Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

11th July 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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I'm sick of it. Here at Hard News the unfriendly fire used to get sprayed around a bit. A potshot at Mike Moore, one across the bows of Sandra Lee, a strafing for Bolger and a mortar for Les Mills. Not any more, it seems. Week after week, like some grey-skinned, booze-breathed zombie Winston Peters staggers forward, immune and apparently insensible to the bullets. How does he do it? What manner of voodoo keeps him on his feet? What if we run out of ammo?

For the last two weeks, it's been the Budget. This week, it's the Retirement Savings Scheme. The RSS - or "arse" as the scholars among us pronounce it - was finally announced this week, giving us eight weeks to look at a scheme which, if approved, would take 40 years to phase in.

I shan't be going through every loose end, anomaly and loophole in the scheme - the newspapers have been doing that well enough all week - so much as despairing at the process which produced it.

This is not the compulsory superannuation scheme on which New Zealand First campaigned. That was jetissoned very early on in the process, being, in the grand manner of New Zealand First policies, a tissue of nonsense jotted down by Michael Laws before he went for a jog.

This didn't stop Peters demanding in coalition talks that his scheme should be put in place, without further consultation. His ego and his ignorance were so vast, he thought it could be instituted by July. Yes, this July. Imagine that. He may pretend now to have democratic instincts, but the referendum was not his idea. It was a compromise offered by both major parties to get the issue off the table.

So if what we have now isn't New Zealand First Policy, it is, in fact, pretty much the policy of the Act party - whose platform, you may recall, was damned as "fascist" by Peters during the election campaign. And Act, having conducted themselves by the Cheap Populist Handbook since they got into Parliament will be most unhappy to be on the wrong side of this one.

They have to support the scheme because it's their policy, but September's vote is shaping up like an early-season All Black test score - and Act are Argentina. Come to think of it, Roger Douglas and Alex Wyllie look a bit alike these days, don't they? The droopy moustache, the narrowed eyes - scares the hell out of me, frankly.

Anyway, back to the business in hand. The RSS could work. Sort of. A team of officials deserves some credit for rolling out something viable, given what they had to start with. But is compulsory super the best option for New Zealanders? For years, we have been employing clever people to study the question and they consistently come up with the same answer - no.

The government knows this. Why else would its "white paper" and the near-scandalous "message from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer" - which goes to every household - be released before the report of the retirement savings Period Review Group, headed by Jeff Todd? Todd has already indicated that his group has found no need for a radical change, and that the current superannuation regime is still the best option. It's an example of how mucky National's hands are getting in this coalition that it will not provide the findings of its own review group to voters.

Former members of the original 1993 Todd Taskforce, such as Michael Littlewood, aren't obliged to be as polite as Todd himself. As Littlewood noted in the Herald this week, the RSS entails a whole forest of regulations, many of which haven't even been written yet. Others have concluded that it is a privatisation which will cost more, deliver less and leave New Zealanders - especially poor New Zealanders - ever more beholden to the government, all their working lives.

For light relief, Peters popped up and demanded that Sandra Lee and Trevor Mallard be forced to resign in the wake of the Serious Fraud Office report, which finds no basis on which to prosecute anyone at Aotearoa TV, including Tuku Morgan. I don't think so.

At the very, very best the report shows Morgan to have been greedy, irresponsible and unethical. He paid himself $108 an hour when staff at ATN were barely getting that a week. He spent thousands of dollars of Maori broadcast funding on clothes for himself, he flew around and stayed in first-class hotels. He lied about it later on. His mates Morehu McDonald and Derek Burns did just as nicely too.

And on the most politically serious issue - whether Morgan still had a beneficial shareholding in the station when his party forced its coaltion partner to rob the NZ on Air piggy bank to pump an extra couple of million into it, and make Derek Burns even richer - the report is very open.

The two ATN directors who didn't have their snouts in the trough insist Morgan had shares held in trust by Burns. Two drafts outlining such a deal were found on the ATN computer. But SFO investigator Ron Jamieson says he had to believe Morgan because there was no paperwork relating to it. It had been destroyed - by Tuku Morgan himself, oddly enough.

Indeed, the dodgy ATN directors appear to have escaped, at the least, greater scrutiny by having very little paperwork indeed, despite the fact that they were spending $8 million of public money. I bet the Winebox scumbags wish they'd thought of that one.

So it won't got away for Tuku. But maybe he'd rehabilitate himself a little if he apologised to the young staff at that station, the ones who were working for virtually nothing while he was fdrawing his fees. But he hasn't. And he probably won't.

Anyway, enough of that. How about some drugs? Ecstasy! Yes, we saw the making of a moral panic this week, as police announced their concerns about the apparent proliferation of Ecstasy in the club scene. A few thousand tablets have been seized on their way into the country so far this year. A new British survey says frequent long-term use of Ecstasy can induce depression - and when I lived in London I saw a few people on that road - although people who take it once a fortnight are probably alright, according to the author of the report.

Cue a ridiculous Herald editorial headed 'Ecstasy not wanted', full of the usual factoids and some new ones to boot. I can do no better than to quote passages such as this: "It is no help," the writer drones. "To have such individuals as Oasis band member Noel Gallagher suggesting that taking drugs is like having a cup of tea in the morning. Individuals of like mind may not have learned anything from the quality of music in the 60s."

Now, does anybody have the faintest idea what that's supposed to mean? Okay, try this one:

"Ecstasy concerns in this country come at the same time as a report from the United States National Insititure on Drug Abuse that regular, heavy users of marijuana - despite claims that it is benign - may experience brain chemistry changes indentical to those seen in people who abuse hard drugs. That could provide the link from marijuana to other drugs, so often denied."

I looked up this report, and it's certainly pretty interesting. It's nothing to do with brain damage, but with the circumstances under which a chemical called CRF is released in the brain. It may be the first clear indication of physical dependence in chronic marijuana users, and it may say something about the way the chronic use of one drug "primes" the brain for others.

But what the Herald editorial left out - and it *was* in the "media advisory" about the study- was that alcohol has been known for some time to produce exactly the same effect. The CRF patterns in question are no doubt present in the brains of most of our elected MPs. So is alcohol a "gateway drug" too? Close the bars! Throw Doug Myers in jail!

If the Herald writer was, at best, sloppy and stupid, Mike Hosking on Morning Report could be forgiven for not knowing the facts when, as part of what became Ecstasy Week, Paul Betts spoke to him from the UK. Betts is the father of Leah Betts, who died at her 18th birthday party after taking one tab of Ecstasy.

Ecstasy, said Betts, a former policeman, produced a toxicity for which there was no antidote. It caused the brain to lose control of basic bodily functions and his daughter had died because the drug had shut down her kidneys. Terrifying - or it would be, if any of it were remotely true. Shockingly enough, Betts lied about his own daughter's death. He apparently does so on a regular basis.

Leah Betts did not die as a result of taking Ecstasy. No one has ever died of an allergic or toxic reaction to Ecstasy. She died as a result of drinking too much water, in a misguided attempt to ward off the ill effects of the drug. It doesn't actually take too much water to dilute the body's plasma sodium level, causing water to be sucked into the brain cells under osmotic pressure, causing them to swell, increasing increased pressure on the brain stem, resulting in coma and death. That's what happened to Leah Betts.

Ironically, if she had drunk the same quanity of, say, Powerade, she'd have been fine. She did not die of Ecstasy so much as ignorance - and the same probably goes for the 62 other people who have died in the UK in the past 10 years, particularly when the numbers are compared to those in the Netherlands, where harm reduction is the keynote and people tend not to die. Most of them overheated whilst dancing. But bear in mind that, guessing conservatively, about a quarter of a billion doses of E have been taken in the UK in that time, and that 200,000 people have died of toxic responses to alcohol.

What it comes down to in this country is that the major drug-related death among young people in this country - the only one that counts, in fact - is young people drinking, getting into cars and killing themselves and others. In that case, you'd have to wonder what the function of a lengthy editorial devoted to a drug which has seen no one, as far as I know, present to hospital, let alone die, in the 10 years it has been present, really is. Except, perhaps to blur the issue.

And if we're to worry about substances, perhaps we all should ponder the fact that - horrors!- "new age" drinks are dying in the market. That's Oasis and Fruitopia to you. Goodness, I wonder why? Is this the demise of Generation X? A tantalising tilt in teen taste? Or just, perhaps, an acknowledgement that both of those drinks were too horrible to sustain themselves once the marketing ran out. And, hey, anybody drunk Orbitz, lately? The one thing with which can can console ourselves is that the sport drinks are holding their own. So remember kids, when you need a drink, make it a Powerade.


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

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