Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

28th September 2001 - A Wing and a Prayer

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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well, she did it: a blunder, an out-and-out foot-in-mouth verbal howler. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she did it to herself, rather than being lured into it by a political opponent. Air New Zealand shares fell and rose, it seemed, with the Prime Minister's every utterance.

Statutory management, she warned on Monday, was very much on the cards for Air New Zealand. Shares halved in value. On Tuesday, she said she was convinced that Air New Zealand had a future and that people should hold onto their shares. Shares doubled in value. By Wednesday, the NZSE got sick of it all and ordered a halt to trading in Air New Zealand stock. The Securities Commission wants further information. It's a shambles.

The problem here is that, regrettably, the government is intimately involved in the business of Air New Zealand's survival. And to utter something that could be reported as a "don't sell" notice - and that's certainly how the Herald reported it - on the basis of insider knowledge is extremely poor form.

If there is now no rescue of the national carrier forthcoming, the government could potentially be sued by people who bought its shares this week. Knowing this, the major shareholders - Singapore Airlines and Brierley - may be able to drive a harder bargain; make the government risk more to gain less.

Helen Clark did not mean any signal to the market, of course. She was just expressing her faith the airline's value, in response to specific questions from two journalists. But she has not mastered the art of saying nothing. While many politicians can say bugger-all at some length, she always has to have an opinion. On occasion of the odd other slip, she has fronted and carried on. This time, she went to ground and let Michael Cullen do the talking. He, er, blamed the media. Ouch.

Still, if the signs are that the government will cut to the chase and either buy equity in Air New Zealand - possibly even a majority stake - or underwrite a new issue, then that's a good thing. The thing I don't want to do is bail out the existing shareholders and still be left with nothing in hand.

Even greater cause for global cheer is the sense that a massive military assault will not be forthcoming from the USA. Even an idiot can see that there's little or nothing to usefully attack in Afghanistan. Bombing the countries from whence the hijackers hail - Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Yemen - isn't exactly practical. And invading Iraq, however satisfying, would just be weird.

There are now probably more than a dozen countries experiencing some degree of social disorder without a shot having been fired, as a result of Muslim dissent over America.

Pakistan's none-too-legitimate military government is sitting on a powder keg. Iran's liberal, democratic administration is holding out so far against the mad mullahs and it deserves to be helped. In Malaysia and Indonesia, they're running public-service radio ads urging people not to form anti-American vigilante groups. Imagine Asia destabilised, from Pakistan to Timor. Not pretty, right?

So, yes, there will be troops landed somewhere, but if I were Bush I'd have them haul in food for the locals as well as weapons. But, then, I still can't quite convince myself it's Bush making the decisions. He can hardly form a sentence sometimes. Or perhaps I'm misunderestimating him ...

It's encouraging to see signs that Israel has been ordered smarten up its act. And that business might be made a little harder soon for the world's money laundries.

Not so to hear talk of a descent into a culture of covert action again. It was exactly that kind of amoral, unaccountable foreign policy that helped get us where we're at today.

Other things to worry about: some erosion already to rights to privacy and freedom of speech in America, and possible world recession according to the IMF - capitalism might be in for some interesting times. And, of course, there's the extremely significant issue of what the hell is going on in the fevered, fundamentalist minds of the actual terrorists. This week's indication that they have explored distributing either chemical or biological weapons with cropdusting planes was simply terrifying.

Anyway, never mind: it's local body election time! Yes, I've been just as enthralled as you have. But it is important to exercise your vote. And, sensibly, this year's postal ballot forms come with a little book of candidate profiles. I discovered that it was possible to tell quite a lot about the candidates by their prose styles.

My special favourite is David "Roads First" Willmott, standing for the Auckland Regional Council. "WE ALL VALUE OUR ENVIRONMENT, BUT IS IT REALLY MORE IMPORTANT THAN EFFECTS BACK ON SOCIETY & ECONOMY?" bawl the big, black letters on his flyer. "HAS ARC GOT YOUR PRIORITIES RIGHT?" Er, dunno ...

But seriously, the landscape is this: you may vote for your Mayor, your city council, your community board, the Auckland Regional Council and - just like the old days - the Auckland District Health Board.

The old centre-right group - the ghastly Citizens and Ratepayers - has merged with the new one - Auckland Now - to form Citizens and Ratepayers Now. The result is a notably better slate of candidates - over here in Western Bays, anyway.

Nonetheless, I'll largely be voting City Vision where available. Things have unquestionably improved since the arrival of that ticket on council, and they have a more obvious commitment to social good.

There is the odd exception: I will never forgive one of the CV Western Bays community board candidates, Graham Easte, for once knocking on my window and proceeding to be the most annoying man in all creation. And it may yet be that I'll flick a vote in the direction of Phil Warren on the ARC. Haven't decided. If you want a bFM listener on the ARC - indeed, an occasional bFM DJ - City Vision's Jack Henderson is your man.

Of the health board candidates, Pat Snedden is the only one I know. He is capable and principled and will certainly get one of my votes. Sherry Chen looks worth a flutter for the other one. Warning: Dr Lech Beltowski is a member of the Sporting Shooters' Association and a certified gun nutter.

The mayoral race is tricky. The main thing is that John Banks doesn't make it. Apart from behaving like a demented terrier, he doesn't seem to have much idea at all about policy. But, hey, if you think that westies playing automotive conga lines up Queen Street on a Friday night is Auckland's greatest problem, he's probably your man.

The best campaign far and away has been Matt McCarten's. He's been witty, brash and interesting and he has a good graphic artist. Against him: he's still the president of the Alliance. Not, as they said on Seinfeld, that there's anything wrong with that, but next year's election year and I can't help but wonder where his priorities will be.

The incumbent, of course, is Chrstine Fletcher, whose performance has improved since she stopped trying to be an MP as well. She's a Tory, but a centrist sort and she ... well, she hasn't completely sucked. I worry about the non-idiot vote being split between her and McCarten and letting Banks though. Can you imagine the embarrassment of John Banks as Mayor of Auckland? Over to you ...

Tributes this week are thrice due: Firstly to the Tall Blacks, who seized a 2-1 series victory over the highly-fancied Australians, earning themselves a trip to the World Cup in the process. The decider was one of the most committed performances I've ever seen from a New Zealand sports team. It was simply amazing.

Secondly to P-Money - third best DJ in the world at the DMC Champs! You could see him play for free in the park at this year's Summer Series and you can hear him every week on your favourite radio station. And of course if you're awake between midnight and 6am, you can see him on M2. Do you reckon the middle of the night is the new early evening?

And lastly to Allen Curnow. I won't pretend to be able to spout his poems, but I liked every one I ever heard or read and I know what he stood for. He published his first book in 1933 and did not cease, and in the process helped weave what we know as our culture. Normally , I regard the idea of a heaven where people walk around in their earthly personalities, looking like they did the day they died, as silly and sentimental, but just this once, I like to think he's having a drink with Lye, Baxter, Glover and McCahon. He will have earned it


Russell Brown                      

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