Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

8th May 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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you and I know that New Zealanders don't like to make a fuss. But, just quietly, over a cleansing ale or a friendly tea, people have been confiding to me lately that they're more than a bit worried over where this country's heading. I'm not terribly well equipped, I admit, to reassure them.

The sense of unease was expressed in one way by the people of the Taranaki-King Country electorate, who last weekend finally got the chance to vote, after having to endure saturation campaigning which, in Act's [] case, actually began last year.

As I predicted last week, Labour [] scored 17% of the vote and came third. They grinned fixedly and pointed out that this was actually an improvement on the general election. But nobody cared. The real news was the caning taken by both parties of government. In taking up the mantle relinquished by Jim Bolger, National's [] Shane Arden performed the amazing feat of cutting a majority of more than 10,000 to a mere 966 votes.

This majority, derisory as it was, was actually nearly double the total vote received by New Zealand First, the party which came second in the electorate at the general election, the party which provides us with our Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister. New Zealand First got 548 votes, fewer than the Christian Heritage Party and only slightly more than Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis.

Some of the voting strategies - and I'm talking about the people who declared themselves struggling to choose between Act and the Alliance [] - did seem to indicate that the electorate's famous magic mushrooms had come into season a month early. There was a bloc that was plainly not going to vote for any party which was, or ever had been, in an actual government.

But, on the other hand, both Act, which came strikingly close to an upset, and the Alliance, which came roaring back into contention with 15% of the vote, ran energetic and successful campaigns. The Alliance result has already changed the nature of the détente between it and Labour.

Ironically, the Alliance could kill the chances of a Labour-led coalition becoming government if it becomes too resurgent. There is a substantial middle ground of voters who, when it comes to it, simply won't vote for a government which has too much of an Alliance flavour.

Act, on the other hand, may find life a little more complex as a genuine player. It's one thing to look craven and opportunistic when you're buzzing around the edges of the national discourse like some particularly annoying insect - quite another when you're a serious contender for government.

Doubts of the legitimacy of Act's campaign budget were joined this week by concerns over the legality of Owen Jennings standing in the by-election while he was already an MP, and well-deserved slap for the idiotic Rodney Hide, who, without a shred of evidence, had accused the Speaker of the House of leaking information to dsicedit him..

Then Act MP Derek Quigley revealed he was moonlighting as a paid consultant for a Belgian utility company which is very interested in buying up parts of a privatised electricity sector in New Zealand. Does this sound right to you? No, me neither.

But much worse than the original offence was Act leader Richard Prebble's response to it. Prebble, a man to whom shame is a word from a language he never learned, defended Quigley and said he thought it was healthy that his MPs were "involved in the community".

Pardon? "Involved in the community" is Helen Clark being patron of the Mt Albert rugby league club. It does not, in my humble opinion, extend to elected representatives taking lucrative consultancy fees from European companies which wish to purchase New Zealand public assets. Prebble insists that this still would not be at all disreputable if Act were to replace New Zealand First as a coalition partner.

Prebble also declared that you could hardly expect anything else when being an MP was really just a part-time job anyway. This will be news to, say, Lianne Dalziel, the Labour list MP who put in so much time on the Christchurch CHE case last year that she suffered a breakdown. Or, indeed, to any decent constituency MP, who sees a steady stream of people who need help.

We elect our MPs to serve us - the message from Act is that you get better service if you can offer up a large tip.

To be honest, Quigley deserves some credit for volunteering the information himself. He's a cut above the likes of Hide. He and Donna Awatere-Huata - and where was she during Act's Maori-bashing campaign in Taranaki? - are the only Act MPs worth the time of day. I wouldn't piss on the rest of them if they were on fire.

Life went on after the by-election, of course - and the message for this week was look after yourself, because the government won't. Customs minister Tuariki John Delamere announced that the government's new strategy on odometer fraud in imported cars was to completely absolve itself. This brilliant plan can be encapsulated thus: "Perhaps everyone could stop looking at the mileage on Japanese cars and just check for rust."

This looks positively paternalistic compared to the Fire Service Commission's startling strategy for fighting fires - which, as announced this week, will involve firing all 1600 professional firefighters in New Zealand as of July 1. Some - we're not being told how many - will be rehired under new terms and conditions. Among these will be a cut in the number of staff per appliance from four to three.

This, we are told, will be part of a brilliant new system. Right. Given the Commission's pathetic and incoherent record to date, I am not filled with confidence. What is likely to emerge is something similar to the recent instruction for Auckland people who fear intruders in their homes to call a neighbour before the police. In this case, it'll be, fit smoke alarms, get the kids outside and if your house burns down, well, you get that on the big jobs. Am I the only one who finds this just a bit embarrassing?

Apart from anything else, this method of negotiating employment contracts by just firing everyone has unpleasant echoes of the debacle on the Australian wharves. If the firefighters take legal action, we might see a repeat in our courts, too.

It's certainly been amusing watching both Patrick Stevedoring and the Australian government getting caned by the judges, but I also had to smile at the picture in one paper of sacked docker Ron Smith lighting up what was described as a "celebratory cigar". It looked to me like a Cohiba Esplendido - which you folks can think of as a sixty dollar stogie. Wow. Better watch that working-class cred, chaps ...

The Auckland City Council [] sent out even more glossy bloody paper to us than usual this week, as it explained this year's District Plan. I don't know about anybody else's ward, but the figures for Western Bays - whose tarted-up villas must bring in a fortune in rates - are most unusual. For a start, the two million dollars promised to help clean up the vile sludge of Cox's Bay is missing in action. Anyone who thought there might be a start on cleaning up the inner-city beaches is seriously mistaken.

And then, even more curiously, nearly two million dollars of the $2.7 million shown against Western Bays in the budget is actually for the Auckland Zoo. You might have thought the zoo was a regional facility, but no, according to the council, it's local. Well, some of the money is going to go on new rhinos - and I for one am damned if I shall be letting anyone from Remuera use them. They're our rhinos, right?

Just like TVNZ is our national broadcaster. Or we're Holmes' people today. Or something. But forget all that. The government has apprently been negotiating to sell the transmission arm of TVNZ to a company part-owned by Fay, Richwhite, and perhaps two of its channels to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

I hope not. Murdoch already has substantial interests in newspapers here - including both Wellington's dailies and both our Sunday papers - and in Sky TV. I don't particularly object to what some people call cross-media ownership - if you're not running print, broadcast and new media business these days, you're not making the best use of your content. But I do object very strongly to one company owning a majority of any medium.

Especially one run by a ruthless, amoral scumbag like Murdoch. There's a case going on with Fox TV News in the US which makes the 'Green Fingers and Rubber Gloves' wrangle with TVNZ look like a civil liberties rally. Two reporters were fired by the Murdoch-owned Fox because they refused to broadcast false and misleading information about rBGH, the controversial bovine growth hormone they discovered being widely used in Florida and elsewhere.

Monsanto, the chemical giant which makes the hormone, leaned on Fox management, which subsequently ordered its reporters to include information in an investigative report which was demonstrably false. The reporters refused both the order and a payoff that would have forbidden them from discussing the issue, and they're suing Fox. Stay tuned, as they say.

Murdoch will also have an interest in the bizarre state of South African rugby, which is being crucified by the refusal to resign of Louis Luyt, the old-school Afrikaaner thug who runs the South African Rugby Union. We could be back to the bad old days if SARFU continues to defy the National Sports Council.

I can't see us marching in the streets again, however. If there's no rugby, there's no rugby. Whatever. But I think sponsors, players and South African unions will simply bring too much pressure to bear for that to happen. Perversely, international media capitalism will save us where Nelson Mandela's court appearance couldn't. Ponder on that ...


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

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