Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th November 2001 - What Are You People Fighting For?

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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so it is week four or week five of the bombing? I've lost count. Having convinced the world it was to undertake a police action, the American government is running a so-called War on Terror that still does not appear capable of progressing beyond using Afghanistan as a bombing range.

So little has apparently been achieved that bombing will continue through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden has seized on George Bush's early, idiotic depiction of the response as a "crusade" to further raise the temperature. Oh, and in case there are still any of you out there who think bin Laden is some sort of freedom fighter as opposed to a fascist, check out what he had to say about East Timor.

Bush's claim this week that "Osama bin Laden is on the run" was simply farcical. Face it: they don't even know where bin Laden is. The people being bombed are not the people who attacked America: the terrorists are middle-class Saudis and Egyptians, but of course they're a bit hard to get at, so bombs away over Afghanistan it is.

The American government also this week moved on the financial assets of suspected terrorist networks - a justifiable and hopefully effective move. Bush wouldn't be making panicky speeches to try and keep the rest of the world on board if that was all his government were doing.

So what of us? Little old New Zealand, with its troops committed? Spare a little sympathy for the government. A powerful ally - and the US is still fundamentally an ally - calls in the big favour in response to a horrifying attack on its territory. Quite possibly, private hints are made about future implications for trade and such. Domestic pressure - in the press and in Parliament, if less so from the public - goes on for an emphatic display of support; the government's initial response not apparently having measured up.

So we offer a small number of SAS troops, precisely the sort of personnel who would be used in a targeted police action against terrorists. I'll put my hand up: I thought that seemed a fair response. Yet now we find ourselves hitched up to something that has just plain gone off the rails. The Alliance leadership, in particular, is under pressure from its members. You can see the government's concern in what it has sent since to the war: an Air Force Orion and medical teams, in the hope of changing the flavour back to something more to the centre-left taste.

Almost as bad as what America is doing to Afghanistan is what it's doing to itself. They claim to fight for truth and freedom and work to shut both of them down. The American people are being treated like infants; denied information the rest of the world can see. Their civil rights have been rolled back in ways that no one would have thought tenable before September 11.

Last week, a woman called Nancy Oden was prevented from boarding an American Airlines flight, surrounded by armed US government agents and ordered to leave an airport in Maine without seeking a refund for her legally-purchased ticket. Her offence - her sole transgression - was to be a member of the American Green Party, on her way to a party conference. Just what the hell are you people fighting for over there?

We're not immune from silliness here, of course. The Greens deserve a pat on the back for not letting Phil Goff shoot through new anti-terrorism measures without reference to a select committee. To dispense with democratic process is the greatest defeat of all.

It was all mostly much more mundane back home this week, with Tariana Turia, the associate corrections minister, in the gun for intervening on behalf of the families of Maori prison inmates, usually seeking to have them kept near their families. One of those inmates had lived in her home for a year 10 years ago, as a ward of the state, and thus was known to her. He is a bank-robber and prison escaper.

Turia wrote her letters and emails to corrections officials on her ministerial letterhead, and she does appear to have pushed the safeguards in the Cabinet manual beyond their limits - especially on the two or three occasions she met with inmates. National MP Tony Ryall, who nurtured the scandal, has been drip-feeding the documents and demanding her resignation.

But he's over-egged it, frankly. He is an unappealing figure on TV, and the government spin team, probably correctly, judged that Whiney Tony might be up against it trying to crucify someone for taking in an abiding interest in someone she'd once taken into her home on the state's behalf. Who, indeed, had taken in society's worst failures over 30 years.

So that was the line that the Prime Minister trotted out until everyone was heartily sick of it: nasty, cynical Nat, who'd never have a wayward child in his house - who'd probably call the cops if one such drove past his house - tries to drag down kind, decent woman.

Two things saved Turia where Dover Samuels and others have endured the chop: she took no personal gain and she did not seek to deceive. Ham-fisted and na´ve, yes: deceitful, no. That said, the rules are there for a reason and she can't have many more chances.

The Turia story got plenty of headlines - and, amazingly, accounted for every National Party question at Question Time for two whole days - but it was shaded a little by the announcement of paid parental leave. Twelve weeks of it, funded from tax revenue, at about $350 before tax; and thus meaning most to the poorest families. It's probably a measure at how far the centre has shifted on this that even the right complained it wasn't generous enough and should cover the self-employed. There were the usual bleatings about it costing jobs, but they said that about the Employment Relations Act, didn't they? Anyway, well done to the Alliance and Laila Harre in particular for chasing this one home.

And now it's turn for 'Auckland, it's your Mayor'. This week, John Banks announced that he was spending $56,000 to draft in Bill Birch to audit Auckland City's finances in an attempt to save $25 million over three years, in line with Auckland C&R Now policy. Or perhaps $25 million every year. Banks promised both in different interviews.

Banks is keen to divest the council of non-core services, including on and off-street parking services and the city's 1600 pensioner flats. Although, he promised, pensioners won't be "thrown out in the cold". No, just scared witless and expected to find private market rents out of their fixed incomes. You can also expect new or higher user charges on libraries, community halls and rubbish collection.

He's also keen to sell the city's quarter share in Auckland Airport, which would be worth about $350 million if it was offloaded in one chunk. I'm prepared to listen to arguments for an asset transfer, but typically, no fewer than three projects have already been earmarked for the money: a $600 splurge on roading, a new downtown conference and performance venue - which isn't a bad idea - and Banks' boy-fantasy tunnel under Hobson Bay.

Banks justified the Birch review - which has been commissioned without reference to the full council - on the basis that Auckland City's finances are in crisis. How can I put this? It is a claim that does not enjoy the support of the facts.

Look, I'm not a local body reporter and I have no wish to be one, but those who are might wish to investigate the following: how much ratepayers' money has Banks spent moving to his new ground-floor office? How much has it cost to convert the Town Hall carpark to accommodate his big, gas-guzzling private cars? Has he really cut his office staff by half as he claimed this week? Clue: no.

The rest of us might care to ponder how the hell, in the year 2001, we ended up with a city whose public face is John Banks, David Hay and Bill Birch. But don't worry: only another 140-odd weeks to go ...

Anyway, congratulations to Ethereal and her connections on winning the Melbourne Cup - I rarely gamble, but what a successful flutter that was - and to the Flying Nun football XI, who beat bFM 4-3 in a thriller on Sunday. Your coach is truly an evil genius


Russell Brown                      

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