders’ belts after my house leaked. When I sought reparation, they were nowhere to be found, no longer bound by any form of regulation.

Where the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation used to offer me hours of quality current affairs programming every day – Panorama, Column Comment, Gallery (later Compass, Inquiry, The Brian Edwards Show, Perigo, Nationwide... – I now have to suffer fatuous advertorial and celebrity trivia. The departure of the last survivor of a once-proud journalistic tradition – Campbell Live – marks the final few slashes of the frenzied attack on quality content that has been the deregulation of New Zealand television.

My local DHB recently informed me, not that I would face a long wait for a consultation, but that it would not receive me at all.

I gave the best years of my life to this relationship, and it has left me much the poorer: embittered, disillusioned. I’ve been used. I should leave, of course, but it’s scary. I need to imagine, then create, a better life. The enormity of that, and the uncertainty of the outcome, would freeze me to the spot if it weren’t for the galvanising realisation that this must not continue. Neoliberal policy has delivered us to a poorer, greedier, uglier and unjust place.

Worse, we find ourselves staring at something close to global environmental collapse – a catastrophe neoliberalism not only exacerbated, but one it is hopelessly inadequate – never mind unwilling – to address. We must not fall into the trap of believing that this simply how things are; that this is as good as it gets. Every day we stay, the Government assumes renewed license to behave this way.

Roger Douglas once wrote his free market ideology into a book, which he called There’s got to be a Better Way. There is, and we must conceive it, then embark on it urgently. We must reject his free market orthodoxy, the looting of the speculators, the excoriating, dehumanising policies of the conservatives, the hegemony of the politico-corporate complex.

Neoliberalism is not an economic blueprint. It is simply a broken belief system, clutched tightly to the chest of the power elite and prosecuted by their sock puppets in spite of inordinate evidence of failure. It is a toxic relationship that we must leave, for our own sakes.

149

We don’t make the rules, we're just trying to play by them

by Kym Niblock

As we all know, the internet is disrupting business models around the world – not least in the online entertainment area, as events in New Zealand over the last few weeks have shown.

There’s been a lot of emotive commentary about the action a group of competing New Zealand companies are taking to clarify the legality of GlobalMode, a service designed to bypass geographic blocking. Russell has kindly allowed me to share my perspectives as the CEO of Lightbox, one of the companies seeking this clarification.

I fully understand that we live in a world where tech-savvy customers want freedom from commercial constraints which might limit their access to their favourite content.

But whether we like it or not, the reality of the content model today, put in place by content owners, is that premium video content is sold with geographic rights at very substantial prices. And often those geographic rights are a key part of the revenue model that allows that content to be made. It’s a similar principle that sees the NZRU dependent on selling rights to broadcast All Black tests exclusively and at a premium in order to help retain talent.

We also understand and appreciate that people want fast access to their favourite shows - we are big TV fans too. We are all moving rapidly to provide that access, and if you look at the services now available in New Zealand you can see there's a large and growing avenue for legitimate choice. There's not many popular shows you can't get in New Zealand any more, and many premium shows are delivered express within hours of airing in the US.

The NZ companies who are investing in this premium content to bring to the NZ market need to defend their commercial rights as they currently stand, otherwise they are wasting their money and will be less likely to invest in future content for NZ consumers.

Lightbox has spent $35 million already (let alone what our competitors have spent) in building a viable SVOD service in one of the most competitive marketplaces in the world. We remain convinced New Zealanders want a healthy and sustainable New Zealand market for online TV. We don’t think people want control over content concentrated in the hands of a few big US players (players who, I might add, contribute little or no tax to New Zealand).

We also understand that the way content rights for the most desirable shows are now sold may well change over time and perhaps end up being sold in global deals rather than geographic deals. Indeed bigger players like Netflix US have already signalled their intentions in this area. But right now these are the rules that content buyers have to work with – and we don’t make the rules.

As for content that is less attractive on a global basis, that’s another matter. For many smaller and local content creators, a global rights model is quite threatening as territorial rights are essential to fund development, so a breakdown of the current model could well put smaller, independent or local creative output at risk.

It is possible we may end up with a two-tier market – one for global premium content, one for regional content. If that is how things pan out, then the NZ SVOD market will inevitably adapt. But despite the certainty of many in the tech community, one thing I am sure of is that nobody really knows exactly how this is all going to evolve.

That is why these four competing companies want to clarify the questionable legality of GlobalMode. It’s a service specifically designed and promoted to provide access to content in other countries whilst we are working under the current geo-located rights models. We think that’s not on, particularly when we have paid for and are providing most of that same content legitimately in this market. 

We have repeatedly said we are not concerned about how individual customers go about accessing content in the privacy of their own homes. That remains the case. VPNs and other services do have legitimate uses for individuals and it’s not for us to decide when use is legitimate and when it’s not.

Our concern is that NZ companies like Callplus, who have paid nothing for content, are actively promoting a commercial service which enables large numbers of customers to access content without needing any technical know-how, in direct competition with legitimate NZ services, and we believe knowingly and openly in breach of their content rights.

It’s a bit rich for Callplus and others to claim that they are the ones providing consumer choice and to characterise those who are actually investing in delivering more choice to New Zealand as ‘bullies’.

Let’s be clear, nobody is forcing these companies to sell a service of questionable legality. They have invested nothing in building a viable NZ SVOD market or obtaining rights to the best shows in the world for NZ consumers. Instead they are offering a service specifically designed to avoid regional rights constraints, put in place by content owners, in return for commercial gain.

Callplus, and its subsidiaries Slingshot, Orcon and Flip, say they strongly believe that access to the internet via Global Mode is completely legal. If that’s the case, now’s the time to clarify it. However this pans out, we will get more clarity on the legality of these services and the value of "exclusive" rights.

Again, we don’t make the rules, we are just trying to play by them. Some are arguing that we are chasing the wrong people and that we should be chasing those who sold us the NZ exclusive content rights in the first place. The "double-dipping" argument. I don’t believe it’s fair or reasonable for content sellers to be regarded as responsible for the active promotion by others of services that avoid the constraints of the geographic rights they have sold.

Some are arguing that the internet genie is already out of the bottle and that open and global access to content must prevail. The "Kim Dotcom" argument. If that is so (and if it is there may well be unintended consequences in terms of the impact on the NZ creative industry), then clarifying the legality of these services is a constructive next step and will help the businesses who are actually investing in NZ to make future decisions.

Some are arguing that we are old "dinosaur" media models that will inevitably be disrupted so it’s futile to try and hold back the tide. The "King Canute" argument. In fact, Lightbox is actually a new media model, one of the first real SVOD services brought to market in New Zealand, and one that is focused on disrupting traditional TV delivery models in our country. And we are putting our money where our mouth is by investing millions on content for New Zealanders.

I’ve also heard the line that this is "just like" parallel importing. It’s our understanding the laws allowing parallel importing are about importing physical objects not digital services, so are not applicable – but this is another reason why the rules need to be sorted.

Some argue as long as consumers are paying to watch content, either in the US, or here in NZ, what’s the problem? That’s fine for consumers, but it undermines the rights model that content creation is currently based on. Content buyers and distributors lose out, and the US based services benefit from the selling of content in markets they don’t have rights for. 

I believe New Zealanders respect property rights and have a strong sense of fairness, and most prefer to access TV shows and movies legitimately – and also understand that's important so that the artists who create their favourite TV shows or movies and the people who invest in supporting those artists get the benefits they deserve.

The world of entertainment is changing rapidly. We are on board with that and that's why we've established our own internet-based services. We welcome fair competition from the likes of Netflix NZ and Neon, and indeed we all compete fiercely with one another.

But the four companies involved in this step share a common belief that protection of content rights in the new digital market is important for New Zealand businesses and, ultimately, the New Zealand consumers we serve. So that’s why we are trying to sort the rules.

Kym Niblock is the CEO of Lightbox, the subscriber video on demand service launched last year by Spark.

She will be discussing the "global mode" wrangle on Media Take this week, alongside NBR's Chris Keall. If you'd like to catch this evening's Media Take recording, come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ at 5.30pm.

48

A conversation from belief

by Francis Ritchie

Following the Media Take show last week that got quite a bit of attention, Russell asked me to write something for Public Address that goes into how, as a "believer", I approach those who believe differently from me.

I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m guessing it’s because he’s found something in who I am and how I relate that isn’t exclusionary in the manner Christianity is often seen to be.

To give you some context, I’m a Christian Minister, ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand. Because of circumstances, I grew up experiencing the breadth of flavours and diversity that make up the Christian community in New Zealand. I feel very privileged to have had such an experience though the circumstances that created it were less than ideal. Growing up, I also explored other religions and worldviews, with an extreme fascination for the way humans think, filter and approach the world around us.

I’m someone who, for various reasons that I won’t expand on here, believes in the traditional Christian views encapsulated in the ancient creeds known as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. We could have discussions ad-nauseam about the minute detail in those creeds, but broadly speaking I hold them to be true. I believe in the historical Jesus, that he was both divine and human, that he died and rose again. I believe in the authority of scripture (the Bible), but we could have a long discussion about how we should understand the word authority.

All that to say, I don’t go to church simply because it’s a nice thing to do that gives me warm-fuzzies, but because I truly believe in the story that infuses and unites the diverse Christian community. Hear me when I say that I truly get and understand how this belief sounds ludicrous to some people and I understand why it gets likened to believing in fairies. Those accusations make me giggle and I’m good with that. As much as I’ve tried to let it go from time to time (sometimes I think life would be so much easier if I didn’t believe it), the story of Jesus and what he and his place mean in the world, grips me to the deepest core of my being. I can’t shake it.

I think many people would recognise that in our age of enlightenment and in our culture of pluralism, my core beliefs are often seen as strange, and almost (or very definitely in the eyes of some) antiquated and archaic. Many would also point to the worst of how Christians have engaged the world around us as a reason for rejecting who we are and the place we might have in a diverse culture. It’s understandable. I can’t speak for the whole Christian community, but I can certainly try and go some way towards explaining my own approach.

In my more strident days I thought the way I saw things was the way everybody needed to see things (I’m somewhat of an activist at heart), including other Christians, and I engaged hour upon hour in endless debates about the truth of what I believe with anyone from atheists to other Christians.

In a former blogging life I devoted way too many hours to endless discussions that were never going to sway those who see things differently from me, and in return, their endless attempts at persuasion were never going to work on me (it was a polite form of the worst of the internet ... "someone’s wrong on the internet, I have to fix it!"). They were fun times that went a long way to shaping who I am, but I could have approached things very differently. Let’s just clock it up to youthful arrogance on my part.

Since then I’ve reflected on my own life experiences growing up, and had life experiences both here in New Zealand and in my travels overseas, (such as brief times in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai, and getting caught in the middle of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict), that have caused me to rethink who I am and my place in the world. Plus I’ve been shaped by some of the stories of scripture that I had only given cursory time to previously. I’ll happily admit that it has all knocked me down a peg or two.

Where I once saw myself as on a mission to save the world, I now see myself as a bit player in a wonderful story, just trying to get through life like everybody else and hoping that who I am and what I have to offer may give something good to the lives of others.

If I was to frame my approach, the best way I know how, it would be to point to one of my heroes and how he framed the story of Jesus, along with a few other things. The Apostle Paul (one of the early leaders of those who followed Jesus) wrote a letter to a small, fledgling church in Philippi, a city within the Roman empire at the time. In the letter he urged the Christian community to "have the mind of Christ". To explain that, he gave them a poem, pointing out how Jesus had given up the privileges of divinity, making himself nothing and becoming a servant/slave, an action that ultimately took him to the cross.

That question of what it means to be a servant/slave and the humility that underpins it drives me beyond simply trying to be a nice guy. The same goes for many Christians and churches doing great things in their communities, things that you never hear of because they’re just getting it done with no PR or fanfare, while often the worst of who we are captures the headlines.

I put that sense of service alongside a Greek word that often appears in the New Testament in relation to Jesus – "splanchnizesthai", which is often translated into English as compassion, sympathy, or pity.

Those words sound nice, but the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth insisted that the meaning is much stronger than what those words imply. He would say that Jesus wasn’t simply moved by the suffering of those he encountered, but that their suffering drove deeply into him, that he took their suffering on and made it his own. Certainly, the way he reacts to those around him and to those who cause the suffering of others in the stories of the biblical gospels would attest to that.

Then there is the very model of how Jesus treated those around him. His anger is reserved for those who created barriers to God, heaping unnecessary requirements on people and puffing themselves up with their own self-importance in the process. His response to those who were different and that society kicked to the margins was always gracious, merciful, kind and driven by what seems to be a deep sense of love. He saw them, he heard them, he listened to them, he knew them; a real knowing, not the knowing that gives a cursory glance and then moves on to the next thing. Even in our differences, I’m convinced this approach should be our starting point. I try to live like that ... please forgive me when I fail.

All of this leads to an approach that should be quick to embrace rather than exclude even if that embrace is messy. Another great theologian of our time, Miroslav Volf, pushes for this in his book titled, funnily enough Exclusion and Embrace.

With all that in mind, for me this isn’t actually a discussion about how I, as a believer, can interact and do life with ‘non-believers’ but about how we all treat and do life with anyone who is different from us. It’s not just us Christians who are often bad at it, but many of us from all walks of life.

Doing difference well starts with some simple concepts that I often find hard to live out, humility, empathy, assuming the best of the other and having their best in mind. I’m interested in what others think and why they think it and then letting our conversation flow from that, letting our stories inform one another from a sense of respect.

A good example of this was the recent ruckus caused when Stephen Fry talked about his view of God in an interview. I wrote a piece on it for my blog. The natural and understandable reaction from many Christians was to hear an attack on some ideas they hold to be true. What I heard and saw was an intelligent and compassionate person frustrated at a popular idea of God in the face of the suffering he has encountered in the world. So rather than respond to an attack on something I hold to be true, anything I could come up with in response would be a conversation that engages where he’s coming from, a place I totally get. All I have to offer in return is who I am, and my stories.

I’m not interested in pointless and endless debates anymore, I’m interested in bringing my humanity to the table in the mess, grit, rawness and beauty of life in the hope that maybe, just maybe something of who I am and the stories that shape me, may bring something worthwhile to your life. I want to do life with people. In the process I have no doubt who you are will add something to who I am.

I have a love for the media, so I’ve started a little project called NewsLeads with the ridiculous thought that maybe I can bring this approach and who I am into that space; and in the process inject something worthwhile into the mix. Let’s see where it goes.

Francis Ritchie blogs regularly on his own website.