Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

14th May 1999

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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"A thousand years ago, the dawn of the second millennium brought the end of the Dark Ages, a revival of world trade, a renaissance of culture and the flowering of science which produced eventually the technology that so vastly enriches our world today."

So began Bill Birch's final Budget speech. And that's not all. "As the year 2000 approaches," intoned the Treasurer, "The world has begun to enter a new age our young people today stand in the anteroom of a challenging, and ultimately very much richer, world."

Crikey. Extra rations for the spin doctor who wrote that. The shame of it is that the Budget itself didn't even nearly answer the millennial rallying cry with which it began.

There's some good stuff in it. Not much, but some. A bit more finally for computers in schools, a little for the working poor, a win for Tau Henare, who must have really put the hard word on. A bit more for working families, even if it was largely just an attempt to head off paid parental leave.

The literally overnight disappearance of stamp duty is good - a modern government should make its revenue system as simple as possible and not be wading in taking a cut anywhere people have to do paperwork.

The abolition of the broadcasting fee is the same thing in theory. In practice be afraid, be very afraid. Well, under National anyway. Now that Birch is off, the man holding the purse strings is a conservative Catholic from Southland.

Combine that with any thought of a coalition with ACT, whose half-mad broadcasting spokeswoman Muriel Newman did a victory dance yesterday, and you might as well start writing the epitaph of public broadcasting.

Still, it must have been touching afterwards over a couple of sherries as Birch handed the financial mantle over to Bill English: "I am your father, Luke"

But it appears it was English himself who didn't use The Force - and helped render the Budget lame. The tax cuts that had been so strongly signalled beforehand turned up only as a promise that if everybody behaved themselves till 2004 there might be some presents.

Basically, English didn't want Birch nailing down his next three Budgets for him. He wanted to announce his own tax cuts. But the result of all the haggling in the backroom was a Budget that proclaimed the millennium but came up way, way short on the Vision Thing.

It is a lifeless document that does nothing to aid English's chances of even being in government next year. Maybe that was the idea. The quickest way to get rid of Shipley and have a charge at the throne would be to lose the election, would it not?

Nonetheless, Shipley herself had to go forth and sell it on the night. So she appeared on 'Holmes' - and completely blew it. Holmes let her trot through her script and then, in conclusion, noted that she'd refused to debate the Budget with Helen Clark on the show and asked her why she'd vetoed appearing with Clark every single time 'Holmes' had asked.

The answer, of course, is that she can't think on her feet and therefore can't be risked debating on live TV. As she proceeded to demonstrate by going down in flames while Holmes scratched his nose and looked quizzical in the cutaway shots. What a worry.

Both party leaders were profiled later that evening on Assignment, whose cameras followed each through their private and public lives last week. Shipley paraded her family - even paying a visit to her son in Christchurch, as if to emphasise that she had borne a strapping boy-child. All the better to contrast with Clark's non-childbearing personal life, of course.

And just in case anybody hadn't grasped the spin, she actually enunciated it, declaring that New Zealanders would have to look at herself - with her family and all - and Clark, and decide which one looked the way they wanted New Zealand to be. Or something. Honestly, every time I start to swing around to feeling ambivalent about Jenny Shipley, she says something that makes me hate her.

Then it was over to Clark and her funny little husband Peter Davis, who seemed a nice chap. She's serious, straight and very smart, although she sometimes seems quite troubled. She looked and sounded several degrees more honest than the Prime Minister. I can't imagine anyone coming away from that programme thinking less of her. If it was spin, then it was better spin than Shipley's.

Speaking of which, I realise now - how could I have been so foolish? - that the main reason for the delaying of the select committee report on Roger Estall's fine work at the Fire Service Commission was not to amend the wording but to kill the story. Farewell Estall on the Wednesday, two days' play and then everyone's talking about the Budget.

Why should the fortunes of the bloke who chairs the body that runs the Fire Service be so compelling anyway? It's only a part-time job, after all - albeit one that has been earning Estall $137,000 a year. It's important because, like the Tourism Board debacle before it, it's a failure of governance.

Every bit of latitude that could possibly be extended to Roger Estall was extended, and then some. The fact is, he was just a bad hire. His willingness to slash and burn might have given some people a stiffy but he never, ever had the managerial or negotiating skills to deliver. His track record and his previous stint on the commission showed that to anyone who cared to look.

He came into the job with the whiff of conflict of interest and did nothing to dispel that by killing an audit of fire levy avoidance schemes. He tried to avoid revealing his shareholding in one of the firms that devised such schemes.

He not only couldn't get on with his workforce, he couldn't get on with his own senior officials. So he was allowed to fire them and hand-pick his own officials and he fell out completely with them too.

Having been hired to deal to the Professional Firefighters' Union, he threw away an existing reform process in favour of a plan to fire all 1600 firefighters and rehire the ones who toed the line. He also wanted to cut the number of firemen per appliance from four to three and tried to get them to sign an employment contract with a new clause that provided for the sale of the Fire Service.

The Professional Firefighters' Union is sometimes depicted as obstructive and stroppy, but it's worth noting that it wasn't them who played fast and loose here.

They simply went to court and, for the most part, had their case upheld. Roger Estall's brilliant restructuring was in breach of the law of the land. It was also, according to the Audit Office, carried out without any proper financial controls. This year's report from the office busted the commission's rating from a B to an E. An E is taken to mean that the system isn't working at all and needs to be ripped out and replaced. Nice work, Roger.

The firefighters' spokesman Derek Best might exaggerate occasionally, but has he, as Roger Estall has done, run a cynical and emotive PR campaign by personally latching onto fire tragedies? Your dues and mine went into Estall's flying in of a bereaved and bewildered mother for a select committee meeting - and also to the PR company that helped him think of the idea. That was sick.

That wasn't the only creepy thing about the whole business. As Denis Welch's fascinating Listener feature revealed, Estall had an obsession with the Fire Service that was arguably unhealthy in a public official. He was - and is, still, possibly - a fire engine chaser. For years, he has followed appliances to fires, fatal and otherwise, and stood and watched. How odd.

Ah, but look at the reduction in the fire death rate, and the uptake in smoke alarms. That's Roger Estall's legacy, said Shipley this week. It might have been more convincing had there been any attempt to show that the drop in the past year was anything other than a fluctuation, or that anything Estall did actually contributed to the uptake of smoke alarms. But no one even tried.

Instead, we had to go through the McCully-like charade of pretending that the resignee has done nothing wrong and is only going because the press and the Opposition are being so bloody beastly.

And as it was with the Tourism Board debacle, somebody got money for resigning. Even though he apparently went of his own free will, Estall scored $68,000 for the pain and anguish involved. Does that ever happen in the real world?

Meanwhile, Margaret Bazley, the hard-faced old lady who runs Social Welfare, has been brought over to do Estall's job. Sounds like she has her own problems back at the office though - Welfare's computer systems aren't working well and, apparently, Bazley, a can't-and-won't non-computer user, doesn't get it.

But what, you have to ask, is up with the Department of Internal Affairs? Having been the scene of McCully's odd litle empire, the department has nowgotten its hands dirty with the Fire Service, especially secretary Roger Blakely, who actually sits on the commission.

The former chief executive of the service, Morrie Cummings, told a select committee last year that Estall's appointment was the result of a conspiracy involving the Business Roundtable, the insurance industry and a group of rogue civil servants at Internal Affairs. Nothing would surprise me, I'm afraid. It's that governance thing again.

But there are deeper moral issues for us to consider. Especially, is PopStars on the level or what? A friend of mine whose judgement is normally very good, believes the show is "shabby and evil".

The TrueBliss girls might have a number one single but they don't have employment contracts. Should they? It depends on how you look at the project. If they're a real group, then no, no more than the Feelers have employment contracts. If it's all really just a confection for TV, then yes, they should.

It's easier to rule on the show's treatment of Mark Tierney, the former Polygram/Universal executive, which my friend felt bordered on slander. If Tierney did lead them up the garden path, then there's no reason to leave that fact out. If he didn't, then he should sue them, or at least go to the press.

It's easy to feel uneasy about some of the casual "moments" in PopStars, which just happen to take place in good lighting and from several camera angles. At times, it seems absurdly staged. But I like it. And I think I like it because of the very ambiguity that so disturbs my friend. It's very interesting television - more ambitious in every way than the dull trash people like Julie Christie fling at us, and, in an age of set-up TV shows, quite open-ended. If it all falls to bits when the series ends, then whatever.

It might come down to this: who'll last longer? TrueBliss or Jenny Shipley's government? Even money right now, I reckon


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

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