Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On the ‘quake aftermath, and Sean Plunket’s exit

September 8th, 2010

The news that Police have reported a 53% leap in domestic violence incidents in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake stands in stark contrast to the media narratives of community resilience and stoicism that have dominated media coverage to date. The surprising thing about the Police stats (also being reflected in a 10% rise in the use of refuge services) is the immediacy of the violence.

One might have expected that such stress would be cumulative, and would emerge slowly over weeks and months – as families argued over whether or not to leave their homes, or as workers felt increasingly stressed out by the lasting impact on their jobs and income. Yet clearly, a good deal of social and emotional cost is already being felt, and can be expected to rise.

This aspect of the quake is worth noting, because to date – and understandably – a lot of the assessment has focussed on the purely economic impact. (The Standard has a good analysis here of why the overall economic impact will be negative, not positive.) If local and central government are to avoid the “Katrina” effect of communities feeling mounting stress and dissatisfaction about the pace and extent of assistance, the officials on the ground need to feel they have the discretion to be flexible and inclusive about who gets help under the rules for assistance.

The $350 a week (before tax) wage subsidy plan is a case in point. Initially at least, only firms with under 20 employees qualify for wage assistance. While the scheme is welcome and will assist in the retention of some staff engaged in clean-up and assessment work, it will do little or nothing for those laid off while that process is being gone through. A more compassionate scheme that would do more to keep the work force cohesive would be to extend it to all employees on the books last Friday. This would not only minimize stress and the related potential for domestic violence – it would enable those workers to be swung back into service once something like normal trading conditions can be resumed. Otherwise, limiting the wage subsidy scheme will be a false economy – in that more workers will be put at risk of going onto an extended period of welfare, with added costs in social and emotional stress.

Politically speaking, the earthquake has been a godsend at central government level to John Key. Within local government, it has also thrown a lifeline to the embattled Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, who has been handed a heroic role similar to that of New York mayor Rudy Guiliani in the wake of 9/11. Key has been even luckier. The quake has blown the South Canterbury Finance payout right off the front pages. Ironically, the early Treasury estimate of the devastation done to the unfortunate 350,000 people in Christchurch – $2 billion – is almost the same amount as the huge payout to SCF’s 35,000 lucky investors and speculators. It underlines just how spectacularly generous the SCF payout has been.

Key may have inherited the retail deposit guarantee scheme from Labour. Yet even so, given his fabled experience and reputation for toughness in the financial services sector, it still seems incredible that the taxpayer was left on the hook for the SCF stake plus interest, on Key’s watch, and especially after the scheme was rolled over in April. Well, the quake has spared Key and his administration from the need to face the music about the SCF fiasco. Far easier to throw oneself into the photo opportunities now available all around the Canterbury region.

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Exit Sean Plunket

Sean Plunket’s departure from Morning Report is a major loss to RNZ, and the public at large. Plunket’s rare talent lay in being able to extract information from politicians and officials that they really didn’t want to reveal. These were people media-trained on how to conceal information from the public. (Unfortunately, some journalists are willing to instruct MPs and public servants on how to frustrate the process of open government.) Yet time and again, Plunket would penetrate their defensive barriers, and get information on the table. That’s very hard to do, especially within the time constraints of a 2–3 minute interview.

It isn’t a process calculated to make you likeable. Mary Wilson is the only other RNZ interviewer who comes close to Plunket’s ability to hold feet to the fire and not surprisingly, Plunket’s detractors have called him a bully, while Wilson’s critics tend to find her a shrew. Too bad. In reality, their interviews involve a contest of will and wits where being nice on air will only get you taken for a sucker. Plunket will be a hard act for RNZ to follow, and the search for a replacement has – I’m told – ranged far and wide, and around the globe. Thankfully, RNZ seem to realise that they need to do more than just shuffle the deck of their current contributors.

Oddly enough, Plunket might prove to have needed RNZ almost as much as they needed him. The imperfect and somewhat illogical strictures of state broadcasting have frustrated Plunket for years, but the framework did lend his talent a focus and discipline that may be hard to replicate, elsewhere. No doubt, Plunket will be tempted to unbutton, and offload a few things he’s had on his mind for some time. Hopefully, he will manage to keep a balance in how he goes about it, because there are some cautionary precedents to avoid. Like Lindsay Perigo for instance, a great interviewer within the confines of state broadcasting, but who never found a proper home outside them.

So far The Nation has not been a promising start. Plunket and the audience he served so well on Morning Report deserve far better.

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