Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

23rd February 1996

Copyright © 1996 Russell Brown

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So, how y'all gonna spend your tax cuts? Don't ask me - I'm not a wage or salary earner and a bonus delayed till the end of the tax year is a bonus with most of the sauce taken out of it, frankly.

Anyway, National's tax cuts are more of a gamble than they appear. Most New Zealanders do not set out from the premise that taxation is theft - decades of social provision have convinced us that there is a bottom line that is more important than our wallets. And thus, every time between now and November - or whenever our first rhumba with MMP takes place - that there is an apparent shortfall in health, education or conservation, certain things will be said:

National is the party which can dish up a billion-dollar tax cut but can't provide for special education, or a child's medical treatment. Every time a land claim stalls in the painfully under-funded Waitangi Tribunal, Maori will remember that the money went elsewhere. We'll all take the cut, thanks, but Bill Birch shouldn't necessarily expect us to be grateful.

But the one thing which most seriously damages the credibility of the Birch tax package is that it is so clearly targeted to National's constituency. The sector which has been hit hardest by this government - beneficiaries - gains least. You can talk about "independent family allowances" till you're blue in the face - the fact is, the poorest get the least - and a disportionately large fraction of the billion dollar cut goes to the top five or 10 per cent of earners.

The concept of tax breaks is not anathema, however. After all, everyone's offering them. Labour and the Alliance are balancing theirs with increases at the top of the scale. Labour dings people earning more than $60,000 a year and the Alliance's first hike kicks in not far above the average wage. Perhaps they could have split the difference - but not now.

The two parties' chances of forming a left-wing coalition may not be quite dead, but they are currently very ill indeed. The blame cuts several ways here. The view expressed even on the left of the Labour Party has been for some time that the Alliance might make a useful partner in generating social policy, but that most of the Alliance's economic policy should be left to the Alliance, thankyou. Party President Michael Hirschfeld should have known that. The party caucus should have made sure he knew that. And Jim Anderton should not have given the impression that a joint economic policy was even a starter.

If Labour has been clumsy over this one, Anderton has been the consummate political animal. In raising the stakes here he made it difficult for himself to lose. If Labour took fright, it would - and did - look silly and culpable. If an agreement did progress, so much the better for the Alliance.

Why? Let's look at the dealings between United and National this past week. In return for bolstering National until the election and - maybe - beyond, United gets a cabinet seat for Peter Dunne. Dunne will also have no National candidate standing against him in Ohariu-Belmont. But there's a price. Not policy - United has little enough of of that. National wants Dunne to urge his local voters to confer their MMP list vote on National. National needs list votes - otherwise it runs the risk of returning so many electorate MPs that hardly anyone on its list gets in.

Labour is in a similar position. If it entered anything that looked like a coalition with the Alliance, the temptation for left-leaning voters to return their trusted Labour candidate and then give their list vote to that nice Mr Anderton could be pure poison. The pressure would come on to have Anderton lead the coalition - in which case, exit most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and reduction of said party to tenant of the feudal realms of the Alliance.

Anderton should have expressed his disappointment and shut up. But he didn't. In a bizarre display of chest-beating he mused that he would like to "do physical violence" to those resonsible for halting the negotiations - ie, Helen Clark. Very tasteless indeed. Even worse, he repeated the commitment he made at the beginning of the current term of government - to support National as a minority government. It was bitter and bizarre - and it turned out to be a lie last time anyway.

Perhaps he was feeling a little under pressure in the wake of the National Business Review story claiming he has turned his family tragedies to political ends - a view now held by his own family members. I read the story expecting the usual shrieky tone NBR confers on anything to the left of Maurice Williamson. It was actually fairly calm and not a little convincing. After all, when Peter Tapsell returned from compassionate leave after his mentally ill daughter murdered his mother, did he feel bound to go on Holmes and Ralston on the *same night?*

Anyway, a quiz, kids. No, not that tricky Reader's Digest one about what year Captain Cook arrived, but a current affairs whodunnit. He's a conservative politician whose chief platforms are, currently, trade protectionism, tariffs on imports from Asia, vanquishing the evil spectre of big business and providing a voice for the working class. Is he Jim Anderton? Nope. He's right down on immigration. Winston Peters? Nope. He's looney American right-winger Pat Buchanan, who this week scored a major victory in the Republican primaries, wherein the party's presidential candidate is being chosen. The elective convulsions of the Republicans serve to demonstrate a couple of things - that all the candidates are scary as hell and don't really have any policies and that, providing you look the part, there are certain concepts which will find their mark wherever you apparently reside on the political spectrum.

Actually, Peters' line in anti-immigration cant, which made an unwelcome return this week, is mild compared to Buchanan's. He wants to build a huge wall all the way along America's thousands of miles of borders - and not let anyone at all in for four years. We do live in a relatively sane country.

Well, another year, another Hero. The Ponsonby Road parade made page three of the Herald this year, along with a large photograph. It seems a long time since the paper's appalling editor Peter Scherer refused to send a reporter to the Hero Party, even though it took place less than a mile from his offices.

Actually, the Herald's Harold Angel column has been hitting exciting new peaks lately. Here, verbatim and in full, is one of the scintillating items from Wednesday's paper: "An Auckland firefighter attending a molten glass spill at a Penrose factory last week was Senior Station Officer Glass." Oh! The wit!

Anyway, suffering from the heterosexual disease of dog-tiredness from coping with kids, we didn't make it across the gully to see the Hero parade itself, but there was an assembly point just near our house, which was almost as good. For hours, our quiet Grey Lynn streets were thronged with twinkle-toed Priscilla clones and topless lesbians painted red from head to toe. Most excellent. We took the boys out to have a look, but they were more interested in the big trucks than the costumery. I fear, dear listener, that they may already be on the path to heterosexuality.

The participants trailed back to the neighbourhood after the parade and before the party and some lesbians began excitedly disrobing outside our window. They were very nice lesbians, but their blood sugar seemed a bit low, so we gave them some biscuits and chocolate bars and sent them on their way with our best wishes.

If there was one blemish on the whole marvellous affair, it was the unseemly fuss over the safe sex billboard erected next to a Ponsonby Road church. The pastor covered it up, to a chorus of wailing about homophobia, vandalism and all-round nastiness. Can we be reasonable here? The billboard featured a pair of naked male buttocks at many times life size. Nice buns, as the Americans say, but should families with small children have had to trail past that on their way into church? And would many of those who cried foul have done the same if it had been a giant naked female arse advertising something else? It would, rightly perhaps, have been hacked to pieces by feminist commandos on its first night up.

And, from sex, to drugs. The Legalise Marijuana Aotearoa Party held a smoke-in outside the freshly-convened Parliament. All sorts of fun and games, even as police helicopter recovery teams were spending more taxpayer millions trashing Northland's major cash crop. The protest led to some ironies - not least John Banks telling the crowd that anyone who smoked marijuana was stupid. John Banks is calling other people stupid? Next up: Michael Jackson calling other people weird ....

With the dope issue up for argument again, it was time for another ritual TV debate. Ralston had Mike Finlayson of the new pot party and Pauline Gardiner of the United Party. Finlayson, who sometimes appears to be a less-than-desirable advertisement for his cause, actually acquitted himself very well. He was aided in this by the contemptuous behaviour of Ms Gardiner. Did she really say that dope smokers would be better dead because at least then the state wouldn't have to pay to support them? I fear she did.

Let's be clear about this - smoking dope isn't good for you. Smoking anything isn't good for you. Cannabis dependence among young people is better than sniffing glue, but it still ain't good. But is it, as Gardiner maintains, just as bad as heroin addiction? To you or I this sort of tarring with the same brush might seem to be deeply irresponsible. Some kid says "Gee, I had a joint and I haven't mutated into a frog, I think I'll try smack next - they're probably lying about that too."

Gardiner says marijuana is a brain-rotting slow death - and insists she has research to prove it. Yet the new Massachusetts study quoted during the discussion drew no such conclusions - it said, basically, that people who smoke a lot of dope tend to be a bit daft. The research quoted by Gardiner, Tom Scott and others comes almost exclusively from one man, the obsessive and frankly creepy Dr Gabriel Nahas. I've read Nahas's books and decided he was scarier than any drugs I've ever tried. Dr Lester Grinspoon came up with a nice description of Nahas's work: "psychopharmacological McCarthyism." Try saying that after a lungful of Te Puke Thunder ...


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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