Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

21st August 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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it was a time of the most extraordinary uncertainty, of swift reversals, high emotion and high drama, one which cut to the marrow of what our country is about. And that was just the end of the rugby test.

If the All Blacks' 10-minute reversal in Durban was really quite shattering for those of us who follow the game, at least it was only a game. Not so the rucks and mauls of Parliament this week, which saw Winston Peters, the embattled captain of New Zealand First, keep his captaincy but lose half his team.

Like the rugby, of course, it was televised live, often with the gnomish accompaniment of the entertainer Holmes. Speaking of which - Paul Holmes: TAB Sports Cafe, McCormick, Havoc - isn't he on TV enough already?

Coming soon: In The Face of Beer, a new "challenge" show, in which Holmesy and Lana Coc-kroft make idle conversation while four young men are left naked and penniless in King's Cross and must get back to claim a cold Steinie from the bar at the Waterfront before some little children go hungry. Or maybe some animals at the zoo die. Or April Ieremia gets really sick.

Anyway, the manner in which it all took place defied expectations to the extent that Tuesday night's coalition dispute resolution meeting lasted longer than five minutes. Indeed, it lasted hours, suggesting against all evidence that there was still a coalition to save.

Eventually, in time for the late news, the principal players in the party from hell emerged from their post-meeting caucus to announce that they'd be splitting. Six MPs, led by Tau Henare - who, we would learn, had had a failed run for leadership of the party - would not be following Peters into the wilderness of opposition.

With Tuariki Delamere and Deborah Morris having already announced their new status as independents, that made eight defectors, and a majority for Jenny Shipley's government. I've bagged Morris quite a lot in the past two years, but she deserves some credit for the manner of her departure.

She resigned her ministerial warrants, thus taking a sizeable pay cut, and gave a clear explanation for her move. Basically, she could no longer stand the "perpetual state of crisis" engendered by her glorious leader. She was plainly so disillusioned by the whole thing that one was inclined to forgive her for being so crap.

Not so the other defectors. Having failed to take over New Zealand First, Tau Henare had failed to work out a convincing script for his departure. He had brought with him Tuku Morgan and the dimwitted Rana Waitai, but the "tight five" was well and truly splintered when Tu Wyllie stayed behind.

The most preposterous reason for leaving was that offered by the Reverend Ann Batten, who originally skipped from the Labour Party, and was now going to prop up a National-Act coalition. She was doing so, she insisted, to avoid the need for "an irrational snap election which would polarise Maori and European". A what?

So, will she, in her professed crusade for the least fortunate New Zealanders, be voting with the government when Max Bradford scuttles back to the Parliament looking to have another go at our holidays, or to harden up the Employment Contracts Act? She couldn't say.

And the Prime Minister wouldn't say what on earth she thought she was going to do with this absurd coalition, in which Richard Prebble and Tau Henare are presumed to have some common interest. Why, didn't we know this was what MMP was all about?

Hardly. MMP is modelled on political parties representing communities of interest forming governments, whether coalition or otherwise. Not on wholesale desertions of people elected on party lists who can't even properly explain what they're doing.

It took only until the first night of the new regime to find out how things were really going to be. And that was that, after all Shipley's sermonising about MMP, she was going to take a big, smelly dump on democracy.

One of the two bills considered by the house on Wednesday night was a private member's bill from the Alliance's Phillidda Bunkle calling for the labelling of genetically modified foods. Now, I don't have any particular opinion on genetically modified foodstuffs - beyond noting that the whole thing is driven by Monsanto's desire to sell herbicides rather than any wish to improve the lot of humanity.

It may be that dropping DNA from other plants and animals into soybeans is of no more consequence than the selective breeding of plants and animals which has been practiced for many years. But maybe issue of labelling is worth debating.

Private member's bills like Bunkle's don't often become law, but they are frequently permitted to proceed to select committee, where they can be discussed and exposed to public submissions. It's what select committees are for. And far worse bills than Bunkle's have done just that.

She'd done her work, totted up her numbers, and knew she had a majority for it.

Only she didn't. The vote tied 60-60, stopping the bill. How? One MP, Tuku Morgan, disappeared and had his proxy vote cast for him by National's whip, John Carter - against the bill as National wished, even though he'd promised out loud to support it. That's the Warrior spirit, eh, Tuku?

The other MP to pull a switch was our old friend Christine Fletcher. Fletcher said that The Ship had come calling and said that although this wasn't actually a confidence vote as such, not getting its way would reflect poorly on confidence in the government.

So Fletcher, showing all the intestinal fortitude we can expect when she's mayor of Auckland, wimped out, went back on her promise and voted with National. The fact that Deborah Morris, who has also pledged to support the government on confidence and supply, managed to vote for the bill without turning into a frog should not escape us.

And Shipley? Abusing democracy to prop up her own image, basically.

I don't think there has ever been a government which has so consistently and deliberately undermined the select committee process. I was prepared to cut her a little slack for a while there. But now? Screw you, Shipley.

It has also emerged that Maurice Williamson, another one of democracy's little helpers, has trotted off and awarded the contract for more than three million photographic drivers' licenses before the law making them compulsory has even been approved by Parliament.

The temptation for the Opposition now will be to pull out all the stops to prevent what is a somewhat controversial measure going through. And remember, it only takes another 60-60 draw to do that.

Meanwhile Act has been demanding a lurch to the right as the price of its support for the government, and Tau Henare, who doesn't seem to care about anything so long as he remains Minister of Maori Affairs and keeps his fundamentally useless mini-empire of "commissions", has been shooting off at the mouth. He says he might look again at a third Anzac frigate, and at Max Bradford's plans to deal to the Holidays Act. On what possible mandate he could support either of those he hasn't been able to explain.

Winston Peters, who has been acknowledged by sources close to him to have been not just irrational but frequently tired and emotional in recent weeks, suddenly looks happier than he has in ages now that's he back in Opposition.

He has no right to, of course, having come unstuck to an extent possibly unparallelled in our political history. He pulled a stupid, arrogant stunt over the Wellington Airport sale and saw it backfire handsomely. More than half his caucus has now deserted him, a couple of them making it plain that they find him unbearable. His party is nowhere in the polls, he's on course for third place in Tauranga and his ability to lead anything more substantial than a race to the bar is seriously in question.

And for all his claims to have moderated the hard-faced policies of the National Party, it was his crowd that promoted the work-testing regime that, to select only two incidents, has seen a terminally ill man receive threatening letters from the welfare, and a young intellectually disabled man suffer a seizure and die minutes after an intimidating "interview" regarding his work prospects. Own up to that, Winston.

Yet he has been cheerfully rewriting history since his ousting, explaining that he had no choice but to go with National after the election, and that it was all Jim Anderton's fault. Yeah, right, and nothing to do with the fact that Labour wouldn't let him even pretend to hold the purse strings in a coalition. As Helen Clark noted at the time, making Peters Treasurer was a stunt with which only National could get away - had Labour done so, the markets would have melted down.

Speaking of which, Peters got out before Don Brash delivered the gloomy message that we are surely in recession, and can expect the economy to grow by a microscopic one tenth of a percent this financial year. It's good news, of course, if you happen to be renegotiating your home loan at the moment, as interest rates plummet. Intriguingly, Brash says the government's fiscal surplus may survive - which might just be his way of rationalising those cheery forecasts the Reserve Bank made earlier this year.

The recession has still, like the All Blacks' losing streak, an air of simply being too horrible to be true. For long stretches, it seems unreal, a bad dream, we get on with our lives - and then once every couple of weeks it comes home, in living colour. Talk about paint it black. Jenny Shipley, like John Hart, must wonder if it will come to the point where we have to sack the coach


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

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