Nelson MP Nick Smith raised good questions in Parliament the other day around the Government’s policy to refuse entry to vessels for engineering and maintenance work.
According to one businessman in Smith’s home patch, this is costing jobs and millions of dollars in work.
Customs Minister Jenny Salesa’s responses highlighted a double standard: yes, many businesses are being hurt by the closed-border policy but the government has got to be tough to protect our health and wellbeing.
The trouble with this defence of the border policy is that we all know the government can be persuaded to make an exemption in the case of the film industry and workers coming here from Covid-plagued Trumpland.
Salesa said she stood by Customs’ decision to give effect to immigration rules, explaining that the government must safeguard the good people of this country against Covid-19.
“This Government’s position has continued to be that the best economic response is a strong public health response. While I appreciate this is an incredibly difficult time for many businesses in New Zealand, our Government has made unprecedented support available for businesses like AIMEX. I encourage them to take up any and all support that they are eligible for from the Government during this unprecedented time.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Is the Minister saying it’s better for New Zealand for companies like AIMEX to take a wage subsidy rather than actually letting them do the work that earns the company and the country income
Hon JENNY SALESA: The question is mainly about whether or not we allow a fishing vessel like this to come through. The decision made by the Government has not been to open up our border. We are 12 days into having zero COVID-19 cases, with only one active case. In terms of foreign ships, on 26 May a foreign fishing boat emerged as one of the points of transmission where a foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed vessel with 29 members of its crew being COVID-19 positive was heading towards the Pacific. A vaccine is not yet available for COVID-19, so the fact is that we are focused on saving lives and focused on public health. We are now looking at the recovery of our economy, but I stand by our Government and our response.
Smith was particularly interested in the Customs Department’s decision to refuse entry to a fishing vessel, the Captain Vincent Gann.
He reminded Salesa that – the previous day – she had said the Customs refusal to allow entry of the Capt. Vincent Gann from American Samoa to New Zealand was based on advice of the ministry and Director-General of Health, but (he said) her department has admitted it never sought any advice from the Ministry of Health or the director-general on that vessel from American Samoa
Salesa fended the thrust, saying Smith had asked her the previous day whether she stood by Customs’ policies and actions—a very general question. Then he followed up with the question about this particular vessel. Had he put down a specific question like that, she contended, she would have been able to answer in specific ways.
Smith now brought the matter of the state-privileged film industry into considerations.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does she accept that the COVID-19 risks for the fishing crew from American Samoa are far less than from the film crew that’s been allowed in by the Government from California, when American Samoa has had zero cases and zero deaths, and California has had 115,000 cases and 4,200 deaths?
Hon JENNY SALESA: I reiterate that this particular ship was a foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed ship. They were not all Americans or American Samoans on that particular ship. Customs enforces the rules and laws that Parliament and Cabinet set. The exemptions for visas are by the Minister of Immigration and the exemptions for jobs are by the Minister for Economic Development. The honourable member who has been a member for many, many decades—more than me—should know if he was to put down this kind of question who the right Minister is to ask about these sorts of issues.
After a series of points of order, Smith carried on with his questions:
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does she stand by the advice of her Customs officials, dated 21 May, that the Capt. Vincent Gann, that has previously had $6.5 million of work in Nelson, should, and I quote, “undertake the repair work in Hawaii.”?
Hon JENNY SALESA: I do stand by Customs’ decision to give effect to the immigration rules. I am informed that the ship was not advised to head to Hawaii by New Zealand officials; rather, it was asked why it was not heading to Hawaii because it was requiring repairs immediately. I understand that Hawaii was the nearest port at that time for this foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed ship.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Will she or any of her ministerial colleagues visit the Port Nelson marine engineering base and directly explain, to the workers that will be losing their jobs in the next weeks, Government policy?
Hon JENNY SALESA: I will take advisement from Customs officials on that.
Alas, the businesses whose interests Smith was promoting are not nearly as deserving of special favours as the film industry.
The international crew of Avatar 2 has broken through border barriers that otherwise are closed to all foreign nationals and has been given special permission to enter New Zealand to begin filming a sequel.
This was reported in overseas newspapers such as The Guardian in a light which showed our oh-so-kind PM is being especially kind and caring to the film industry.
The country’s strict lockdown appears to have worked, with fewer than 1,500 cases of coronavirus and 22 deaths. New Zealanders are now enjoying a loosened lockdown, with many aspects of normal life, such as work and school, returning.
The country’s tourism industry, heavily reliant on overseas visitors, has taken a massive hit, and many families and couples have been separated for months by the measures. Many businesses have also struggled to bring workers stuck overseas home.
So news that Avatar director James Cameron and 55 members of his crew had arrived in the country on a privately chartered plane over the weekend angered many.
Businesses are especially upset because many – such as those in the dairy industry, also a pillar of New Zealand’s economy – have been unable to bring valuable employees home, even if they had previously lived and worked in New Zealand for years.
Tom Hargreaves, a dairy farmer, told RNZ it was frustrating the Avatar crew were allowed in but not his second-in-command from Uruguay, who was indispensable to his farm. Her absence meant her colleagues were having to work overtime to cover her workload.
Hargreaves’ employee has worked in New Zealand for four years and only returned to Uruguay on a flying visit home when the borders closed behind her. Dairy workers are classified as essential workers, but Hargreaves said multiple attempts to get her back had failed.
“She got stuck like many others trying to get home – turned away at the borders,” Hargreaves said.
June Ranson, chair of the New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment, told RNZ news the Avatar exemption came as a huge surprise and showed a “double standard”.
“It shows that the minister is really only looking at his own projects because it’s not really supporting what New Zealanders need – and they need these people that have been working with them to keep their operations running – it’s all about rebuilding the New Zealand economy,” Ranson said.
And so on.
But governments of all stripes in this country have shown a peculiar inclination to favour the film industry with policies that don’t pass muster with official advisers.
Treasury in 2020 criticised government subsidies to overseas filmmakers saying the economic return is probably considerably less than the money being paid out.
Eighty million dollars a year is spent on encouraging Hollywood movie-makers to film in New Zealand.
But in documents released to the New Zealand Herald under the Official Information Act, Treasury said the net economic return was likely to be only about $14 million a year.
The estimate has been peer-reviewed by two economic consultancies.
Treasury also said indirect benefits such as increased tourism was difficult to quantify, and if attracting tourists was the objective, it might be better to put the money directly into that sector.
The subsidies have been criticised for years.
The Speaker, while listening to Nick Smith’s questions last week, might have recalled the time when he was Minister of Economic Development
Trevor Mallard’s government in 2006 decided to keep funding large-budget films despite the Treasury’s reservations about the assistance scheme and a report that showed its economic impact could in the “worst case” result in a $38 million net loss.
Mallard backed the scheme, saying that without it large-scale productions might be made elsewhere. The same reasoning applies to the Avatar decision.
2 thoughts on “Salesa advises struggling companies to check out the govt help available – but maybe they should move into movie-making”
Special favours for some but the bum’s rush for others? “Something is rotten in the state of New Zealand”?
Good reading..can’t wait for the next article that references New Zealand as “Ardernland” which actually makes more sense than “Aotearoa”.