Tau Henare, the former NZ First and National Party MP, spoke up at a meeting of the Auckland Council's Finance and Performance Committee this week. He wanted to know if anyone has "tried to get an equivalence" between a production by New Zealand Opera (NZO) and Polyfest. What did he mean?
Henare is one of the two Independent Maori Statutory Board (IMSB) members on that committee. All councillors and the mayor also belong. His question arose because NZO, which receives funding from council, was making its report.
The answer, given by NZO's general director, Stuart Maunder, was brave. He said opera is a "very expensive" artform. If we want it, we have to pay for it. He also said that during its busy times NZO employs 250 people, on stage, backstage and in administration, nearly all of whom are earning salaries that go back into the local economy.
Polyfest, on the other hand, as Henare and everyone else at the table would have known, is a schools competition involving tens of thousands of performers and their supporters. There's a small paid staff, but most of the people who work at Polyfest are volunteers.
So, how do you compare Polyfest with Puccini? And why would you do that anyway? Polyfest is a fabulous mass-participation event. Opera is one of the most rarefied artforms on the planet, performed by highly trained professionals. Polyfest celebrates Maori and Pacific Island cultures; opera is profoundly European. They are about as different from each other as it is possible for any two cultural events to be.
Yet there are similarities. While Polyfest welcomes all comers, the performance standard at the top end is extremely high. And although opera's roots are in Europe, it's a striking feature of opera here that so many of our best singers have been Maori and Pasifika – from household names like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sol3 Mio to all three of the "emerging artists" of 2018, who are Maori, Samoan and Tongan.
Still, it's hard to think of any criteria you could use to measure fairly the value of both Polyfest and opera. The reasons for funding each are very different. Instead of comparing them, council's job is to decide how well each fulfils the reasons it received funding in the first place.
Perhaps Henare was thinking of that other funding question, which comes up in sport as well as the arts: is participation more important than elite achievement?
Again, it's a false equivalence. Despite Football NZ never really having got the message, most people probably accept we need both. Polyfest and NZ Opera, please.
All of this has been thrown into sharp focus by two big plans Auckland Council has out for community consultation right now. One is a refresh of the Auckland Plan, the vision statement for the city reaching ahead to 2050. The other is a new version of the council's 10-year budget, formerly known as the long-term plan.
In neither document has the council been kind to the arts or to sport, at the levels of either community engagement or elite performance.
It's true mayor Phil Goff has backed down from his proposed cuts to the Auckland Art Gallery budget, agreeing to a $2 million per year boost to AAG funding. But like everything else in the budget that hasn't been signed off yet. And as Elise Sterback of The Basement Theatre has highlighted, the council's budget also includes a $300,000 per year cut to public art funding.
At the same time, Sarah Sandley of Aktive, the umbrella group for Auckland sports and recreation, argues that her sector is going to lose $500,000 per year. She says the city is already short around 200 courts and playing fields for netball, hockey, tennis and various winter sports.
Both say they were given these figures by council officials, but that's almost impossible to check because the documents have been reconceived. The Auckland Plan is now more of a "top line" affair, with no specific sections devoted to the arts and sport. And in the budget, items have been redistributed and amalgamated so like can't be compared with like.
Both plans are simpler and easier to read, if you're not looking for anything in particular. But they're harder to understand if you do want to see what's changed.
Council official Jacques Victor, who is shepherding them through consultation, says we shouldn't assume the worst. But in an interview on RNZ yesterday he did not specifically deny any of the points made by Sterback and Sandley.
Victor also said everyone should remember there simply isn't enough money to go round. Which is true, but hang on. Wouldn't it be helpful to have fully transparent planning documents, so we can see what's being proposed and support it, or not, with our eyes open?
The draft 10-year budget actually says the proposed level of funding for sport and recreation will result in a "decreased level of service, deteriorating assets, and risk of failure and asset closure". It's a similar story in the arts. But we are not being told what it means.
Barbara Glaser of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) also addressed the council's finance committee this week. She said the APO's education initiatives are so popular, especially in south and west Auckland, they can't keep up with demand. Their reputation is strong – last year the "world's best soprano", Anna Netrebko, performed with them – and the programme is busy and varied: 113 performances including both Led Zeppelin and Harry Potter.
But here's the thing about the APO: only two of the players appointed in the last six years have been New Zealanders. Why? Because the orchestra can't pay enough. The best local performers go to the NZSO or overseas.
The APO wasn't at council to ask for more money. But they do need it.
There's a reason all this is important – achievement and participation, cultural and sporting – that isn't acknowledged in either of those new planning documents. It's this: when people work together to get really good at something, and present it to the rest of us, in performance, in competition, in celebration, they are expressing the best of us.
If we really want to build Auckland into an exciting, inclusive and high-achieving city, a critical bedrock for that will be performance. On stage and on the playing field.
The skills to perform well are physical, mental, organisational, cultural and social. Learning the values of practice and creativity. How to communicate and be inclusive, work harder, deal with failure and success, apply perspective to problems. Knowing what it means to be thrilled at something done sublimely well.
These are the skills of life. Schools know it, so why do we pretend it isn't true everywhere else?
This is what really does unite Polyfest and Puccini: both allow us to celebrate the best of what we can be. Imagine what it would be like if the council grasped the potential of that, and put it front and centre in its planning.
Want to have your say?
It's pretty easy to have your say on the Auckland Plan and 10-year budget. Go to the Auckland Council website (aucklandcouncil.govt.nz), select "Have your say and help shape Auckland", then "Have your say on Auckland's future". There's a simple explanatory document and an easy survey form.
It doesn't ask what you think about funding for the arts or sport, but you can use the general "any other feedback" question at the end.
The deadline is March 28: next Wednesday.