An Absent Mirror: Why Can’t This Country Produce Its Own Political Television Series?


Publicity image from the Australian series Pine Gap – set in one of the three key Five Eyes global surveillance facilities. Pine Gap is Australia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s Waihopai spy base.


THE BEST MEASURE of a nation’s maturity is its willingness to submit its biggest challenges to the audit of art. For all their political boorishness, the Aussies can boast a much more favourable auditor’s report than we can. I can’t remember the last time this country committed significant resources to a dramatic examination of its domestic and international political relationships. Certainly, New Zealand’s film and television industry has produced nothing remotely like the Australians’ highly political series Secret City and Pine Gap.

Under examination in both of these series is the vexing problem of how Australia should manage its relationship with the United States of America, on the one hand, and the Peoples Republic of China, on the other. How deeply have the Chinese penetrated Australia’s governing institutions? Is honouring Australia’s security relationship with the USA worth the fundamental destabilisation of the Australian economy which an acrimonious break with China would entail? The first question inspires the plotlines of Secret City; the second, of Pine Gap.

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Now, if these questions sound at all familiar, then well done, you, for keeping abreast of current events! New Zealand’s relationships with China and the United States are similarly fraught with ambiguity and risk. All the more so today, following the emphatically pro-American speech delivered yesterday (16/12/18) by Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, to a carefully selected American audience assembled at New Zealand’s Washington embassy.

Except we Kiwis have one more player to consider than our Aussie cousins: which is Australia herself. Our countries have been so close, historically, that it is very difficult for ordinary New Zealanders to conceptualise a situation where the Australians might look upon us as something less than a mate. Sure, we spar with one another on the sports field and tell obscene jokes at one another’s expense, but the idea that the Australian political class might already have fallen out of love with their irritating Kiwi cousins would strike most New Zealanders as ridiculous.

But what if the Australian “Deep State” already regards New Zealand as an enemy? It’s a thought more likely to seize the imagination of a novelist, playwright or screen-writer than the average Kiwi citizen. Which is why a mature NZ-on-Air would be badgering this country’s writers for scripts dealing with New Zealand’s growing economic and diplomatic vulnerability in the face of the US-China stand-off. Anywhere else but here, Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s run-ins with the Chinese would have commissioning editors salivating. The screen-play is practically writing itself in real time!

But, no, NZ-on-Air doesn’t do political thrillers dealing with the moral duty of the news media to expose the dark deeds of the state security apparatus. Nor will it commission a TV series exploring the consequences of discovering Chinese and/or American “assets” embedded at the heart of our major political parties. As for a series examining the contradictions inherent in having our indispensable security partner asking us to spy on our indispensable economic partner: Good God! What would MFAT say?

The Australians are more fortunate, because the challenges outlined above are precisely the challenges confronted and explored in Secret City and Pine Gap. (Both currently available on Netflix.) Aussie viewers can watch these dramas and argue with friends and family about the issues driving their plots and characters forward. How much room for manoeuvre do our political leaders have between China and America? How far should Australia go in honouring One Hundred Years Of Mateship? If the US fires shots in anger at the Chinese, should Australia do the same? Are we really willing to have the Chinese crash our economy in retaliation?

It’s what grown-up countries do. Think not only of the American and British film and television industries, but of the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians and the Irish. Think of Borgen and its international success. Think of Scandi-noire. These are countries not much bigger than ourselves, but unlike us they have the wit to resource their film and television industries to a level where making series like Borgen becomes something more than the wistful pipe-dream of writers condemned to turning out endless variations of Outrageous Fortune.

Thirty-five years ago the Aussies commissioned a series dealing with one of the most traumatic events in their country’s history – the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government by the then Governor General, John Kerr. The screening of the six hour-long episodes of The Dismissal began on 6 March 1983, the day after Bob Hawke’s Government was elected – the first Labor Government to take office since the bloodless coup d’état that toppled Whitlam’s eight years earlier.

New Zealand television was given the opportunity to perform a similar artistic service in relation to the national trauma of Rogernomics. The renowned novelist and playwright, Dean Parker, had pitched to the networks a series depicting the reactions of a typical group of Labour Party members as the devastating “reforms” of the Lange-led Government unfolded. Parker’s working title was “The Branch”. The chance was there for a New Zealand audience to confront in Art’s mirror not only the moral and political choices forced upon Labour Party members, but the whole nation.

No one was interested.




  1. Is some middle-class, inner-city luvvie screenwriter’s imaginings about what REALLY happens in government is supposed to be an ‘audit’?

    Hate to tell you this, but the creatives who write and produce drama simply have no idea abut how governments actually operate.

  2. “What would MFAT say?” …. lol priceless!

    They would probably say “Move along, nothing to see here” , and then pop out the back to shred more documents.

    Great article, tasty content

  3. Thanks Chris. I thought I was alone in my criticism of NZ’s total lack of artistic self examination these days.Unless of course it’s a collection of torrid short stories or poetry on the misery of the national psyche. There is NOTHING happening. Theatre is sometimes good and unsupported largely,but there is no satire apart from 7 days where the prick jokes always dominate.Our standard of TV screenplay’s is utterly woeful and shallow. Taika might be a sweetie with a golden touch in moveidom but he can’t write for shit and I doubt he’s ever read literature or encountered a serious writer. Anti intellectualism has won hands down. There is no humor anymore . It’s all unsatisfying shallow smug minutiae and glib meaninglessness.

  4. The Whitlam dismissal shows clearly that the Australian people are not in charge of power nor Govt.

    Similarly in NZ and even more so.

    Criticism of who is in power is never allowed and certainly not discussed across MSM.

  5. Well of course NZ should have quality, investigative, unbiased political TV
    programmes – it is a vital component of a mature and informed public.
    and a alternative to the opinions couched as facts from Hoskins and co.
    The problem is there are very few, if any, journalists of any competence in NZ – the best leave, the rest give up or become strident ‘gotcha’ reporters
    uninterested in any helpful debate. ON RNZ Morning Report, Checkpoint, attempt to cover events, but they are poor gruel, certainly in the later case, since John Campbell’s departure.
    I suspect many people think the execrable 7 Days is sufficient political comment for most NZers.
    If this government does nothing else it should properly fund exactly what the above writer suggests.

  6. As a professional writer I know the desire to tell these kinds of stories is most definitely out there. But problem is New Zealand creative industries are always up against the same small pool of visionless, humourless, cluelessly elitist decision-makers who’ve been guarding the funding gates for decades now.

    • WE require an updated version of McPhail & Gadsby or Not the Nine O’Clock News, some political satire would not go astray ?

  7. I couldn’t watch anything in relation to douglas without throwing my Tee Vee out the window.
    There’s a few differences between, say Australia and NZ/AO that might make a difference to our differences.
    Is a bit bigger with a population at around 24.6 million (2017)
    Bigger populations show larger populations within the main body of work of differing interests in larger numbers. In NZ/AO, we have a huge population of dopy bogans so we get dopy bogan shows like ‘Outrageous Fortune’. The reason we have a burgeoning population of dopy bogans is because they were manufactured to order for a specific reason. To vote, and slave for, their masters, the neo criminals. Like douglas The Scum. And no disrespect to actual scum.
    Australia has a diverse cultural spread across its population. We have a diverse spread of bogans. Thus, as above. The Grunters and Squeakers and Vroom-Vroomers. The hissy kitty car bashers. The crutch of the jeans down at the cankles shufflers.
    I know. Australia has those as well and they can be seen wandering the shallows of Bali before they head back on their migratory journey to their breeding grounds with a new leg tattoo, a great story about getting the shits and some cool-as sunburn.
    Casting tv’s before swine is a terrible waste of plastic. The real, actual reason we have no intelligent tv production houses left is because they left with the last of the intelligent NZ/AO’ers.
    You seen ‘Idiocracy’ right?
    Must watch, Darling. Must watch.

  8. Very little intelligence or critical thinking done by New Zealanders anymore we have all been brainwashed by MSM IMHO ?

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