Gordon Campbell on the media’s sales job on asset sales

Well, what an exciting weekend it must have been for the nation’s media. After a 2012 full, thus far, of gaffes, resignations, dodgy dealings at ACC and widely unpopular policies from the government, our press elite went into the National Party conference on the weekend and emerged with a shiny new meme – the government is back on the front foot! The heat has allegedly gone out of the asset sales issue! Bring It On, says Key! A good time was allegedly had, even if some lamented not being allowed to attend the Saturday night conference dinner:

…a great pity, as this saw senior party figures giving what delegates could not stop gushing about as very superior comedy in the course of a fun debate.

The waspish observational humour of Attorney-General Chris Finlayson was the top crowd-pleaser, though delegates were also charmed by a taste of the habitual faux-one-up-manship English and Prime Minister John Key go in for. A senior Young Nat also ventured a killer impersonation of Key. The party members spent the evening happily lampooning one another, more traditional foes like Winston, Labour and the Greens all but forgotten for the evening.

For most people, the experience of being locked up for the weekend with the National Party would not have been quite such a transporting experience. So what provoked this rather startling example of the Stockholm Syndrome? Well, it seemed to come down to (a) the lack of protesters outside the venue and (b) to a couple of rousing (and/or desperate) speeches by John Key and Steven Joyce to the party faithful. More on that later.

Reportedly, only about 70 protestors turned up to protest at the conference, and that was enough for the NZ Herald and the Dominion-Post to read into those numbers not only a change in the national mood about asset sales, but a mandate for the government’s entire programme. Here’s John Armstrong in the Herald:

John Key and his senior ministers will take the paucity of protesters as confirming National is on side with majority public opinion in pushing ahead with controversial policies such as more welfare reform and much more oil and mineral exploration.

Yesterday, the Herald even linked to Don Franks, always a reliable Eeyore on the state of the left, to support this analysis. Just how many protestors turning up at the conference, one wonders, would have been sufficient for the press gallery to form a different opinion? Say…somewhere between two to four thousand? Yeah, that might have done it. But hang on, that’s how many marched against asset sales in Auckland only last week. And back then, did the Herald conclude that the jig is up for asset sales, welfare reform and mining, and announce that revolution in the air? Well, no. As usual, it all but ignored the event. For the Herald, the only visible protestor is one who isn’t there.

Last year was election year. It seemed worth confronting National back then. This year, one could rationally conclude that for many, the National Party conference is a conclave of totally closed minds that has never remotely engaged with the public’s hostility to the selldown of the assets they own, and isn’t about to start now, when in conference mode. Simple arithmetic: roughly five to ten times more people were on the streets of Auckland nine days ago opposing the asset sales than the 400 inside the National Party conference celebrating them. There is no evidence that the public is warming to the idea of asset sales, or is even forgiving the government for inflicting the selldown on them.

As for the speeches: here’s John Armstrong in the Herald on the Steven Joyce speech:

Steven Joyce put things more bluntly. Delivering the best speech of the weekend, the Economic Development Minister offered a stark choice.

If New Zealanders wanted more jobs, they would have to stop being fearful of foreign investment, accept the “intensification of agriculture” and not forgo oil and mineral exploration.

That kind of thing may give Armstrong goose bumps, but others saw the speech as yet another example of Joyce’s overweening arrogance. Still there’s no doubt the media’s attention span for bad news about the government has run out. Expect more of the same “the government has turned a corner after its buffeting in recent months” kind of coverage.

Selling Asset Sales

The big news of recent days of course, has been the revelation that the fortunate few with the spare cash to plunk down $1,000 or more to buy shares in the assets we already own, will receive a gift of extra shares from the current taxpayer/owner if they don’t immediately cash up their shares and flick them on inside, say, the first three years. Yes, the predatory few who can afford to invest are to be rewarded for their “loyalty” with freebies.

Incredible. By most reckoning only about 10% of New Zealanders currently invest in the sharemarket. That’s partly because very few of us have a spare $1,000 to invest in even one of these energy company assets, let alone in all four. (Just why anyone would think it is a good idea to offer four energy companies in rapid succession to investors in a sharemarket that already has energy company investment options is another story.) If only – for once – the reporting on the asset sales process could be from the viewpoint of the people who can’t afford to (re-) invest in their assets, rather than from the media’s own middle class perspective of those that can, or might.

What we’d see then is that the assets we own are being sold down – to people wealthy enough to buy them, who will then be given freebies by us for keeping on owning them, even though the only way those shares will turn a profit is if the same shareholders can find a way to force up our energy prices. This looks more like a process of sado-masochism than rational wealth generation. Oh, and who else might eventually buy these shares? According to Rod Oram on RNZ yesterday, it could well ber Kiwisaver fund managers. Fantastic. More of our money being used on buying back – at a premium – what we already own, in the fond hope that we can somehow extract higher energy-related profit from ourselves. Yesterday, Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove called that a Ponzi scheme. It would be easier to call it theft, or in white collar terminology, a wealth transfer. From us to them.

Yesterday on RNZ, the question of whether it was fair to compel the poor to issue freebie shares in their own possessions to the relatively wealthy was put by Geoff Robinson to Prime Minister John Key who chose to talk about something else entirely, without further interference from Robinson. Instead, the Key interview and this subsequent item moved onto an anxious consideration of whether the “loyalty” share scheme would actually work. (You will be relieved to hear that apparently a group of academics met in Helsinki in 2005, and concluded that they did, and would.) The issue of who it would work for was largely left to slumber on, undisturbed.