Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

15th August 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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Who said it? Winston Peters, of course, in defence of his MP Tuku Morgan's conduct as a director of Aotearoa Television. If there's no little irony in Peters' use of what might be called the European Pacific defence, you couldn't expect him too see that. In fact, you can't expect Peters to see the utterly bleeding obvious, it seems.

After three years, 16,000 pages of eveidence and $18 million of taxpayer funds - $1.5 million of which went straight to Winston Peters' lawyer - Sir Ronald Davison, the Winebox Commissioner, has delivered his report.

He was asked to evaluate claims made under Parliamentary privilege by Winston Peters, who had accused David Henry, the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Serious Fraud Office head Chas Sturt and, by implication, several other senior civil servants, of corruption, fraud and incompetence.

They had, Peters said, colluded with and conspired not to prosecute the Winebox companies. That is, those which used the services of the Fay, Richwhite subsidiary European Pacific to avoid paying tax by dint of some unusual dealings in the Cook Islands in the mid-1980s. That was what Sir Ronald was charged with investigating.

And after three years, the commissioner says he has been able to find no evidence of such corruption. Indeed, no evidence of fraud, so the officials could hardly be accused of overlooking fraud, either corruptly or incompetently. He saves special condemnation for Peters, who, says Sir Ron, apparently believed that it was enough that he had made such allegations and actually made no attempt to prove their veracity.

Now, you or I would be hiding under the bed gibbering and wondering how to apologise to the people whose careers we'd blighted by labelling them "the agents of corruption". But not Winston Peters. He has refused to apologise to Sturt or David Henry - although he won't reiterate his claims against them outside Parliament. Instead, he has vowed to have the commission's findings overturned.

This might just pass were he still just Winston Peters, a rebel MP reading a script written by Michael Laws. But he isn't. He is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer of the Coalition government. And, as such, his credibility is a real problem. Especially given that he has also been found by a court to have told lies about businessman Selwyn Cushing, and by his peers to have lied about whether he did or didn't assault National MP John Banks.

Bolger had a go at the low road when, after being invited in Parliament to apologise to Sturt and Henry, he apologised for any "embarassment or inconvenience" they might have suffered. Say what? They've been accused of probably the most grievous things a civil servant can be accused of, and Bolger is mumbling about their "embarassment and inconvenience"?

Bolger had come right later in the day and was, instead, admitting that the embarassment was Winston Peters - from whom he was frantically distancing himself. As no other event, Peters' bizarre behaviour is tearing at the seams of the coalition. National, after all, likes to consider itself the friend of the big business interests implicated in the Winebox.

Those interests, and especially David Richwhite and Michael Fay, would do well to keep their heads down. And they especially had better not whinge about the $80 million the inquiry is alleged to have costs them, because it would have cost everyone far less, and finished years sooner had they not tried to frustrate its course at every turn.

I presume the memories of all those who appeared before the commission and just couldn't recall the details of what they'd done have returned now. I sincerely hope the legal frippery they've been running will now be stopped.

Maybe it is incumbent on corporate New Zealand to maximise revenue and avoid tax by any means possible, to practice applied amorality - but these were supposed to be our corporate citizens, our captains of industry, our business leaders. Folks, they have nothing to offer us.

The main Winebox deal saw the companies involved pay a fee to the Cook Islands government in return for certificates which appeared to show they'd paid tax in the Cook Islands. They hadn't - the documents were completely bogus - but European Pacific and the others took them back to the New Zealand Revenue and used them to avoid tax here.

Now if you or I were to present a false document in order to get out of paying tax, we'd be in deep trouble. But this is tax wizardy most devious. And, as Winston Peters has been braying, Sir Ron says in his report that the corporates "may create whatever falsities suit their purposes." As I understand it, like that of most former British colonies, our system places "form" over "substance" in assessing avoidance and there are reasons for that.

What happened still seems wrong to me, and it apparently seems wrong to Sir Ronald. There have already been major changes to the tax system since those wild days, and Sir Ron suggests a number of further measures to clip the wings of the corporates, including a hard look at "form versus substance". He says some of the things the companies did were unethical, but not technically illegal. He is a former Chief Justice of the High Court and he has spent three years on this, and, frankly, that's good enough for me.

Indeed, apart from some misgivings as to whether Sir Ron kept to his terms of reference on the part of journalists like Jenny McManus, only Winston Peters is claiming that Sir Ron has not done an amazing job. He had the IRD's chief investigator cross-examined for 28 days straight and Chas Sturt was pressed so hard that he had some sort of breakdown while he was being questioned. He dealt as severely as he could with the truckloads of corporate bullshit delivered to him. And he has prepared a 1000-page report to back up his conclusions. He is now 76 and he deserves to go off and do some fishing.

All this Wineboxing has left me short of time and space to castigate the week's other buffoons, including youth affairs minister Deborah Morris, who has presided over a report on youth suicide in which the only thing that hasn't been said and said better before is the slightly bizarre suggestion that if we put catalytic converters on all car exhausts young people wouldn't be able to top themselves that way.

Morris, nose-piercing and all, has quickly developed a line of politician-speak that would make Jenny Shipley proud, but she did not deserve the condom controversy which raged rather pathetically around her this week. Taking out of context a suggestion she made about condoms in schools, Health Minister Bill English - a conservative Roman Catholic - railed against what he called the "condom culture".

Young people don't need advice on keeping themselves safe, says English, they need to be told not to have sex. Right. Teenagers have always reacted very well to that, haven't they? No one is proposing playtime lolly scrables with rubber johnnies, but consider that our rates of teenage pregnancy have long been amongst the highest in the world, and that the leading cause of death of young people in the USA is now AIDS. It overtook car accidents there - and it could conceivably happen here.

Only an idiot would suggest that what English refers to as "condom culture" shouldn't be an important part of a targeted health sevice for young people. But he considers it "dangerous". And he misrepresents the current youth sexual health messages - which from what I've seen focus on empowerment and self-worth and taking responsibility for your own body. And saying no when you want to.

What I find bizarre is that while English went to the press over the alleged dangers of condom culture - and declared that budgets were "too tight" to expand access to contraception for anyone - he played down terribly serious health issues. Women in Auckland can't get GPs to deliver their babies. They're being fired out of hospital within 48 hours of giving birth; with the result that, anecdotally, breast-feeding rates have fallen by 10 per cent in the last two years. That is an absolute crisis.

The report on the case of Jacko Paki, who committed a rape after 10 times being refused readmission to a psychiatric facility is also cause for very grave concern. Surely anyone would think those things would be what the Minister of Health should be concerned about?

Apparently not. The New Zealand Herald ran a lamentable editorial endorsing everything English said. Like English, the Herald's writer gave no hint of any real committment to the so-called "teaching of values" - the values being that if the dirty little buggers are going to have sex they're on their own. From the Herald, I hope it was just a temporary throwback. As for Bill English, I think he's pushing for Hard News Public Enemy Number One. Stay tuned on that one


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

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