Long tail politics

Shining a light on a creeping trend

Jason Smith


Talk about a revolution. Our world has been changed by a cultural revolution—some parts of which have been original, only some really visible, and only some noteworthy. Until now.

Back in 2000, at the launch of the government’s $146 million cultural recovery package to get ailing arts institutions back on their feet, Prime Minister Helen Clark—also Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage—rebuilt her ministry so it would “take on the shape initially envisaged for it when the previous Labour Government committed itself to creating it in 1990”. Straight from the horse’s mouth, it seems there was no premium on originality here.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The unoriginal National Party 2008 election campaign slogan about brighter futures was a direct rip-off of its 1999 big-thinking-innovation-and-knowledge-economy policy bundle called Bright Future. Everything old is new again. Recycle and spin.

But ratting around in the corners, beyond the tattered slogans and ideologies, powerful stuff has been falling through the cracks. This column is about the art of government appointments to cultural boards, the less visible part of the cultural revolution that has been creeping in. It’s long tail politics in actionAs the charts show, over the past nine years there has been an increasing level of influence by the government on culture. Based on 2002 and 2005 election year appointments, there is a five-fold increase in appointments in the following year. On this trajectory there would be 70 appointees in 2009, a prospect to make political whiskers curl. New Zealand Historic Places Trust changes exemplify this process: in 2004 new legislation reduced its board from 11 to nine and the government appointees increased from one to three at the same time. That’s a change from nine percent to 30 percent government influence over that committee. The organisations shown below only scratch the surface of some of the committees operating in this sector—there are music, dance, screen and design, too—let alone across other parts of government.

Why is this important? Simply put, increasing numbers of politically-appointed committee folk stifle creativity and innovation. Ministers hand-pick their darlings and favourites to these boards as well as experts (and preferably experts who are favourites). This is a particularly dark art, unless you’re building the Bolshoi Ballet.

Begetting Mini-Me is one of the perks of power. It is a sure-fire way of extending the reign and reach of one political regime, often long into the next political term. Scampering into the future, an NZSO board appointee was installed one month to the day before the 2008 General Election announcement, until July 2011. That’s a mighty long tail. Anyone smell a rat?

Cultural commissars

Magazine layout

Source: Idealog infographic by Su Yin Khoo

Political appointments are climbing—especially after an election

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