Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

The Hobbit documents released: Govt knew union ban lifted

Emails reveal strong pressure from Jackson and Warners to change employment law.

Sir Peter Jackson told the Government Warner Bros was very concerned about "grey areas" in New Zealand's employment laws. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sir Peter Jackson told the Government Warner Bros was very concerned about "grey areas" in New Zealand's employment laws. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Government was aware that a union-imposed boycott on Sir Peter Jackson's film The Hobbit had been lifted, but continued to insist that it was in place, official documents released yesterday showed.

And ministers who felt that there was no need to change labour laws for the filming of The Hobbit yesterday said they could not recall why they went ahead and changed them.

The Government was reluctant to release its correspondence with the director and the studio but was ordered to do so earlier this month by the Ombudsman.

The documents, which contain high emotion from Sir Peter and Warner Bros executives, reveal the pressure the Government came under to change employment laws.

Early in the dispute, in October 2010, Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee seemed reluctant to tinker with legislation.

In a letter drafted to Sir Peter and his wife, Fran Walsh, on October 4, he wrote: "While there are inevitable uncertainties in respect of both the Commerce Act and the [Employment Relations Act], these are of a type that should be relatively easy to work through with advice from specialist competition and employment lawyers."

A spokesman for present Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce confirmed that this was an early opinion by officials and was never sent to the director.

In emails sent later in October, Sir Peter and Ms Walsh said the Government needed to change the law to clarify that actors were contractors and not employees.

Sir Peter was concerned about a previous court ruling that an independent contractor working on The Lord of the Rings was an employee.

He told the Government Warners was "very concerned" about the "grey areas in our employment laws".

An email from New Line Cinema executive Carolyn Blackwood to Mr Brownlee on October 12 said the labour dispute posed a "real risk" to the company. In a separate email, her exasperation with the Australian and New Zealand unions' demands was evident: "I am furious. Furious."

The Government changed employment laws under urgency on October 28.

Mr Brownlee could not recall yesterday what took place in this period which prompted Government to push on with a law change. But he insisted the move was necessary: "There is no doubt the prospect of losing the film production to New Zealand was real."

Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson said: "Government knew that it didn't change the law to meet any concerns about employment practices.

"They told Peter Jackson that, he no doubt told Hollywood that. Hollywood comes back and says, 'No, we still want the law to change,' the Government caves in to them.

"They knew it wasn't the right thing to do. They knew it wasn't appropriate. But they did it anyway."

The documents also revealed the minister was aware that a union blacklist - an international ban on actors working on The Hobbit on non-union terms - was lifted on October 18. At the time, the Government denied that the boycott had ended.

Mr Robertson noted that the blacklist was used to whip up opposition to the union.

Mr Brownlee said yesterday it was not clear when this blacklist was lifted: "If the blacklist wasn't on, then the MEAA [union] should have announced it."

In another email Sir Peter said the boycott had no bearing on whether The Hobbit would be filmed here.

This contrasted with comments by Mr Brownlee in Parliament on October 28 that it was a reason for the law change. "[If] Simon Whipp the Australian unionist had not put the black ban ... we would not be in this situation."

The email was released last year but the section on the blacklist was cut by officials.

2010

October 4
Govt tells Sir Peter Jackson an employment law change is not required for Hobbit filming to go ahead in NZ.

October 12
New Line Cinema executive Carolyn Blackwood says the employment dispute between unions and Warner Bros is a "real risk" and expresses concern about high dollar and legal uncertainties.

October 15, 17, 18
Sir Peter warns Govt that Australian union is doing "incalculable" damage to the NZ film industry and that Warners is concerned about the "grey areas" in NZ employment law.

October 28
Govt changes law under urgency to clarify actors are contractors, not employees.

- NZ Herald

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