Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

30th March 2001 - Hit by a Train from the Past

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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so we skittle Pakistan for 104, both our openers get centuries and it's all on for young and old - and the drought breaks over Hamilton. Bugger.

Still, at least it's safe again to sip a Monteith's in celebration of what might yet be. Probably. Having comprehensively failed to anticipate the consequences of its plan to close down the Monteith's brewery in Greymouth, shift the brewing to Auckland and smash the old plant so no one else can use it, DB Group backtracked.

It might be best to put off the shout till the fine print is clear, but the episode looks like a rare victory for people power. It might have made sense for the bottom line, but breaking the brewers of the West Coast for their own excellence was manifestly unjust. Even the land and sea - which loom large over life in those parts - seemed moved to rage, as a tornado tore through Cobden.

Grog was also occasion for anger in Parliament, when the Speaker Jonathan Hunt, fresh from brokering a ceasefire in the tit-for-tat war, launched hostilities all over again. He had seen, he said, MPs come into the house after a few in the bar, slag each other off and then not even recall what they'd said in the morning.

Anyone with any sense could have seen that he was speaking in a historical context - he has been in Parliament longer than some bFM listeners have been on the planet - but the way he phrased it suggested otherwise.

It was dudgeon time again for the Opposition. Rather than let it lie, National MPs wept to the press that their reputations had been besmirched - more so, even, than when Jenny Shipley accused Jim Bolger of running the country over a whisky bottle.

Hunt apologised quickly enough, as he ought to have, but I can't help but feel that Members of Parliament ought to be wary of protesting too much. Otherwise, they might end up like David Lange, whose awful and endless defamation suit is the subject of this month's Metro cover story. This month's Metro is, I should tell you, bloody good. Since his return to the helm, Warwrick Roger has improved things largely by attending to the basics. This month, he has produced a magazine of comprehensive quality and relevance. Hope the circulation improves, Wazza.

Meanwhile, Marion Hobbs and Dover Samuels were welcomed back into the fold in a slick but not inconsistent bit of political management. And it became clear why the government refused to give Auckland councils a contribution to the $112 million they had negotiated to pay Tranz Rail for the lease to Auckland's rail corridors. That is, because the government backs itself to get a better deal if it buys the lease and then makes the network available to councils.

Assuming the hard-nosed stance on price advanced by Michael Cullen does pay off, the councils can now look forward to spending their money on rolling stock for future services rather than shelling out to the shiftless Tranz Rail. This is a very good deal for Aucklanders; the single most significant advance on the city's transport problems in decades.

But in announcing the deal this week, Cullen didn't deny that the government might go further, and negotiate to buy back the entire network, for which Tranz Rail pays $1 a year under a lease that expires in 2070.

New Zealand Rail looks, in retrospect, to be the worst of privatisations of the 1990s. While it shouldn't be forgotten that New Zealand Rail was a dog by the time it was sold for $328 million to Fay, Richwhite and the Americans, a privatisation that leaves the country over a barrel inside of a decade cannot be considered competent.

Tranz Rail is predatory where it has competition, disinterested where it doesn't. It has a dreadful safety record. And last year it announced it wanted out of the business of running trains - well, urban and long-distance passenger trains anyway. I don't think many people would notice if the service in Auckland stopped. It's always something of a miracle when someone gets hit by a train around here.

And yet, for all the appeal of regaining strategic control of the rail network, I wonder where the money might come from. One reason privatisations happen is because they enrich government coffers. Buybacks almost never happen because they do the opposite.

Intriguingly, National's Auckland spokesman, Murray McCully, has not attacked the plan itself, but only chided the government for taking so long to hatch it. A bit rich, yes. Richard Prebble has mocked the whole concept of investing in public transport rather than a new motorway as yet more creeping socialism. But the fact is, all decent cities - and certainly the cities we are urged to aspire to - have a decent rail system.

So, did anyone actually get a grip on what the Fight for Life was all about? Yes, I know - youth suicide awareness. But if it was mystifying in its build-up, it was utterly bizarre in execution. I didn't watch the whole telecast, but I admit that I did become quite compelled as I dipped in during the evening.

While a bunch of squares in monkey suits turned into a crowd of braying drunks, a dozen retired rugby league and union players paired off to beat the snot out of each other. John Cambell and Petra Bagust struggled to conceal their horror, a string of celebrities delivered earnest instructions about getting help to suicidal youth and it just got weirder.

How weird? Well, the loser of the bout between Brent Anderson and Dean Lonergan was obliged to perform the 'Lonergan Shuffle' - this being a party trick mimicking the time when Lonergan was knocked unconscious in a test match against the Kangaroos and went into convulsions before getting up and playing on. The years have not dimmed the event as an unending source of amusement in league circles. In the event, Lonergan did not have to mimic his own historical brain damage, which was probably just as well.

The rationale behind addressing youth suicide with a celebrity boxing card was that a lot of young men kill themselves and here was a means of reaching them. And certainly, the public service messages between bouts were useful enough.

But does it strike anybody else that the people who forked over all that money and poured all that booze down themselves represent the very thing that a lot of depressed and lonely kids think they're up against? If I was a lonely little goth in Glenfield I fear I'd take the whole thing as conclusive proof that the world was unbearable.

But, then, my taste in entertainment runs more to the likes of The Big Chill. No, not the pompous baby-boomer flick, the gig at the St James on Saturday night. The place wasn't exactly packed - I think you need to be either Neil Finn or a ham-fisted English cheesemeister to do that - but a lot of people in this town should be kicking themselves for missing Hexstatic.

They were, anagrammatically speaking, the exact shit. What they do with sound and vision represents a whole new art form and if you're in the business of digital music and pictures you ought to have been there.

Speaking of which, back in the mists of time, I was deputy editor of Rip It Up. And I often had cause to speak to a young man who called himself Russ Le Roq. Russ had committed himself to purveying a kind of rock 'n' roll pastiche whose only redeeming feature was its sheer unfashionableness. I could never work out what he was doing or why he was doing it, but I liked him - and, like everyone else who knew him, I was aware of an enormous and haunting ambition.

That ambition came full circle this week, when Russell Crowe was announced as best actor in the 2001 Academy Awards. The sound of his name seemed to hit Crowe like a train from the past. He looked dizzy and dumbfounded that the kid from Mt Roskill had finally arrived.

It didn't matter that Gladiator was hardly his best movie - I don't know if he's ever done better than The Sum of Us, actually - it was a fairytale of Auckland, Sydney and Tinseltown and it was remarkable.

It is also remarkable that it is not inconceivable that there could be a few more New Zealanders scaling the steps at next year's Oscars, when Lord of the Rings will have made its debut. I will probably cry if one of them is the costume designer Ngila Dickson, who was once a struggling fashion designer who rented a corner of Rip It Up Towers. And perhaps we'll all conclude that this really is a good time to be a New Zealander


PS: There will be no Hard News next week, but , all being well, Hard News will report from the road; live and large from Europe. Stay tuned.

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

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