Greens bring humour back to politics

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 05:00 29/10/2012
tdn gtreen stand
GARETH HUGHES: The Doogie Howser of the New Zealand Parliament.

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: Last week, four MPs participated in Victoria University's vice-chancellor's debate, arguing the topic of political literacy. I wasn't there, but according to reports it was a highly enjoyable event. Apparently one of the speakers, Green MP Gareth Hughes, did a nice line in mordant, Conchordant self-deprecating humour, describing himself as ''the third-best Morris dancer in the Green Party''.

I suspect one of the reasons that Kiwis have warmed to the Greens of late has been their ability to laugh at themselves - with bogus April Fool's press releases and a call for an inquiry into the number of inquiries they call for. One could argue that Greenies have been making us laugh for years, but it's only recently that it's been intentional.

But thank goodness. The Left may have all the good songs, but they rarely make the best jokes.

I am delighted that the youthful and enthusiastic Mr Hughes - the Doogie Howser of the New Zealand Parliament - has taken time out from warning us about deep-sea drilling to draft an amendment to our copyright laws.

Doogie's amendment will allow the free use of copyrighted material for parody and satire so more New Zealanders can have a fracking good laugh.

As a sometime parodist on the largely satire-free zones that are New Zealand radio and television, I admit to a vested interest, but where do the interests lie on the other side of this amendment?

Try to parody a well-known advertisement on television or the internet and you may have teams of lawyers threatening you with millions of dollars in damages.

As a writer, I'm all for copyright laws. But to make it illegal to use copyrighted material, such as logos or images, for purposes of political satire, especially in the age of the internet, seems churlish, impractical and, worst of all, undemocratic. 

So have our political parties on the Right, funded by big corporations and booze barons, openly opposed Doogie Hughes' little amendment? Not so far.

In fact, the Nats did a nice line in satire during the 2005 election campaign. Animated photos of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen collected money from the hapless taxpayers while singing ''Thank you very much''.

It was a superb parody that anyone who suffered through the dreadful Telethons of the 80s immediately identified with.

To do that advertisement legally, the Nats would have had to apply for permission not only to play the song but to parody it - an arduous and usually futile process. I'm assuming they didn't ask Clark and Cullen for permission to use their photos. 

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Funnily enough, it is Labour's Shane Jones who has spoken out most strongly against the Hughes amendment. Offended by a Greenpeace parody of a Sealord ad, Mr Jones described the bill as causing ''economic vandalism'' to big business brands like Sealord, of which he was once chairman.

As anyone who has read Naomi Klein's excellent No Logo will attest, corporations spend millions of dollars protecting their brands from ''economic vandalism'', to the point of hysteria. Look at the millions the smoking lobby is spending in New Zealand protecting their brands from plain packaging. If you think I'm being paranoid, try satirising an internationally known brand. Go on. Just do it.

But then again, I'm biased. I've actually met people who work in branding and I put them just below council chief executives, human resources experts and ''governance'' consultants on my list of people to avoid. So I look forward to seeing how cheeky little Gareth's cheeky little copyright amendment pans out.

I hope it passes. After all, we send troops to die fighting the humourless puritanism of the Taleban, yet our copyright and defamation laws can hinder free speech in a way that would impress the mullahs.

But if the amendment fails, it won't be the first or last time that satirists get it in the eye.

I recently read a quote, written during Roman times, complimenting a certain Emperor. Apparently he was so liberal and benevolent that he didn't put any writers to death - only the satirists.

- The Dominion Post

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