Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

16th October 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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it has not been a great week to be raving, right-wing and carefree in Aotearoa, has it? The nightmare began with a miserable Columar Brunton poll last Friday, which put support for the government at just 31 per cent and Labour sniffing after a majority, and rolled through the weekend as votes were counted in the local body elections, revealing hitherto undetected anti-incumbent and anti-conservative feeling.

In Auckland City the voters swept Les Mills out of office in favour of Christine Fletcher, and after four decades of born-to-rule C&R dominance, left the City Vision bloc the largest on the Auckland City Council.

This all produced some interesting scenes at the City Vision party, I understand, where a bunch of delighted lefties actually cheered the progress of a sitting National MP to the mayoralty. Scenes at Fletcher's own soiree were even more joyous, apparently - but over in Herne Bay, at Mills Central, they were gutted.

As well they might be given that the host Philip Mills, had contributed $250,000 of his father's $300,000 campaign budget. Now, if ever any of the gay clientele of Les Mills' World of Fitness wondered whether their membership fees went into Les Mills, Mayor, here was the proof. Never mind the issue of why a man should spend $300,000 to try and win a job that pays only $90,000 a year. Still, all credit to Mills for his grace in defeat.

And what of Auckland Now? Two seats, both from the Hobson Ward and one to a candidate whose committment to the party is dubious, makes for a bloody meagre return for all those billboards and newspaper ads. The punters may have judged them too clever by half.

The big loser in Auckland is the Britomart project, with Ken Graham, the C&R councillor who headed the Harbour Edge committee losing his seat and a majority now mobilised against the project as it stands. Hooray - although don't get your hopes up about what can actually be done at this stage.

In South Auckland, the right-wing poster child of local government, Papakura Mayor David Hawkins squeaked in by 200 votes, blowing a majority of five and a half thousand and losing control of his council in the process. George Gair, who favoured a harbour crossing through my backyard, got the boot on the North Shore.

Tim Shadbolt's triumphant return to the Invercargill mayoralty has to be the most remarkable turn of events, and Shadbolt had barely been elected before he was rushing around causing havoc, promising to get local fishermen $20.6 million compensation for an oil spoil that everyone else could barely find.

Anyway, having grievously offended old folks last week, the government is set about enraging the farmers. John Luxton, having warned angry dairy farmers that he'd stake his career on the abolition of producer boards, was two days later forced to sign a joint statement with the Prime Minister, claiming that they didn't necessarily want to kill off the Dairy Board, just improve farmers' incomes. In which case, slashing $200 million of the annual value of dairy exports, by killing the board would seem to be a queer idea.

Perhaps emboldened by a such an abject backdown on producer board reform - and by Dairy Board chairman Sir Dryden Spring accusing the government of perpetrating a "hoax" - ECNZ chairman Selwyn Cushing tore into the government on occasion of the state generator's new net profit of $307 million for the 97/98 financial year - plus $68 million in dividends and $143 in tax into the public pot. Cushing and the ECNZ board had recommended a partial float of the SOE, but the government went for a split into three companies it could pretend weren't being set up to be sold.

Cushing will be out if the government can actually go through with its plans for the split - and he's in the frame to head the Brierley board if the very cheeky offer to rescue the company's ass is accepted. Shamrock Capital Advisors, the investment vehicle of the Roy Disney family, will put up $200 million in return for a two year management contract and all the toys. Disney to the rescue? Far be it from me to make any jokes about a Mickey Mouse company.

Anyway, another poke in the eye for the forces of "modernisation", this time the mad plotters behind the Fire Service restructuring. They were condemned as unethical by the Employment Court, and were hit with a permanent injunction forbidding them to carry out their fire-and-rehire plan.

The next public relations debacle is already queued for takeoff - the proposed loosening of the Resource Management Act. The government commissioned a thinkpiece on the Act from the most extreme anti-conservationist it could have hoped to find, and opposition to changes has been quite muted until now. But look out - Dame Cath Tizard has mobilised. Feel the fear.

Anyway, the strangest experience of the week was watching interest rates go through the floor - the lowest in 30 years.

I used to find this stuff sort of amusing, but I became a property owner this year. Is there anybody on a fixed rate mortgage who hasn't at least thought about giving the bank a call? I did - and the only consolation the manager could offer me was that he was stuck on a higher rate than me. I don't want to be a grown-up any more.

Anyway, where we're at now is that everybody's guessing and no one really knows what's going on, because all the convulsions are being driven by American hedge funds. Hedge funds are what big American institutions do instead of going down to the TAB. They're allowed to do all that weird risky stuff that banks and mutual funds aren't - currency derivatives, arbitrage. It's sort of extreme investing.

Anyway, the law that lets them exist is coming under the spotlight as a couple of them lose the plot completely in the US. Like New Zealanders with fixed rate mortgages, the funds have bet one way and the market has gone the other.

Cash came flooding in here from funds in the US and Europe, possibly because Japan's Upper House had passed a bank reform bill that will put up 30 trillion yen to bail out banks, or because confidence in the US has sagged. Or because Boris Yeltsin was feeling a bit better than he was on Sunday.

It certainly wasn't much to do with us - we did have CPI figures this week, but it all happened before those were announced. Nothing much that we do really has much impact on what happens these days.

That's not much consolation to importers who took the plunge and bought all the foreign currency they'd need for the year a month or two ago, or exporters who'd done all their deals believing the dollar would be lower than it is.

It's ironic that having worshipped at the altar of price stability for so long we've found ourselves in the most volatile, puzzling and worrying environment you could imagine. And it's brought to us courtesy of The Market.

So - is Telecom going to start charging us for local calls to our Internet providers? Tuesday's story to this effect prompted an angry blast on the NZ Herald's editorial page and even earned a vague warning from Max Bradford.

This did show how much we've come to like our Internet - and the free local calling that makes it so affordable. But it's probably a bum rap. Telecom has always harboured the idea of charging for data use, partly because the boom in Internet use is putting a strain on its telephone network.

But it would not be worth the technical or political grief for Telecom to start trying to decide whether you're talking or using a modem and charging you accordingly. What will happened is that they'll come to you with a better offer. You don't want that crusty old voice line, they'll say - here, have a nice shiny DSL digital connection 10 times faster than a modem. For only four cents a minute ...

A brief word about the separation of Jonah and Tania after two and a half years marriage. The perils of a young man living an accelerated life. Nothing at all even remotely like Paul Gascoigne. Leave them alone.

But never mind the economy, or politics or sport. The question we've got to face right through another sticky summer is: are this season's Sauvignons Blanc crap or what?

Well, the Marlboroughs especially aren't exactly grabbing you by the collars and screaming gooseberrys and capsicums at you. But they are a new, fruiter and fuller sort of Savvy, one we may have to grow used to as the atmosphere heats up and the climate goes troppo.

It's perhaps no accident that the best Sauvignon I've let liven up my palate this season hails from Canterbury. Well done to Weta Wines in Grey Lynn for taking a punt on that wine, the Waipara Springs 98. And for getting in Chimay Red - that's a beer, not a wine, and it's Belgian - in the big bottles. You wouldn't have got that from a licensing trust, would you?

It does strike me as a wee tiny bit ironic that I have just helped vote one or two people onto the Western Bays Community Board who actually campaigned for a sodding licensing trust, but I guess I'm just conflicted as usual.

Actually, we haven't done a grog roundup for a while, and I know the overseas Hard News punters enjoy it, so maximum respect also to Matua Valley, whose stock Eastern Bays Chardonnay is as good as it ever been this year, and to the artisans at Monteith's brewery in Greymouth, who have really cracked it with their new Lively Hopped Pilsener.

But remember, as the Christmas Party invitations go out - and I've had two already, believe it or not - it's appropriate to remember warn ourselves and each other not to drink and drive. Even the rather miserable little man who couldn't control himself during the improptu "drinking horn" in the Aukland university Quad this week is a member of SADD, or Students Against Drunk Driving.

Unfortunately, he forgot to join SABCA, or Students Against Being a Complete Arsehole This blind pimple of a man, having got his picture in Craccum, then went on the radio to advance the view that getting drunk pathetically quickly, taking off one's clothes, urinating on other people, drinking urine and trying unsucessfully to masturbate in a public place was some sort of old-school engineering student's tradition.

The whole idea of university, he claimed, was to "get it all out of your system" before you go out into the real world. Yeah, right. Before you go off to your boring, straight National-voting suit job and never do anything interesting every again. Unless you're Graham Watson, who's the ultimate saddo - the guy who just can't grow up and leave university because there's all those impressionable young men to have urinating games with. I despair. I want my taxes back.

No, I don't really. With no emergency dole and no summer jobs on account of the recession, students are going to have a bad enough time as it is. Be kind to the next one you see. Even the morons.


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

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