Gordon Campbell on the Sydney siege, and DHB budget cuts

Whenever the authorities bring a siege situation to an end, there will be criticism if – as has happened in Sydney – any hostages are seriously hurt, or killed. The rationale for the Police decision to storm the café in Sydney will emerge later today. In the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, columnist Peter Hartcher raises a different point – that the initial public response had been noticeably different to the agitated reactions of politicians and the media.

When I chanced to walk through Martin Place a little after 11am on Monday, I saw the police clustered closely around the Lindt Cafe. I saw the police cordon as I stood among some hundreds of onlookers.

The police evidently had the situation in hand. The crowd was curious, but might as well have been watching a busker for all the tension in the air. Some onlookers snapped photos. Some left as others arrived. The scene was perfectly calm.

It was only when I turned on the TV an hour or so later that I realised the magnitude of our dimwittedness. We were supposed to be terrified. The Prime Minister led in shaping our responses. He called a press conference but had no information to offer on the incident except that he had held a meeting to discuss it. He took only one question, to explain that he had no details but that the NSW police did.

“We don’t yet know the motivation of the perpetrator,” he said, then freely speculated that he was politically motivated. It was “very disturbing”. And if the family and friends of the hostages in the café were not already worried enough, Abbott announced that “I can think of almost nothing more distressing, more terrifying, than to be caught up in such a situation.”

In fact, Hartcher noted with interest, the further away the politicians were from Martin Place, the more alarmed the politicians were.

Victoria’s Daniel Andrews declared that it was a “terrifying incident”. He gravely assured Victorians that the gunman in Martin Place posed no known threat to the people of Victoria.

Queensland’s Premier Campbell Newman ordered “all available police out there” to “protect Queenslanders”.

Obviously, a hostage situation in the centre of Sydney is a big news story. Given that by definition, hostages are taken over a period of time, that media air-time has to be filled by something. The temptation to hype up the drama is almost irresistible. Yet the urge should be resisted, if only because there’s such a repulsive aspect to the vicarious excitement that’s palpably evident on the airwaves. Arguably, this kind of saturation coverage and hyper-emotionalism perfectly serves the needs of the people who carry out this kind of action. And it should be kept in mind that the terrorists are not the only ones with a hunger for publicity, and ratings.

With that in mind, did RNZ really have to devote virtually its entire Morning Report show to the siege outcome – on a morning where there has been a Cabinet leak that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be cut next year from our public health system? It says quite a lot about current media priorities that RNZ would never consider that subject worthy of a similar level of semi-exclusive attention as the Sydney siege.

Ideally, there should be a consensus among media organisations that there is a need for restraint in how siege situations are covered, if only to minimise the oxygen of publicity that makes such events more likely to occur in future. And as mentioned, the terrorists are not the only ones who are pining for the spotlight. As Hartcher says:

Terrorism is a tool of the weak against the strong. It is designed to turn the enemy’s strength against itself. One man showed how to get extraordinary attention and inflict serious disruption using only a gun and a Muslim prayer banner.

Successful terrorism is so rare in Australia that the overreaction is perhaps understandable…Abbott said on Monday evening that the incident had been “profoundly shocking”. He added: “I think I can also commend the people of Sydney for the calmness with which they have reacted”. With no help from the politicians.

And with no help from John Key. According to Key, the Sydney incident shows that ISIS is running an outreach campaign in this part of the world. Does Key really have any evidence that this individual – who has a long track record of disturbed behaviour – was responding to promptings from ISIS? The symbiotic relationship between terrorists seeking publicity and politicians seeking to rationalise their surveillance legislation deserves to be met with a lot of scepticism.

Health cuts looming
As RNZ did find time to mention this morning, District Health Boards (already under fierce cost –cutting pressure) may have to cut a further $200 million from their budgets next year, according to leaked Cabinet committee papers.

The DHBs need an extra $440 million in 2015/16 but the Treasury recommended giving them just $250m, while the Ministry of Health proposed $320m. The Treasury warned that under either option, DHBs would face considerable financial pressure, and cost efficiencies would be needed.

This will be a hammer blow to the quality of services currently on offer from the DHBs. So much for the previous rhetoric that front line services will not suffer in the government’s manic pursuit of a budget surplus, come what may. Incredibly, the deteriorating state of our public health system rated barely a mention during this year’s election campaign. Yet the signs of planned cuts in health spending were evident, barely a month before Election Day.

Also in August, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists released a damning report on the health system. The ASMS report showed our high and growing dependence on foreign doctors and specialists – who, it seems, are leaving New Zealand at an accelerating rate, after experiencing the excessive workloads here, and the relatively poor wages and conditions. There is further analysis of the ASMS report – with one of these specialists giving his reasons for leaving New Zealand – in this story here.