Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th May 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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it was Westminster, the mother of all Parliaments, which first introduced me to the joys of democracy as a spectator sport - and, occasionally, as a blood sport. There is still something nicely archaic about the way the British Parliament's chamber is laid out - long, and deep and steep at the sides, as if the backbenchers were gazing down not at a debate, but a cockfight, or a bout of one of those weird antecedents of football which are played annually in English villages. There are not actually enough seats for all 650 MPs, so for a big match, they squeeze up, or mill around at the end of the room.

It's on telly live there, and one of my fondest moments as a viewer is switching on to find Sir Geoffrey Howe, an accomplished but dozy old cove in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, give his resignation speech. Without warning, he trashed Thatcher so thoroughly that it was only a matter of weeks before, in the midst of a leadership ballot, she stepped down. People literally toasted each other with champagne on the streetcorners of London and it was truly a brilliant day.

But if the wicked witch was dead, then it was another long six years before the rest of the Tory party joined her. But join her they did, after being thrashed as no Conservative government has been thrashed since 1906. The shockwaves have been such that there have been many attempts in this country to read the entrails of the election.

Some of them - notably the hapless editorials in the Dominion - have been just stupid. The week before the British people voted, the Dom warned that in letting in a Labour government, they would be throwing away "hard-won gains". Two days after, the paper reinvented the Labour landslide as an "object lesson" to the New Zealand Labour Party.

Both editorials were masterpieces of ignorance. Look, the Tories had been in power for 18 years, getting nastier and more venal as they went on. In the last five years, their attacks on basic civil rights accelerated. Britain now has the cruellest jails in Europe, and the Criminal Justice Act has removed the rights to silence and to freedom of assembly and movement. My main quibble with Tony Blair's so-called "New Labour" party is the way it acquiesed in those civil atrocities, to avoid frightening the horses.

A British Labour victory is morally and spiritually good for the Labour Party here. But it doesn't have that much to do with our economic direction. In Britain even Tories espouse measures - such as tax hikes as a means of controlling inflation - on which even the Alliance would choke here. But British Labour's plans to fund its social programmes with a one-off windfall tax against the profits of its largely soft, money-for-jam utility privatisations might go down a bit better. I'd like to do that to Telecom, just to see the look on Rod Deane's face.

Our prime minister got into the election analysis act by informing the house that for all the scale of its victory, the 45% of the vote gained by Labour wouldn't have let it govern in its own right under MMP. Correct - but, then, the Tories wouldn't have ruled interrupted for 18 years with a minority share of the vote either. 18 years with a minority of the public vote.

MMP-bashing covers a multitide of sins around these parts right now, but I'm not having a bar of it. It is a perfectly reasonable position to support MMP and yet still despair at the state of the first government to come out of it. A number of commentators have run the "well, what did you expect?" When we voted for MMP we should have expected smaller parties to play a part - that was the idea - but we could not have expected the kingmaking party to be as bizarre, as poorly constructed, as contradictory, as greedy and as out-and-out lame as New Zealand First has been.

Perhaps New Zealand First could have earned respect as a coalition partner to either National or Labour; could have prepared itself a future by being ready to learn the craft of government, to lay ground for the future. No - such was the collective ego that the only option left was a power grab. The spurious position of Treasurer was created so Winston Peters could have the mana without the workload, and cabinet jobs were opened up for newbies, such as Robyn MacDonald and Neil Kirton who were so inexperienced they could really only do themselves damage.

And one man who came into the first MMP Parliament Tukoroirangi Morgan, had already boasted of what he was going to get. He was going to chair the Maori Affairs select committee, and one day he was going to be the first Maori Prime Minister. Tuku Morgan saw himself - and still does - as a leader.

But when you lead, you lead by example. We all know what Tuku Morgan's example has been. Greed, arrogance and the abuse of authority. And there is nothing now which could be more damaging to Maori aspirations than that. It was Morgan's own fellow MP, John Delamere who declared a few months ago that there was a class of Maori growing rich out of the settlement of Treaty claims; out of reaping fat consultancy fees in the name of justice. Morgan, who campaigned on a platform of breaking down that sort of privilege, has shown himself to be sunk deeper in it than we could have imagined.

It was Morgan's demand for a vast consultancy fee - a couple of hundred thousand - which scutttled the first plan for a Maori TV station, one run by Tainui. And it is the directors' and consultancy fees paid to the 14 members of the Waitangi Fisheries Commission these past five years which are arguably holding up progress more than anything. Six million bucks in fees in the past five years - for a part-time job. And where has it gone?

Tau Henare promised he'd look into the commission's accountbility, but the problem is, the much-trumpeted gains for Maori in the coalition agreement amount largely to the promise of three or four new commissions. They will presumably be staffed by familiar faces, they will all pay quite well and they will all achieve relatively little. Assuming, of course, they even get formed. They may just go the way of coalition policy promises like free doctor's visits for under six year-olds. Boy, hasn't that one crumbled?

Anyway, this week, we find that Te Mangai Paho, the Maori broadcasting funding agency, continued to push money into Aotearoa TV, even though even fairly early on it appeared to be going down the drain. The far more robust, respectable and reliable Aotearoa Radio was meanwhile starved of funding.

Sandra Lee has pursued Morgan over his morals, and this week it was she who did the sums on the fisheries commission. I know I've bagged her in the past, but Lee really seems to have matured as a politician. Maybe it's being relieved of constituency duties, or of the fear that she'll have to lead the party again, or simply experience, but she is now a considerable voice.

She needs to be. In the old Maori Affairs Select Committee room in Parliament, there hang pictures of great men - Ngata, Pomare, Buck. In the house now sit the less great. Tau Henare and Morgan's threat to kill TV3's NZ On Air funding because Sean Plunket was bothering them last week was undignified and incredible. And it was in particularly poor taste, given that it was at their urgings that the government demeaned NZ On Air with the now-scuttled plan to use it as a political slush fund for ATN.

As I noted last week, we come to all this unprepared to read the currents of Maoridom. Suddenly, some Maori have the the power and wealth to start setting national agendas. There's nothing wrong with that - but there are signs that new money is flowing in the old riverbeds of influence and I don't know if that is for the best. How wealthy does Sir Tipene O'Regan have to grow before he acknowledges the urban Maori authorities, instead of beating them up in the courts?

Something a few people have said to me is that, well, shenanigans like those at ATN would go unremarked in the corporate sector. I don't know if they would - not these days This, anyway, does not directly involve the grimy proceeds of commerce. The money and property involved is not either, as rednecks and bozos would have you believe, some sort of handout. It is money and property returned - but it is returned out of a moral sense. It becomes harder to foster that moral sense if the representatives of those to whom the money and property belongs seem to have trouble maintaining theirs. It is, again, a matter of leadership.

Anyway, that's nearly enough of all that. But here's a question for Rodney Hide. While you're bagging Jonathan Hunt for taking taxis from his home to the airport, how about a word or two for your glorious leader? Richard Prebble is the elected MP for Wellington Central. But he can't be arsed living there, so we, the taxpayers, fly him backwards and forwards to Auckland, where he prefers to live. How much is it costing us that the leader of ACT New Zealand has such contempt for the people who elected him that he won't live within 600 kilometres of them? When will this cease?

Anyway, the Auckland-Wellington question will roll on for a good while longer, on the rugby field if nowhere else. The Blues' and the Hurricanes' Super 12 match at Eden Park was a fine thing to be part of; and it made me thankful to be a New Zealander.

Not just because of the rugby, although that was great - but because thousands of Hurricanes fans could come to the ground and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their Auckland counterparts. And, even though most of the more vocal supporters were some way short of sobriety, there was no trouble. Indeed, there was burgeoning good humour in the air. When you've been to sporting events where police and security fences keep rival fans at opposite ends of the ground, you realise what a bonus that is.

Anyway, see you in the final, Hurricanes


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

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