Guyon Espiner leaving Morning Report

One can always quibble about political interviews, but I think generally Guyon Espiner on RNZ’s Morning Report has been one of the better interviewers – well prepared and as persistent as is possible with politicians trying to avoid giving straight or relevant answers.

This is Espiner’s last day on Morning Report (he is moving to another job in RNZ). Newsroom interviewed him about hos tenure – Guyon Espiner: What I won’t apologise for

… there are two major things people have complained about over the past five years and I am not sorry for either of them. I am not sorry for speaking te reo Māori on the radio and I am not sorry about interrupting politicians.

You might remember the backlash when about two years ago I started to use more te reo Māori on Morning Report. The messages streamed in. Diatribe, gibberish and rubbish were some of the less offensive descriptions. Listeners invited me on a daily basis to leave to a ‘Māori station’ and one texted to ask “when are you going to get a grass skirt and put shoe polish on your face”.

For a Pākehā from a privileged background it was a small insight into racism in New Zealand, a tiny sliver of what some people must put up with every day.

But slowly that receded and now the main complaint I get is that I speak te reo Māori too quickly. Slow down. We want to learn, they say. So thank you for that too.

While I had thousands of complaints from Pākehā, I’m not aware of one complaint from Māori. Not one. So to other Pākehā worried about how they’ll be received for using te reo Māori: from my experience, if you put the work in you will be rewarded and embraced. Karawhiua e hoa mā.

I find the use of te reo on RNZ (by Espiner and others) a bit of a distraction, and I largely ignore it, but I understand the importance of it to others. Our national broadcaster should cater for everyone.

The other thing I am not sorry for is interrupting politicians. I know some of you swear at the radio and have even thrown things. Admit it.

I’ll make a deal with you. The day politicians give straight answers to legitimate questions I’ll hear them out and move on to the next question. Until then, they need to be dragged back on track or they’ll just read out the talking points in a non-answer to a question you never asked. They will run down the clock until they are saved by the pips.

Getting decent answers out of politicians trained and practiced in avoiding answering questions, and diverting to spouting their own parrot points, is a very difficult task, but interviewers should persist, as Espiner has done.

What is he going to do now?

The satisfaction I got from doing The 9th Floor series of interviews with former prime ministers came to mind (yes I was probably the only person in the ward thinking about Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer at 2am). I want to get back to long form and investigative journalism.

I’m staying at RNZ so you can judge here on the website and on the radio whether I’ve been successful or not.

I think he has been successful on Morning Report, and I’m sure he will do a good job with whatever he does at RNZ from next week.

Winston Peters challenged on past comments on Islam

Winston Peters has avoided answering for historical contentious comments about Islam until now, but when he fronted up on RNZ this morning as Acting Prime Minister he was asked about his past remarks by Guyon Espiner.

Peters sounded not very happy about it, and seemed quite uncomfortable being reminded of his divisive and inflammatory comments.

RNZ, te reo Māori and Brash

Ki te tangata?

An increased use of te reo Māori on Radio NZ has been a talking point for some time.

It doesn’t bother me, but I think it is overdone at times.

But it has bothered Don Brash. Late last month:

There was a response by Emma Espiner at Newsroom: The threat of Te Reo

It’s become a running joke among friends and family that my husband, vampire-like, feeds on and grows stronger with each criticism of his use of Te Reo in his role as co-presenter of RNZ’s Morning Report. What’s less of a joke is the sustained attempts by some, who agree with Brash, who are fighting against the use of Te Reo and against Guyon and RNZ in the form of BSA complaints and letters to RNZ’s managers, CEO and Board.

I dislike the ‘old white men’ argument where one simply says those three words and the offending viewpoint is rejected because of its provenance without any further need for debate.

It’s good to see her saying this.

What’s interesting to me as a Māori woman, is the way that my Pākēhā husband has been able to champion Te Reo into the mainstream in a way that it would be impossible for me to do, were I in his position. As a Pākēhā man with a powerful role in the New Zealand media he has a position of extraordinary privilege from which to challenge the status quo. He has strong support in this endeavour among the leadership of RNZ, most importantly from other noted Pākeha man, CEO Paul Thompson.

Over at TVNZ Jack Tame is cutting a similarly admirable path on the flagship Breakfast show.

The complaints about Te Reo being used in mainstream media give me great heart looking to the future. This positive response might surprise some, but I believe we can view these people (and they’re always the same people) as the rearguard of progress.

As society shifts, they will continue to yap at our heels and protest, but the trend for Aotearoa is against bland mono-culturalism and fearful mono-lingualism.

A decade ago it was Māori Television. Today, it’s using Te Reo on Morning Report and Breakfast TV and putting macrons in newspapers.

In ten years time these things will be completely normal and there will be another battle, which the rearguard will again resist and lose.

There is definitely a trend. In the main I am fine with this. But not so Brash – and Kim Hill wasn’t fine with Brash over it.

She interviewed him on 2 December, if ‘it can be called an ‘interview’: Don Brash – Ragging on Te Reo

He has weighed into the debate about the use of Te Reo in the past few weeks, saying he’s “utterly sick” of the use of the language by RNZ reporters and presenters.

I haven’t listened to that, but I saw a lot of comment about it. It is still being talked about.

Karl du Fresne: Don Brash didn’t stand a chance against Kim Hill

The first was to think he could criticise a high-profile Radio New Zealand presenter on Facebook and get away with it. The second and much bigger mistake was to accept an invitation to explain himself on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show.

Inevitably, Brash was savaged. It was as close as RNZ will ever get to blood sport as entertainment.

Brash described Espiner’s flaunting of his fluency in te reo as “virtue signalling” – in other words, displaying one’s superior moral values.

For this offence against the spirit of biculturalism, the former National and ACT leader was summoned for a discipline session with Radio NZ’s resident dominatrix.

The result was entirely predictable. Hill was acerbic and sneering from the outset.

She didn’t bother to conceal her contempt for Brash and neither did she bother to maintain any pretence that this was a routine interview, conducted for the purpose of eliciting information or expanding public understanding of the issue.

It was a demolition job, pure and simple – utu, if you prefer – and I doubt that it was ever intended to be anything else. Its purpose was to expose Brash as a political and cultural dinosaur and to punish him for criticising Hill’s colleague.

Perhaps, but it could have been more than that. Hill may have also thought that Brash was a political and cultural dinosaur.

Then du Fresne gets to the crux of his complaint.

Here’s where we get down to the real issue. RNZ is a public institution.  It belongs to us.

The public who fund the organisation are entitled to criticise it. But can we now expect that anyone who has the temerity to do so will be subjected to a mauling by RNZ’s in-house attack dog? Or is this treatment reserved for despised white conservative males such as Brash, to make an example of them and deter others from similar foolishness?

Either way, Hill’s dismemberment of Brash was a brazen abuse of the state broadcaster’s power and showed contemptuous disregard for RNZ’s charter obligation to be impartial and balanced.

I presume Brash was given some sort of right of reply in the interview. I don’t know if he was given a decent chance to defend himself.

This is nothing new, of course. The quaint notion that RNZ exists for all New Zealanders was quietly jettisoned years ago. Without any mandate, the state broadcaster has refashioned itself as a platform for the promotion of favoured causes.

I often listen to Morning Report, it looks at a wide range of topical issues in far more depth than most other media, and generally seems reasonably fair and balanced.

Interviewers do sometimes push their guests hard – but this is essential, in politics in particular. It is a sign of a healthy democracy.

But Brash has a perfectly valid point. Whatever the benefits of learning te reo, it is not the function of the state broadcaster to engage in social engineering projects for our collective betterment – for example, by implying we should all emulate RNZ reporters and start referring to Auckland as Tāmaki Makaurau and Christchurch as Ōtautahi.

Social engineering? That seems over the top. RNZ is not making me use te reo Māori, and I generally don’t. Also, I learn something from their use if it. That’s a good thing.

There’s quite a bit on RNZ I don’t want to listen to. If so I turn it off (increasingly frequently when John Campbell gushes over the top in another crusade).

RNZ does many things very well and my quality of life would be greatly diminished without it, but no one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of many of its presenters and producers.

RNZ is often referred to as ‘Red Radio’.

Some of the RNZ presenters have fairly obvious political leanings, to varying degrees. That’s normal in any media. I can make no judgement of their producers, I don’t listen to them.

But te reo Māori is cultural, not political, so du Fresne seems to be confused.

Brash criticised Guyon Espiner in particular, someone who seems more balanced and non-politically leaning than most journalists in politics.

Du Fresne’s article has morphed from a grizzle about the use of te reo Māori, to a grizzle about Kim Hill doing a tough interview on the poor Don Brash, to a grizzle about some radio presenters appearing to favour one side of the political spectrum.

I could go to The Daily Blog or The Standard and find plenty of claims that media is far too right wing. This is just lame ad hominum from them, and that is what du Fresne resorted to in trying to conclude his argument against the use of te reo Māori on RNZ.

Perhaps that should be ad hominum/ad feminum (Latin seems to be a sexist language).

Or should it be ki te tangata? What about ki te wahine? (Māori seems to be a sexist language)

But at least du Fresne is talking about it. RNZ successfully getting a point across. You will inevitably annoy some people when you try and make cultural progress.

The Peters-Espiner interview

Guyon Espiner interviewed Winston Peters on RNZ this morning. It was widely regarded as not very flattering of Peters. Perhaps staunch supporters still think he’s got what it takes but it raises serious doubts of his capabilities.

RNZ link: The Leader Interview – Winston Peters

A $3 billion costing for New Zealand First’s policy to remove GST from basic food was a mistake, Winston Peters has told Morning Report.

Mr Peters said his party’s policies were costed at $10bn over seven or eight years, he said.

Taking GST off basic food would be $600-700 million, he said, and the mention of $3bn on the party’s website was a mistake by someone in his team.

“In fact I had a discussion with my team just about two days ago about correcting that,” he said. “Parties make mistakes and in this case it’s been corrected, it should have been corrected.”

The NZ First website had clearly showed GST would come off food with no mention of ‘basic food’.

The party would leave it to a group of ordinary men and women to decide what foods would be considered basic, though Mr Peters said bread would be on the list, but chips and biscuits would not.

This flatters Peters.

The best coverage is from The Spinoff with transcripts: ‘Words do mean things’: Highlights from Guyon Espiner’s brutal interview with Winston Peters

Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner had been reading NZ First’s website, apparently a lot more than Winston Peters. He asked, mostly, what its content would cost. He did it over and over and Peters almost never had an answer. For a man who was, until recently, subject of semi-plausible speculation about his potential to be prime minister, he appeared astoundingly ill-informed.

Over and over Espiner honed in on what these big, blustering populisms would cost, over and over Winston dissembled and guessed (almost always incorrectly, sometimes by upwards of a $1b on a single policy).

But the interview became an instant classic less for what Winston didn’t know and more for the pure entertainment value it contained.

I wouldn’t call it entertainment when that is how someone who could decide who runs the next government performs. Peters was embarrassing.

9th Floor – Helen Clark

This weeks 9th Floor interview was with Helen Clark.

RNZ: The Commander – Helen Clark

After researching and conducting interviews with five former Prime Ministers it’s a strange feeling to realise that the job doesn’t exist. There is no job description. You can take a chair of the board, consensus approach and delegate power to Ministers as steward of the Cabinet or you can be master and commander.

“We don’t have a written constitution so nowhere is it written down what are the powers of the Prime Minister. It’s partly your personality. It’s the skills that you’ve got and it’s how you use the office,” Clark says.

My feeling was that, such was her dominance, if Clark said something out loud then in would happen. She largely agrees, adding that “what you say in public you need to have thought about because if you say it, it’s going to happen”.

Her actions in calling a snap election in 2002 are a vivid example of how she wielded power. So how does it actually work? Can you just call a snap election? Not according to our last Prime Minister John Key. “The reality is… to have an early election you can’t just say, it’s a lovely day in March let’s have an election,” Key told RNZ last September. He went on say that in order to hold a snap election the government would have to either lose a confidence vote or go to the Governor General and say it could no longer command a majority.

So I asked Clark what happened when she went to the Governor General to make the case for a dissolution of Parliament in 2002. Did the Governor General test you? Clark laughed at this, an ‘are you kidding?’ laugh. “They act on advice.” So despite what Key believed, you can pretty much call an election when you like? “Pretty much,” Clark replied.

And that was pretty much the style of Clark the Prime Minister. She was a huge force and her influence spanned a vast array of policy and almost none of it, she famously said, came from the tens of thousands of public servants.

Clark is the best known of the Prime Ministers we interviewed. She was our first mass media Prime Minister, interviewed morning, noon and night. But her nine years on the ninth floor look different, nine years after leaving office.

Unlike Key, it was the voters who decided Clark’s time of departure. We discuss that too and her thoughts on what it is like to lose power are as interesting as how she sought to hold power and to exercise it.

The whole interview at RNZ will be fascinating to watch when I get a chance over the weekend.

Previous 9th Floor interviews: http://www.radionz.co.nz/programmes/the-9th-floor

9th Floor – Jenny Shipley

The next interview in the RNZ ‘9th Floor’ series features Jenny Shipley.


The 9th Floor: Jenny Shipley – The Challenger

By Guyon Espiner

Jenny Shipley evoked strong responses from New Zealanders during her time in politics and I suspect that, with her new comments about “middle class welfare” and working with Winston Peters, she is about to do so again.

But while people respond strongly to Shipley, there has been very little examination of her leadership. Researching the interview for The 9th Floor series, Tim Watkin and I found there were few books and very little academic study of this hugely influential New Zealand politician.

During the day we spent with Shipley she said New Zealand needs to take the “blowtorch” to middle class welfare, with student allowances and healthcare areas where middle and higher income earners should pay more. She finds it “morally bankrupt” that the country doesn’t have an honest discussion about this and that she personally feels “sick” that on her income she can’t opt out of subsidised health care.

She also has some fascinating observations about working with Winston Peters, who may again be a key coalition player after the coming election.

“Winston could have been Prime Minister but for want of himself. His complexity often got ahead of his capability. Watching him on a good day he was brilliant,” she says. “He was an 85 percent outstanding leader. And the 15 percent absolutely crippled him because he would get so myopically preoccupied with a diversion that it took away his capability and intent on the main goal.”

Shipley also says that Peters, Deputy Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998, was excellent at absorbing information but sometimes simply hadn’t done the reading. “I would make a personal judgement as he came into my office as to whether the envelope with the papers in it was either open or closed and it often would tell me the extent to which he had read what we were then going to discuss. I learned to both respect and manage it and on those days the meetings were short.”

Perhaps more than any other leader we spoke to she lets us in on the influences, conflicts and complexities of being Prime Minister. There are two striking aspects to this. The influence and impact on her family is one, and includes a harrowing story of how death threats against her affected her young son. The other is being a woman at the top of politics. Would history have treated Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson differently if they were men?

The 9th floor – Jim Bolger

In the third The 9th Floor interview Jim Bolger is headlined as ‘the negotiator’ but is stirring things up on ‘neo-liberalism’ and race relations.

RNZ: The Negotiator – Jim Bolger: Prime Minister 1990-97

I think Jim Bolger might be about to spark a debate. Two debates actually. One on our economic settings and the other on race relations.

On neo-liberalism:

He says neo-liberalism has failed and suggests unions should have a stronger voice.

“They have failed to produce economic growth and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top,” Bolger says, not of his own policies specifically but of neoliberalism the world over. He laments the levels of inequality and concludes “that model needs to change.”

So should we scrap neoliberalism?

Or fix what’s wrong and leave what is generally working ok?

On race relations:

He says Treaty of Waitangi settlements may not be full and final and that Maori language tuition should be compulsory in primary schools.

Indeed Bolger is at his most passionate speaking about Maori issues. He has a visceral hatred of racism and explains the personal context for that.

We asked him whether future generations will open up Treaty settlements again – given Maori got a fraction of what was lost – or whether they are genuinely full and final. He says it is a “legitimate” question and “entirely up to us”.

If Maori are still at the bottom of the heap “then you can expect someone to ask the question again because it means that society has failed”.

He is also scathing of former National leader Don Brash’s Orewa speech on ‘Maori privilege’. “It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Trump but it was in that frame.” Of course Don Brash never made it to PM, replaced by John Key in 2006. ‘Gone by lunchtime,’ was the political phrase popular at the time.

Bolger also says it’s time to give power back to unions.

Being a more recent Prime Minister makes the issues he raises more pertinent to today’s debates.

Espiner interview with Mike Moore

The 9th floor – Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Winston Russell Palmer KCMG AC QC  became the 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand in August 1989. He was rolled by Mike Moore in September 1990, two months before an election that Labour crashed in.

Guyon Espiner (RNZ) is doing a series of interviews with five ex Prime Ministers., starting with Palmer.

The Standard has a summary in RNZ: The 9th floor – Palmer

The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

NZ’s earliest living Prime Minister begins the series reflecting on the revolutionary fourth Labour government and his year as one of its three Prime Ministers.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer was one of New Zealand’s most prolific lawmakers and reformers, but a reluctant politician.

Imagine a country where the Prime Minister set the price of basic goods. Where the Cabinet, without having to even put it to a vote in Parliament, decided the wages you get and the taxes and interest rates you pay.

That was the country Geoffrey Palmer was determined to change when he entered Parliament in 1979. It was an economy, he told The 9th Floor, that no young New Zealander would recognise. … Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, describes Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as running an elected dictatorship between 1975 and 1984. It’s a big claim. …

Ultimately of course Palmer would get his chance to run the country too. He was Prime Minister for 13 months sandwiched between David Lange and Mike Moore, who a desperate Labour party turned to just two months before the 1990 election in a bid to save the furniture.

So what was it like to run the country? What is it like to be Prime Minister? “I found being the leader a nuisance,” Palmer told us. …

RNZ report and audio: full hour-long interview

Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power – precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.

Palmer is worth listening to but not necessarily heeding. He has proposed a written constitution that doesn’t seem to have excited many, and he has proposed making voting compulsory – see next post.

Comments at The Standard suggest that Palmer is not revered on the left, but being associated with the Lange/Douglas era of reform is an instant fail for many.

Sanctuary lead off.

That went a long way to re-confirming my view of Geoffrey Palmer as a very intelligent uber-technocrat completely besotted with his own cleverness.

The man has the certainty and fanaticism of the technocrat, the arrogance of a self-regarding intellectual and the political nous of a fool. He was, and remains, a very dangerous conviction politician with scant regard for the opinions of the hoi polloi.

Listening to Palmer, the viciously toxic culture of arrogance of the Roger Douglas era Labour cabinet comes flooding back.

He followed up:

Nothing wrong with being clever, but being a clever clogs who projects that as an intellectual hauteur is IMHO an absolutely fatal and fundamental flaw in a (so called in this case) left wing politician.

Palmer’s ability to diagnose the ills of the world are not particularly unique, you or I could have just have easily rattled of the list of fairly trite topics – climate change, Trump, the crisis of democracy – he did. What struck me about Palmer was his unerring technocratic ability to correctly identify a crisis then just as unerringly use that crisis as a vehicle to push an agenda driven and completely incorrect solution.

For instance, the crisis of democracy and voting won’t be fixed by a written constitution or fiddling with how we vote. Palmer’s constant fetishisation of mechanistic solutions to political problems with their origin in fundamental clashes between democracy and authoritarian global capitalism is entirely keeping with the machine like mind and lack of imagination of the high priesthood of neo-liberal technocrats across the West.

Palmer is more suited to being a legal academic than a political leader or reformer.

He comes across as too theoretical and not practical.

How big should tax cuts be?

Bill English made this point several times today: “We’re not putting forward tax cuts as some kind of sugar shock.”

So he is signalling tweaks rather than slashes, to be announced in May’s budget, and indicated to probably take effect in April 2018 (at least it’s not April 2038 like proposed  Super changes).

Is a little bit less tax going to be enough?

From RNZ Tax cuts ‘on the table’ – PM

Guyon Espiner: So you said that their probably will be a point of differentiation, that means there will be tax cuts offered by National.

Bill English: Ah yeah we’ve got tax cuts are on the table, ah we will look at that in the context of these other demands such as the growth in population, the need for infrastructure to support a growing economy,.

Guyon Espiner: So there will be cuts.

Bill English: Well they’re on the table. We go through the process now in the lead up to the budget and the campaign.

Guyon Espiner: Will any tax cuts that you introduce take effect in 2017, or will they only take effect should you win the election?

Bill English: Look most measures that you bring in to do with household incomes would follow the usual cycle which is if they’re announced this year they’d start first of April next year.

But this election year, and it would be odd to commit to tax cuts that may not take effect if National loses power in September.

However it is much tidier implementing income tax changes at the start of the tax year and the May budget will be too late for that.

Guyon Espiner: Ok so no tax cuts taking effect this year, only if you win.

Bill English: Well we would follow the normal cycle.

Guyon Espiner: Ok, John Key had talked about three billion dollars of expenditure needed to make a meaningful tax cut. Is that the sort of ball park that you’re operating in?

Bill English: Look that’s yet to be seen, there’s economic forecasting going on now about how the economy is going to grow, ah there’s these issues around what growth pressures there are right across our public services, the needs for long term infrastructure, the need to get our debt down, so the process we go through is to make sure we’ve got a clear understanding of all those.

I think partly for the reasons that have been discussed and that is people won’t want to see ah surpluses used just on one thing when we’ve got this range of needs to meet.

Guyon Espiner: And you’re looking at lower and middle income earners as your priority?

Bill English: Ah yes, we’ve stated that for quite some time.

Guyon Espiner: lower income, or lower and middle?

Bill English: Well lower and middle income, you know everyone thinks they’re middle income, but I think you’ve got people there who don’t always get support that’s available for lower income households, ah and they want to be able to share in the growth in the economy the same as everyone else.

Guyon Espiner: And you’re talking about those sorts of families getting, you know, north of twenty thirty dollars a week?

Bill English: Well look that’s…

Guyon Espiner: It’s not worth it otherwise is it?

Ten or twenty dollars extra a week would probably be gratefully accepted by many people who are not earning incomes like Espiner.

Bill English: Well you know we’re not putting forward tax cuts as some kind of sugar shot, ah that’s going to…

Guyon Espiner: Why are you doing them then? What’s the rational?

Compensating for the effectively increased tax rates through bracket creep for one thing.

Bill English: Well it’s just over time you’ve got these, if you’ve got a growing economy and surpluses then you can, through a variety of mechanisms support households and lift…

Guyon Espiner: Yeah but they have to be meaningful to lift incomes don’t they, I mean ten bucks a week isn’t going to cut it is it.

Bill English: Well it depends on what sort of household you are, and ah what other changes go on.

Guyon Espiner:  So you can promise that it’s going to be more than that or…

Bill English: No I’m not going to be making any promises today, but there’s, look, people get support from Government through a whole range of mechanisms, last, two or three years ago we did the free doctors visits for under thirteens. That was you know a help to households who had twelve year old children.

Guyon Espiner: So it wraps into this family package that we heard about last year. You’re looking at Working for Families increases potentially as well.

Bill English: Well there’s you know we’ve got these choices…

Guyon Espiner: Thats on the mix?

Bill English: We’ve got a lot of choices here, ah, but it is important that um the ah anything that’s done around household incomes fits alongside meeting these other requirements of a growing economy such as the pressure on public services.

That was mostly a wasted interview.

Espiner tried to push English into committing to a universal lotto win for exeryone as he has no idea what a few dollars difference might mean to people at the bottom of the income pile, but English had no inclination to give away any specifics  about what might be in the budget in two months time.

English didn’t have much to say about it apart from repeat hints of tax cuts so waffled around the issue. The only thing he did was repeat “growing economy” a few times, which seems to be the crux of National’s campaign strategy at this still early stage.