Brian Rudman: Don't recycle culture into construction

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Prime Minister John Key seems to be making good on his promise to trim back the bureaucracy.

After all, who needs it when you have free advisers like real estate salesman Graham Wall, who can come up with a gem like the recession-busting $50 million cycleway from North Cape to Bluff.

Mr Wall had his brainwave while talking to some English cyclists at the beach. He told an MP, who told Mr Key, who then had a eureka moment the next morning during his ablutions. The PM said he discussed it with the Minister of Tourism - himself - while shaving and "we both like it".

It's not clear who whispered the $50 million in his ear, or where the figures of 3700 new jobs and two-year construction timescale came from.

With the resource consent process being what it is, I suspect the recession might be long over before a cycleway through so many jurisdictions gets the official go-ahead. Still, he is threatening a quick reform of the Resource Management Act, isn't he?

Or perhaps he's softening us up before announcing plans to rip up the main trunk rail line to use that. It has the gentle gradients required of the genteel tourist cyclist.

Shame there wasn't a bureaucratic Grinch holding Mr Key's shaving mug and raising little issues like cost-benefit ratios and the mechanics of installing toll booths and other such boring details.

What evidence is there of any unrequited demand from foreign recreational cyclists to pedal up and down our mountainous and often wet and windy landscape? Also, would any surviving pedallists be the high-spenders our tourist marketeers are supposed to be targeting, or would they be too exhausted to open their wallets?

A droll blogger suggested a hydroslide the length of New Zealand had much more going for it than "a boring old cycleway". Crossing Cook Strait, you could hop out and play with the dolphins, which "you wouldn't be able to do ... if you had a big metal bike with you". Now that's an idea!

As for being a creator of jobs, the cycleway does seem to be a lurch back to the make-work schemes of the 1930s Great Depression - a brain-numbing, time-filling exercise in rock crushing, weed grubbing and the like. It also implies the soon-to-be unemployed will be of the labouring classes - and mobile. Which some, no doubt, will be.

But many won't. I fear that the creative industries, for example, that broad swathe of activity taking in the arts, advertising, design and the like, are already feeling the pinch.

Yet ploughing through the list of invited guests at the employment summit, it was disappointing to find that only two of the attendees represented that field of endeavour - John Barnett from South Pacific Pictures and Richard Taylor of Weta Workshops.

There seemed to be no one else representing the heart and soul of our various cultural organisations and activities. No one to point out that, in 10 days, the world's largest annual Polynesian festival has been reduced from two days to one, partly because of a cut in assorted Government sponsorships.

No one to point out that when the Royal New Zealand Ballet, for economic reasons, reverts to dancing to recorded music on its nationwide tour of Peter Pan later this year, the city orchestras in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch will all suffer a punishing cut in income. To say nothing of the decline in artistic experience for audiences nationwide.

New Zealand has long grown out of the idea that culture is some discretionary icing to nibble when times are good.

As Bronwyn Dalley, acting chief executive of Ministry of Culture and Heritage, pointed out in her briefing document to the new Minister, Chris Finlayson, the economic value of creative industries as at 2004 was $3.56 billion, constituting 2.8 per cent of GDP ("total industry value added").

She pointed to how culture is used in promoting overseas investment and international diplomacy and how "the country's broader wellbeing is served by government's commitment to culture as an integral part of New Zealand life". Yet as sponsorship dollars and the investment incomes of community trusts rapidly dry up, this has been one of the first sectors of the economy to suffer.

But because many of the players in this part of the economy are employed on a freelance or contract basis, they don't necessarily show up on the unemployment statistics. Their income just slowly dwindles. Yet they too need income to put food on the table. As Dr Dalley implies, just as importantly they need work to ensure "the country's broader wellbeing is served".

At the risk of contradicting my earlier remarks on Great Depression make-work schemes, Mr Key might want to contemplate US President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-busting New Deal policies of the 1930s.

He set up federal employment schemes for artists, writers, actors, musicians, film-makers, photographers, dancers - you name it. More than 225,000 works of art - including public murals, films and photographic records of the decade - were created.

While not suggesting anything quite on this ambitious scale, funnelling a little discretionary income into our existing cultural organisations, to cushion them from the sudden effects of the recession, would protect not just the jobs of our skilled artists, but the country's broader wellbeing as well.

- NZ Herald

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