Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

20th August 1999 - Thick as Three Short Planks of Rimu

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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newsflash: the Prime Minister is not very bright and cannot be allowed out without an autocue.

She got all the way to Monday this week before putting her foot in her mouth - promising, on radio, that there would be a Parliamentary inquiry into the Incis police computer system debacle. The government needed find out exactly what happened and whose fault it was.

It might have sounded quite good to her when she said it, but it was not what her Cabinet wanted to hear. Because her Cabinet was gearing up to announce a lawsuit against IBM for non-fulfillment of contract.

Now, the idea of litigation - especially when it involves a company as large as IBM, which has fought bigger governments than our sin court - is that you go into it confident of your case and looking to demonstrate the merits of that case. An inquiry is not only redundant in the face of legal action - but it implies that you don't quite know what happened. In which case: why are you suing?

But the Prime Minister said oh yes, mark my words, there'll be an inquiry, so her ministers were then obliged to pretend that after what will undoubtedly be a long and traumatic legal battle, then there'll be an inquiry. Yeah, right.

What makes it even sillier is that there's already a select committee inquiry into Incis, which has been going on for nearly two years. Labour is quite keen for the select committee's report to be delivered before the election, embarrassing the government and quite possibly skewering its legal action before it starts. Which might itself be a mercy.

That wasn't the only scrape this week for our mental giant of a leader, of course. She just doesn't seem to be able to master telling the whole truth the first time she's asked. Or even the second.

Last month she was asked in a Parliamentary question whether her staff had been involved in relations between the state-owned logging company Timberlands and the government, or had assisted with Timberlands' public relations campaign. "No," she said.

On Tuesday, when Nicky Hager and Bob Burton published their book Secrets and Lies - which seeks to show that Shipley and her staff helped Timberlands and its PR company, Shandwick, campaign against environmental groups opposed to West Coast logging - she said: "I can assure you my office has not been involved in the policy issues to do with Timberlands since I became Prime Minister."

We then had another round of everybody's favourite game: Try Again Jenny. She now says her staff have not been involved "proactively" with Timberlands and Shandwick's campaign to shape public and political perceptions

What the book shows is that Shandwick's Rob McGregor maintained contract with two of Shipley's staff for a long time, and that that contact continued after she stopped being SOE minister

Shandwick had two aims on behalf of its client - to lobby members of Parliament to change government logging policy, and to manipulate the opinion of the public, by means ranging from setting up a pro-logging citizens' group called Coast Action Network to rushing around removing anti-logging graffiti wherever it appeared.

I've dealt with Shandwick's UK office before - indeed, I'm proud to say I've been on their international shitlist - and they're very efficient.

I'd just rather my taxes weren't paying for them to do so.

Anyway, amid all that, it must have been nice for the PM to visit Plunket for a cup of tea and some baby-kissing. Unfortunately, that visit was occasion for what was arguably the biggest bunch of bullshit in a very bullshitty week.

Shipley announced herself delighted that the government was to become "partners" with Plunket in a relaunch of its Plunketline 24-hour telephone help service. "As a mother myself and having raised two children," she declared. "I feel proud to take the first call to Plunketline from a parent wanting advice."

Pass me the sick bucket. How bloody "proud" did she feel early last year when Plunket was begging for funding for this very same service? When Telstra had to come in with $600,000 because the government wouldn't listen? Having been embarassed into action by a campaign by the Labour Party to save Plunketline, Shipley is now trying to make election year PR out of it.

In that sense, the government's Five Steps Ahead programme, announced this week, is quite a similar business. Having - for nine years - maintained that all the government needed to do was get the settings right and go off for lunch while the knowledge economy built itself, the government has undergone a late conversion to activism.

In a nationwide video conference-linked launch, National debuted Bright Future, also known as Five Steps Ahead. It includes an industry development package and a research programme that mostly looks to take research money away from the primary sector - which has traditionally had the lion's share - and into high-tech. There are also various educational initiatives - but still we are stuck with one of the most onerous student loan schemes in the world.

Still one doesn't want to be too churlish. Now that the government has joined Labour and the Alliance in believing that a vision for the future might be useful, we might finally get somewhere.

But there's a big hole in National's vision - and it's called culture. They just don't get it. I personally had to sit through a hopeless speech by Bill English at this week's Copyright Summit in which he managed to piss off everyone present by ignoring the topic and giving an election speech.

It's maybe an indication of the state we're in that we can't even manage a decent party for the millennium. David Bowie not only won't be playing at the failed show in Gisborne, he won't be coming to the alternative event at Bastion Point either. That show looks pretty shaky too. We may just have to make our own fun this New Year, folks ...


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

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