Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

2nd October 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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well, the government might have had a cunning plan for this week but if it did, I think it went way awry. Why, if you were the Prime Minister, would you go out of your way to look like a hard-faced bitch in the same week as the biggest march since the Vietnam War protests arrived in Wellington to plead with you to lighten up a little? And beat up on old people just in time for World Oldies Day?

That's what Jenny Shipley and her government did, as she announced the government's plan of action for the economy in Parliament. Even as she addressed the house about it, she couldn't contrive her usual lofty tone and sounded oddly vulnerable. As well she might, because it's a pretty shabby plan.

In response largely to the collapse of markets in Asia, the economy is in recession - two successive quarters of negative GDP growth being the official measure. While many wage and salary earners are feeling pretty chirpy about a whacking great slide in interest rates, and those exporters who still have markets are loving the lower dollar, some sectors are hurting real bad and unemployment is on the rise. Droughts on one side of the South Island and torrential rain on the other aren't helping either.

So what's the government's solution? To make superannuitants relatively poorer than wage and salary earners by decreeing that National Super for a married couple will be allowed to slide as low as 60 percent of the average wage, instead of 65. Super will still be indexed to the Consumer Price Index, but wages tend to rise slightly faster than the CPI, so over a period of years old folks will slip back against the rest of us.

This will most seriously affect the least well-off pensioners - the ones who depend entirely on their $324 a week per couple. It will do bugger-all for the farmers and the government will save a very little for the next two years - which are allegedly the years the package is meant to be addressing.

Old folks have also been hit with a reversal of the plan to scrap income and asset testing for long-stay geriatric patients in hospital - this time with a somewhat fairer threshhold of income and assets before charges kick in. This isn't quite the act of brutality it might seem. There is an anomaly when oldies who live in a rest home have to pay for their upkeep and those who live in a hospital don't, and no longer pay death duties on the money they die without spending. But it's a scenario made by National, and one with which National bloody well has to live.

But the fairest, and most sensible thing would be to reinstate the super surtax, which isn't really a tax, but an abatement of National Super for those who have independent income. Of course, they couldn't do that because it would have been too rich for words.

The new schedule for reduction of tariffs was announced like it was an acceleration, but it isn't. Thanks apparently to the intervention of the homeless independent MPs who make up the coalition numbers, tariffs on apparel and footwear will be frozen at 15 percent from July 2000 until July 2004 and then eliminated by 2006.

At a time when clothes and shoes are going to be pouring out of Asia priced bugger-all, this is merely sensible. Some businesses had already decided to just close down if the government's original plan to rapidly eradicate tariffs in 18 months' time was retained.

The independent MPs propping up the coalition, led by the increasingly vocal Ann Batten, were permitted to claim credit for the tariff slowdown, with Batten declaring they'd saved 10,000 jobs. This had the effect of making the government look even more evil and thoughtless than it already did.

Ditto for free doctors' visits for under sixes, which has been almost compulsorily decried by right-wing economists as "poor quality spending", but which just might be saving us money and grief down the line. You'd have to be sitting in Wellington to believe that a family on $30,000 in Auckland is flush enough to go to the doctor without checking the bank balance first. Anyway, that's been put off pending a study - as it bloody well should be.

Then there's the planned sale of Contact Energy, the spun-off chunk of ECNZ that National has repeatedly said would not be sold. Jim Bolger campaigned at the last election on not selling it. But it's going to be scoped - and is expected to fetch about a billion dollars in the current morose market conditions. This must be lovely for Bill Birch, who oversaw the chucking of nearly twice that into just one of Contact's eight generating facilities - the Clyde Dam.

Apart from seeming just a wee bit desperate, the prospective sale is completely without mandate. If the generating assets are to be sold, and if they are to be, then it's election time. Now.

Instead, Jenny Shipley is burying herself in actions that seem entirely addressed at making her wobbly government look good. A couple of fiscal deficits in the middle of the scariest global downturn in a decade isn't really a disaster. But it would make the government look bad and we can't have that.

Ironically, of course, the government has wound up looking as bad as it possibly could. Credit for any mercy has gone elsewhere and the government has left itself with beating up on old folks and Shipley's no-show when the Hikoi of Hope arrived at Parliament.

Maybe she would have just copped it from the thousands of people thronging Parliament's grounds - but maybe there might also have been a measure of respect. After all, the loudest booing was saved not for National cabinet ministers, but for the self-declared independents who are keeping the government in office.

The Hikoi has collected its share of stick as its twin teams have converged on Wellington from either end of the country - and there's no denying that the wealthy Anglican church has questions to answer about its own conduct as a landlord in some places. But this thing has struck a chord, because it's about people. People who want jobs, a decent living wage and decent places to live. And, on the evidence of the gathering at Parliament, people who want Helen Clark as Prime Minister.

Are they kidding themselves? Would a Labour-led government be any different? In significant respects, I think it would. Labour would scrap market rents for state housing and roll back some of the housing reform which has caused more trouble and suffering than any other government policy - not to mention helping foster the troublesome overheating in the Auckland property market, thus keeping interest rates higher for longer in recent years.

In a more philosophical sense, I think Labour does genuinely care more about people, which was what the Hikoi was about - and perhaps why it was so difficult for National to grasp. It may have been an urge to lighten the mood of the week that possessed Nick Smith to pipe up with the suggestion that the South Island be renamed Te Wai Pounamu. Nothing wrong with flying a kite - it makes things interesting. But having made the call, you'd think he'd actually make sure he could actually pronounce it. But he couldn't. Not within a bull's roar, in fact.

Amusingly, he suggested the name-change not as a symbol of the unique and enriching bicultural status of our fair land, but because the tourists might find it more interesting. And there might be a buck in it. Mate, the tourists don't care what it's called so long as there's snow on it. Which, unfortunately, there isn't. Just think, all those years of bloody cold weather we wasted not having a ski industry and now we have one the weather's turned.

The Prime Minister joined the fray by suggesting that we could do the same for the North Island - she suggested calling it Maui. Which would be like me catching a fish and calling it Russell. Sorry, but it's Te Ika o Maui or nothing.

So, this week's essay question: is modern global capitalism in trauma? It's looking a bit green about the gills, that's for sure. With the German election result, the centre-left rules Europe, and economists who aren't carved from black ice are suddenly quite popular. You don't have to frame your finance minister for sodomising his mates to feel that the market in currency derivatives isn't really adding a lot to the common good of humanity.

For me, the most convincing word on the topic came - and I am astonished to admit it - from Mike Moore, whose rant to Jane Clifton in this week's Listener is actually really good. A plea for open markets governed by accepted systems of economic diplomacy sounds quite good compared to compulsory doses of teeth-gritting IMF nastiness.

I also found myself at the Dunedin launch of Auckland University economist Tim Hazeldine's book, 'Taking New Zealand Seriously: The Economics of Decency'. He's a local boy, so it was an occasion with some atmosphere. I even bought his book, but I put it down at the part where he said computers haven't really changed anything because he wrote his first work on a "stylish" manual typewriter and he didn't really do anything different with his PC. Duh. I'll keep trying, promise.

Lovely place, Otago. Doesn't rain there any more, apparently - which isn't so good for the farmers. Actually, Dunedin is so bereft of a business establishment that the old boys network can't even get its man in the job. One-time United and Labour MP Clive Matthewson is being backed the richest man in the city, and still probably won't get in. Instead, lefty, eccentric, ethnic, female Sukhi Turner looks like being returned.

In Christchurch, Vicky Buck, the Mother Teresa of her generation, is standing aside, and all manner of hungry fish are jostling for the mayoralty and spending plenty of money in the process.

Up here in the big smoke, well, having interviewed candidates standing in South and West Auckland and the North Shore this week, I still have to confess I can't make head or tail of it all, beyond noting that Manukau 2000, the party which would like to see Howick and Pakuranga secede from Manukau City - or at least to stop paying for kids to go to the swimming pool in Otara - seem like right bastards.

Here in Auckland City itself, a generation is heaving a sigh and supposing that it'll vote for that bloody Christine Fletcher if it's really the only way of getting rid of Les Mills. I haven't quite decided on that one yet, even though Camp Mother is now standing aside and urging me to go with Chrissie.

Partywise, I am coming to the conclusion that some of Auckland Now's candidates not only don't support the party's policy but don't even know it. I spoke to one this week who wasn't aware that the party officially favours road pricing and fitting GPS beacons to all cars in the city, so we can be tracked and charged wherever we drive. Yep, it's true.

Oddly enough, such ignorance might make some individual candidates more viable - and if you feel you have a particularly good Auckland Now candidate locally, then you probably won't go to Hell for voting for them. Just Lord forbid they should end up running the city.

Me, I'm going City Vision across the slate - and I'm particularly delighted to be able to vote for Matt Bostwick, a bFM presenter and a bloody bright young man to boot, for the ARC. The only City Visioner I shan't be voting for is Mike Lee for the ARC because I think he's a plonker. Sorry, but I do. In his place, I shall vote for ... hah! Phil Warren! The rest of C&R can go and jump off the Harbour Edge, but I've always liked his style. Go figure.

But, for all the yuks to be had from local body polls, they're not the election we need. This is crazy, Shipley, and we're going to have a crappy millenium party if your government insists on staggering on through 1999. It's time to drop the big one, okay?


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

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