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Cracker by Damian Christie


Another Capital Idea...

Yeah I know, I know. I’ve been away. Too much to do, not enough to say, and even less time to say it, that’s been the problem. And with a baby due later in the year (our first), I can’t see that changing any time soon. My blogging, erratic at best, will become increasingly sporadic. I’ve thought of throwing in the towel, then I thought, why? I like it here. The great thing about Public Address is the different voices, and that includes their varying pitch and frequency. So I’ll just write when I’ve got something to say, and the time to say it. Even if, as I discover when I get off the plane from Wellington having bashed this out, Russell has already said it. Although his doesn’t use the phrase “wet-nurse”. Your choice.

I wanted to start a conversation about Capital Gains Tax, which after this week’s leak looks set to be part of Labour’s tax policy at the next election. I don’t quite know why they decided to leak their own policy (which is what I’m led to believe happened), the last thing Phil Goff needs is to look like a flailing I-can-neither-confirm-nor-deny leader when this is the first bold thing the party has done in a while. I disagree with Russell’s analysis it was a smart thing to do – Key might appear ‘panicky’ to some, but at the moment he’s the one dictating the conversation around this, absent any response. By the time this comes out next Thursday, the media conversation will be over, and Labour will have lost another opportunity. CGT will be “that thing John Key told us was bad.” If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a beer Russ :)

Now I’m not generally a fan of more tax. I quite like having money, and working seven-or-more days a week at the moment to produce various shows, I feel like I’ve earned it. Fundamentally I believe in a proportional tax system, where the more you earn, the more you pay.  I also believe in a low, or even nil rate up to some minimum income level, the latter of which Labour is also expected to propose. But am I a fan of Labour’s expected reintroduction of a “rich prick” top tax rate? No. I accept it’s an arbitrary point of view, but zero low tax, sure, punitive high tax rate, no. For nine years under the last Labour administration the top rate was used as an increasing tax grab, and despite promises it would only affect around 5% of the population, over three terms it was allowed to creep to almost three times that.

On the other hand, as one of National’s policy advisors said to me the other day, “of course capital gains tax makes sense”, and then added, “but it’s political suicide.”

Yes it makes sense to tighten up the biggest systemic loophole we have, where people can make huge amounts of money but pay no tax on it. I haven’t heard anyone arguing otherwise who isn’t arguing out of self-interest. As Key says, people will simply go to their tax accountants – I can’t help but picture a row of dangling ropes, connected to bells in various parts of the JK mansion, variously labelled “Cook”, “Nanny”, “Tax Accountant”, “Wet Nurse” and so forth. Maybe that’s true (about people going to their accountants, not about Key having a Wet Nurse.) Maybe it’s a glib response that could equally apply to the idea of company tax as a whole. Maybe Key knows CGT makes sense too. He’s certainly been vague enough about it in the past to suggest he can see the logic. It just might make for an uncomfortable summer of BBQs with the neighbours up at Omaha.

There was a chap interviewed on the news the other night on this. A guy who routinely buys and sells houses for a profit. “I employ people” he said. “I employ carpenters and electricians and plumbers and so on. So why should I pay tax on the money I make.” It barely requires a second glance to point out that a lot of people employ others and still have to pay tax on the money they make. They’re called business owners. And therein lies the fundamental hypocrisy of it all. We wonder why kiwis invest in real estate and don’t invest in business? Because one is not only relatively risk-free, it’s also completely tax free.

If the introduction of a CGT results in people leaving the housing market, or holding on to their second or third houses rather than selling them for a quick profit, okay. Far more likely is that people will add the tax they will pay into their rational decision-making process to sell at any given time, the same as they might do with real estate agent fees. And if paying a bit of tax means they’ve got less money to buy the next house with, well that’s okay, because the deflationary effect will mean that next house’s price isn’t juiced up on the promise of quick profits.

It makes sense, and I think a world where CGT is part of our tax scenario is one in which I could happily exist. But I’d rather see it as another tool in the box, with a corresponding drop in something else, than an increase in the pile. I don’t know of any party that won an election promising higher taxes, but I’m sure to be proven wrong on that. In the meantime, let’s hold our breath for Labour’s announcement next week. 

I’ll have an Asahi, thanks Russell.


RIght On.

Last night on Back Benches I quipped, entirely unoriginally, if Don Brash was the answer, we really needed to look at what the question was.  Stephen Franks, to whom I was speaking at the time, batted the comment aside.

But the seriousness beneath the statement remains. Having failed to secure National a win in 2005, and being rolled for a leader on a seemingly endless public honeymoon, where does the good doctor think his role lies? Sure, he can talk up the precise details of the narrow loss to Labour under his stewardship, but there ain’t no second place in the Westminster system. Well there is, it’s called ‘last’.

In the past week however, it’s become clear that Dr Brash believes he still has something to give. That in itself is not surprising – like Grainwaves and/or cocaine, politics in the limelight is rather moreish. What does surprise me is how readily accepted he has been by the fringe right.

It’s not an age thing, although I LOL’d in my mouth a little when Brash explained it away by comparing himself to the most senile US President in living memory, Ronald Reagan. If Brash is suggesting he will be a doddery old fool, a retired cowboy actor, while others pull the strings around him, well he is doing himself a disservice. Don Brash is, after all, a smart man.

Still not smart enough to pull off a clean coupe though. I remember when he rolled Bill English. If my occasionally Reagan-esque memory serves, it wasn’t looking like a great week for Labour. The moratorium on GE was about to be lifted, and for the first time in a while, Labour was taking a hit from the Left. Good week to let it play out, you’d think. Do some damage. But no, in comes Brash, and takes the leadership with all the surgical precision of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

This time around, same thing. Good publicity, you could argue, having your new leader declaring his intentions on every media outlet available – even ‘Perigo’ FFS. But from the outside it makes the fringe right look fractured, compromised, messy. We’ve seen the uncertainty, the machinations – will it be John Boscawen or Hillary Calvert who plays Judas – all play out.

I’m writing this on a plane. It seems this morning like Hillary Calvert has accepted her thirty pieces of silver, although frankly she is quite mad enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if her price were magic beans. By the time I land this may all have played out, or it may wait until Tuesday.  Or, it might be (having just landed) that this all takes place at midday. His marginal right-wing agenda will take the place of the marginal right wing agenda of his predecessor. One bully will replace another in Epsom. The more things change, as the French say, the more things stay the same.


Send in the Clowns

There's been a lot of talk these past few weeks about the imminent demise of TVNZ 7.  I've stayed away from saying too much about it – many of those against the decision have more or less covered my thoughts, and obviously with my snout deep in the TVNZ 7 trough, it's hard to even pretend I'm in the least objective about the decision.  But there's also increasingly a fair bit of misinformation floating about, in some cases just misguided, in others I think more deliberately (or at least recklessly) inaccurate. 

The disclaimer then, such as it is needed: I have worked for TVNZ 7 since the outset. I started off on Back Benches (and helping out a bit on Media 7 in the early days), and I continue as co-host on the former. I now also have my own show (mine in the sense that it's my concept, and I write and produce it, but it's made in-house by TVNZ), called Hindsight. I also work as a writer/producer on Q+A, which screens on TV ONE, and is funded by NZ On Air's platinum fund. 

On a personal, financial  level, the loss of TVNZ 7 will no doubt affect me. I will still (presumably) work on Q+A after TVNZ 7 finishes mid-2012. Back Benches and Hindsight may or may not migrate to another channel; I'm not holding my breath or counting my chickens. But, personally, that's telly. My first ever job at TVNZ ended two weeks after it began, when the show I was contracted to work on – the late edition of Flipside – was cancelled. I hadn't even received my first paycheque. That was a shock, but it taught me two things – never expect any job to be there in a fortnight, and there's always another job waiting. Well, that's been true for me anyway, I moved immediately to Flipside (day), then Sunday and then Close Up, before starting at TVNZ 7. Seven years now, not bad given the shaky start. So personally, I'm not so worried about next year. After four years of Back Benches, I might've been looking to move on anyway. 

So if you will, take that on board and try and assume that my thoughts aren't entirely based on the state of my back pocket, when I say I think the demise of TVNZ 7 is a real shame. A shame because after three and a bit years, the channel is really starting to hit its stride. And it means something to be people who watch it. Travelling around the place (for the Back Benches Summer Tour, for instance) or even just going into town on the weekend, people often say how much they love not only the show, but the channel. "It's the only channel I watch any more," that sort of thing. I'm not pretending for a minute it's more popular than TV3 or TV2 or TV ONE, just that the sort of people who watch it seem a lot more passionate about it than other views.  A bit like say, the bFM or National Radio listener. People don't get really passionate about The Breeze or ZM. 

TVNZ 7 is without a doubt less popular than those other channels. It has almost zero promotion and a budget to match. It doesn't appear in listings in newspapers or The Listener. And the programmes aren't your usual commercial fare. 

In an editorial this weekend, the Herald showed its usual love of beating up TVNZ – I'm told that every time they put TVNZ on the front page, sales jump by a few percent and they're a commercial enterprise, so it makes sense. But whoever wrote this particular editorial could do with a wee lesson on comparing apples with apples, when referring to the "mere 207,000 viewers a week that it attracts."

This really is television for minority interests taken to extreme. By way of contrast, TVNZ's One News attracts 600,000 viewers each and every night.

Can you spot the issue here? You can't compare daily and weekly viewship, because obviously these aren't unique viewers. ONE News doesn't have 600,000 people watching one night, then 600,000 completely new people the next. It's viewership isn't 4.2m people per week. It's probably more like 2m. But the point of the Herald editorial seems to be simply to pick one high figure (and ONE News is obviously one of the highest you can pick, twice that of 3 News) and compare it with a relatively low one (although 200,000 people? I'm stoked).

I could, for example, say "More people watch TVNZ 7 each week than read the Herald on a daily basis". And that would be true, but just as wrong. Likewise "about the same number of people watch TVNZ 7 each week as watched Campbell Live on Friday." 

Equally – and equally unsurprisingly – inaccurate was the figure someone forwarded to me which Whaleoil pulled out of his rectum last week in a post about the demise of TVNZ 7 entitled "Good": 

I was at Back Benches last night and over­heard some “con­nected” peo­ple talk­ing about their very secret viewer num­bers. Less than 6000 peo­ple watch Back Benches. More peo­ple read my blog on any given day, includ­ing Christ­mas day than watch Back Benches.

Where do I start? First, the TVNZ 7 viewer numbers are "very secret" because no-one actually knows what they are. A non-commercial channel, TVNZ 7 doesn't have ratings as such, because ratings only exist so networks can work out how much to charge advertisers. Second, I was at Back Benches last week too, and no-one 'connected' was there, other than the usual BB staff, none of whom have any more clue than I do. Third, it's "fewer", not less.

What makes this ironic is that even believing Back Benches only has 6000 viewers, it didn't stop Mr Slater running up and bawling (not for the first time, either) to both my producer and my co-host about how I don't like him (wah-wah) and won't let him on the show (boo-hoo) and that my fellow Q+A Producer Tim Watkin and I have a secret conspiracy against him appearing. I find this hilarious: There's nothing secret about it – sorry to say Cameron, but devilish good looks aren't enough. Personally I prefer those – from all sides of the political spectrum – who can take part in reasoned debate without turning into a slobbering inaccurate mess of ad hominem attacks, such as last week's:

"Pinko troughers Damien Christie (sp) and Rus­sell Brown will have to find other ways to fund mas­sive extensions to their houses."

Well I'm hardly going to leave my new Merc out in the rain, am I?  But even more ironic (like, Alanis Morrissette would be preparing for a comeback of epic proportions if only she knew) is this response after Michael Laws gave him a serve:

 "If he wants to increase his rat­ings by bash­ing ben­e­fi­cia­ries, peo­ple with Asperg­ers and peo­ple with depres­sion and rooting hook­ers on top of that then so be it. If he can’t debate the facts and instead have to resort to per­sonal attakcs (sp) then, again, it says more about him than it does about me…. [I’m] just point­ing out that he is a cock and can’t debate on facts just personal abuse." (emphasis added)

Anyway, I dare say I'm preaching to the choir.  But then Richard Harman (former producer of Agenda, now the recipient of $1m state funding for 36 episodes of 'The Nation') weighed in on Kiwiblog with this seemingly throwaway line:

We get NZ on Air Platinum funding to produce “The Nation” for TV3 though I suspect we get considerably less per programme than the budget for TVNZ7 shows. 

Which again, is complete nonsense. I hope Harman's political suspicions are better informed than this. I'm not going to reveal figures here (because they're not mine to reveal), but suffice to say I know of no current TVNZ 7 show (and I know the approximate budgets of several) receiving more than the $27k per episode received by The Nation, and I know some that get less than half that, even though you wouldn't know it to look at the production values of The Nation.  It's not like the Nation's ratings are exactly out of the park either – 33,000 people tuned in on Saturday morning. (Q+A gets around 200,000 viewers, with slightly less funding.)

For the reasons given above, it's hard for me to say how many people watch Back Benches each week. To be honest, it'd be interesting to know but I don't really care – we go out to make a good show, and if my experience on primetime TV taught me anything it's that watching the ratings is a dangerous game. Based on the number of repeats of Back Benches each week (6), the cumulative weekly audience for TVNZ 7, a bit of hunch-work, comparing on-line viewership with other shows that do have ratings and so forth, I'd guess it's around 50,000 – 60,000 viewers per week.

I am of course simply falling into the trap –that unless TVNZ 7 shows can somehow prove themselves as popular as commercial shows, they shouldn't exist. Which kinda defeats the purpose of public service broadcasting.

That's the thing I'm going to miss next year, is having the opportunity to put forward shows that don't necessarily have mass appeal (but still have far more mass appeal than Lindsay's new show "Perigo". Good God) but in some way add value to society.

Back Benches has, for instance, engaged people in political debate who normally would run a mile from such a thing. I know, they've told me, and they keep telling me.

There are of course many important things our money should be going on right now (plastic waka and MediaWorks bailouts aside – although I don't have much of an issue with either of those, actually). Because our little nation ain't doing so well. But I suspect even if it were, the ideology of a couple of National Ministers would find another reason to ditch our last great foray into public broadcasting. And I think that's a shame.



One of the things I notice about getting old is how time seems to condense.  What was once simply shorthand – “oh I saw such-and-such the other day” ­– when in fact I saw him a couple of months ago, after a while actually feels true. It does seem like only a couple of years ago I was in Afghanistan, and yet it must be closer to four now. 

Point being, when I went to Sydney on the weekend, I knew I hadn’t been for some time, and it can’t be far off a decade. 

Sydney polarises people I think. It’s like Auckland. For some it seems too flashy, a bit up itself. They prefer Melbourne, which is more of a grungy, Wellingtony sort of a city. People in Melbourne are in bands. People in Sydney are DJs or at least like dancing to them. People in Melbourne wear chucks, Sydney’s all about the stilettos. 

I’d had fun in Sydney in the past, admittedly back when I was managing a house DJ and writing for a dance magazine. And as I stopped doing that so much I generally thought I was a Melbourne-type too, all chucks and grunge. 

But from the time my taxi pulled up at the hotel, I thought Sydney was excellent.

Okay, so the hotel was the Sebel Pier One, which is down at the Rocks, one of Sydney’s most historic quarters. And I’d spent the previous night staying in a place in Wellington by the name of the Silver Oaks, about which the only positive thing I can say is it recalled the ironically named ‘Happiness Hotel’ from The Great Muppet Caper (2'55" in). But the Sebel, great. High stud (the room, that is), day bed, night bed, right by the water. Probably never be able to afford to stay there myself, I didn’t check the rate.

Because yes, tinny chap that I am, someone else was picking up most of the tab. Tourism Australia, lovely folk. I hasten to add this sort of thing happens very infrequently, but you know, gift horse, mouth, you’d do the same, right? And it was my birthday…

The ostensible reason I was there was for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO). Kinda like that Iggy Pop Orcon commercial, where musicians audition over the internet, except with more bassoons. And french horns, violas and so forth. And rather than culminating in a virtual performance, the many and varied members of the orchestra were flown from their many and varied home countries to Sydney for a a week of rehearsals and small gigs, culminating in a grand performance at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday night.

Going inside the Opera House for the first time (at a rehearsal earlier in the week) was a real treat. Perched on the harbour, the walkway around the grand hall looking across the water is impressive enough, but entering the hall was something else – there’s something about a room built with such a singular purpose, on such a grand scale.

The Sunday night event was a great showcase for Sydney – the Opera House was lit up both inside and out by projections from ….  If I’m being honest, the projections weren’t the best of their kind. It was as though the projector was stuck on screensaver mode half the time – a nineties screensaver at that. Swirls of rainbow coloured ribbons and spirographs, with little or no relevance to the shape and structure of the Opera House – this to me is the art of the public projection, working with the geometry of your canvas, twisting and melding the very shape itself.

That’s just a minor observation though. The performance was wonderful. An amazing solo on the massive Opera House organ was a stand out for me; surely it’s the only instrument where you are actually playing notes (as opposed to beats, drummers…) with all four limbs at once? As well as the projections, much thought had been given to the audience viewing around the world – short video packages had been produced introducing various members of the orchestra, interviewed in their home country. A friend noted that all the members chosen for the one-on-one star treatment were particularly attractive, and I wonder if that was part of the overall criteria – I mean, there must be a lot of talented violinists around the world right, might as well pick a hot one.  There was also a (hot) visual artist from the Ukraine, whose chosen medium was sand sprinkled and swept over a light box, projected onto the big screen.  And sitting at the back of the hall, the internal projections were quite impressive too.

The event, as it turned out was huge.  This from the PR people:

33 million people around the world watched the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Grand Finale.  There were 11.1 million streams of the event during the 3.5 hour concert, making it the most-watched live music concert on YouTube to date (beating out U2 at 10 million).  A further 19.1 million streams took place it as the concert was replayed on YouTube over the next 24 hours.  The mobile live-stream was viewed 2.8 million times - making it the biggest ever YouTube mobile live-stream.  The total stream transferred 422TB of data - the equivalent of sending 145 million mp3 files.

Which is massive. Almost as massive as Rebecca Black’s Friday (currently sitting on 80 million) or this funny cats compilation (50 million). Unfortunately the problem for the people at YouTube is that no matter how awesome their concept, no matter how much money they spend getting musicians from around the world to converge on Sydney, or media to attend, nothing they ever do will be as popular as “Charlie bit my finger”.  But I reckon YouTube were still pretty happy. I mean, bigger than U2.

The morning after we arrived was booked for a climb of the Harbour Bridge – I was a little tired from the previous day’s early flight, and a few drinks later on, but despite being told the climb was reasonably strenuous, it was almost literally a walk in the park (if the park was a collection of welded steel girders over the harbour). I don’t have a particular fear of heights, so the only nerve-wracking bit was the breath test everyone is subjected to before they are allowed to climb. Again, not that it’s dangerous – the pathways are comfortable, with handrails, and you’re constantly clipped to the structure via a safety harness – but it’s all about safety (and keeping the Sydney Bridge Authority happy, I guess).  And the suits are very flattering...

The rest of the weekend I spent venturing around Sydney. A quick trip across the harbour to the faded glory of Lunar Park - worth it just for the photographic opportunities, though I'd love to head back at night when it's all lit up.  Although be warned, if you've got a phobia of clowns...

Having spent a bit of time recently discussing the future of Auckland City, it was interesting to be in a city that has got a lot of things right. A harbour area which is a focal point for the city. Wonderful heritage buildings, which reinforced how many we have knocked down, and how much we should fight to save the ones we have left. Medium-density housing in the city, rather than a proliferation of cramped apartments surrounded by miles of ‘pavlova paradise’ suburban sprawl.

One thing I envy about other great cities is simply the benefits of population. With 4.58 million people – that’s almost 200,000 more than we’ve got in the whole country, Sydney can afford a greater variety of shops, restaurants and bars. Rows of great clothing stores along Oxford Street (nice to see a few New Zealand names tucked in there), the proper ‘department store’ vibe of David Jones, which echoes Barneys (NYC) or Selfridges (London). The ability to have not just one but a number of specialist shops, and have them on a massive scale – the two storey HobbyCo filled with model trains, planes and automobiles, not to mention enough Star Wars merchandise to make any Padawan drool.

Obviously with just a weekend to venture out, we barely touched the surface, food and drink wise. Lunch at the Quay (“you can’t wear your thongs there” advised the concierge) was a highlight, while dinner at the Ivy was unintentionally hilarious – the food and service were great, I have to say, but shee-it that place is a meat market. A bar and restaurant set around a swimming pool, alongside which beautiful women in body-hugging mini-dresses and high heels paraded as though on a cat-walk – an appropriate name given the onlooking lions, mainly from the financial sector I’m told, who sat and licked their chops.

One thing that’s obvious when you head to Australia – they’re doing very well. It’s reflected in the mood of the people, the discussions on the talkback radio (okay they’re still angry, marginalised right-wing idiots, but somehow they seem less concerned than our angry, marginalised right-wing idiots), it’s just you know, the vibe. Returning home to news of more cutbacks, a ‘zero budget’ and so forth, the gap seems wider than ever, and John Key’s suggestion of catching up with them by 2025 as fanciful as Phil Goff’s suggestion that he still has any chance of being the next Labour Prime Minister.

Not that I’m thinking of moving over the ditch – I’m happy with our 1/8th of an acre amidst the suburban sprawl. But it’s good to be reminded that if you want to be immersed in a proper international city for a weekend, there’s a good option just a few hours away. And next time I say “I went to Sydney the other day”, it’ll be a lot more likely to be true.

(A portrait of the author as a short man)


It's a Wonderful Thing

Yes, I've been a bad blogger, I know.  Disappearing on you for most of this year (all of this year I think). 

But I have an excuse. A good excuse. An excuse that begins tonight - Hindsight (TVNZ 7, 9.30pm).

It seems like a strange time to be launching anything positive and new - forget Hindsight, it's Perspective I've been learning about in the past week. But launch tonight it does, and so there ya go.

It's been an idea that's been bubbling away for a couple of years really.  In fact it started pretty much when I began at TVNZ, and realised the immense privilege I had been given, being able to trawl through the extensive TVNZ Archives.  Millions of hours (probably - no-one actually knows) of footage all locked away in a nuclear bunker-like facility in Avalon.  Some of which we often see - gold medal winning awards, national tragedies and the like - and much of which has probably never been re-broadcast.

It's the latter I love, the true hidden treasures.

So anyway, a couple of years ago, before all this '50 Years of TV' and 'Andy Shaw's Archive Show', and well before TVNZ Heartland, I suggested an archive show.  We did a wee online trial which you might remember me talking about, This Week in TV History. 

But for a fully-fledged show, it needed something more. It needed to be relevant, current. Which is where Hindsight came from. The idea of looking back at our past to learn lessons about the big issues we face today. Issues like Obesity. Animal Welfare. The Drinking Age.

In fact, the more I dug through the archives, the more I found stories which could very much be on the front page of the paper any day. Auckland's growing pains. The push towards a republic. Drink driving. The list of issues (and hence episodes) piled up, and that pile continues to grow every time I spend any time in the virtual vault.

So that's Hindsight. My little baby. Telling, often unintentionally hilarious, poignant archive clips - not soundbites, but decent chunks of the stories as they went to air at the time. Interviews with people who were in those stories, together with modern experts to put the issue in context.

Tonight's show is 'Fast Food Nation', and looks at obesity. A growing problem - the single biggest health issue we face in New Zealand.  As well as some hilarity (Jazzercise... Weight Watchers 1960s style... Selwyn Toogood talking about "queers") it shows how long we've known about this issue, and how long we've done nothing about it. Even the experts were surprised to see just how far back these stories have been happening.

There's a website, and while there's not much up there at the moment, in the next few days you'll be able to watch the episode, as well as some un-edited versions of the original archive pieces.

Please watch, and let me know your thoughts. And any suggestions for future episodes for a future (fingers crossed here) series.

And I'll try and be back here sooner rather than later, but I hope you understand.