Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

14th August 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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a long time ago, back in the 1970s, Robert Muldoon made a crack about landing at Christchurch Airport being a fate he wouldn't wish on anyone.

He just said it to piss people off, but the funny thing was that Christchurch Airport was pretty flash. And Wellington Airport, which Muldoon traversed many hundreds of times in his life, was a bad shed. Sometimes birds would fly around up in the open girders, which created the hair-raising risk of actually being shat on.

Unlike most of the rest of the capital, the airport hasn't greatly improved since Muldoon ran things. Once you get over the all-in excitement of landing, it's unexceptional verging on dreary, especially the Air New Zealand terminal.

So how odd that it should the rock on which our government has foundered. No one seriously thought when Wellington City Council decided not to sell its 34% share in the airport - a decision it seemed to take out of irritation with the government as much any as anything else - that Winston Peters would walk out of Cabinet with his ministers within a week.

No one thought that, because this isn't a matter of principle. Winston Peters' speeches about principle and the coalition agreement and not letting our assets fall into foreigners' hands are nothing more or less than an attempt to rehabilitate his discredited party.

As recently as last Thursday, he was trying to put the squeeze on the council to "keep its word" and sell its share in the airport. This was after a clumsy attempt to bribe the council by linking the sale to extra money for Wellington Hospital had failed.

But the council said no. Even the no-sale members, such as Sue Kedgely, said they'd be happy for the government to sell and they'd look forward to working with the successful bidder, Infratil. Infratil chiefs said that'd probably be alright and pointed out that they co-own infrastructure assets with local bodies elsewhere in the country. Ports of Auckland, for one.

Yet suddenly, because the council had refused to sell, Peters changed sides, claiming that the people of Wellington had spoken and they didn't want the government to sell. The Prime Minister, ever one lately to turn a drama into a crisis by saying stupid things, kept giving herself deadlines to reach a compromise with Peters, then not meeting them.

Eventually, she said Cabinet would meet on Wednesday night an all would be settled. Cabinet would make a choice of sale options developed by herself, Peters and Bill Birch. Why meet Wednesday night? Because telly's crap? No. Because the last two scheduled confidence votes until February were on Wednesday afternoon, as part of the tail end of the Budget.

Shipley knew she could risk pushing Peters to the wall because she wouldn't have to face a confidence vote straight away. She even checked with the solictor-general to make sure she could press on and approve the sale if Peters did walk.

Peters, meanwhile, seems to have told a number of people that a walkout was on the cards. Eventually, he and his ministers did walk out - so unexpectedly that it seemed he'd realised he was in great danger of getting what he wanted.

By the next day, the Prime Minister and her Deputy had completely different accounts of the meeting, and he was questioning her integrity in Parliament. Yet they both refused to say it was all over. It was appalling. And, indeed, this whole event's defining characteristic has been its sheer grottiness.

At a very delicate time for the national economy, the country's two senior elected officials are playing my-plot-is-more-cunning-than-yours. Shipley says the NZ First walkout, and subsequent slagging by Peters of the deal reached, breaches the core doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility - and it seems she'll dismiss anybody, including Peters who doesn't fall into line.

Peters insists the coalition agreement holds sway. It says that at least half of the ministers of either partner must be present for Cabinet to achieve a quorum. I have no idea who's right.

I do know that Peters is such a fraud. Three weeks after declaring the float of Auckland Airport a triumph, and emphasising there was no way of preventing those shares falling into foreign hands - which there isn't, especially once some of the local councils start divesting - he has all but brought down the government over the sale of Wellington airport.

So who is this outfit that wants to buy the airport? It's not Infratil itself, but New Zealand Airports Ltd, a consortium formed by Infratil to buy the airport, and 40% owned by British companies.

Infratil itself is about 80% New Zealand-owned, by institutional investors, local energy trusts and the like. It styles itself as a long-term infrastructure investor, and has holdings in Auckland Airport and Ports of Auckland, among others. It's not unreasonable to just think of it as a New Zealand company.

A clause requiring Infratil to keep at least 17% of its share of the airport in local ownership was apparently on the table when Peters walked out. Even without such a clause, Wellington airport's future as a local asset looked a hell of a lot more than solid than Auckland's - where, as part of Peters' popular capitalism stunt, students bought shares with their student loans and flicked them on to God knows who for beer money.

Compare Infratil to Stagecoach, the British company that bought Auckland's Yellow Bus Company this week. Whilst Stagecoach's performance in Wellington seems agreeable enough, the company's reputation at home is horrifying. It gouges consumers, squeezes out competitors and jacks up prices where it has a monopoly. Not a word from Winston on that.

Yet Peters' pitch may already be working. Vox pops on the streets of Tauranga - where his electoral ass is at - have been of the order of: "Aw, I think Winston's right - we can't just sell all our assets, can we?"

Look, Peters has stood by while foreign utility companies buy into former power boards, and defended a plan for ECNZ to be cut up into four bite-sized competitive pieces. Only a fool or a liar would say that's not a precursor to privatisation. ECNZ, you'll recall, is named as a strategic asset in the coalition agreement.

The whole soup was considerably spiced yesterday when somebody at Parliament leaked Sandra Lee a report on the likely formation of a new Maori-based party. This obviously didn't figure in Peters' plans - Tuariki Delamere, who seems likely to lead the new party, had pledged his loyalty to Winston only the night before.

If this came as a shock to Peters, God knows what he thought when Delamere opened Day 3 of the crisis today by calling his leader a liar. The New Zealand First caucus had, said Delamere, agreed that the airport was not a strategic asset under the coalition agreement. And as to what happened on Wednesday night ... well Delamere said he, like Shipley, thought Cabinet had agreed on an option and was dutifully discussing details when the walkout call came.

This might constitute a lifeline for Shipley, who'd be hoping to stitch up a deal with NZ First deserters in such a party to prop up the government. She might also look to do a deal with the ministers who walked out - one of whom, Peter McCardle, flies out today for two weeks junket examining workfare schemes in the US. He could conceivably be sacked in his absence.

But it's all a mess, really, and it's not all New Zealand First's fault. Sure, they did bring us the hilarious Compulsory Super debacle and work for the dole, and from UndieGate onwards some of its MPs have been an embarrassment.

Yet in most cases, National has been stinking up the Parliament all on its own. It has been National members who have driven the government to legislate in the most disreputable manner - taking urgency on legislation it hasn't finished writing, undermining the select committee process and generally acting like pack of contemptuous wankers.

Meanwhile, Helen Clark's Labour Party is 11 points ahead of National in the latest polls, and with the support of the Alliance's 10% could form a government if a snap election went that way. Which is why Shipley will do anything to avoid a snap election - and the humiliation of lasting less than a year as Prime Minister.

But that's not our problem. This is a government formed on false pretences - Winston Peters went the length of the country campaigning as the only man who could get National out of government, and then did a deal to keep National in government. It was rotten from that moment, and it needs disinfecting. I don't know if we'll get an election any time soon, but until we do, things are not going to improve - G'bye!


UPDATE: PETERS SACKED! Just after midday today (Friday) Jenny Shipley, as predicted, sacked Winston Peters as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister. Her office could not locate Peters, who was scheduled to make a speech to a Chinese trade group in Auckland, so the nation found out before he did.

Both parties will apparently go through the charade of the official coalition disputes resolution process. The seven other NZF ministers will all meet individually with Shipley and be invited to consider where their future interests lie. National intends to try and continue as a minority government.

His job as Deputy PM has been taken by Wyatt Creech (chosen presumably because he has almost zero chance of actually becoming Prime Minister) and Bill Birch will become Treasurer as well as Finance minister (who was undoubtedly doing most of the work anyway).

The bogus $300 million spending cuts package is likely to be revisited and replaced with genuine spending cuts.

The market is up 14 points on the day and interest rates are down.

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

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