Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

10th April 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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Greetings from Good Friday; the day where we are reminded more than any other, that the official national belief system is Christianity. But like Unix, potato crisps and television newsreading, Christianity has developed a number of flavours. Some of them are kind of bitter.

Watch Jenny Shipley, that's my tip. I'm guessing she'll show up this weekend doing the business at some little church in Ashburton. This is an office exquisitely sensitive to public opinion, and, as the Madonna in a Condom controversy showed, we may currently be surfing a swell of old-time religion.

Look at Graham Capill, for goodness sake. The leader of the Christian Heritage Party is having rushes like you wouldn't believe and siccing the press on Paula Boock's Dare, Truth or Promise, a teenager's coming-of-age novel which has just won the top prize at the Children's Book of the year contest. Lovely. Except the teenagers in this one are both female. Shock. Horror.

Without even reading the book, Capill described the decision to honour it as "unbelievably warped" and the press played along. It seems evident that if Boock had written the same book about a heterosexual relationship we'd have been spared the drama, but this one, Capill said, "confronted" young people and added to the "pressure they have to deal with daily".

One book does this? One book out of all the books published, out of all the torrent of straight-up heterosexual reinforcement that will be published, beamed out or broadcast this year or any other? Do me a favour ...

I hope National Radio's Sean Plunket, therefore, is getting a good kicking from someone near and dear to him for asking the awards publicist whether, having let a book dealing with lesbianism slip through, they'd do the same for a book about bestiality. Pardon? Does Sean think the two are somehow related, or equivalent? Does this mean that not only can we not let queers near our kids, we'd better lock up the budgie, too?

So this, regrettably is the environment we're in at the moment. I've been a bit disappointed in the lack of imagination applied to Jenny Shipley's surprising suggestion recently that a secular state education system, as we have had by law since 1877, isn't what we need in the late 20th Century. She claimed that secularism was "an idea whose time has gone", endorsed the idea of boards of trustees imposing a religious "flavour and tone" and trotted out an urban myth about crossless hot cross buns that she surely knows is a lie. Why?

Here are the Hard News conspiracy theories:

(a) She's a bit worried at the backlash to her Hero Parade photo-op - and looking to compensate. She's already stated her opposition to rights for same-sex couples.

(b) There's a bunch of votes hovering over there on the religious right. They're pissed off, especially after the Virgin in a Condom thing. And those dicks in Christian Heritage will just waste them.

(c) The most paranoid theory. If National is returned at the next election, especially in coalition with Act, they'll fancy a go at voucher education. If you're going to trash publicly-run education, you'll need some well-organised national organisations to run the schools. Like, for instance, the churches. Seed the idea of religion in schools now, in case you need to sell it later.

I wouldn't put that past the current crowd, given the lengths they've been prepared to go to in smashing up the electricity sector in order to introduce competition. As I've noted before, they've got the wrong industry - they should have done this with telecommunications - but that hasn't stopped Max Bradford.

ECNZ, which has already spawned Contact Energy, will be further split into three generating companies, diminishing the overall value of the asset by one billion dollars and tripling the level of management in the generating sector.

These four state entities, we are invited to believe, will compete with each other, but won't ever be privatised. Indeed, Winston Peters claimed this week that splitting them up made them harder to sell off. Yeah, right, Mr Treasurer. I'm not sure which is worse: That he knows he's talking crap; or that he doesn't and he's running the economy anyway.

This should bring down the wholesale price of electricity, for a while anyway. The government had been achieving that by simply telling ECNZ to charge less, and that worked pretty well - but it hadn't been showing up in the power bills of ordinary folks. That's why the other part of the reforms announced this week will see power supply companies such as Mercury Energy forced to split or even sell off either their lines or energy businesses.

In Mercury's case it'll probably mean the formation of yet another trust to run the lines; in other places, supply companies will cling to their lines businesses - still, you'll note, a monopoly - because that's where the easy money will be. Meanwhile, power companies will allegedly compete to sell us electricity.

This complex and remarkably interventionist new set of measures is intended to try and kick-start a reform process that, since 1993, hasn't really done the business. It could work. But it might not - and we'll find that out at the cost of asset value, security of supply and a strategy which must surely put some of our great waterways under the control of foreign-owned corporations. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I think this really, really isn't worth the risk.

Still, if you think that's weird, you haven't been looking across the Tasman, where all industrial hell is breaking loose. Now, the Maritime Workers Union of Australia isn't the kind of union you can feel soft and fluffy about. Its members are hard men, its administration a little mob-like and its impact on the relative efficiency of Australia's ports considerable.

But I don't think any working people deserve to have their government actively conspire against them. The Howard government has been working for months with Patrick Stevedoring, helping the company send of hundreds of former SAS troopers and security guards - who it was reckoned would be best able to look after themselves if things got violent - to Dubai for training so they could replace the union workers.

Patrick has now just locked out its entire workforce, and the government will help pay off the union workers who have been sacked. The government could have chosen to side with other companies, which have been working with the MUA to improve efficiency, but it has gone with the one which refused to negotiate at all and hired specially-trained thugs. Freaky.

Anyway,it's encouraging to see the emergence of a candidate for the Auckland mayoralty that you might consider voting for - no, not Bill Christian, but Victoria Carter, the member of the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust who blew the whistle on Mercury Energy. She has made herself considerably more attractive as a candidate by cutting her ties to the flakes in the Auckland Now group. Les Mills must be worried, because he's attacked her already, and the vote ain't till October.

And so onwards into Easter; a festival transplanted half a world from the European rite of spring to which the Christians grafted their Middle Eastern redemption story. When I lived in London, Easter wasn't just a concept - most years, Spring actually happened at Easter. Here, of course, nature is just beginning to batten down its hatches for winter, so there's a certain spiritual dissonance.

We'll live with the confusion. Most of us will go to our own places of worship - be they churches, sports grounds, nightclubs or shopping malls. We'll even keep a straight face at Conservation minister Nick Smith's call for the Easter Bunny to be replaced by the Easter Kiwi, on the basis that rabbits aren't cute, they're a noxious pest. It'd be up to you, of course, to explain to the kids why they're eating the eggs of our national fowl


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

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