Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

29th May 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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when I was a small boy, I used to believe that firemen used cold water to put out fires in people's houses, and hot water to start fires. I don't recall exactly when I sorted it out, but I do know that my childhood belief now looks positively rational in the face of some of the stuff being generated by the Fire Service Commission right now.

We are, for instance, being asked to accept that cutting the number of working firefighters by a quarter, and the number per appliance from four to three, will make us all safer and save more lives.

We're being asked to believe that the rational response to the discovery of a raft of avoidance schemes which have allegedly cost the service hundreds of millions of dollars in fire levies is to cancel the audit which led to the dicovery.

We're being asked to believe that the chairman of the commission, Roger Estall, can continue to work for an insurance broker which has devised and run some of those avoidance schemes without suffering any conflict of interest.

We're being asked to believe that the commission's insertion of a clause providing for the sale of the Fire Service in the new employment contracts it wants staff to sign doesn't really mean anybody is planning to sell it.

We're being asked, all in all, to swallow quite a gobstopper here. And if you have your suspicions that this is all looking like an insurance industry takeover of the Fire Service, you're not the only one.

Maurie Cummings, the service's former chief executive, told a Parliamentary select committee this week that he believed Estall has a "fundamental and enduring conflict of interest" and should not be in his job. He also stated his view that the service was in the grip of a conspiracy involving the Business Roundtable, the insurance industry and and a group of rogue civil servants at Internal Affairs. Strong stuff.

New Zealand First, from whose ranks the not-so-brilliant Minister of Internal Affairs has sprung, got worried this week about the commission's stated plan to fire all 1600 firefighters and rehire the ones it liked. A caucus delegation went to see Estall, and came away saying they'd secured a promise that this wouldn't happen. Estall came away laughing up his sleeve and telling the press nothing had changed.

In the wake of Estall's reprehensible stunt before the select committee enquiry - where he flew in a bereaved mother to talk about smoke alarms, as a means of avoiding discussing his own probity - it must be concluded that he is a slimy bastard.

Speaking of which, Act MP Owen Jennings won't have to face the Parliamentary privileges committee over perceived discrepancies between his account of a meeting in his office and that of three senior businessmen.

The Speaker decided that what appeared to be perpendicularly opposite accounts of events surrounding a get-rich-quick scheme were in fact mere differences of opinion. So it's now safe for Mr Jennings to "get better" and come back to work.

Well, as close to "back to work" as any Act MPs get, I suppose.

Winston Peters took the opportunity this week to reveal the frankly loose attitude the Act members have to the job of MP. Ken Shirley, for example, has missed fully three quarters of environment and transport select committee meetings. Donna Awatere Huata hasn't been to any education and science select committee meetings this year. And it's nearly June.

Derek Quigley has attended fewer than one in 10 health select committee meetings and party leader Richard Prebble hasn't bothered to show up at the commerce select committee meeting since last August. Gee, sorry Richard, if you had something better to do. Perhaps you'd better give up and offer your spot to someone who's able to do the job full-time.

Select committees are a vital part of the democratic structure in our country. They're where ideas are considered, plans are examined and officials are required to justify themselves. Peters hasn't had a great attendance record himself in the past, but his figures do reinforce the impression that Act MPs represent pretty poor value for the taxpayer.

In fact, until Richard Prebble starts doing what he's paid to do, I'm struggling to spot the difference between him and the people in those dob-in-yer-neighbour ads Income Support and ACC are running. It's hard to see people who are paid from the public purse to do a job, then spend most of their time doing something else, as anything but bludgers.

Wouldn't it be a fairer world if Messrs Prebble, Shirley and Quigley got a terse letter asking them to come in and discuss their future job prospects? Or if their extracurricular earnings were abated at the same punitive rate as those of beneficiaries?

Anyway, onto lighter matters - like having yer diseased genitals videoed and beamed around the nation. That was the breaktaking suggestion to sexual health clinic concerned at their ability to maintain service under new funding arrangements.

The prospect of having one's tackle achieve TV stardom would not, I imagine, encourage those at risk to come in and get treatment - but, hell, get it on the Internet and you've got a serious revenue opportunity. Somehow, though, I just don't see that as a public sector thing.

Speaking of big, swinging dicks, all speed to the departure of Martin Cooney from the PPTA. The teachers union leader seems to have lost the plot, and the highly unpopular threat of rolling strike action, and then this week's subsequent backdown, just made teachers look stupid.

But not as stupid, it must be said as Phil Gifford. You have to work to be as out-and-out asinine as Gifford, who wrote a preposterous Sunday paper column about the controversial sideline decision in Auckland's Super 12 semi-final, alleging it to be the worst decision in the last 30 years of rugby. And now, via his morning radio show in Christchurch, he has penned an insulting, boorish and homophobic "song" which purports to be in support of the Canterbury Crusaders for this weekend's final, but is more obviously about some problem Gifford has with Auckland.

Gifford now taunts himself as a professional Cantabrian. He paints his face red and black and makes chip-on-the-shoulder references to the wankers up in "the big smoke". Christchurch, it must be said, has no shortage of people who behave like that.

But this Cantabrian used to be not only an Aucklander but a professional Aucklander. The man behind Loosehead Len, no less. Obviously something happened to him here, but I don't see why that should condemn us all to witnessing his pathetic antics. If nothing else, his embarrassing conduct is a warning to the country of what life could be like if Canterbury do happen to win the Super 12.

The press scene had its own Super 12 final last week of course, in the shape of the Qantas Media Awards. I'd like to offer my congratulations to Carroll Du Chateau and David McLoughlin in particular, having failed as usual to do so on the night - even after La Chateau, the evening's big winner, congratulated me on my trifling little finalist placing. Duh.

The American judges, I fancied, showed a liking for sobriety, which of course immediately counted out the lush prose of Metro's Steve Braunias.

As he had exclusively predicted, Scrawnyarse was not named Columnist of the Year for a second term. Never mind, Steve, your story about the mangroves was the best thing I've read about Auckland in ages. It has also caused me to swear that no harbour crossing shall be built across Meola Reef while I draw breath.

Actually, a funny thing happened outside the awards dinner, where I was enjoying a small cigar. Braunias's editor, Bill Ralston - who goes into convulsions if he has to spend more than 20 minutes without a ciggie - bowled out the door, spied me and shouted "You! You stole my voice!"

Now Bill, says I, we've been through this before. We've even been on the radio at the same time, thus proving we are two different people.

"No," he says. "Doug Myers came up to me last week and said 'You called me an arsehole!' I said no I didn't and he said, "yes you did - Neil Roberts told me you called me an arsehole on the radio'."


So, says Ralston "I said what station was this? And Myers said, 'you know, the student one'."


"And, so I said," says Ralston. "Well, that wasn't me. That was a guy called Russell Brown. He's yer man"

As indeed it was. So now the richest man in the country knows who really called him an arsehole on the radio. And if Uncle Neil is listening again, can you please tell Doug that I called him that bad word because he wrote in a newspaper that libraries were not a public good, it did him no good if some other guy read a book, and local bodies should stop running libraries altogether.

Now, I have been ticked off for my frequent recourse to anal-oriented insults, but I can't help it. Frankly every time I think about that man making that statement, the same thing occurs to me. What an arsehole


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

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