Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th April 1999

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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the War goes on. And without wishing to suggest that anyone actually takes comfort from the awful, awful mess in the Balkans, I think you'd have to agree that our own government probably isn't sweating the fact that it is for the first time this year finally able to keep its damn fool collective head down.

The War eats up a guaranteed first five minutes of our nightly bulletins, pushing back what might otherwise be newsleading embarrassments. Take the electricity reforms. Now, we have already lost a great deal here, especially in the chopping up of ECNZ into three "baby" Electricorps, which pretty much laid waste to the book value of a big public asset.

There has been the embarrassment of the urgent legislation that got shoved before Parliament before Max Bradford had finished writing it, and unnerving hiccups like Tainui's injunction against the Contact sale. There has also been a level of government intervention in local affairs that would have made Rob Muldoon think twice.

The only possible way Max Bradford's reforms could have been justified is results - as in serious cuts to the already, by international standards, low prices we pay for electricity. These were, after all, our assets that were sliced and diced. Only last week, Bradford promised exactly that.

Unfortunately, TransAlta, the Canadian utility company that now owns power retailing companies serving half a million people in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, this week announced price increases of between five and 13%. TransAlta blamed increases in charges by line companies.

You'll no doubt recall that Bradford ordered existing supply companies to split into retail and line companies and sell off one half. Given that the line companies are monopolies, you can guess which bit got sold off. Our own beloved Mercury Energy for example, had to split into Mercury, which ECNZ now owns, and the racily-titled Vector, which is still owned by a consumer trust.

Anyway, so it's all the line companies' fault for ratcheting up their prices. Except most of them don't seem to have done so. In Christchurch, where TransAlta announced a 13% hike, the council-owned Orion line company had changed its pricing structure, but the effect seemed to be a slight reduction in prices.

No, really, said the multinational TransAlta, we're being bullied here. If Orion goes back to its old pricing, we'll drop our price increase. Righto, said Orion, you've got it. So did TransAlta make good on its promise? Like hell. They just shut up shop and refused to answer any questions for the rest of the week. Amazing. Essentially, TransAlta wants to recoup its investment as soon as possible. And Bradford? Out of the country.

We can only imagine what's going to happen in the case of Contact Energy, whose cornerstone shareholder Edison Mission paid way over the odds for its stake. Has Edison spied a main chance to get its money back sooner rather than later? You have to wonder.

But it's all good for us. Like the ACC reforms, which may have come as a nasty shock to some of the employers who pushed for them. As part of the shift to a new funding model - from pay-as-you-go to fully-funded - employers and the self-employed are going to pay a lot more. I was really delighted to get a demand for "terminal tax" of nearly $400, on pain of IRD's customary "use of money" charges. And of course, we're all paying larger employee contributions and probably soon $36 extra on vehicle registrations, and another couple of cents a litre in petrol tax. Just remember, it's good for us.

Then of course, there's the saga of Roger Estall, bold, brave and completely unsuitable chairman of the Fire Service Commission. No, that's it, the Prime Minister told the insurance industry hatchet man of whom she was once so fond. Get a plan or you're out. No, that's really it. Nope, last chance for you pal. And so, after using up three last chances, Estall managed to make the pretence of agreeing with his chief executive Jean Martin. Unfortunately, this may involve reneging on the accord Martin agreed with the Firefighters' Union.

So, nearly two years after he was appointed, Estall has saved his own butt with a arrangement so shonky that the union could destroy it simply by sticking to its side of the accord. Great.

To be fair to the government, it has made one sound decision this week - hiring George Hickton to try and rescue the Tourism Board's big year. Hickton is probably the most capable and creative public sector executive in the country. He made crucial changes at Income Support - although that's been pretty much buggered up by the WINZ merger - and rescued the TAB.

Can he save our tourism strategy? It's a big call. But with the auditor-general's report only two weeks away, he may soon have the considerable bonus of being able to do it without Murray McCully as minister.

Anyway, genetically-engineered salmon, huh? And quite a bit more besides. In the wake of the Green Party's revelation of the King Salmon Ltd experiments with fast-growing transgenic fish came news of more than 100 GE projects that got the nod before the establishment of the Environmental Risk Management Agency and have been tootling along without much in the way of oversight.

Not very satisfactory. But what really seems wrong is that the head of King Salmon's PR company Communications Trumps - which advised the fish farmers to conceal deformities in the fish from the public - is also involved with Genepool, an industry body allegedly set up to provide reliable information on genetic engineering initiatives. Does this make you feel confident?

At least the authorities have been right onto one burning public health issue. They've banned The Bomb. Yes, the company that makes the cheap and legal "herbal ecstasy" is selling out of the last stocks of its current formulation and will replace it with a new one, minus a key ingredient - Brigham Tea, aka ephedrine. Yes, that's why it seemed to work so jolly well.

You will quite probably find that you like their old stuff better than their new stuff, so you might want to get in smartly and grab some. Anyway, speaking of disco business, it's nice to be in print thanks to the young whippersnappers at Re:Mix magazine. And maximum respect to Peter Belt at the PLUG, who is no longer actively sponsoring the Internet version of Hard News, but remains an absolutely diamond geezer.

No respect at all, of course, to the murdering French sppok Alain Mafart whose self-serving memoirs were released this week. Seems he really never wanted to hurt anyone, they made him do it. If I know any good French insults, I'd deliver one. So here's some Anglo-Saxon - piss off you bastard


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

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