Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

11th December 1998

Copyright © 1998 Russell Brown

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so where were you a year ago? Were you richer, poorer, happier, angrier, sadder, madder? I ask because, of course, it's just over a year since Jenny Shipley became New Zealand's First woman Prime Minister, royally pissing off both Jim Bolger and Helen Clark in the process.

Both of them had rather fancied being Prime Minister in the red letter year of 1999 - and one of them still might be. But not right now. We all recall the radiant smugness on the Shipley dial when her coup went through, but she didn't have much to brag about when her reign turned one year old this week. Indeed, curiously, she claimed her major achievement as, well, surviving.

It would have been a difficult time for any government, given the economic events of the past 12 months. But has Shipley even held her ground? When she took over, she sidelined Bolger's high Tories - Don McKinnon stepped down as Deputy PM, Doug Graham isn't the force he used to be and Bolger is now our man in Washington - ironically, the job McKinnon was long rumoured to have coveted for himself.

In their place, Shipley brought forward The Men Whose Eyes Spin Around When They Talk, and they have caused no end of trouble. John Luxton single-handedly damaged the National Party's rural support base to the extent that a former National Party fund-raiser, Sir Dryden Spring, gave a keynote speech at the Labour Party's annual conference recently.

Shipley was also unable to sustain a workable relationship with Winston Peters - although you wouldn't envy her in trying - with the result that New Zealand First has splintered and her government is now supported by a ridiculous crop of deserters who have stolen the mandate of the people who voted for them - twice over. Remember when Tau Henare swore he'd never serve in a cabinet with Jenny Shipley? Now he's her puppy.

The falling-out with Peters has seen her lose almost all of the majority she inherited, and obliged to regularly entertain, flatter and indulge the ridiculous Alamein Kopu, who simply hasn't understood some of the legislation she's voted with the government on.

One thing that can be said about Shipley now is that she's considerably easier on the eye than she was a year ago. The image-making has taken suprisingly well, and her clothes and hair are really well worked. I would hasten to add that those stylish spectacles are really for her eyesight, and that we have been instructed by her to ignore such things anyway.

Where Shipley's reputation has really suffered is with regard to her management skills. She came into the job with the rep of someone who got the job done, and her slick, silent leadership coup only enhanced that image.

But since then, the wheels have fallen off. In particular, National's Parliamentary craft has been all-time hopeless - remember Max Bradford getting urgency for electricity reforms he hadn't actually finished writing? The ultimate indictment has been the Shipley cabal's new hires - more pricey press handlers, bringing the total to six! You don't have to do that when your machine is ticking over sweetly.

But maybe the worst of it has been the abject inability to produce a vision that somebody - anybody - can love. The government's list of apple-pie economic goals was scorned by the Business Roundtable and the Employers' Federation this week, and we all know about how the farmers feel.

And a royal opportunity to make us all feel good - the forthcoming party of the century - has been squandered like you wouldn't believe. For God's sake, we're the first nation to get the year 2000 - the eyes of the world will be upon us! But the Millenium Commission can't work out what to do with its piddly little budget, Dennis O'Reilly has resigned and, God help us, Murray McCully's in charge.

The miserable economic forecast issued by Treasury this week would matter less if the government could inspire us - but it can't, and the sooner we get a vote on the matter, the better.

The way it looks, we'll get a vote before Maurice Williamson's roading reforms become law. Which is just as well. The reforms call for a funder-provider split with the roads to be managed by profit-driven regional companies. If you find this reminiscent of the health reforms of the early 90s, you're on the right track.

Funding is at the heart of this plan, which is into its third revision. An extra 8 cents a litre would go on the price of gas - although only a fraction of the petrol tax actually goes into the roads anyway - and we'd be looking at paying to use roads, especially at rush hour. Not a cent of our rates money would any longer go into roading.

It's called user-pays, and it will hit the big-city working poor harder than anyone. The factory worker stuck with "congestion pricing" can't glide into work after 9am - and he won't have any option but to pay up, because the new plan does not even consider anything to do with public transport, which, as we all know, is the face of creeping Marxism.

But say you don't own a car and don't drive - and therefore in Maurice's brave new world, pay nothing towards the cost of the roads. Does that mean you gain no benefit from the roads? Of course it doesn't - as even a gibbering right-wing idiot would agree.

Your friends will use the roads to come and visit you - and pay for the privilege. If you have a heart attack or your house catches fire, the emergency services get to you on the roads. You will derive many benefits from living in an economy which has roads.

Can we just get real and admit that roads are a public good? They facilitate all kinds of things we regard as desirable, and it's really only sensible that we fund them by a range of means. That doesn't count out the odd private roading project in places, such as Transmission Gully, north of Wellington, where the public bodies have dithered forever, but let's please be sensible about this.

But enough beefing about the government. There are bigger things to fret about - like the power cutting out at midnight at next year's New Year's Eve Party. The government-established Y2K Readiness Commission confirmed this week that it might be wise to head into the new millenium with a torch and a chillybin.

Although water might also be a worry, as I understand it, electricity's the big one. It's not just a matter of these guys fixing their computers - their networks are full of little boxes with embedded microcontrollers. And some of those chips have two-digit date fields and may react unpredictably just as every DJ in the country is reaching for the big, beaty house anthem.

Folk music, anyone?


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

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