No justification for cutting the pulse of the nation

Last updated 08:06 12/03/2010

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TVNZ'S Guyon Espiner suggested this week that the Government would probably get away with folding a number of government departments into each other as people wouldn't be too concerned - "unlike with what we've seen with Radio New Zealand in the past few weeks". Guyon has always struck me as having his fingers so deep in the honey pot of the Beehive, that he barely gets anywhere near the live pulse of ordinary New Zealanders.

OPINION: While it is correct that the "less is more" approach to public good investments has gone down like a PR vanilla smoothie, the mobilisation over Radio New Zealand signals a choke.

We've all been aware that the Government has been out to trim the fat. We've become overly familiar with the caricature of getting a slightly podgy and over- indulged public sector to become leaner, meaner (especially with ACC claims) and be able to do more with less. Who will be the biggest loser? Shedding those jobs is halfway to smiling-assassin sexy. TVNZ has just dropped 90.

Notably in its cutting and chopping, trimming and slimming agenda the Government has for the most part gone for the slow-moving targets, those most vulnerable and least able to punch above their weight in civic spaces. They've cut training incentives for solo parents, physio for the injured, counselling for sexual abuse victims, student support for the deaf and home help for the elderly. When they cut adult and community education by 80 per cent, they must have punted on the premise that people willing to give up their evenings to up-skill at their local high school were unlikely to have much political clout or be rapid letter-to-the-editor writers.

However, with Radio New Zealand the Government moved past the easy offcuts and has gone straight for the pericardial fat of middle New Zealand. That is, the fat closest to the heart of the most articulate members of the chattering classes. (And let's be clear, I am a laptop-carrying member.)

This is an electronically able, technically savvy and politically informed swath of people (I mean, laugh out loud, they all listen to Radio New Zealand!) They're e-organising online via FaceBook, writing letters to their MPs, blogs, and have been interviewed on radio and television. They've wedged open room for their voices to be heard in public places beyond virtual spaces.

Of course, virtual is nothing to scoff at. As Benedict Anderson pointed out, it is impossible for people within a nation to have face- to-face interactions with everyone in a country. This requires us to conceptualise the nation as an "imagined community". The media is particularly influential in the way we imagine ourselves. This is why RNZ is so iconic to so many. To use poet Sonya Yelich's words, through RNZ we "are connected by a tuner". Her award-winning book chronicles the experiences of being stuck at home with small children, when "your radio is your talking world".

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The prevailing spin has been that tax cuts are all that anyone really, really wants. The hits and knocks to public services have appealed to our sense of tax-paying entitlement. The recession blues soundtrack still plays persuasively in the background and it harmonises perfectly with the laissez faire neo- liberal violin. But with the RNZ issue something in our popular public discourse has shifted. People from all political persuasions have come out arguing very strongly that, actually, there are some things worth paying tax for.

The question is how much of our public good investment can we cut without hitting our vital organs and arteries - essential to what it means to be a New Zealander? Twenty years ago that was a sheep joke waiting to happen. But we've got a prouder, clearer sense of what we do well as a small nation and what we care about.

Radio New Zealand is not the only government organisation already bending over backwards on a limited budget and being asked to limbo some more (and shake the maracas while you're at it). Rather than assuming that these other government departments are easy targets, we could consider that a line has been drawn in the virtual sand.

With the members of the Save Radio New Zealand Facebook page rocking in at 18,786, the sorts of messages being posted are like this one: "We are starting to remember that this nation is a community, not just an economy. Our hearts are beginning to beat again."

- The Dominion Post


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