Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

23rd March 2001 - Confiscate Their Fax Machines

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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was it ugly enough for you? In a tit-for-tat war so poisonous that the news media seemed embarrassed at being seen to cover it, National and Labour combined this week to drag each other's nearest and dearest through the gutter.

So how did we get here? Perhaps Wyatt Creech, the former deputy leader of the National Party, really is so politically na´ve as to believe that questioning the integrity of the Prime Minister's husband Peter Davis only three days after all Opposition parties united to try and nail him in another empty scandal wouldn't look like a smear campaign. Perhaps it was quite by accident that he chose last week to demand scrutiny of a research project commissioned back in 1999.

It certainly is the job of a loyal Opposition to query any conflict of interest. But it helps to have the merest skerrick of evidence before you start. Creech was in possession of a sole fact: that Davis, an internationally respected medical researcher, led a team which had received a grant for a study of New Zealand health reforms, some of which were conducted while his wife was Minister of Health.

The grant was $750,000, from the Health Research council, which appointed an independent expert panel from here and abroad to scrutinise 300 applications for research funding. The panel, presumably noting Davis' experience in leading similar projects during National's term of government, approved his application, along with several dozen others. If they had considered him bent - which is effectively what Creech was suggesting - they would not have chosen him.

As the New Zealand Herald noted in a remarkably sane editorial, being kneecapped by politicians does not send a good signal to our best and brightest, the people we fret are joining the brain drain.

With the news media already sighing loudly about "so-called scandals" Labour might have assumed the high ground. And, athough she was plainly furious, Helen Clark - apart from calling Creech a scumbag, sleazeball, etc, etc - refrained from her normal practice of dealing with political attacks by smacking her opponents between the eyes.

But, with her consent or not, Labour's appointed bovver boy Trevor Mallard subsequently stood up in Parliament and made equally baseless suggestions about the properness of the involvement of the wives of Bill English and Max Bradford and the sister of Jenny Shipley in the business of the last government.

Among other things, he queried the role of Rosemary Bradford, a real estate agent, in a five million dollar deal involving the Health Funding Authority's move to its plush new offices. Like Creech, he really had no other evidence of conflict of interest than that a ministerial spouse was involved. To make it worse, he got a number of his facts wrong.

In the helpful way that experienced politicians have, he faxed his notes to gallery reporter Barry Soper, after Soper had asked him for them - thus losing the protection of parliamentary privilege. His behaviour was compounded by the fact that he had his facts wrong.

In what by all accounts was a sudden unburdening at the Prime Ministerial press conference on Monday, Clark agreed that a truce was in order. The following day, Mallard apologised in Parliament. But not, apparently, well enough for National, where there is madness on the hoof.

Mary English, PhD, declared herself to have accepted Mallard's apology, but appeared to feel that she had been slighted by Clark's statement that she had done fine work for the government.

She had only ever worked a day for the government, she said, and that was unpaid. On the basis of this, she told journalists she was considering legal action. I think a stiff drink might be more appropriate.

Her husband Bill interjected during Mallard's apology to make an issue of the fact that the notes were apparently faxed at 2.18pm when the fateful words had not been spoken until 2.46pm. Mallard said the time on the fax machine was wrong and until such time as Soper says otherwise, that would appear to be it. Is this mindless enough for you yet?

Meanwhile, Jenny Shipley was shuttling around emitting her customary chorus of brain farts. On Morning Report, she accused Clark of also having once attacked her sister over some arts funding matter I can't recall the boring details of. Nope, said Clark, with the familiar steel-trap certainty that says "don't even bother".

By the afternoon, Shipley had forgotten the alleged slight to her sister and was faxing all and sundry with copies of a 1998 newspaper story in which Clark had said something about the school her children went to, thus widening the frame of reference to anything anyone had ever said about anyone's family at all.

But who really dragged Jenny Shipley's family into politics? The answer can only be, Jenny Shipley did. She was happy to use her children as a campaign weapon. She appeared in TV programme with them, even leading cameras into her son's Christchurch flat. And she consistently - and tastelessly - sought to contrast her status as the happily married Mother of the Nation with that of the childless Clark and Davis.

Three years ago, we have been further reminded, Clark also passed comment on members' families in Parliamentary speech on the odious Code of Social Responsibility. She noted that Doug Graham's boy had smashed up a ministerial car and Tuariki Delamere's accident-prone son Jean Paul had just been busted for pot.

Young Delamere went on Holmes this week lashing Clark for her spite and hypocrisy in 1998. But his bust had already been on the front page of the Herald. And more to the point, his father was part of a coalition government that was then fixing to morally contract every parent in the country by means of that Code.

To put it bluntly: they were going to wade into my family life then I fail to see why they should be so precious about somebody wading into theirs.

A temporary truce ordered by Speaker Jonathan Hunt was truly in tatters by the time the Evening Post - which habitually applies a lower standard of proof than its peers - ran a front-page story quoting an anonymous source as saying that cannabis had been found in the ministerial VW of Health Minister Annette King after her daughter crashed it during the Christmas holidays. Clark angrily accused National of feeding the Post the story. Cue yet more high dudgeon from Shipley and company.

But the leading politician who can really take the moral high ground in all this is Winston Peters. As loose as he has been about hurling around accusations in his career, Peters has always kept his and other people's families out it. The overwhelming majority of Parliamentarians can say the same. As for the rest; for God's sake, will somebody confiscate their fax machines?

Another would-be scandal reached an end of sorts this week when the Audit Office released a report exonerating Marian Hobbs and Phillida Bunkle over their living allowance claims.

I feel particularly sorry for Hobbs, who was only drawn into this position because her circumstances changed when her marriage broke up. She has now been cleared in investigations by Parliamentary Services, the Registrar of Electors and the Audit Office but will quite possibly be tarnished for the rest of her career.

National's Roger Sowry, who demanded and got the latter two investigations, now seems incapable of accepting their findings. Apparently both former ministers remain guilty in "the court of public opinion", to which Sowry has a personal psychic hotline. Memo to Sowry: piss off and find something useful to do, you odious little toad.

Bunkle's full rehabilitation waits on her Registrar of Electors report, but Hobbs will almost certainly be brought back into Cabinet next week. I'm picking she'll take up Broadcasting again but that Biosecurity will be left with Jim Sutton, who is plainly loving it.

The government would be well advised to put away the ammunition and concentrate on its positive achievements, which have been obscured by the flinging of filth.

This week alone, it introduced new tax breaks for R&D, which will have the happy spin-off of lowering business compliance costs; and announced that ACC will make good on a double-dipping cock-up dating from National's term. Business was pleased.

Life went on outside Parliament, of course. DB Group made the crappiest corporate decision of the year by announcing that its Monteith's brewery in Greymouth will be shut down and its beers will now be made in Auckland.

The 14 staff at Montieth's have paid the price for excellence. They have developed really fine beers that have captured the palate of the nation - including Aucklanders. Rather than expanding the Greymouth plant to meet booming demand, DB has shuffled it off to its under-occupied plant at Otahuhu. They make some good beer there too, but DB risks wrecking its best brand. Memo to Greymouth: Auckland is sorry.

Auckland also, as of this week, has a new slogan. Joining such past classics as "Auckland - City of Lovers" is "Auckland A", which comes with its own special Auckland A hand signals. Unfortunately, one of the signals is deaf sign language for AIDS and the other is apparently time-honoured lesbian code for "vagina". Motorised Aucklanders frequently hail each other with a very similar word, but I don't think that's what the agency was after.

Saatchis has endured early ridicule on good ideas before - its creative work on Te Papa's branding being the best example. But its record on tourism is miserable. Witness the Kevin Roberts big-bang and the hideous proposal to hide a million-dollar gold nugget on the West Coast. Give up now.

The new slogan was unveiled alongside The Launching, which saw Aotea Square filled with water to kick off the countdown to an Auckland arts festival two years hence. This was all very nice, but I've got my doubts about spending $200,000 on an event that only a few people saw, when the budget for the whole summer's Music in Parks programme was only around $100,000.

Auckland City needs to make sure it doesn't smother that programme under a pile of corporate bollocks. So anal has the council become that the people running Music in Parks couldn't hire musicians. Performers first had to sign up with Drake Personnel, which then - with a resounding ka-ching! - processed their employment contracts for the council. How utterly absurd.

But let's finish on an up note - way up. My family would like to offer a hearty vote of thanks to the Russian nation for crashing its space station in southern skies. We stood on the deck last night and watched Mir hurtle for two heady minutes across the night sky. How very, very cool


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

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