Gordon Campbell on Julia Gillard, and a Holmes footnote

Australian leader Julia Gillard is one of those politicians who performs best when her back is against the wall – as she was in January when she gave her celebrated attack on sexism – and she could hardly be in a tougher fight than she is right now. Gillard will be meeting Prime Minister John Key in Queenstown later this week having (a) just announced that Australia will go to the polls in September and (b) having seen a recent wave of support for her government slump back into a solid 54-46 lead for her opponents, once preferential votes have been factored in. To rub it in, the same round of opinion polls have shown a slide in her personal support as preferred Prime Minister, to a point where Opposition leader Tony Abbott is now almost on equal terms among voters. Given these polls, Abbott’s task of presenting himself to voters as the leader of a government-in-waiting looks like a fairly simple one.

In short, this election is looking like one for Abbott to lose, via one or more of his trademark gaffes – and by giving him a long, long run in to polling day, Gillard is gambling that this will give Abbott every opportunity to self destruct. Currently, this looks a somewhat forlorn hope, but Gillard has come back from the brink before. For New Zealanders, the focus of Gillard’s visit this week will be less on internal Aussie politics and more on the differential treatment afforded to Kiwis in Australia. In terms of access to welfare support and naturalization, we suffer badly. Yet Australians who come here are treated on arrival as virtual de facto citizens of New Zealand.

After clearing immigration, Australians are automatically given residency, entitling them to work indefinitely in New Zealand. After two years they gain full access to social welfare and, after five, they can apply for New Zealand citizenship.

Conversely, New Zealanders who move to Australia are considered temporary residents upon arrival. They can work and live in Australia indefinitely – a right afforded only to Kiwis – but they cannot access many social security payments, including unemployment benefits. Some of the benefits that are available – such as superannuation and severe disability payments – are paid for by the New Zealand government, which paid out more than $200 million last year to support expatriates in Australia.

Many New Zealand children who finish school in Australia cannot access student loans or work in government jobs, because of their “temporary” status. To gain the same rights as Australians have in New Zealand, Kiwis must apply for permanent residency and meet strict skill requirements. It has been estimated as many as half of the New Zealanders who have migrated to Australia in the last 12 years are ineligible for permanent residency.

As Key made clear at his press conference yesterday that unequal situation is unlikely to change. Nor it is likely to change under an Abbott administration, despite the admiration that Abbott expressed in 2010 about how New Zealand was managing its way through the global recession. At the time Abbott’s comments were greeted with incredulity by economists on both sides of the Tasman. Time has done nothing to improve the quality of Abbott’s analysis. Gillard’s government is being hammered in the polls for presiding over an expected rise in unemployment – from 5.4% in December to an expected 5.75% later in 2013.

The Key government on the other hand, is still riding high in the polls here, and unemployment is being tipped to decline – from a towering 7.3% last September to a still high 7% in the last quarter of 2012. In other words, Key is retaining his popularity for delivering the kind of performance on the jobs front that Gillard would get crucified for, and Gillard is being roasted for unemployment numbers that Key would die to call his own. We really are quite different countries.

Holmes, a Footnote

In RNZ’s Mediawatch last Sunday – in a segment about the late Sir Paul Holmes – the programme repeated comments by RNZ media analyst Gavin Ellis that Holmes’ final battle with cancer was not the appropriate time to evaluate the pros and cons of Holmes’ career. Balanced analysis, Ellis reportedly maintained, should wait. This seemed a strange position. It does not detract from Holmes’ achievements for instance, to note a couple of contributing factors to his success, nor to point out a few of its downsides.

At the time when Holmes went on air, he was the beneficiary of a 180 degree shift that had taken place in the political and economic climate at TVNZ when it came to the role of personalities in news and current affairs broadcasting. To see this, one need only contemplate how a popular broadcaster such as Dougal Stevenson was cast aside in 1979-1980, and contrast it with how Holmes was embraced ten years later. Yes, the eulogists are right when they say we will not see the likes of Holmes again. That’s partly because TVNZ’s market dominance – that elevated Holmes’ skills and foibles to almost North Korean levels of exposure – is now a thing of the past. In 1992, the ONE news bulletin lead in to Holmes was hovering in the 800-000 to 1,000,000 viewers nightly. In recent years, TVNZ has bragged about averages of 660,000 viewers.

To date, the Holmes tributes have given little sense of the ambivalence felt among his audience at the time. Easy to say that Holmes ushered in a new style in broadcasting. The Holmes programme did indeed put an end to the era when serious men in suits would look up and into the camera and soberly tell the nation what it needed to know, in received English. Yet for all the celebration of Holmes’ style of broadcasting in the past week, there has been little about its nature and legacy, or its mixed reception. The controversy that Holmes engendered was not restricted merely to the mildewed brigade hankering for the past. The Holmes programme has long been regarded as the leading edge in a trivialization of news and current affairs reporting that has resulted in New Zealand public broadcasting being treated – as recently as last year in the Guardian – as perhaps the worst in the developed world. No real surprise about that. Wasn’t the personalizing of news and current affairs – and the filtering of the policies and politics of the day through the personality of one particular broadcaster – always fraught with risk, however successful it may have been in economic terms?

Routinely, Holmes’ programme would veer from confrontational to cuddly, preachy to irreverent, cynical to maudlin…sometimes in the same programme or even in the same item. TVNZ’s bosses could cope with that, and even welcomed it. They knew he would annoy some of his audience all of the time, and all of his audience some of the time. At the same time, his approach to those in power was more nuanced – and this again, was a product of his own personal filters. He picked the subjects of his irreverence with care, and as I wrote in May 1992 in a Listener profile, his views were fairly typical of his time, place and income:

As we’re driving in from Epsom, [Holmes] runs through a pretty dull array of centre-right Auckland attitudes: who cares about the sale of Telecom, the phones get put in quicker. The best politicians are incredibly well informed. We have to do something about the welfare state. The whining and moaning has to stop. We’ve got to learn to sell ourselves, and not keep on running to government. Just when I’m about to scream and jump from the car, we turn into the TVNZ garage…

Sure, some in his audience felt the same way. Many did not, and they still do not. (So much for Mike Williams’ sentimental tosh on RNZ about Holmes unifying the nation, this year.) There was another important sense in which the Holmes programme reflected the ethos of its heyday. Worldwide, the 1990s was a decade when massive pay packets became self-validating symbols of potency for the senior executive class. Unfortunately, and due in part to a Treasury bungle, TVNZ failed to re-register under the Companies Act 1993 for the period 1994 and 1995 – and it thus failed to deliver annual reports and specify the income bands for its top earners during those years. As a consequence, we lack precise evidence for the period when the income of TVNZ’s top presenters began to interact with the pay packets of TVNZ’s executives, and started to boost them skywards. I wrote an article about this in 2004, but since it’s now behind a paywall, I’ll briefly summarise the contents.

What we know is that at the outset of the 1990s, newsreaders Richard Long and Judy Bailey were reportedly on incomes of $65,000 and $80,000 respectively. By 1993, Paul Holmes’ TVNZ/RNZ deal was reportedly worth $250,000. Two years later, when TVNZ’ annual report once again saw daylight, there was one individual – believed to be Holmes – on $720,000. The escalator on executive salaries had also begun running. Another individual – believed to be then-CEO Chris Anderson was on the $420,000 to $430,000 band.

By 2001, the top salary had only inched forward to $750-760,000 – but that second placed earner (who in parliamentary hearings that year was alleged to be then-CEO Rick Ellis) was now earning between $720-730,000, and this topped out a year with a parting payment to someone (again, assumed to be Ellis) of between $850,000 to $880,000.

This racheting effect cannot be blamed on Paul Holmes. It was not his fault that the huge leaps in his own remuneration during the 1990s got used as a whoopee cushion for the top executives who employed him, to validate their own leaps in pay. We are however, still living with the effects of that era of vanity and excess, and it has been cemented in place as the norm.