Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

22nd June 2001 - Wild Ideas

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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ideas are a dangerous commodity. Quite how dangerous was demonstrated this week when a few laboratory ideas escaped into the wild and caused widespread civil panic.

Yes, we're talking about Michael Cullen's Big Giant Tax Review, which is, in the sense that it has us talking about new ideas, already a success. The fact that some of its initial ideas run directly across the grain of recent government policy suggests that it has been politically unmolested as promised.

The discussion paper the review team released this week (yes, I only read the executive summary) is lucid, well-written and, unlike the hackneyed Herald editorial that greeted it - politics of envy, blah, blah, you know the drill - remarkably free of the usual clichés.

It is not some Act-style Hail Mary fantasy about slashing taxes, even though it favours bringing down the current top income tax rate to match the company tax rate and collapsing the current scale of four rates into two. It argues for targeted spending to help the poor rather than any tax trickery at the bottom of the scale.

It also canvasses some new and unusual ideas - most notably the "house tax" recommended to us last year in an OECD report. This idea is really an effort to bring some sense to our regime on capital gains, which taxes gains on some sorts of investment, but not those on property. It would do so by treating equity in a home as if it were a low-risk investment such as government bonds and taxing the nominal gains on such. If you had $100,000 equity in your home the tax would be around $1500 a year.

It is not entirely a bad idea, although the possibility of its practical application in a country where home ownership has a semi-religious status is remote. But it is just that - an idea in a discussion paper - and it would have been nice to have had the chance to discuss it without Radio Pacific mobilising the angry talkback hordes.

With Pam Corkery instructing the troops to jam the Beehive switchboard, Michael Cullen had no choice but to get up in Parliament and promise that neither this government or the next one would so much as consider the idea. So much for the discussion. Cullen has already been hounded by the Opposition into ruling out any other kind of capital gains tax, and the whole business serves to demonstrate how difficult an intelligent public debate on tax is going to be.

What with all the fuss over the "house tax", hardly anyone has noticed that a tax on ruminant methane emissions - the Sheep Fart Tax - is considered in the discussion paper. Given that the Sunday Star Times ran a panic story on that even before the release of the paper, we can expect the shock-horror searchlight to be turned there next.

What isn't in the paper is any mentioned of the dedicated health tax the government pulled out of its butt when it was trying to obscure the embarrassment of the Community Services Card debacle. Fancy that.

Anyway, over to Sweden, where the liberal city of Gothenburg was the subject this week of the tender attentions of the traveling anti-capitalist roadshow.

The truly sad thing was that a social democratic society that put away tear gas and water cannon decades ago was left with no means of preserving order. It was appalling that the police should have shot and wounded three protestors; but also that they had to be put in that position.

And for what? The Gothenburg protest was aimed not at the World Bank of the WEF or any of the usual bogies but a European Union Summit.

One of the protest catchcries was "no borders", which might seem a bit odd given that many of the protestors had travelled to Sweden by virtue of the EU, the biggest zone of free movement since the Ottoman Empire packed up. The summit was to consider extending that zone to such democratised former Eastern Bloc countries as the Czech Republic, which you might think would contribute to both peace and prosperity in the region.

But that apparently wasn't what the protestors were on about. They wanted Europe to have no *external* borders. If there's a democratic mandate anywhere in Europe for that I've yet to see it. So we were left with the sad spectacle of a bunch of middle-class twentysomethings - and that's the description of one of the other protestors - battling racism by smashing up shops.

I think the anti-globalisation campaign's fatal weakness is the same as its great strength. Its highly distributed, networked structure allows rapid mobilisation around a core brand - and, yes it is a brand. Everyone can join on pretty much their own terms. But the problem with viral structures is that viruses don't have brains. This is getting out of hand.

Sadly, the movement's own media - set up to tell the stories the corporate media were ignoring - seems disinclined to ask the hard questions of itself. Indymedia - an Internet news organisation whose structure is quite visionary - was still dutifully ploughing the party line this week, even as its discussion forums were crowded by worried supporters and lunatics blathering on about the "politics of assassination".

They're even more convinced of their own rectitude over at Indeed, the lasting impression is one of the most sufferable smugness. The sad fact is there's been more genuine debate over the rights and wrongs of global capitalism in the Economist than there has on the protest movement's websites.

Back home, I see my personal media stalker, Guy Sellers of Kingsland, is back in print. His letter to The Listener this week hints darkly that the dread hand of Helen Clark was at play in my being asked to host a show on National Radio.

The Prime Minister, on Guy's planet, is "a political genius when it comes to keeping the media in check by placing people in the right positions of influence." In which case you'd think she could have found me something a bit more influential than a 23-minute media comment show at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, wouldn't you?

But it doesn't stop there: Guy suggests that my new gig in state broadcasting is "but a return favour" for arranging the Prime Minister's Monday morning chats with Mikey in my role as chairman of the bFM board.

Guy, I know you're listening. Stand up. Go outside and get some air. Get a life.

I have tried to be charitable and good-humoured over this - one doesn't want to get all Paul Holmes-ish about one's critics. I even congratulated Guy for getting his best line nicked by NBR. But enough is enough.

I got my gig not because of some dark plot by the Prime Minister but because I have come in here nearly every Friday morning for 10 years and talked on the radio and I have gotten quite good at it. I say what I think and try to be informative and entertaining in the process.

At the same time, I have worked hard on improving my skills as a professional journalist. I have been news editor of the country's leading IT website and I helped launch the country's best business magazine. I've won a few awards, and, I think, earned the respect of my peers. It might surprise you, Guy, to hear that the managing editor of NBR personally congratulated me on the new turn in my career.

I joined the bFM board because I care a lot about this station and I thought I might have something to offer. It's a stimulating, rewarding and educational experience and we even get a free meal once a month. Your conspiracy theory is not only profoundly silly, it's insulting to everyone concerned.

Anyway, Citizen Sellers, your views have been noted and you have had your 15 minutes. Now please fuck off and find somebody else to obsess about - you're scaring my family.

Speaking of letters to the editor, check out Jane Young's blast in the Herald's letters column today. Under an anonymous byline, the Herald ran a story on Saturday claiming that its deputy editor John Roughan had been "banned from the House" by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, of which Young is chair, acting under the influence of the Engineers Union, whose striking members Roughan was replacing.

Not only was the story self-serving and wrong - truth is, the Herald screwed up its application - but its anonymous author didn't bother to actually speak to anyone concerned. I suppose we should be relieved that the story marked the end of the paper's editorial embargo of its own industrial relations story, but it is still a very poor look.

To conclude, a shout out to Los Pumas, the Argentinian rugby team, who play the All Blacks tomorrow. A team member asked by TV3 News about the legacy of Alex "Grizz" Wyllie, a former coaching advisor to the team, said: "Oh, he was terrible! We couldn't understand a word he said and he was bloody-bloody-bloody all the time. Well, that's Southern Men for you ...

Anyway, go get your Oonst ticket and I'll see you next week


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

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