Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

3rd December 1999 - This Week is Another Country

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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it is a new dawn, is it not? Well, it was a hell of a night anyway, and perhaps we ought to leave the Tony Blair stuff well alone. The news is this: the mood has lifted. Auckland has been fine and mild all week and, without anything in particular changing, it seems a better place to live.

When Helen Clark emerged from her house into the cleansing Auckland rain on Saturday night, she too was different. She looked as if a great weight had been lifted from her; she was momentarily girly, giddy, apologising to reporters for making them wait, as if she were Lady Di.

"You look beautiful!" called a man in the crowd half an hour later, as she stepped forward to address the party faithful at Avondale. "Thankyou!" she beamed, taking the compliment in stride. "You look lovely," advised Paul Holmes the following evening, signing off her first studio interview as Prime Minister elect.

Well, if you can't get your appearance off the agenda, you might as well get it running your way. But please tell me there won't be a repeat of Holmes' excruciating tour though Clark's private house, on live TV on Monday night. Or of Holmes leading off the subsequent interview with the Prime Minister elect by asking if her marriage to Peter Davis is "real". What a prat.

Since then, Clark has been poised, managerial, good-natured, conducting herself as if she has been planning this for a long time - which she presumably has. Jim Anderton has been on mostly best behaviour and, in stark contrast to the arsing-about three years ago, the Labour and the Alliance teams have nutted out a succinct coalition agreement inside of a week.

Anderton will be Deputy Prime Minister and will bring two or three more into Cabinet with him. All that remains is for the Labour caucus to elect its Cabinet - and amid the crisp air of the proceedings so far, that seems a weirdly messy way of doing it, but it's what they've always done.

The sole prospect of upset lies, ironically, in the Greens entering Parliament. Unless Winston Peters loses on special votes - and Winston out, Greens in is my dream result - the Greens will chop the Labour Alliance majority back to zero. No one doubts with whom the Greens would side with their six seats, but we are now faced with the deeply ironic situation where National is quietly hoping its Coromandel candidate, Murray McLean, loses to Jeanette Fitzsimons on specials, just to muddy the waters a bit.

The sense in Auckland late last week was that the Greens were on a roll, but they pulled up cruelly short, with 4.9% of the vote; needing 5% or a Fitzsimons win to enter Parliament in their own right.

We'll see. But for now, it's Labour's result. Under First Past the Post it would have been an absolute landslide. Not only did Labour attract nearly a third more votes than National, its MPs won twice as many electorate seats.

In Auckland, where National thought it was getting some traction, the swing to Labour was 6.4%. Three National seats toppled. Maurice Williamson's majority plummeted by 10,000 votes; Labour beat Act in the party vote in Epsom. Two new Labour MPs from the West of Auckland - David Cunliffe and John Tamihere - were respectively annointed as future Prime Ministers.

National's Marie Hasler complained that the other parties had ganged up on her in Titirangi. Darling, you lost by 5000 votes!

Max Bradford also showed ill grace upon being beaten by a woman called Steve in Rotorua, promising to make Labour "pay" when, rather, he himself had paid for being such a gold-plated prick for the past three years.

The outgoing Prime Minister conducted herself far better - giving a speech of concession that actually sounded like her own words, in her own voice. It was good enough to make her Treasurer's near-enough concession two hours earlier look distinctly like a faux pas.

In truth, the Nats are probably nearly as relieved as everyone else. They had run out of ideas, they needed to get out from under the great weight as much as the rest of us. They were also relieved on election night that Act, which had been pitching for 15% of the vote - most of it to be taken out of National's hide - slumped to a pathetic (given the money they spent) 7%. The momentum for National is towards the centre - and that's good for everybody.

Act's result was undoubtedly influenced by last week's would-be immigration dodge, in which Donna Awatere-Huata's husband Wi was a key player - and which, we now learn, was the subject of two calls by Donna herself to immigration officials asking when it would be approved by Tuariki Delamere. This, Richard Prebble has invited us to believe, is not the same thing as lobbying. Righto, then

It was quite a final week. Having copped a beating over Delamere and Rankin, National had the misfortune to have placed a billboard proclaiming "Fantastic Auckland - Keep it this way" near the Auckland Harbour bridge. Early on Friday afternoon, a truckful of blue ink spilled its load on the bridge approach, Auckland locked up for hours and thousands of hot and angry drivers, trapped in their cars, looked at that billboard and thought: "I don't bloody think so."

The great escape of the final week was undoubtedly that of Labour Party president and Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, whose staff managed to smother the story of his down-trou in front of a disgruntled ratepayer until this week - when it was broken, bizarrely, by Labour's campaign director, Mike Williams.

The financial analysts have been studiously relaxed about the new government so far ,and even the Insurance Council is being polite about asking that its members please not be forcibly removed from their workplace gravy train. Indeed, the first real challenge for the new team is not practical, but exquisitely ideological.

What ought to have been a fairly dull ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle has made international headlines thanks to an extraordinary mobilisation of between 30,000 and 50,000 people on the streets of the city - followed by riots, tear gas and a curfew.

I'm not incline to rush to judgement on the protestors so far as the riots go. I have been caught up in two riots in my life - one in Aotea Square and one in Trafalgar Square - and both of them were a result of a bungled police response to relatively small disturbances.

But the sheer variety of the causes on offer on the streets of Seattle underscored the fact that nothing about this is simple. Many of the protestors believe the WTO is an unelected vehicle carrying out a big business global masterplan. Ironically, they picked a meeting dominated by ministers of largely democratically elected governments.

Even more ironically, the rich countries - the European Union and the US respectively - have warmly endorsed the protestors' demands for environmental and labour issues to be put on the agenda. It's the developing economies who fear that those very issues will be used as de facto trade barriers, wiping out their only real competitive advantage. this week ran a picture of some Filipino protestors in Seattle, carrying a placard declaring "get agriculture out of of APEC-GATT-WTO!" New Zealand has, of course, spent the decades since the original GATT trying to get agriculture *into* trade treaties. Our survival as a small nation depends on it. Who's right?

It's also a mistake to believe that it is not only free trade that puts the environment at risk. That citadel of agricultural protectionism, the European Union, has over the years poured billions of dollars into subsidies to small farmers, much of which has gone into dumping ever more agrichemicals onto the land.

The interests of our farmers, who continue to provide the vast bulk of our overseas earnings, are not identical to the interests of farmers in the US or France. Our farmers want protection from the whims of the giants and their farmers want, effectively, protection from us.

As Jim Anderton bit his lip, our own Greens weighed into the trade issue this week, with their co-leader Rod Donald declaring the Alliance's plan for a new 5% tariff on all imports except those from Australia didn't go far enough, given that Australia was our biggest trading partner.

He appeared to be suggesting that we should trash our 20-year economic relationship with Australia and start slapping tariffs on trans-Tasman trade.

Well, perhaps the South Island ought to pump up its economy a bit by taxing goods and services produced in the North Island. Actually, my local shops in Pt Chevalier are a bit sad, so maybe we should erect a customs post at Western Springs and tax those citizens bringing in contraband from Grey Lynn.

Silly? Yes. But how far do you want to go in atomising the world? Where do you put up your walls? And what would happen if the Greens did procure an across-the-board tariff on anything from Australia? After trying to get the policy reversed, the Australians, our biggest export market, would presumably retaliate with their own tariff barrier. Would that be better?

I know Tim Hazeldine and his chums reckon all we need to do is develop internal markets. But let's think about what that means. It means never, ever having an idea that can't be accomodated in a market of 3.8 million people. Either that or leave the country and have your idea somewhere else.

In such circumstances, the new government's position on trade has become an important branding statement. And it's been the right statement by my lights: yes, we believe free trade is the only way forward and we have plenty to gain from it. And no, we do not believe trade happens in a vacuum - the environment and labour laws must be considered.

With a New Zealander at the head of the WTO and the tide apparently beginning to turn on ideological purity, we may just have elected ourselves a social democratic government at just the right time


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

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