Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Managing the Press Gallery, and Afghanistan

October 20th, 2009

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As a free fire exercise in which anything at all can be raised, the Prime Minister’s post Cabinet press conference should be a rewarding experience – and it commonly does set the political agenda for the next 48 hours. Yesterday though was a prime example of the lean pickings in actual content. For the first half hour, the gallery discussed with the Prime Minister and with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, the funding of the Rugby World Cup bid. At best, it ended up with only hints, feints and oblique messages on how much taxpayers will be putting up to underwrite the bid.

We did learn that the bid would entail new government money, and not money taken from existing agency budgets. Initially, Key indicated the bid might be deduced by adding up the existing bids – which led TVNZ’s Guyon Esipner to reasonably hazard a guess that this might be of the order of $5 million. ( Eventually the guessing, winks and nods arrived at a more likely figure of around $3 million.) Because of the alleged commercial sensitivities, Key would not be drawn on an actual figure. All other details – including whether, on principle, the bid partners should expect to share equally in any downstream profits from DVD sales – were stonewalled. Taxpayers will be told how much they are contributing after the deal has been signed, and the money committed.

As usual when commercial sensitivities are invoked by government, one has to wonder just whose sensitivities are being protected. Would the integrity of the bid really be scuppered with the IRB if the size of the government stake in that bid was publicly known ? Hardly. More likely, the public dissemination of the detail of how much the various bid partners – the government, Maori Television, TVNZ and TV3 – were putting in might be politically inconvenient at this stage, in that it would prolong the political embarrassment for both the government and the Maori Party, over how this episode has been managed.

Management. There was a lot of talk about it at this particular press conference. Denied detail, the gallery fell back on veiled critiques of how Key and his Ministers have been managing the business of government. The Rugby World Cup, the ACC changes – couldn’t they, shouldn’t they, have been managed better? Shouldn’t the government be managing its coalition partners better? Maybe they should, but the virtual reduction of the press gallery to the status of management advisers was a telling indication of the dream run that the Key government is having.

When the media – and the critiques issuing from Phil Goff and the Labour Party – are focused almost exclusively on the mere management style of your agenda, the content is already half way home. As indeed, the opening up of ACC to partial privatization appears to be – in accordance with the ACT Party’s demands. That an organization that won barely 3% support at the last election should have such lasting impact on one of the state’s most important safety nets might seem incredible – until Key reminded the press conference that National had no problem in principle with such an idea, and had promised it would be ‘ looking at’ the proposal in its first term. ACT has once again been merely the ball carrier, for a common purpose.

The Maori Party will, in all likelihood, remain in its tent during the ACC changes and disclaim responsibility. Yet this sort of thing is what its support for the government helps to make possible – and fellow travellers really do have to front up, and accept their share of responsibility for the doings of their partners in power. There is an obvious hollowness and rank opportunism to the Maori Party these days that will be harder and harder to sustain as the term progresses. Certainly, proximity to Sharples will have done Maori Television no favours in any of its future dealings with government. Fairly or not, disgruntled Cabinet Ministers have sheeted home much of the blame for the RWC fiasco to Maori Television.

Superficially, Maori Television still gets to ‘lead’ the consortium bid. In practice, that amounts to them winning the right to screen live a lot of games that the other broadcasters don’t want. Not surprisingly, Maori Television loses the exclusivity which was the El Dorado promised by their sole bid, No-one now is going to have to switch to Maori Television to watch the main games. That prospect though, was always unlikely.

One telling detail is that Rick Friesen of TV3 will be the lead manager of the consortium project. True, as Key said in defence when I raised this point at the press conference, Wayne Walden of Maori Television will be chairing the small management group that will be supervising the overall process. However, Friesen will manage the real nuts and bolts of the work.

Put it all together. Over the next two years, TVNZ and TV3 will do the bulk of the promotion buildup for the RWC. TV3 will provide the lead management on how the coverage is organized, and unfolds. In the major games, TVNZ and TV3 will be offering almost exactly the same coverage. More and more, the emptiness of the claim to a “Maori Television led” process becomes apparent. No surprise in that either, really. All year, the Maori Party has engaged in the politics of symbolism over content.



So Afghan leader Hamid Karzai looks like being forced into a run-off election with his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. If nothing else, this vindicates Peter Galbraith, the UN envoy fired from his post in September for continuing to query the legality of Karzai’s election victory, at a time when both the White House and Galbraith’s UN bosses seemed wearily willing to accept that they were lumbered with Karzai. After all…given the clear evidence the Obama administration has about the rampant corruption and drug trade involvement of the Karzai regime, what’s a little bit of election fraud between friends?

Not any longer. To justify the further commitment and inevitable deaths among US and NATO troops, it has been decided some further attempt has to be made to validate the Karzai regime. However, there is no reason to believe the run-off will be spared the pattern of patronage and ballot stuffing that marked the August election. Running an election circus like this though, is the easy part.

Much harder to devise an Afghan strategy that will “work’ – or even to imagine what “working” would actually entail. Crushing Al Qaeda ? Neutralising Bin Laden ? That’s largely been done. If mission creep pushes the goal up to defeating the Taliban militarily and politically – and installing a viable, democratic regime in Afghanistan – then foreigners can glumly look forward to being in Afghanistan for most of this century.

Mission creep is what Barack Obama has inherited. In reality, the call mid year by General Stanley McChrystal, his military chief in Afghanistan, for 40,000 more US troops would be merely this year’s down payment, if one truly believes in the extremely ambitious mission description that McChrystal outlined in the same speech. By some estimates, it would take 300,000 troops to achieve the pacification and stabilisation of Afghanistan along the lines envisaged by McChrystal.

Vice –President Joe Biden, and others in Obama’s inner circle are advocating for a ‘garrison’ solution, instead – whereby the US withdraws to defend and stabilize certain key cities, in order to give the Karzai regime the time and opportunity to develop its own armed forces, and thus enable the US to ultimately withdraw altogether.

Unfortunately history tells us that this garrison strategy has been tried before in Afghanistan, by the Soviets during the 1980s. It didn’t turn out so well for them – or for their protégé Najibullah, who ended up hanging from a lamp-post in Kabul. You can bet that out on the election trail, Hamid Karzai will be arguing quite strenuously against that approach.


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    1. 10 Responses to “Managing the Press Gallery, and Afghanistan”

    2. By George Darroch on Oct 20, 2009 | Reply

      Gordon, your painful observation (something that is indeed sadly obvious) is that the entire press gallery would rather cut off their right leg than talk about policy. It’s all “the Game”. No serious investigation of the claims made about ACC and the changes that are being rammed through under urgency. Let us not forget that this is the healthcare organisation that manages every single injury incurred over a limited time. A huge proportion of our health rests on this organisation. But the response has been simple cheerleading, without spelling out in detail the rationale for change, or the barest of coverage.

      Take for example Colin Espiner’s recent article entitled “Fixing up ACC”. He labels privatisation as a “conspiracy theory“.

      Let me spell it out.

      For this reason, the National Party supports
      the principle of competition and choice in the
      delivery of ACC services in the Work Account
      (covering employees and the self-employed at

      Opening ACC to competition is privatisation of its functions. There is no other way to describe it. This isn’t a secret agenda “peddled by Labour and the EPMU” (peddled – now there is a pejorative term). It’s on the damned National Party policy statement. It has been very well known since the 2005 Election campaign (yes, they released this policy 2 weeks before the election, but it was well read by people who were interested in National’s policies on the matter, people like myself and unlike the entire press gallery – that National deliberately left releasing much of its most important policy until the very end of the campaign was also overlooked by the press gallery). And yes, to have this pushed through under urgency is evidence of the same ramming-through techniques that should be familiar to anybody who lived through the last National Party Government. It’s privatisation of the profitable bit, of course. The insurance industry doesn’t really care all that much for full privatisation. Private insurers have little desire to take on loss making and expensive forms of health insurance. They would rather have the Government keep those.

      If Colin Espiner can’t be bothered to do his research, all well and good. But for him to label people who point out the bleeding obvious as “conspiracy theorists”? I hope that the first person denied cover under the new ACC regime is himself.

    3. By Pattrick Smellie on Oct 20, 2009 | Reply

      Bloody hell – is that really what the top of my head looks like?

    4. By Joe Blow on Oct 21, 2009 | Reply

      Nice point on Afghanistan Gordon. Keep telling it like it is. Instituting a viable democratic Islamic state in Afghanistan will take a long time and a lot of troops…

      I see that Clinton and Gates have been getting pretty chummy so I’m guessing that Biden’s plan is not going to see the light of day. I’m guessing Obama will send in more troops. Whether it will be as much as 40,000 is more difficult to say. Another problem with Biden’s plan is it relies heavily on continued drone bombing in Pakistan which doesn’t sound like a strategy that will keep things simmering in over there. In fact if things start to turn to boiling in Pakistan we’ll be seeing a lot more troops than 40,000 on their way and they won’t be heading to Kabul, they’ll be heading to Islamabad.
      I wonder how much this corruption will hurt Karzai in the run-off. I’m guessing that it has only hurt him in the eyes of the West. I mean let’s face it even if Abdullah Abdullah’s father really was Pashtun the largely Pashtun South only see a Tajik which has been very quiet about his religious affiliation against Karzai who is a Pashtun Sunni muslim. It will likely be a close race and Karzai could still win…

    5. By Sebastian on Oct 23, 2009 | Reply

      The Stocktake is just another gross charade.
      One of many “Urgent” and dramatic taxpayer funded production numbers.
      The real urgent need from the govt is that of good governance- but they seem to prefer scaremongering.

      Even with Colin’s ‘conspiracy theory’ opening up the work account to private Australian insurers is PRIVATIZATION.

      The Govt has failed to justify any of the proposed changes.

    6. By Joe Blow on Oct 23, 2009 | Reply

      Yeah, I agree with you on this point Sebastian. However, I’m more worried about the mining Brownlee’s got planned for National Parks. Have you looked into that one much yet Gordon? It’d be good if you could let us know what’s up if you have…

    7. By Sebastian on Oct 24, 2009 | Reply

      ACC has an big egg(ACC fund)that Nick & Co want to urgently crack open.
      If the govt continue down this path we are facing outsourced claims, increased administration costs,private claims management in a nasty “hybrid”.
      Outsourcing seems to gives this ‘govt’ a collective woody(as they just hide the job losses under Bennett’s dress).
      ACC has been told by insurance experts that private sector involvement does not show benefits.

      You are more worried about Jabba’s mining in NZ ? But how can you worry about that?
      Your War piece Obama is down with it coal heartedly.
      No I am not playing with you- out of concern your spinning head will explode like one of Austin Power’s fem bots.

    8. By Joe Blow on Oct 24, 2009 | Reply

      We can get ACC back with a new government like when Labour reversed these very same changes which they implemented in 1999 and they are now reimplementing again now. However, you can’t reverse mining of National Parks. Once its done and dusted there is not turning the clock back.

    9. By Joe Blow on Oct 24, 2009 | Reply

      That’s no turning the clock back… sorry I can’t really type… Oh and that’s probably implemented in 1998 and reversed by Labour in 1999 to be accurate.

    10. By Sebastian on Oct 26, 2009 | Reply

      Joe as you said some things can’t be reversed – like the planned 3 year total destruction of the ACC scheme.
      This time it’s different.

    11. By Joe Blow on Oct 27, 2009 | Reply

      Yeah I agree it’s different. They didn’t actually manage to get to implement the privatisation plans they set in motion in 1998 and this time they will follow through and it will be very difficult to turn back the clock on that. However, it is still possible for the clock to be turned back while a hollow National Park can never be put back to what it is now…

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