Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

7th November 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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Tuesday this week, I'm sipping a sparkling mineral water in the departure bar at Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport. The TV in the corner is showing endless repeats of the Melbourne Cup finish, then several stories about what lately appear to be the Great Australian Pastimes - weird murders and paedophile rings.

Then it announces something altogether different. New Zealand is to get a new Prime Minister. Jim Bolger has been rolled and is to be replaced by the Minister of Transport, Jenny Shipley. The frankly bohemian New Zealand couple sitting near me are plainly shocked and surprised.

"Christ! Should we go back?" asks one, his brow tinkling with piercings.

"Will they let us in?" responds the other.

I allow myself a quiet smile. I've known all day. But, like the couple in the airport, I still haven't worked out quite where I stand. I have always known pretty much where I stand with Bolger. If he and I were sat next to each other on a plane, we could always talk about the All Blacks or something. We'd have that much in common.

But Jenny Shipley? I'm not a woman, so scratch that. She's from Ashburton, whose chief virtue is that it's not as bad as Timaru. Not much to like there. She's a farmer. She's a conservative with an agenda. In the words of Stephen Morrissey, she says nothing to me about my life.

I can't deny, however, that she's highly intelligent; and that the leadership putsch was positively clinical - as brutal and as slick as Shipley's legislative style when the booted the kindergarten teachers out of the state sector. And this hasn't just been a change of faces at the top - it's a backbench rebellion, and it will see many repercussions.

But I must say, I do find the signed loyalty pledges the plotters extracted from the caucus's swinging voters fairly amusing. These gutless MPs insisted that their pledges expired after Tuesday the 4th, because Bolger would be back by then, and they'd have to own up to his people if it went on any longer. They're determining the future of ther governing party and their issuing pledges of loyalty which resemble nothing so much as as a Levenes' gift voucher.

As it was, Captain Shipley and her crew kept it all spectacularly secret from almost all the National cabinet ministers, who might have notified Bolger had they known. They went in for the kill while Bolger was away doing his statesman thing at the CHOGM in Edinburgh, so that by the time he got back, all he could really do was go with good grace. Especially if he wanted to be Governor General one day, which I think he should.

And now, having been played for fools, the cabinet ministers face losing their privileges too. Backbenchers like Tony Ryall and Brian Neeson, having done their duty on the good ship Shipley, want a taste of ministerial responsibility. Wyatt Creech, Shipley's first mate and the only cabinet minister in on the plot, wants the lot. He wants nothing less than Bill Birch's job at Minister of Finance, although prudence dictates he might not get it right away.

They're all now rushing around issuing no-comments heavy with suggestion and looking desperately pleased with themselves. Richard Harman's Assignment programme - which, exclusive interviews and all, was plainly part of the plan itself - showed just how well organised they'd been. But it also showed quite how cocky these people are.

There was much putting-on of airs on the programme - mostly from the dimwitted Ruth Richardson, who has latterly emerged from years of justifiable obscurity to pretend that she is some sort of mentor to Shipley - although how you can be a mentor to someone who is vastly smarter than you I don't know - and den mother to the party's right wingers. We can only hope that there is some strain of RCD to which she is susceptible.

Shipley and her plotters were barely less smug. But they want to be careful. It's all very well to fancy yourself in a ministerial car, it's quite another to have the mana to carry off the job. Doug Graham is popularly supposed to be one of the ministers up for the job. But could any of the new boys handle Treaty negotiations as he has? Doubtful.

I don't actually know how close Neeson is to a spot in the executive, but I suspect we'd quickly tire of his wee, weatherbeaten face squinting at us explaining himself when something went wrong with his portfolio. Ditto for the others, frankly.

The other coalition party has shown us quite how wrong things can go when you confer responsibility on raw recruits - although I'm not suggesting the Nats will be as hapless as some of the New Zealand First MPs.

Indeed, that haplessness is acting as a kind of guarantee of NZ First support for Shipley, even though Peters and his team were completely sidelned during the coup. After all, is a party polling at the margin of error going to provoke a snap election? Hardly. And who else but you and me, the taxpayers, is going to pay someone like Deborah Morris $100,000a year? No, they know which side their bread is buttered on. They'll be no trouble.

The first poll this week indicates that Shipley has already begun a honeymoon with the public. That was inevitable. But what I did find amusing was that seven per cent of those polled suddenly decided that she was their preferred Prime Minister because, well, she was going to be anyway. I suppose you'd call it backing winners.

Speaking of which, I nearly did. Doreimus came within a nose of making me quite a few Aussie dollars in the Melbourne Cup. Never mind. It's only two sleeps until All Black fever begins anew. The All Blacks will, you can be assured squash brave Llanelli like so many Welsh bugs in the opening match of their UK tour.

Indeed, I wonder if that tour may have played a part in the timing of the leadership coup. Bolger was always going to be able to derive far more feelgood mileage out of All Black success than Shipley. If the team swept through Wales, Ireland and England unbeaten, they'd never have gotten ridden of the bugger. Beat that, Jane Clifton.

Ah, but the competition which really counts isn't until 1999. That's when the reckoning will really come - for both the All Blacks, at the Rugby World Cop, and for Shipley and her acutely intelligent oppononent, Helen Clark, at the sharp end of democracy. If you'll forgive some gratutious sporting metaphors, the winner will be the one which puts in the hard work up front. And Shipley may find that the big final is no time to have a bunch of freshies in your forward pack.


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

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