Random Play by Graham Reid

Business as usual

Well, the people have spoken. And if you take letters to the editor seriously then within our ranks we have the churlish, the nit-pickers, the spiteful and the blamers.
The waves had barely rolled back dragging the unfortunates with them when the letters started coming in. And what sorry reading they made.

America wasn’t doing enough. The New Zealand government wasn’t doing enough. Where was Helen Clark? Where was the deputy prime minister? Why wasn’t TVNZ giving more coverage? Where was Don Brash? What an embarrassment that Hercules is, and isn’t that symbolic of cuts in the defence budget? Those lists of how much governments were donating weren’t fair on us because if it was per capita …

And so they went on. Business as usual.

When Don Brash did come back from Hawaii (and how dare he and Helen Clark have holidays at Christmas!) it was to snap at the government. He unwittingly -- and other than that Orewa speech he seems to do most things unwittingly -- became an emblem of all that is petty-minded in the Kiwi character.

Some of the complaints letter writers made were valid of course. Initially television coverage was woefully inadequate given the magnitude of the disaster. (On Maori TV the news simply went on holiday). Even now it manages to shoe-horn this and other domestic and international news into its pre-ordained slot so sports coverage isn’t affected.

You do wonder if a serious earthquake or tsunami hit here whether we would still cross to Clint or whoever for an update on a groin strain injury. I suspect we would.

This is not to say that life shouldn’t go on.

One of the odder columns was Kerry Woodham in the Herald on Sunday comparing Britons’ Christmas spend-up with their donations. My guess is everyone here also spent more on themselves over Christmas than they gave to relief agencies. That doesn’t make anyone a bad person.

It was just another example of that holier-than-thou, churlish, nit-picking attitude that emerged in the course of a week.

Now television and newspapers have their reporters on the various scenes, mostly reporting on the good work Kiwis are doing. Which is fair enough perhaps -- we want to know what our people are up to -- but it also smacks a little of that same holy attitude.

My feeling is that everyone is responding as best they can. I’m no great defender of the prime minister but it was hardly her fault disaster struck when she was on holiday, no more than it was mine that I missed the first few days of it because of wilfully wanting to get away from the media for a while.

Once back on deck I filed a fast-turnaround story for the Listener about how your aid dollar goes to work. Not the best piece I have ever written (commissioned at 4pm for delivery by 9am the following morning) but it did throw up some interesting points which never made the final cut, especially about the situation in Aceh.

Aceh is an Indonesian province New Zealanders are vaguely familiar with. Leaders and members of the independence movement have spoken here about why they want autonomy from the government in Jakarta, and we have had sporadic media coverage of how military thugs have suppressed the people in the region, and shut the place off to foreign journalists.

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated this province in northern Sumatra I half-jokingly said to a friend that I wondered how long it would be before we heard Indonesia was being tardy with aid to that blighted place. It wasn’t long.

Within days, despite the slew of stories about the tragedy and aid workers racing to the region, there were small paragraphs appearing to say that in Banda Aceh, the capital, relief was being held up by the military.

One of the people from Oxfam I spoke to for the Listener piece also said the Indonesian government initially wouldn’t let aid workers into Aceh. But as the magnitude of the disaster hit and the world media was descending on Jakarta they had little choice. Aid workers are travelling roads where there is gunfire between the rebels and the military.

Aceh province, the wealth of which is funnelled back to Jakarta, has suffered for decades and this current tragedy seems an astonishingly cruel blow. The arrival of thousands of foreign aid workers and military personnel however may just allow the people a measure of the independence they have long sought. Their liberation struggle will perhaps be reported in international media which has previously ignored it.

The media attention might just help the struggle, although there is always the danger that indiscriminate acts, against say US or UN workers, would damage their cause immeasurably.

We are perhaps shocked that even at this time these freedom fighters, rebels or whatever you want to call them are keeping up their struggle. Our instincts (and holier-than-thou attitude?) might say they should all put down their guns and get on with the rebuilding.

But these are people who have fought for 30 years for independence. For some of them, whether we like it or not, life goes on.

It is business as usual.