'Hobbit law' change vindication for late union leader

11:44 am on 10 November 2017

Opinion - It has come too late for Helen Kelly but the announcement that the Labour-led government is setting up a working group to replace the so-called Hobbit law would have given her a great sense of satisfaction and vindication.

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Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Ms Kelly, who died last year, had been involved in the industrial dispute in 2010 over the filming of The Hobbit which led the National-led government to remove the right of film and television workers to organise collectively.

That law was rushed through Parliament overnight as the government bowed to the demands of the powerful Hollywood studios.

Even worse, the government told the public the Hobbit dispute was unresolved despite knowing that days earlier the actors' union, Equity, had agreed to lift the international boycott on the film.

But by claiming the industrial threat still existed, putting the filming of the Hobbit in New Zealand at risk, the government was able to counter any public disquiet about the law change and the fact it also increased the film's subsidies by another $30 million.

Peter Jackson

Photo: AFP

Ms Kelly, then president of the Council of Trade Unions, was particularly dismayed the Minister of Economic Development, Gerry Brownlee, who had been involved in the negotiations, went on television and called her a liar after she said the dispute was over.

The following week, senior executives from Warner Bros made an urgent trip to New Zealand, ostensibly to deal with the dispute. But the matter had already been resolved, partly with the help of Ms Kelly and the CTU, and the government knew that.

Ms Kelly wrote a blog on the dispute to outline the CTU's view of what happened.

"It is clear that had it been known to the public that Warners and the Government already knew that the industrial dispute had been settled and boycott lifted Warners' trip to New Zealand would have been hard to justify and the subsequent promise of additional taxpayer money and urgent law change would have been untenable. All players opposed to the union had a strong interest in maintaining the fiction. They needed to keep the dispute live to protect themselves and the Government from looking conspiratorial - a collusion against the New Zealand taxpayer and New Zealand workers," she wrote.

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

So keen was the government to keep it secret that it took until 2013 - after repeated appeals to the Ombudsman by RNZ and Ms Kelly - for papers and emails related to the dispute to finally be made public.

They confirmed the government and Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson had known the dispute had been resolved at the same time as they were telling the public it had not.

The papers also revealed Sir Peter's animosity towards the union. In one email he referred to union official Simon Whipp as a "snake".

As well, the papers showed the government initially had seen no need to change employment law relating to film and television workers. But Sir Peter and the Hollywood studios continued to pressure the government to do so. So late in October it bowed to those demands and changed the law in a day to make it absolutely clear actors and crew were independent contractors, not employees.

While Sir Peter and the Hollywood studios got the chance to make their case to the government about employment law, the workers directly affected had no such opportunity.

Now that law is to be changed but this time not without consultation with all players in the film and television industry. The rewritten legislation will presumably also go to a select committee for more public scrutiny before becoming law.

Helen Kelly would be pleased her advocacy on behalf of those workers is finally being recognised. Sir Peter is probably less pleased.

* Brent Edwards is a former RNZ political editor

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