Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

17th December 1999 - The Election That Wouldn't Die

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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so there we were, Friday night in Sydney, a cluster of enterprising knowledge workers with a high tolerance for fun. And could we get a taxi? We could not. Not at the same time, to the same place, anyway.

Apparently it's going to be even worse on New Year's Eve. Estimates are - and I'm not joking here - that the ratio of taxis to freebooting party people in Sydney means it's going to take three and a half days to get everyone home.

Sydney taxi drivers are threatening to stay home with their families because they're not being allowed to jack up fares to make working worthwhile. Look, if the journalists at the New Zealand Herald are going to get triple time and lashings of booze then so should cabbies everywhere. Well, not the booze, but you know what I mean.

But if there was ever a candidate for the most radical deregulation, it is surely the Sydney taxi trade. It is plainly not worth the while of enough drivers to cater for the city's night-on-the-tiles population. But it's a funny place, Australia. While I was there, a team representing the incumbents of the broadcasting industry was bragging that it had as good as talked the government into a set of rules for digital broadcasting.

These rules essentially declare that anybody who is not currently a television broadcaster in Australia will be a "datacaster". And datacasters will not be allowed to provide sports, drama, comedy, news or in fact anything recognisable as television. There seems to be no good reason for such a regime, other than to protect the incumbents. How very bloody odd.

Anyway, the taxis. They split us up. And in the course of our fractured late evening, one of us wandered off and wound up watching not one but two people turn blue and die drug deaths on the streets of King's Cross. I suppose it follows that if Australians are so good at living in their public spaces they should also occasionally die in them. But just hearing the details chilled me.

Then, the next day, 15 minutes into a delayed journey home - we'd been bumped off Aerolineas Argentinas, which was sort of disappointing - the elderly woman in the seat behind me had some sort of acute medical episode which caused her blood pressure to plummet and she herself to enter a state of panic in which she forgot what English she did know and just started wailing. Yes, there was a doctor on board, but it was all rather unnerving. I could only sit there pondering what they do when people actually do die on planes.

When I got off that plane, there waiting for me was the Herald, with all the front-page detail on a particularly awful domestic murder. Kids suffocated, old chap from next door stabbed to death trying to restrain the killer. Forgive me if I confess to a little creeping dread, a little pre-millennium tension.

After all, it's happening again. Having screwed up our first try at MMP, Winston Peters has done it twice. In contriving to crawl to a pitiful 63-vote victory, with barely a third of the vote in Tauranga, Peters has saved his idiot party from the oblivion it deserved. The glamorous Greens have swept into the House with an electorate win and a five-plus share of the party vote but Winston won't do the decent thing and restore the coalition's absolute majority by disappearing. Bugger.

Do you blame Labour, for standing a strong candidate in Tauranga? Or National's Katherine O'Regan, who ran pretty much a three-year campaign and still couldn't unseat the incumbent?

One thing you can't blame Labour for is going for a recount. Margaret Wilson couldn't win, but Labour would, by seeing NZ First out if O'Regan did - which, by then, she didn't want to, having already accepted a handy private-sector job.

National had hinted about intentions for a recount but did nothing - possibly in a effort to leave things up in the air long enough to delay next week's opening of Parliament - which the coalition needs to take place in order to get its keynote legislation in motion.

There is simply no other conceivable reason that Richard Prebble should this week have demanded a recount in the seat of Rangitikei - where Act came nowhere, but where 100 votes were misplaced after counting and have not yet turned up so they can be rechecked.

Act's expensive recount won't bring those votes back, and it won't change the result - given that special votes have already boosted the National candidate's majority to more than 200. Prebble has made the preposterous claim that counting all the votes again will prevent votes going missing in future elections. Right. Sure it will.

This is already turning into The Election That Wouldn't Die and I am sure I am not alone in wishing Prebble would give up being a smartarse so everyone can just get on with it.

Act and National would, of course, love the Labour-led government to run out of time to push the the gnarly end of their programme - the tax increase over $60,000 a year and the ACC wind back - and have to grapple with it instead in the new millennium

The new government, on the other hand, wants it done before the holidays, because, as ever, we will return from the beach with our nerves soothed and our minds wiped of the cares of the old year. It'll be like it's always been that way.

Anyway, Parliament probably will still assemble to enact those measures - but perhaps not the party-hopping bill that Labour promised would be a priority - not under urgency, anyway.

The wilful theft of voters' mandates by the likes of Alamein Kopu - who took her stolen Alliance votes and propped up National in exchange for morning teas with the PM and certain accomodations over "research" funds - was outrageous. But she's gone, and so are the others who cheated the voters. And legislation to prevent anybody else doing the same thing suddenly looks like more constitutional grief than it's worth.

Especially given that the Greens have declared that they won't be backing Labour's measure. The Greens have also put on the squeeze over West Coast logging, where Labour's Pete Hodgson, who is a pretty pale shade of green for an Environment minister, is concentrating on the winnable battle over rolling back Timberlands' dodgy beech logging contracts - signed, in an amazing coincidence, the day before Labour's official policy announcement on ending native logging.

The slightly more robust contracts rushed through by Timberlands for rimu logging will have to wait, says Hodgson. Grrrr ... say the Greens.

Act, of course, is already prancing about making dire pronouncements about the rule of law. But if any private company management had sought to deceive its shareholders the way Timberlands' has, it'd be out the door.

And it's also worth noting that Act, the would-be defender of the West Coast working man, came a miserable sixth in the party vote in West Coast-Tasman - well short of Labour, the Alliance, the Greens and New Zealand First and less than a thousand votes ahead of Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis. National took out the party vote by about 300 - but the anti-logging parties in that electorate won a clear majority of the vote. As they did nationwide. Remember that.

A little more Green-tinged tension was triggered by young Nandor's statement that he will continue his weekly religious observance of marijuana, even though he is now a legislator. Labour's new Minister of Justice, Phil Goff, who I fear will need to be watched, got grumpy over that. On the other hand, Labour's conservative Minister of Agriculture, Jim Sutton, could be heard this week spreading good vibes about the potential of hemp farming. Intriguing.

For all that the arrival of the Greens seems to have briefly unnerved the currency markets, they've conducted themselves very well. They are quality people - and a far more interesting proposition than the lower-list would-be's they turfed out. They actually have the opportunity to introduce a whole new political culture to our system.

It's not a done deal yet - the Greens have previously promised much in, say, Auckland local body politics, and yet been undone by their cumbersome internal machinery and po-faced attitude to policy. Maybe this lot do have the goods.

Which may be why Alliance leader Jim Anderton feels the need to preserve his own party's profile by keeping his mouth constantly in motion.

Before Parliament has even sat, Anderton has told the press that Labour should think about going back on everything it promised in the election campaign and implement policy from its planned review of the tax system without putting it to the electorate. Labour, which seems to be at pains to do exactly what it promised to do, didn't need to hear that.

A brief breach of Labour's own military discipline occurred last week, of course when the plodders rather ruthlessly kept out of Cabinet by the votes of their own caucus - and then not given the consolation prize of a post outside Cabinet - went public. Graham Kelly and Harry Duynhoven in particular have worked away on their shadow portfolios - only to see them going to sharper, smarter and more promising colleagues. They were not happy.

National for its part has been building an Opposition attack team which will target Cullen and Anderton. Already Murray McCully has warned ominously that rolling back his ACC scheme rapidly will risk sloppy legislation. Which, in the week when major flaws have become apparent in both National's terrible "home invasion" bill and Max Bradford's incompetent electricity reform legislation, is just a tiny bit rich.

Frankly, I wonder if the nation cares all that much. Business is either in denial or not too fussed and ordinary consumer folk are stressing about Christmas shopping. Let's just have it and be done with it and see them all again on Waitangi Day. Are you with me?


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

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