Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

6th July 2001 - Everybody Resign!

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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and back, once again, to what TV3 News likes to call The Rankin Files. Mark Prebble, the head of the Prime Minister's department, gave evidence on his interactions with the CEO of Work and Income and somehow made it all look worse than even Christine Rankin did.

Indeed, the whole thing was a shocker. As Prebble and Rankin's counsel engaged in a farcical debate about whether Rankin was that day wearing the very same top that he'd found so over the top, she sat in the gallery readjusting her cleavage and gurning for the camera. We got the shock and indignation; the angry shake of the head; the hand-to-mouth gasp; and, of course, the dabbing of he eyes with a handkerchief. Perhaps her next job should be CEO of Shortland Street.

Opposition leader Jenny Shipley did her broken record bit and rushed around calling for everyone's resignation - most notably Prebble, who she had appointed in the first place. Shall we look at what actually happened here?

Prebble was asked by Rankin to meet with her and offer her advice. He did, on a confidential basis, and she obviously didn't like what he said about dressing down and going for grey. He also voiced his personal discomfort at the way she was dressed and said it made him uncomfortable. He plainly said the wrong thing, but there was really no right way of saying it. Perhaps he ought have kept his discomfort to himself, but to me this meets none of the criteria for sexual harassment.

As I noted last week, part of the problem is that there is no obvious male equivalent to Rankin's height of hemline and depth of neckline. Or is there? A female Hard News follower has helpfully provided me with what might be described as the "sack scenario".

"A colleague in tight jeans is sitting in front of you in the 'look at me, I'm a man' position with their legs wide apart," she says. The correct response, she suggests, would be: "Is that your sack I discern? It's distracting me."

Does that change anything? I don't know. I'm getting a bit lost in all this stuff, frankly.

The other point of interest is that Prebble was that soldier. Rather than trying to fit him up as an ogre, consider this: Up until about 1980, Prebble was the only kaftan-wearing longhair at Treasury. He was advised by a superior that if he wanted to advance in the public service he'd have to drop the hippy trip. He did, and has since become a very good public servant - good enough to be kept on in the Prime Minister's office after the change of government.

Ditto for Dame Margaret Bazley, whose fascinating testimony was pushed out of the headlines by the lurid - and arguably irrelevant - details of the Prebble business. She said that she, too, had been subject to even worse threats from the public than Rankin - over her 26 year career, and right now. She's currently under police protection.

She said the public vilification of herself and Rankin had been the result of the policy they were obliged to run - specifically, National's work for the dole scheme. And that any public sector CEO whose relationship with her minister had broken down the way Rankin's seemed to have was obliged to resign.

Such is the life of the senior civil servant. They are remarkable people: extremely bright yet obliged to submerge their egos for the greater good. The alternative is, unnervingly, three dozen Christine Rankins charging around.

Before we mercifully leave the topic, I referred last week to a Herald column by somebody called Colin Jackson. I meant, of course, the venerable Colin James. Intriguingly, Employment Minister Steve Maharey referred to the same column in his evidence this week. Golly. Did I get that spin-doctoring job without noticing? And if so, show me the money!

There were actually some major political stories this week. Over at New Zealand Post, the chair Ross Armstrong, having accused his deputy Syd Bradley of leaking confidential information, found himself without his board's support for a witch-hunt.

A crisis beckoned. The government couldn't have sacked Armstrong without also removing him from TVNZ. Removing a board to which it had just appointed six hand-picked directors was an even bigger nightmare. SOE minister Mark Burton, blinking in the limelight, eventually chose to bang everyone's heads together and achieved a resolution. Not an absolutely convincing one, but a perfectly valid one. For all the baying from the Opposition, firing people ran the risk of doing more harm than good.

The government's cultivation of Armstrong, a former National party official, was seen as a pragmatic move when it began. Now that he appears to have undergone a judgement bypass, it seems considerably less so. He must surely be on a final warning.

Not all Opposition members were so cheap this week. Indeed, Nick Smith gave a bravura display of exactly how a loyal Opposition ought to serve the public. Smith has done a fine job of flagging the bizarre situation at ENZA. The apple exporter was set on a semi-private path by the last government, with holdings taken by Guiness Peat Group and and FR Partners.

Well, welcome to the corporate filth. Having made a terrible hash of its foreign exchange hedging - or was it speculation? - ENZA is now forcing growers out of business by charging them $4.50 per carton of apples to cover its $50 million loss.

Smith released a valuation report on the issue, but, mindful of tipping the industry over the edge, has offered to work with agriculture minister Jim Sutton rather than, well, calling for his resignation too.

His work has made me reconsider Smith - and to offer myself a new and charitable rule: never judge anybody by their column in the Sunday News. Perhaps Nick Smith isn't as slimy as his column suggests. And surely Kerre Woodham isn't as much of a moron as hers might lead you to believe.

And then there's Bill Ralston, whose TV review column is, shall we say, in no danger of winning a Qantas Media Award. But he's certainly still capable of getting right under TVNZ's skin.

In the June 24 edition of the paper, Ralston described the forthcoming Back of the Y Masterpiece Television as "puerile, vile, horrible and disgusting".

Having a second bite last Sunday, Ralston dubbed the show a "piece of decaying faeces" and predicted that it would "make You Be the Judge look like a masterpiece of programming". He requested that "someone please be fired when this thing bites the dust," and, answering his own question, concluded that this wouldn't happen because "this is TVNZ".

And, after a welter of publicity, anyone who sat down to watch back of the Y at the listed time - 10.30 Tuesday, after Havoc - found themselves watching Dharma and Greg. What happened? And was TVNZ spooked by a Ralston campaign?

No, honest, said TVNZ when I called. We're just discussing some "issues" with the producers and it'll be on air in ooooh, about a month. Ralston told me that whilst he had told everyone he met what shite the show was, he wasn't campaigning against it. He'd made a few phone calls to TVNZ about it, but only because he'd heard that - amazingly - TVNZ's internal standards people only actually saw it after he started making a fuss.

And that appears to be what's happened. You'd think after a firm rejection by NZ On Air and about 30 two-minute slots as part of Space they'd have had a fairly good idea what Back of the Y was all about. Apparently, not everybody did.

I've seen the show that didn't screen and I can confirm that it's tasteless and vile. It's also pretty funny in places. What's really notable is the way the show was made: Matt Heath and Chris Stapp built sets and costumes from the detritus of other productions; they staged their own stunts, and created their own visual effects on their iMac.

It was made, in other words, in much the same way as a little 1980s film called Bad Taste, and has about as much social merit. I'm I am not for a microsecond suggesting that Heath or Stapp is likely to become the next Peter Jackson, but they offer something not found elsewhere.

We can only hope the show appears eventually as promised, even missing one or two jokes. After all, it could hardly be any worse than Strassman, could it?

If you wondered where Michael Cullen was this week, he was making a speech at New Zealand House in London. And being a bit of a munter while he was at it. In singing the praises of himself, his government and New Zealand in general, he told his audience that "the hugely successful UK 'Popstars' was based on a format developed by Peter Urlich, who some of you may remember from The Dudes - or so I am reliably informed. Personally my heart dances to the 'music formerly known as classical'."

Ho ho. Leave the yoof stuff to Nandor, Michael. I think you'll find that was Jonathan Dowling. If it were Peter Urlich, he wouldn't be doing what he's doing now. Well, actually, he probably would. He'd just be having an even better time.

Speaking of which ... I regret to admit that I did not make my guest appearance at Oonst last week. I really meant to, honest. I just popped out front for half an hour and got ... lost. Very. Still, what a party, hey? Big ups to the big room and most especially to the extremely small room that was the Professor's Reggae Lounge. Sometimes there's nothing to beat sitting in a broom closet surrounded by fake marijuana plants, getting dubwise on it


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

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