FOR THE RECORD: Column

By Reon Suddaby

Crossing live to Beehive for teachers' dispute
It was interesting to watch the growing consternation among the New Zealand public this week as the prospect of The Hobbit films being lost offshore became a very real possibility.
By now we know the films will be shot in New Zealand but, for a while there, the situation was looking hairier than a pair of Hobbit toes.
Set against the backdrop of a dispute between director Sir Peter Jackson and the Actors Equity union over a collective agreement for actors, and crisis talks involving executives from the film's main producers Warner Bros, it took governmental intervention by Prime Minister John Key and days of negotiations to ensure the lucrative movies stayed on these shores.
Under the agreement, the $670 million films will be shot in New Zealand, with legislation being introduced under urgency to clarify confusion around the legal status of contractors and employees.
Warner Bros also benefit from a $20 million tax break but, in return, New Zealand gets to be promoted through marketing DVDs and other materials used to promote the two Hobbit films, and hosts one of the films' world premieres.
Basking in the post-agreement afterglow, it's not entirely unrealistic that Mr Key and Sir Peter would have expected the issue to go away, allowing the Prime Minister to head off to Vietnam for the East Asia Summit, and Sir Peter to carry the burden of worrying about recreating Middle Earth.
But of course, it hasn't.
Wednesday night's salvage deal, hastily announced by Mr Key in a move which cleverly captured the 7pm current affairs television market, the late-night news and the metropolitan morning newspapers (particularly Hobbit-mad Wellington's Dominion Post) has done nothing to stem the growing tide of negative publicity surrounding The Hobbit.


Predictably, the issue has now become a political football, with Labour and the Greens opposing the legislation change, amid accusations of workers' rights being lost, and Mr Key being forced to defend the move as a "good deal" and one which will provide the country with strategic marketing opportunities worth tens of millions of dollars.
But for the most part, the public only see one side of this debate.
It's reflected in the furious centimetres of letters to the editor appearing in newspapers across the country, and the photographs of crowds of protesters waving placards declaring "We love Hobbits".
There's no doubt that the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and now The Hobbit films have become enshrined as part of New Zealand's culture and heritage.
Not just a chance to promote this country on movie screens across the world, The Lord of the Rings was New Zealand shining on a global stage, providing the definitive proof that world-class films could be made away from Hollywood.
Notwithstanding this, how curious it is then, that the potential loss of these films overseas elicited such an outcry of nationalistic fervour, at the same time as a similar dispute which some would argue has far greater consequences is progressing with a profile far more low-key by comparison.
The contrast with the ongoing battle between secondary school teachers and the Ministry of Education could not be greater.
One easy comparison can be made - last month, 300 teachers marched through Tauranga to draw public attention to their claims, although rather than proclaiming the merits of Hobbits, their banners outlined the need for safe classrooms for students, and the importance of quality learning.
Of course, there's been the usual series of rolling strikes, but public reaction to the teachers' arguments has been relatively muted by comparison.
If anything, there's a suspicion that the public zeitgeist has swung more towards a feeling of cynicism and that "the teachers are just out for more money, again".
The dispute is about more than just money - as well as a 4 per cent pay rise, Post Primary Teachers Association members are also seeking an improvement in working conditions.
The dispute will eventually be resolved, one way or the other, although it's hard to see Mr Key stepping in to sort this one out.
But when an agreement is finally reached, I can't imagine the 7pm television news shows being interrupted for a live press conference from the Beehive, as they were for The Hobbit. What does it say about our society when we take more of an interest in a movie, rather than what's going on in real life?

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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