Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

12th June 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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Panic on the streets of Singapore! Uncontrolled outflow! Pain and contraction! All-round-shakiness! The heat getting too much! The Asian Contagion had struck and I was sick as a dog. Bugger the markets, where's the dunny in this shopping mall?

Yes, folks, such was my personal malaise last week as I staggered through the streets of the South East Asian powerhouse on a Hard News research trip. Stomach cramps, trots and flu symptoms queued for attention like so many adverse economic indicators. But was this really the Asian Malaise - or was it something I'd picked up at home and simply forgotten to declare at Singapore customs?

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a metaphor here. If men can seek vision in the entrails of beasts, I'm sure I can learn something from my own. My own personal economy was suffering a large net outflow, and this was plainly undesirable and unsustainable. The symptoms were manifest, but, like the people who run our national economy, I couldn't be sure as to the cause of the problem.

At least I had the field narrowed down to three - a Kiwi bug, a Singapore bug, or a Thai squid curry that had seemed a tad undercooked the night before. I was doing rather better than the Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, who gave a speech in London last week exploring possible causes of New Zealand's crappy economic situation.

Brash wondered about poor management, poor productivity, a concentration on primary sector exports and, the favourite of the moment, the current account deficit and the poor savings culture, and wound up shrugging his shoulders and concluded with the technical economist equivalent of "buggered if I know, really".

Whatever the cause, like me, the economy has shown no shortage of symptoms. The Kiwi dollar dipped below 50 cents US for the first time in five years. The share market has lost 10 per percent of its value this year - and three percent, or $1.5 billion, one day this week alone. Help! the traders were shouting. Where's the dunny in this shopping mall? This cannot have been very comforting at all to the Prime Minister, who, every time I see her lately, reminds me of the pale, sweaty glimpse I caught of myself in the mirror of the airplane bathroom halfway through the 10-hour flight back from Singapore.

Not only is the dollar nosediving, but her deputy and Treasurer has gone troppo. In a fairly weird turn of events, Winston Peters has moved on from verbally abusing the great borrowing unwashed and reprised his Compulsory Superannuation pitch. He's been laying it on in spades. We need to save more to ease the current account crisis, he said. You buggers - all 92 percent of you - who voted against my scheme will be sorry soon. I was right all along, and compulsory super might just be back on the coalition agenda ...

Whoop! Whoop! Pull up! No it bloody well won't be, and we have Mrs Shipley's word on the matter. It might have been instructive to have been able to interview the country's two top pollies together on this matter, but for some reason that wasn't happening.

Anyway, when I did stagger back in the door from the far East last week and picked up a copy of the Herald, I had to wonder if I was delerious. A front page story seemed to be saying that Police and Internal Affairs Minister Jack Elder had failed to deny that the police force would be abolished. How sodding weird was that?

The police review, it transpires, is a more conventional slash-and-burn exercise, with 445 jobs marked for the chop, 115 of them sworn police positions. In the week leading up to the release of the review the minister managed to get himself clocked speeding in a 50hm/h zone, which on his recent record, almost counts as staying out of trouble.

Let's take a moment to clear up a common media myth about Jack Elder. When he was a Labour MP, he was not held back from higher honours because he wasn't a member of the chardonnay socialist lesbian common-room cabal which had taken over the party. He was held back by his own personal trait of not being very bright.

Things haven't improved much since. I understand he met this week with the police ministers of Australia - that overgoverned island continent has no fewer than eight of them - who were heard to exclaim afterwards as to the stupidity of the man.

But it's hard, if not impossible, to dislike Jack. He means well. Not so for Commerce Minister John Luxton, whom Judith Tizard rather memorably compared to Pol Pot recently.

For Luxton, there is no history. It is Year Zero. Check out Gordon Campbell's story on him in this week's Listener. Read extracts from Luxton's Bible - Conor English and Janet Shirtcliffe's advisory report, 'Reversing Regulatory Creep'. Ponder whether overstimulated adolescents like these should be advising anyone on anything.

It appears that the insane move to abolish regional copyright and allow parallel importing has been part of some unfortunate game of dare The whole idea was not to consult with anybody. Never mind that it was absolutely the last thing you should do to an economy suffering a current account crisis.

The one result you can absolutely count on from Luxton's parallelling policy is that payment for all kinds of intellectual property will increasingly flow straight out of the country and absolutely will not be invested in the New Zealand economy. Why should a copyright holder invest in the development of a band or brand if somebody else is going to reap the benefit - assuming local copyright holder actually even see the money?

It's not as if it's going to make the public invest more. There is no evidence at all that consumers will dutifully save the difference when they buy a CD five bucks cheaper. Discretionary spending is discretionary spending. And that's assuming everything actually is cheaper, which is by no means certain.

And what price now that other prime discretionary item in the youth budget? Drugs? Well, the government plans to loosen the reins on one of them. Drinking age down to 18, full range of booze in supermarkets, Sunday trading a-gog-go.

It's all for the best, probably, but isn't it ironic that a Herald editorial should say liberalisation is the only sane course, when the paper's leader writers are so perenially gung-ho about marijuana prohibition? They never learn.

Good on Labour's Tim Barnett, then, for putting his name to the petition to the UN summit on drugs, calling for a fresh approach to the issue. It's amazing how a body which spends so much energy trying to convince people that throwing guns and muscle at a problem is no way to solve could so inevitably conclude that the War on Drugs must be escalated.

Like Dr. Johan Koekemoer of South Africa's erstwhile chemical warfare program, who testified this week to being ordered to manufacture large quantities of Ecstasy, ostensibly for use against the country's enemies, I am "just a bit suspicious". Would that all unexpected consequences of the War on Drugs were so jolly as the South African Ecstasy scam. In Palmerston North this week, a jury hearing an action against the police decided that they had deliberately and rather clumsily altered evidence to make it appear that a Dargaville man had been at a house where cannabis oil was being made, and then charged him. The jury then oddly decided that there was "no malice" in such actions.

The police said it was done to correct a simple error by an officer, and it could well have been. But to bolster that contention, undercover cops have been standing up in court to explain that their jobs involve smoking pot with some heavy dudes and being stoned and confuseda lot of the time.

If you've read Bruce Ansley's 'Stoned on Duty' you'll be pretty familiar with the lifestyle into which the police send bright young men and women. And every time the issue is raised the police brass leap up and start insisting that no policeman is allowed to smoke cannabis, and that officers are taught to "simulate". Only this time, they didn't, because they couldn't.

And speaking of drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll and all that, whoops we've got no music television. What is this, the 1970s or something? All we need is for the record companies to throw in the towel over parallelling and we really do turn into a lonely flea market at the arse end of nowhere.

Having been spied loitering in the vicinity when Max TV suffered a sudden injury and died, MTVNZ has now itself been taken off life support. Because it didn't rate. Duh. Music TV doesn't rate anywhere in the world.

I interviewed the CEO of MTV Europe, Brent Hansen, when TVNZ first started taking the MTV UK feed, 11 months ago. It won't rate, he said. It didn't. That doesn't mean nobody's watching it, but it's a different kind of television. Just about everywhere else, it's on pay TV. Here, they thought they could fund it all out of advertising revenue. Well, actually, they probably thought "we'll show that bitch Bettina Hollings and her TV-bloody-4."

But something good came out of it - and Neil Roberts deserves a lot of credit for that. In quite short order, we saw the production of a whole bunch of lively, sassy, inventive local TV. Two hours a week of that - Havoc and Squeeze - have been transferred to TV2. When you look at the crap TV2 thought was fit for the youth in the pre-MTV days, you have to agree that things have improved.

And so, with a throaty "up next, we welcome Havoc to TV2", it began. It's good. And in the longer term, don't worry, the whole economy of broadcasting bandwidth is going to change in the next few years.

It'll be real easy to deliver MTV - minus all those desperate R&B videos - and whatever else is worth a look at, to those that want it. That's not much comfort now, I know, but we'll get there. And if we don't, we can always pretend it really is the 70s and leave the country. As Newsboy pointed out in the Herald this week, he hasn't even done his OE yet.

So ... the unsinkable economy is rolling like the Titanic, the sirens are sounding, the lights are flashing and everybody's getting wet. For pity's sake, let the twentysomethings off before they start thinking it's a rave


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

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