Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

3rd August 2001 - Sorry, But Not A Sausage

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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Part of me feels sorry for Christine Rankin. She was no doubt subject to some intellectual arrogance. She was unfortunate enough to have been appointed under one government and be unwanted by its successor. I think much of her style and behaviour speaks, deep down, of personal insecurity.

But another part of me is bloody angry about the way she used a court of law as little more than a platform to play to the gallery. At the way she presented something that was less a case in law than a PR campaign, involving evidence that, in the view of Judge Goddard, should never have been presented in his court.

At the way she parlayed her failure to measure up as a senior public servant into accusations of sexism and sexual harassment. At the way she asked Mark Prebble to a private meeting, solicited his admittedly tactless advice on a confidential basis - and then humiliated him for it in court. At the way she made it all about her precious bloody dress sense. At the way she made it all about, at all times, herself.

And now she has got not a sausage. The Employment Court has dismissed her claim and Judge Goddard, at the conclusion of a written judgement that appears to be the stylishly crafted opinion we'd been promised, has noted that even if he had found in her favour he'd have been tempted to award her not the $1.2 million she was trying to milk from the taxpayer, but no money at all.

Having arguably made herself unemployable in the conventional sense, Rankin has now apparently set her sights on the speaking circuit. So if your little National Party ginger group wants to replay the drama all over again, she's yours for a fee. Good luck to you. Good luck to her. Whoops, sorry. She's now threatening that "it's not over" and threatening either an appeal or a sexual harassment suit. Read my lips, Christine: Get. Over. Yourself.

This has also been the week of the Catching the Knowledge Wave conference, which for all the ravings of Fran O'Sullivan, hasn't exactly ignited the public imagination. But that's not necessarily a sign of failure: sometimes the quickest way to effect change is to convince your elite first. And there have, it appears, been some really fine presentations.

And then some not so fine: Reserve bank governor Don Brash got his turn on the mic and, basically, declared that we're not hard enough to do what it takes to get consistently high GDP growth. If we were, we'd follow the example of Singapore, which has no unemployment benefit. Until we come to our senses and cut off all money to people without jobs and their children, we'll never get anywhere, apparently.

Yes, well ... The bits about Singapore that Dr Brash forgot to mention are as follows: it is true, Singapore manages without government benefits of any kind. But it does so largely by dint of a compulsory savings scheme.

If you live in Singapore, you are compelled by law to put an amount equal to 40% of your income up to a salary ceiling of about $30,000 in a special kind of savings account - this on top of your taxes. Half of this comes from your own pocket and half from your employer - I'm sure that would go down terribly well with the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

You can only use the money in ways and amounts stipulated by the government. Part of it can only go on housing or certain other investments, part is a pension (unless you're relatively rich, better hope you don't live too long) and part covers basic medical care. If you want any kind of serious care you'll need the separate government health insurance; if you worry about losing your income you'll want the government mortgage repayment insurance and the government dependents' protection insurance.

This system is undeniably effective - it has delivered Singapore the highest rates of savings and home ownership in the world. But Singapore's system is possible only because it is an extraordinarily paternalistic and controlled state. Its housing scheme works mainly because the government, as the major landowner, has been able to control the market by doling out property over decades.

It's just fanciful to suggest we could get there from here by eliminating social welfare, even if we wanted to. There are a bundle of other flaws in the argument - such as that job market flexibility is a rather different beast in a city-state than it is in a proper country, and that Ireland, with a fully-functioning welfare state, is barreling along at 11% GDP growth - but I can't really be bothered pointing them out. Sit down, Dr Brash, your time is up.

The Knowledge wave has also drawn out our old friend Richard Poole. Along with the Auckland School of Business he has surveyed the New Zealand diaspora to find out what would bring it home or induce it to stay. Or, rather he has largely surveyed the people who signed up to his 'Lost Generation' ads last year.

The professor who helped him, Dr Marie Wilson, assures me that whilst self-selected, this is still a relevant and representative sample and pointed out that quite a range of views was captured. And certainly, alongside the expected whingeing about tax and tall poppies, there is obviously massive concern about the continuing impact of the student loans scheme. I still can't help but feel that in failing in its duty of care to a generation, New Zealand produced a whole lot of people who feel no duty back. Yes, Guy Sellers, I agree with you.

But I choked on the response to one pair of questions. Ninety percent of those surveyed agreed that New Zealand is a worse place for young people than it was 20 years ago and the same amount disagreed that it is a better place.

If we take young people to mean people in their twenties, anybody who thinks NZ was a better place for young people in 1981 than it is now obviously wasn't there.

I was, and in a great many respects, it *sucked*. No late nights, no trendy bars and restaurants, mostly dull food, rotten coffee, little consumer choice, unemployment rising (as opposed to falling as it has been for the past three years), very high tax rates (60 or 70% on income; 40% on records, books and most anything else that was cool), economically bizarre wage and price controls, import licensing, huge social discord around the Springbok Tour, homosexuality a crime and a *really* ghastly government ...

The main pluses that come to mind are that the government was still paying people to get a university education and Radio With Pictures was still on.

You can certainly argue that it's a much worse place now to be poor or brown-skinned, or to be raising a family, but compared to what it was then, New Zealand is twentysomething paradise, more so for the Poole people than almost anyone else. Believe me. But my charitable instinct comes to the fore here: it's nice to see Mr Poole giving it a go ...

Anyway, it all comes as a bit of a shock to the system after spending a mere four days in the enclave that is Queenstown, observing a charity ski race and the entertainments attached. As one of the locals pointed out to me on Friday night, it is not New Zealand - indeed, it's probably one place where Dr Brash's welfare-free dream would actually work. It is prosperous, younger in feel than I expected, and the cab drivers are brilliant. It's a fun place to visit, especially when someone else is picking up the tab.

And yet, I feel bound to point out, a new menace stalks its sparkling slopes. A new party drug, hailing from Germany, known on the street - or possibly the piste - as "mulled wine" is everywhere. I am appalled to report that groups of healthy young people are going out "on the mull". It can only be a matter of time until there is a tragedy


Russell Brown                      

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