Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

24th May 1996

Copyright © 1996 Russell Brown

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It has begun. Already, we are in the midst of a general election campaign, which will run for a quite extraordinary 144 days. At the end of that time, on Saturday October 12, we will become the first country in the world to have moved from a Westminster system to one of proportional representation. For that reason alone, the eyes of the world will be on us.

The election has been mandated in part by the unfortunate resignation of Michael Laws, MP, in that a general election date had to be set within six months of his quitting in order to avoid a by-election. In deciding the date, the Prime Minister also needed to guess at the trajectory of the economy five months' hence, and decide whether sooner or a little later was better.

Yet oddly enough, perhaps the greatest factor in the decision was the fact that the All Blacks are set to make a mother of a tour to South Africa in August. Bolger wants to be there, on that tour, as Prime Minister of New Zealand. He is gambling on the lads achieving sufficient success for some glory to rub off on the incumbent government. But mainly, he just bloody well wants to see those test matches in the manner which being a visiting Prime Minister allows. I can respect that.

I can, because whatever the announcements and pronouncements, this entire week has been nought but a trudge towards Saturday afternoon. 2.30pm Saturday afternoon, when referee Wayne Ericksen will blow his whistle to begin the Super 12 rugby final and the Eden Park crowd will roar. But more of that later ...

It was not only announce-the-election week, it was Budget Week. Budgets, as we all know, ain't what they used to be. In the era of Muldoon, both as a Prime and Finance Minister, the Budget was an eagerly-awaited and highly secret package of policies which occasionally looked like practical jokes. You had to be there because you couldn't possibly guess what was going to be in it.

It's the opposite now. I rather wonder that Bill Birch bothers to turn up to read it, actually. There is significant, but arguably not sufficient, extra spending on health, education and conservation, $400 million, most of it signalled in advance. But there is no more in the pot for that pin-up girl of any election year, Laura Norder, for which omission National may yet pay.

The major problem with the budget is that its star turn - the tax cuts announced so long ago - are now so economically undesirable as to be a liability. We're running a current account deficit of 5 per cent of GDP right now. When the cuts kick in in June, there'll likely be a surge of discretionary spending, much of it on imported items or holidays. Inflationary pressure will rise and Don Brash will crank up interest rates. Our dollar will grind up in response, making life still harder for exporters and further widening the trade gap.

So unless the Auckland housing market sags a good 10 per cent around tax cut time, things could get rather sticky all round. Fortunately, this might yet happen. Indeed, I did fancy that this week's Earth Storms documentary on TV3 was a secret plot to take the fizz out of the Auckland property market. Why buy real estate in Auckland when the whole place is just a mess of volcanoes waiting to go off and bury your precious property under two feet of black ash? Still, better that than Taupo, which is based on a much more exciting volcano - the kind that could just atomise the entire district without warning. It'd be ironic, wouldn't it, if we finally won a nuclear free Pacific - and then got bombed into the stone age by Mother Nature?

Yet despite - or perhaps because of - the risk of annihilation, Health Minister Jenny Shipley's flat in Wellington costs you and me $716 a week, including car park. This beats Don McKinnon's humble pad, which is a mere $700 a week. Both figures cast an unflattering light on the government's extension of up to $15 a week in accomodation benefit in critical areas - like anywhere in Auckland. The problem is that the extra money might just as well have been handed directly to landlords, because rents will rise by that much within weeks, probably. The government is, on the other hand, bailing out of any involvement in low-cost housing, which genuinely would help people survive.

But back to the Budget. It is a sober document, perhaps one lacking in vision and originality, certainly one cursed by promises made in happier times. But it is not, as Winston Peters declared on the radio, "a con job," concocted from "shonky figures". Yes, Winston said that - and worse - this week. The stellar Mr Peters appears to be able to say whatever nonsense drifts into his head at the moment and not only get away with it, but profit from it. I've been scanning around the radio dial this week, catching Winston at various frequencies. My conclusion? He's making it up, he really is.

His most bizarre statement this week however, was probably his announcement that New Zealand First MPs would be absolutely bound to the party manifesto when voting in Parliament after the election. This would appear to raise fairly serious conflicts with Peters' previously expressed position - and with one of the party's 15 founding principles, both of which put the electorate before the party. His explanation of the switch appeared to hinge around the fact that there won't be that much policy by October anyway.

But it gets worse if Winston can't be with us - as was the case for Ralston's TV chat about the Budget. Winston was otherwise engaged, so New Zealand First's spokesman was that well-known shiny-suited loser, Terry Heffernan. If we wanted Terry bloody Heffernan in Parliament we would have elected him a long time ago. Yet that's the calibre of any NZ First contributions to a cabinet - along with major party dunces like Jack Elder and Peter McCardle. We'll have to wait and see who else joins - the party doesn't even have all its candidates yet.

Oh, and by the way, it hasn't taken long for Michael Laws, the man who could not tell the truth, to pop up again, playing for the New Zealand First team. He was at the pre-budget lockup, on behalf of New Zealand First. I was recently talking to a lawyer who had had considerable dealings with Laws - she said he was the only person she had ever known who she would describe as "evil". Not knowing the man, I couldn't offer any such opinion.

The fact remains of course, that New Zealand First is rocketing up the polls and everyone else is not. Labour in particular is having a bad fortnight, tumbling down to 15 per cent, its lowest poll ever. Labour can only really pray for deliverance and justice now. It has all the policy in the world; its candidates were selected months ago and, even if it wanted to replace Helen Clark, there is no obvious successor. Perhaps Glenda Jackson's visit will help.

But while the press was bagging Labour it appeared to have been overlooked that on current figures National itself is only six per cent ahead of the Peters juggernaut and would need a sizeable coalition partner just to form a convincing *minority* government. I would suggest that a National-Labour coalition - already picked in one poll as New Zealanders' favoured grouping - is a not unlikely result after October. After all, United, the party which was supposed to answer National's needs, is still trailing behind the McGillicuddy Serious Party.

Ah, but that's 140 days away and there's rugby aplenty to be played. I have been mightily impressed with the new kind of rugby which has been born in the professional context of the Super 12. And I have never spent a better $18 than that which went on a ticket to last week's semi-final between Auckland and Northern Transvaal.

I knew when I read Keith Quinn's extraordinary column in the match programme - a hallucinatory series of musings on the colour of rugby jerseys and, well, everything really - that something special was afoot. Indeed it was. The Auckland Blues were thunderous and potent. The crowd was as an Eden Park rugby crowd has never been before - Mexican waves were done, for goodness sake! I was fortunate enough to be sitting near the corner where Jonah Lomu scored two tries and Joeli Vidiri made his outrageous in-goal pass for another. Gee those guys are big, and gee they move fast.

And thus, to the final, versus Natal. A sellout, no less. I can't say what will be running through my head as the teams run out - but I can happily guarantee, it will have nothing to do with Winston Peters.


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

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