Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

22nd May 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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it's amazing what you can learn whilst drinking coffee. It was only last week that I sat down at a table at Ponsonby café and was introduced to a reporter from the New Zealand Herald. He mentioned, casually, that he might be onto a story involving one of the combatants in the recently-concluded Taranaki King Country by-election. Something to do with a pyramid scheme.

Turns out it wasn't, strictly speaking, a pyramid scheme. But it certainly was a story - and one that is very probably not over yet.

Earlier this month, a meeting was held in the Parliamentary office of Act MP Owen Jennings, at which an unusual financial investment scheme was pitched to Wellington businessman Rick Walczach and two friends, whom he had brought along for advice. On this much, blessedly, everyone agrees.

But the three businessmen have said, and continue to say, that Mr Jennings did not simply allow his taxpayer-funded office to be used for this meeting, but ran the show and actively pitched the scheme - which, according to documents distributed at the meeting, promised a return of $67 million for an outlay of $450,000. This was the basis of the Herald reporter's front-page story.

Not at all, said Mr Jennings, who told Parliament in a statement that he had merely allowed a constituent - his friend, Nelson businessman Jeff Law - to use his office, as he had many times before. He had been at the meeting long enough to only to offer a word or two of fatherly advice and rush off to do his duty for democracy in the House. He knew no more of the scheme than what he'd read in the paper.

Other MPs were not satisfied with Jennings' statement. They were so not satisfied that they rolled around laughing as Winston Peters, himself the subject of various attack strategies mounted by Mr Jennings' party, put the boot in. Labour's deputy leader, Michael Cullen, who is always a kind, obliging man, helped Peters by feeding him lines.

Eventually, it all got so jolly that Jennings had a funny turn and had to be given oxygen and taken to hospital. I do hope it's nothing to do with the medical condition which kept Act's Donna Awatere-Huta out of Taranaki during the by-election.

The following day, journalists were able to speak to the three invited businessmen, who stood steadily behind their story but declined to go public. Act leader Richard Prebble, using all his skills in damage control, lined up people - Mr Jennings' secretary, Mr Jennings' friend Jeff Law - who gave an altogether different account of the meeting.

Prebble, juggling Hansard in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, claimed that it would have been physically impossible for Mr Jennings to have been at the meeting as long as claimed, because he was in the debating chamber. As far as I could tell, Prebble's reconstruction didn't prove anything one way or the other, but he repeated it at every opportunity.

There the issue - and Mr Jennings - might have lain. But, in what turned out to be one of the great Holmes shows, Walczach and his two advisors, John Stanley and John Anderson (the CEO of Waitomo Energy Services), now prepared to be named, appeared live along with Prebble and Jeff Law.

The three businessmen repeated their claims that Mr Jennings had done almost all the talking, was clearly pitching it, and seemed very familiar with schemes of this type. They looked somewhat angry.

Mr Law, in contrast, depicted a meeting where Jennings offered his advice and then left. He, Jeff Law, was the person proposing this "investment" scheme. And just in case anybody hadn't heard that, Prebble made him say it again at the end of the show.

Given Mr Jennings' fate, I was concerned that Mr Law was falling prey to his own medical condition, one which made him sweat profusely and his eyes to spin around. I hope he got professional attention afterwards, because he looked sick as a parrot on the telly.

We are, really, not much further along in the wake of the show. We still have two starkly contrasting accounts. Although I am a bit confused at how Mr Jennings could tell the House that he knew no more of the scheme than what he'd read in the paper, when he, Mr Law and the sixth man, Russell Hilton, also a friend of Mr Jennings, have subsequently said he offered quite lengthy advice on it. Mr Law said on TV that Mr Jennings may have talked for quarter of an hour about such schemes. Well, which one is it?

It should be noted here that nothing illegal is alleged. I have gone to the Website which carries details of the controversial scheme, and many others, and I freely admit I don't understand it. I defer, therefore, to the police and regulatory authorities who warn against touching schemes of this type with a ten-foot pole.

Still, even though it's not illegal, the very best gloss that can be put on this is still pretty shabby. An office and a secretary that you and I pay for were made available for the propogation of a frankly dubious financial scheme.

This is not what you and I pay our taxes for. And in the light of Ken Shirley's extended absence as he pursued his private forestry interests overseas, causing him to miss 12 out of 16 select committee meetings, and Derek Quigley's paid gig advising the Belgian power company that wants to buy New Zealand public assets, you really have to wonder about Act and its MPs.

There is another possibility, of course. That being that Mr Jennings, Mr Laws and Prebble are lying, and Mr Jennings was in this scheme up to his lifestyle farmer gumboots, as the other witnesses insist. If there has been untruth, then Mr Jennings' would be by far the most serious.

If he has misled the House, he is, I think, in line for dismissal.

It now seems that the Labour Party is close to making a breach of privilege complaint, which would see everyone required to explain themselves to Parliament's privileges committee - although it would not require release of the Parliamentary security video which would check the accuracy of Prebble's stopwatch. Prebble, with breathtaking irony, is accusing Labour of staging "a political stunt. Whatever the upshot, I fear Act New Zealand is suffering a swift and considerable reversal of fortune.

I'm sure you'll all join me in sincerely wishing them the best of luck at this difficult time.

With all this excitement, it's been easy to forget that the government's own moral compass has also been spinning like a Mickey Mouse watch on acid - or perhaps like Mr Jeff Law's eyes. All this week, urgency, which relieves the government of the need to have legislation considered by select committee, has been used to force through measures in the budget.

Among them, of course, is the alteration to the Copyright Act which will allow parallel importing. John Luxton's piece of guerilla legislation is allegedly based on a private think-tank report that only certain people were allowed to see. Those people did not include elected MPs. Opposition MPs, who were taunted by the idiotic John Carter for not having seen the report, were in fact told it was not available.

Carter's speech, in which he claimed that a bill which was an amendment to the Copyright Act had "nothing to do with copyright", was typical of the level of understanding displayed by the morons on the government benches. The government blocked a Labour move to take the paralleling bill to select committee for a week, where someone might actually the chance to question it, and rammed it though.

There is now a very good chance that the local recorded music and book publishing industries will no longer be able to pursue their basic business activitiesand will fall to bits. You know who to blame.

Further abuse of democracy took place this week with the jacking up of a compromise plan for Auckland's assets between the Prime Minister and the Auckland Mayoral Forum. The plan itself, which puts appointed trustees in charge of a new funding body called Infrastructure Auckland, and leaves the city with roughly the same, slim protection for its public assets as before, I think I can live with.

But the way it has been done is, basically, a load of arse. The Auckland Mayoral Forum - has no constituted authority. The fact that Les Mills, David Hawkins and the rest can just make up the rules for themselves is completely unsatisfactory. Auckland local government never gets any better, does it?

Rounding up a busy week for intrigue, I wish TVNZ's Linda Clark would just get over it and drop her threat of legal action so we can read the rest of Michael Laws' political memoir, The Demon Profession. Laws might be a perfectly dreadful human being, but he really writes very well - as opposed to, say, Act groupie Simon Carr, who is a perfectly dreadful human being and can't write to save himself.

In the meantime, we can all lose ourselves in rugby football, in which we had a dream weekend last week. Not only did the results fall just the right way to put three New Zealand teams in the Super 12 semi-finals, but the New Zealand Women's rugby team totally rolled a bunch of startled earth mothers from the USA to win the Women's Rugby World Cup. They're not just good, they're damn good. I just hope someone will come up with a better name for them than the Black Ferns.

And finally, a hearty cheers to the people at DB Group, who were so concerned at my suggestion in last week's Hard News that the local Heineken might be off that they took action. No, they didn't fire off a legal letter - although I've had one of those this week, thanks very much - they invited myself and my advisor to check out the Heineken plant at Waitemata Breweries in Otahuhu. It was very good indeed.

Whilst not discounting the fact that you might get the odd rough Heiney, I'm happy to confirm that it's nothing to do with the brewing process, and it's certainly not that they're getting it out the door to quick.

I did learn quite a bit about sunstrike - which can do damage to a beer within minutes, fact fans - and chill haze, an affliction suffered by some of the most influential people in the country. The owners of Eden Park's corporate boxes sometimes turn off their DB-decked fridges for weeks between home games. This has the effect of totally buggering the beer. What a shame for them. I also learned that DB Export Gold is the biggest-selling lager in the country. I just don't know anyone who drinks.

More to the point, I discovered what really fresh beer tastes like. Which is, bloody marvellous. Fresh like the milk you used to get down at your uncle's milking shed, kids. I had the taste in my mouth for hours afterwards, and I was too scared to drink another one, frankly.

The DB folks tell me they're going to make the date stamp on Heineken easier to read by putting it on the label itself. But short of going to the brewery - and if you do, the amazing art deco brew room is something to see - I can't think of another way of guaranteeing such a taste delight. The Hard News advice of the week is to store your beer cold and dark and drink it soon after purchase. Not that there's anything clever about drinking beer, of course


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

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