Subsidies and special deals for favoured firms/industries seem to have been becoming increasingly common in New Zealand. There is Tiwai Point, the Sky City convention centre, the forestry industry, the export education industry and probably others I’ve forgotten. There are the R&D tax credits the Prime Minister touts at every turn – the only substantive item in her (very short) list of things the government is doing to reverse the atrocious productivity performance.
And then there is the film industry, into which many hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured over the last couple of decades. There is an industry there, but one which official advice to the government makes clear has no prospect of viability without heavy subsidies. That should be a good test as to whether there is any robust case for the subsidy. Barring something like national defence considerations, any industry that has no credible prospect of ever standing on its own feet without subsidies or protection should be allowed to left to itself, probably to wither and die, but just possibly to transform itself. And given the skewed incentives facing ministers, officials, and those in the industry – when such interventions are launched and when they are later evaluated – the standard of proof even for transitional assistance should be very high indeed. It rarely is, of course.
This is another of those areas where there seems to be no discernible difference between National-led and Labour-led governments (and going by his comments in the last few days it isn’t even clear that the ACT Party is much different).
The current government showed some initial interest in looking to pull back on these taxpayer subsidies. But, so we learned over the weekend, having had a look, they’ve backed away, and the party of workers, of the low income and disadvantaged, is going to keep right on with the big production subsidies.
The government has abandoned plans to rein in ballooning subsides for Hollywood, citing film industry opposition and the threat of lawsuits from the producers of James Cameron’s Avatar films.
But yesterday Parker, speaking from Australia, said following consultations with industry around the viability of their business – and thousands of accompanying jobs – without subsidies, and legal advice over a 2013 deal signed with Avatar producers, said cuts or changes to the subsidy scheme were now off the table.
“We’re not proposing to introduce a cap. We accept that the subsides are necessary, and we accept there’s a benefit to the country,” he said.
Parker said he wasn’t entirely dismissing the criticism by officials but said international rivals for film work were also offering subsidies.
“There’s something in that, but it’s also true that you have to balance that with whether you want to have a major industry. It’s a binary decision here – you either have this subsidy, or you don’t have an industry.”
“You’d be a foolish government to allow the film industry to fail, you might never get it back,” he said.
Now quite possibly they were on the hook over the Avatar deal, but that isn’t an argument for keeping the whole scheme in place (even if it might require a specific carve-out that respects the terms of a specific deal the previous government signed with the Avatar people).
Various official papers are linked to in those articles (notably these), which make it pretty clear that even MBIE’s hired-gun economic consultants were reluctant to attempt to put a number on the alleged economic benefit of the film subsidies, and other consultants hired to peer review the estimates the first ones eventually came up with were less than convinced by the results. The Treasury estimated that net economic benefits were negative – which is pretty much what one would expect when such large subsidies are required to keep the industry in business, and those funds have to coercively raised from other taxpayers.
But, notwithstanding all this, the Minister is convinced there is a benefit. It would be nice to see his analysis. Something for example about why, in a sector in which other countries’ taxpayers are wasting their money on subsidies, we should even be participating in such bidding wars. And about why and how subsidising/protecting the film industry is so very different from all the other protected/subsidied industries we once had in New Zealand, that were in time forced to either stand on their own feet, or die. And which, while they lasted, detracted from New Zealand’s overall economic performance, part of the decades-long story of declining relative productivity.
There are attempts at more sophisticated analysis in various reports MBIE and other agencies have commissioned (including this piece from last year by NZIER). But I just had a quick look at a few summary indicators I could find. Here, for example, is a line from a detailed table of New Zealand services exports (June years, $m)
|Audiovisual and related services||504||490||397||280|
Not exactly the trend enthusiasts would have been looking for.
The NZIER report has a chart of the estimated contribution of the screen industry to GDP over this decade. In 2010 the estimate was 0.46% of GDP and in 2015 (the most recent year) 0.41 per cent of GDP.
In the annual SNZ release of screen industry data there is a table of earnings from screen industry jobs. Here are those earnings shown relative to GDP.
On this measure, the relative share of the industry is a bit smaller than it was in 2005, despite all those subsidies.
There is also a similar length series of (a) the number of people employed, and (b) the number of jobs, which I’ve shown relative to the HLFS data on total employment.
And here is the same breakdown in respect of the number of jobs shown relative to the QES jobs filled data.
Employment isn’t everything – there just might be stellar productivity growth going on. But what NZIER could find on that front wasn’t particularly impressive – and as they note, the numbers are shaky at best. And in a sector of this sort, where New Zealand is a small part of a global industry, if there were really stellar productivity gains being achieved one might expect them to show up in a growing market shares, including (for example) rapidly rising exports and a rising share of total employment. There is simply no sign of any of that.
Advocates seem reduced to some pretty feeble arguments not much different from “it feels good”. In their taxpayer-funded report, NZIER devoted several pages to trying to make the claim that film subsidies are an effective part of “soft diplomacy”, exemplified apparently by cases like these
The German-aired Emilie Richards series (case study 6 over the page) is not well known in New Zealand, but in Germany it played a role in cross-cultural understanding. In the case of 800 Words (case study 7 overleaf), our Trans-Tasman relationship plays out in a drama series featuring New Zealanders and Australians together in daily life.
But as the discussion of these two cases unfolds it all seemed to reduce to not much more than “if you subsidise something, you will get – and may even grow – some firms and jobs that depend wholly on those subsidies”. That is no sort of robust test.
Film subsidies look like a classic case in which, once established, it is extremely difficult to overcome the concentrated vested interests that want the subsidy to continue, even if there is no sign that New Zealanders as a whole are benefiting. Perhaps there is a better class of cafe in Miramar as a result, perhaps ministers like hobnobbing with film industry people (although given the revelations of the MeToo movement it is hard to know why), and there are (of course) individual employees who would be adversely affected by the discontinuation of the subsidies – as there is in any economic change, including the cyclical ups and downs in places like the construction industry. But it isn’t a good basis for taking your money and mine to provide subsidies to the likes of Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson, talented as they (and their staff) may individually be. Economic policy should be premised on considerations like economic efficiency, with any interventions benchmarked against credible performance data. On that score, film subsidies were flawed from inception, and they clearly fail now.