Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

3rd April 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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My life is full and busy right now, so I'll be short, if not necessarily sweet. So the coalition government has suffered its first Parliamentary defeat. Well, given the oafish way the government has handled what might called The Auckland Issues, it just plain didn't deserve a win over the Auckland Regional Services Trust referendum.

The government's intention was to hold a referendum on whether the assets of the ARST should be cashed up and dished out at the rate of about $1300 to every person who happened to be a registered voter in the region on the day of the lolly scramble.

It has been estimated that such an action, which would kill a significant revenue stream, especially from Ports of Auckland, could result in a trebling of local body rates in the next decade. You could also probably have kissed goodbye the Auckland War Memorial Museum and most of our library services. But it's not going to happen. It's a shambles.

I really, really don't want to hear anyone try and pin this on MMP, or on New Zealand First. This is a National Party problem, a Cabinet problem and a leadership problem. Jenny Shipley was swatted down by the right-wing tendency in her own Cabinet and then continued to lose all the way to the final tied - and thefore unsuccessful - vote in Parliament.

Shipley, being nothing if not pragmatic, had pushed for a compromise with Auckland local bodies, but Birch, Luxton and Williamson led the charge for a referendum - in which they hoped the promise of a cash handout might procure a favourable result. Short of an attack of mass short-termism in the population, that was actually fairly unlikely, but they thought they'd have a go - no matter how much damage it might do to their leader.

The whole farrago also brings a welcome credibility boost to the Alliance as it seeks to rebuild its political fortunes with next year's Auckland local body camapaign - this time jointly with Labour, in a bloc called City Vision. The Alliance has had repeated opportunities to remind the public that it was under Alliance control that the ARST made its miraculous transformation from large liability to big, tasty asset.

And then it was the Alliance which was able to tell a frankly desperate Shipley that, no, it didn't like the look of the referendum legislation - which allowed for the selling off of several of the assets before a vote even took place - and it wouldn't be helping her out. It was the best platform Jim Anderton's had all year.

Indeed the economic dries who want to see everything flicked off into private hands as soon as possible would do well to ponder the fact that if a bunch of people they regard as left-wing loonies could run these assets as a boom business, there seems little point in selling them.

That's the problem with privatised utilities. They're piss-poor capitalism. I'm all for rewarding people who have new ideas, who meet a need in the market, who take risks and who, in the words of Michael bloody Porter, create a good value proposition for the punter. That's one of the great forces for improvement in our society. But I don't think, say, buying into the water supply business represents any of those things. That's not capitalism, it's asset management.

The extent to which some people do not grasp this is shown up by the looming fate of Metrowater, the Auckland City Council water company which will probably soon be reabsorbed into the council. This will happen not because running water supply in a businesslike way is bad, but because Metrowater was sunk by its own bullshit.

Even before the council vote which created it, Metrowater's would-be executives had made their plans to spend hundreds of thousands ofdollars of our money on a flashy branding campaign which, among other things, pr omised that the enterprise would be "competitive". Competitive with what, it didn't say.

Instead of easing away from a rates-based model, Metrowater simply invented a new way of charging - for water out as well as in - and just doubled people's bills. It has not flown. So here's a message to all the wankers with business degrees who fancy some easy money in a local authority trading enterprise: piss off and find a real business, you weasels.

And "weasel" may, unfortunately be the word of the week, what with Bill English's pathetic attempt to gazump a very disturbing report on Christchurch Hospital by the Health and Disability Commissioner, Robyn Stent. Three days before Stent's report - and without telling her he was doing it - the Minister of Health released his own independent report assuring the people of Christchurch that it was safe to visit their hospital.

It was clearly meant to take the sting out of Stent's report, but it didn't really help. Stent found, after months of investigation, that at least four people died at the hospital as a direct result of underfunding and a lack of accountability at every level.

It was on Shipley's watch as Minister of Health that a rogue division of Treasury was allowed to bully the hospital managers into running services below safe standards, and the Southern Regional Health Authority was permitted to play hardball in funding rounds which eventually killed people. The Ministry has complained that it couldn't get details of danerous practices out of doctors - but that was because the doctors had lost faith in the system.

I do sometimes wonder when, if ever, the blame for the disastrous experiment with Regional Health Authorities will be sheeted home to the people responsible. NZ First gave the government the excuse to scrap the four petty management empires it had created, but we'll clearly be paying for them in various ways for some time yet. The ground lost and the money wasted when hospital was set against hospital in some banal attempt at a market will not easily be made up.

Some people never learn, however, and we now face the split of ECNZ into three parts - one less than the RHAs, but still a triumph of ideology over good sense. The chairman of ECNZ, Selwyn Cushing, and its CEO Dave Frow - hardly left-wing loonies - have warned that such a split will make the power system more costly to run, less efficient, more environmentally damaging and less reliable. But Max Bradford's going to do it anyway.

Why? Because he has been lobbied by Fletcher Challenge, Todd Corporate, Transalta of Canada and Utilicorp of the USA - all of whom fancy some easy money when, as will surely happen, the whole mess is privatised.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Anyway, that's enough of that. Also this week, the coalition government's single most expensive promise came to pass when the superannuation surtax was abolished. This will not do a jot to help the elderly poor, and it quite considerably damages the chances of there being a national superannuation when you and I get old. I'm not cheering.

On the good news front, how nice to see see the Cricketer of the Year award has gone to a woman - and nobody could be more deserving than the awesome batswoman Debbie Hockley.

Further on the chirpy tip, I am surprised but pleased to see that the barking mad proprietors of The Local Rag have sold the paper to Cornerstone Publications, the people who have been bringing you the gay and lesbian newspaper express. Things will change and we can only assume that this means that Act's Rodney Hide will have to find another vehicle if he wishes to continue to be portrayed as the reincarnation of Christ.

And finally, I note with interest that Parliament's health select committee is to hold an inquiry into the effects of cannabis. The committe will report to Parliament and make recommendations to the government.

This initiative comes no doubt on the heels of the recent New Scientist cover story, which took an honest look at all the research and concluded that whilst dope certainly wasn't actually good for you, it was nowhere near bad enough to justify its being illegal. It explicitly discredited virtually all the so-called research touted by people like Tom Scott in his stupid book, and noted that certain people in the World Health Organisation have been actively suppressing the real results of research.

But bizarrely, the law isn't even in the select committee's terms of reference. Any changes may yet have have to come as the result of a popular vote - which would, I propose, be known as The Reeferendum. Remember where you heard that first


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

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