27 Apr 2012

Govt misled public over Hobbit - opposition

7:07 pm on 27 April 2012

Opposition parties say the Government misled the public over changes to labour laws to facilitate filming the Hobbit movies in New Zealand.

Papers obtained by Radio New Zealand under the Official Information Act reveal just how much the Government conceded to US studio Warner Bros to ensure that the films, directed by Sir Peter Jackson, were made in New Zealand.

The papers also show the Government was less than forthcoming with the public about the reasons for changing the employment law to keep Warner Bros happy.

In October 2010, the Government did a deal with Warner Bros to ensure the films stayed in New Zealand amid fears an industrial dispute with actors would force them to be shot elsewhere.

Changes to the labour law were passed in Parliament under urgency in 2010 after a boycott of the Hobbit movies by some unions in the film industry.

The Government says the uncertainty caused by this made the law change necessary, although the Council of Trade Unions did say at the time that the boycott had been lifted.

However, the papers reveal that an agreement had already been signed ending the dispute and the Government knew that.

Labour Party MP Charles Chauvel says it is clear the National Government misled the public over changes to labour laws passed under urgency to facilitate the filming of The Hobbit.

Mr Chauvel says this shows a willingness to sell-out New Zealand's own interests to foreign corporations.

"As the union said at the time, there was no threat of industrial action - it had been withdrawn. And yet the Government proceeded to insist that that was not the case - even in Parliament when they were changing labour laws at the behest of corporate interests. I think this is a pretty sorry tale and reflects pretty badly on our Government."

Green Party MP Denise Roche says the legislation change is steeped in cronyism. She says the move was undemocratic and invites a parallel comparison to the convention centre deal being discussed by the Government and SkyCity at present.

The Government is talking with SkyCity to build the $350 million centre in Auckland in return for a law change allowing it to operate more gaming machines.

"To pass it under urgency with just one day to debate the entire issue was just appalling. The other thing that really got me was they were using Actors Equity as the scapegoat to shove this legislation though, despite the fact that it was already resolved," Ms Roche says.

"It's just another case of selling the law to a multinational company - they're doing it again with SkyCity."

Right thing to do, says PM

Prime Minister John Key says without the change, the Hobbit films would not have been made in New Zealand and the country got a tremendous deal.

"It's seen two blockbuster movies worth $1 billion being made in New Zealand. As we established at the time, if we hadn't changed the law in terms of the definition of a contractor, those movies wouldn't have been made.

"Warner Brothers were quite clear - those movies would have been made overseas and New Zealand would have been much poorer for it. So in my view, it was absolutely the right thing to do."

During the process, Cabinet Minister Gerry Brownlee said he kept in close contact with Sir Peter Jackson to tell him what the Government had decided about the actors' dispute.

The papers released under the Official Information Act show Mr Brownlee, who at the time was the Economic Development Minister, rang Sir Peter after Cabinet meetings to tell him what decisions had been made.