Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

1st December 2000 - This Little Prick Won't Hurt

Copyright © 2000 Russell Brown

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whatever its challenges this year, the coalition has frequently allowed us to forget that it is a minority government. But that fact became all too clear this week as the new district health boards legislation reached its reckoning.

Law like this usually goes unmolested at this stage of the legislative process. All the action ought to have been over and done with in select committee. But, for whatever reason, National and the Greens' minority opinion in the committee report was rewritten by its chair, Judy Keall - earning a rebuke from the speaker and the wrath of those two parties.

It briefly appeared that things might get truly nasty as Michael Cullen, showing all the grace and diplomacy you'd expect of the Leader of the House, accused the Greens and National of doing dirty deals with each other. The Greens had their customary fit of the moral vapours and National MPs sniggered behind their hands.

It took the Prime Minister gliding in like an expensive battleship to get things back on track; instructing health minister Annette King to accept amendments which improved her bill. So National, the Greens and even - if only so the sodding Greens didn't get all the limelight - Labour's coalition partner the Alliance got a turn. In this sense, it was MMP in action, and it might have continued to look that way had there been more diplomacy on offer.

But Cullen - this time in his role as Minister of Finance - appeared to then take unseemly delight in exercising the government's right to veto measures for which it cannot fiscally provide. Chief amongst these was the Greens' pet proposal for a stand-alone public health agency.

The government, having set up a directorate to do the same job within the Ministry of Health, was in no mood to find the money to indulge the Greens' plan. That plan was, of course, backed by National - even though National actually abolished the Public Health Commission when it was in government. Could it be that National was being just a wee bit cynical?

Quite a bit cynical, actually - and you can double that for Tony Ryall's comments on the re-introduction of income related rents for state housing, which is restored as of today. Only the 20% of poor people who live in state housing would be helped by this, whined Ryall.

The other 80% of the needy will be no worse off, and can probably assume their private rents won't by driven up by Housing New Zealand clattering around in the market, the way they were during the market rents era.

The fact is, National's market rents policy not only helped spark a surge in tuberculosis and other diseases of poverty and overcrowding, it now costs the taxpayer nearly a billion dollars a year in subsidies via the accommodation supplement. The effect on the economy itself was to even further encourage the unfortunate New Zealand tendency to run up household debt and sink cash into property rather than the productive sector.

I'm not aware of a single independent social agency that hasn't greeted the new policy - which makes state house tenants now liable to pay no more than 25% of their incomes on rent - as a return to sanity. Even Ryall has admitted that National wouldn't bring back market rents, telling National Radio recently that itwas "a good policy for the 90s".

It's curious then, that the authors of a new report on the New Zealand economy from the OECD think the move back to income-related rents will somehow harm our prospects for economic growth and investment.

In the course of a modestly optimistic forecast, the report's authors officially anointed the Employment Relations Act as a return to the international mainstream - but criticised the rise in the top income tax rate, the renationalisation of ACC and such harbingers of the creeping socialist plague as as, er, export credit guarantees.

As a cure for our bad habit of throwing money at property, the report prescribed not only a capital gains tax on owner-occupied houses, but a tax based on imputed rental income - in plain language, a tax on the activity of living in your own house.

Never mind that that appears to run completely counter to what the report demands on public housing - there is no doubt that market rents and the big, deep trough of subsidies for private landlords helped feed the residential property spiral of the 90s - do these economists seriously think any New Zealand government could go into an election with that as a policy?

Furthermore, I do not subscribe to the view that unless we get up on the bar, drop our pants and lustily sing Yankee Doodle Dandy then foreign capital won't want to know us. That for the foreseeable future we have to be the freak show of the South Pacific just to get anyone to notice.

The irony of course, is that the OECD itself is based in France, with its lavish public health system and all. The authors of the report wouldn't have to come within 10,000 kilometres of the consequences of their recommendations for benefit and pension cuts and nobbled public housing in New Zealand.

Abstraction is, of course, the luxury of economists. Reality is somebody else's job.

Reality, apparently is no friend of Sir Douglas Myers either. The richest man in the country made speeches this week in which he assailed the whole concept of biculturalism as a wicked plot and said the Closing the Gaps policy failed to recognise that the causes of poverty were often "personal decisions and a poverty of culture."

"I don't mean the outward symbols of culture such as language, music, festivals, dance and foods," Myers continued. "But the inner motivations and moral fibre."

So what are you saying Doug? Poor people want to be poor? Maoris are lazy? Brown people lack moral fibre? It's not your fault?

A couple of years ago I called Doug Myers an arsehole on this very radio station. This abuse was occasioned by an appalling opinion piece he wrote for the Herald, in which he declared that such lefty civic fancies as libraries were not a public good, and that it did him no good if some poor bastard were to read a book.

The amusing upshot of the arsehole comment was that Myers collared Bill Ralston at some function the following week, having mistaken my rough and ready tones for Bill's cultured presence on the wireless. It does happen. Well, Doug, don't go blaming Bill this time. And hear this: if there's anywhere moral fibre is wearing thin it's in high-born pricks like yourself, who have never in their lives wanted for anything yet feel able to pass judgement on the morals of those who don't share your fortune. Doug Myers, the word arsehole was made for you


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

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