Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Industry and Art Are Two Different Things

This morning on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon, Linda Clark interviewed veteran Kiwi filmmaker Gaylene Preston about her work and the state of the film industry in New Zealand. It was a telling conversation.

Preston argued that the lack of tax incentives in New Zealand means that the film industry in this country will never amount to much. That’s because the major studios look for more than scenery. They have become used to an international system of tax rebates to help lure projects away from California and to new centres like Vancouver, Australia and Britain. Although Preston was critical of major studios (she is after all an independent, creative director) she had to admit that relocating major projects to places like New Zealand helps to develop opportunities and skills for people in this country.

If you are reading this from “overseas” as they say here, please be patient. This is all very new in this country.

Predictably, Linda Clark was hostile to the idea of giving corporations a tax incentive. And what was really interesting was Linda Clark’s inability to distinguish between major international projects (the “industry”) and lower budget, local films that told New Zealand stories. Her argument went like this: if the studios aren’t going to tell our stories, why should we give them anything? It’s a typical Kiwi attitude, one that fails to see the connection between using tax incentives for key industries (such as film and television) that directly and indirectly help to foster local, independent production.

Notably, Linda wasn’t too concerned that there wouldn’t be anywhere to show such films, since New Zealand has no publicly funded national television broadcaster.

New Zealand’s neo-liberal ideological climate is so pervasive that, as I have argued before, there are many on the left who are utterly opposed to the idea of tax incentives. This country’s “neutral” tax structure, lauded by the OECD and conservatives, also finds its supporters among those who should be defending the ability of a democratic state to intervene in the economy for the benefit of its citizens. Lack of tax incentives has led to a dearth of investment in sectors of the economy that are critical to Labour’s project of building a knowledge economy.

Now comes news in the New Zealand Herald that government is considering resorting to tax incentives as a way to boost New Zealand’s pathetically low level of investment in information and communication technologies (ICT).

The Herald, no friend of the kind progressive economics practised everywhere else in the world, gave the story the bizarre headline: “Government taskforce promotes politically incorrect tax incentives.”

It just shows how skewed the debate is here. Let’s hope that the recommendations of the ICT taskforce provide a focus for reasoned policy that emulates the successes of other jurisdictions.