Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

16th November 2001 - Sing, Shave and Fly Kites

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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New York deserved none of this. Its triple calamities - September 11, anthrax attacks and, now, this week's air disaster - can be feasibly be put down to three different causes - external terrorism, an enemy within and an unsafe plane respectively.

But they add up to a powerful and punishing chain of events. That the mood of insecurity and pessimism could be partially lifted by news that the American Airline crash was "only" an accident shows just how bad things are for the people who live there.

The destabilising and twisting effect of recent events is not, of course, confined to New York. It turned the course of Australian politics, looks set to bring down the government of Germany and, over the weekend, induced our governing coalition's junior partner to try and eat itself.

It's not hard to sympathise with the Alliance rank and file's horror at the party's part in an American war. There are valid questions to be asked, and the ability to ask such questions is one of the elements we ought guard in a democracy. The idiots who wrote to the papers declaring an act of treason had been committed by the Alliance and its members would presumably be happier in a country where they don't tolerate debate. Iraq, perhaps.

But, for better or worse, we committed our little band of SAS troops weeks ago, and everyone in Parliament bar the Greens voted to send them off. Our subsequent initiatives have been aimed squarely towards our traditional roles in medical support and peacekeeping. For the Alliance members to now change their minds would make no difference to the prosecution of the war. It would, however, expose New Zealand to the public and private wrath of the American state and destabilise the first centre-left government in a decade.

The party members might wish to repeat two words to themselves: Eden-Albert. In the recent Auckland municipal elections, the centre-left vote was split over some policy principle that was no doubt terribly important to those involved. There were, believe it or not, both Green and Independent Green candidates. As a consequence, the vote was split, the incumbent lost and C&R Now waltzed through, handing John Banks his council majority. Not a good result.

Jim Anderton escaped from the party conference with the promise of a caucus "review" that ain't likely to add up to much. The Alliance has, meanwhile, forgone all the political capital it could have expected from paid parental leave.

But no one is behaving very well in politics at the moment. Surely Helen Clark could look resolute without trying to be Boadicea? Surely Phil Goff could come up with security measures that don't put a bonfire under our civil liberties? And surely Bill English could have emerged from hybernation with something better than a bizarre promise to vote *against* the government on matters of national security?

It was all shunted considerably sideways, of course, with the stunning collapse of the Taliban forces in the north of Afghanistan; so quick and so unexpected that the western powers had to politely ask the Northern Alliance to wait outside Kabul while everyone worked out what to do next. They didn't, of course, and TV pictures brought a few stark reminders of the Alliance's grisly track record.

You don't need me to issue a list of caveats here; suffice to say it ain't over by a very long shot. But for some thousands of people, this week has brought profound relief and the chance to things humans ought to be able to do: sing, shave and fly kites.

The other big international event was, of course, the World Trade Organisation meeting in Dohar. Freed of the showbiz of street demonstrations, the 146 nations in attendance appear to have actually made some progress. Of course, you wouldn't have known that from listening to the likes of Rod Donald and Jane Kelsey. The agreement for a new round aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating agricultural export subsidies was worthless, they maintained, because Europe and America wouldn't do it.

So on that basis we should give up on climate change agreements, then? Because farm subsidies are a really major environmental issue. They result in millions of tonnes of agri-chemicals being used to grow food for which there is no real market and they hurt developing economies. And fishing subsidies? Pure insanity.

The fact is that the agreements in the Uruguay Round did permanently moderate the lunatic largesse of Europe and America. That took nine years to hammer out, and the next phase might take just as long. But to dismiss it all as unachievable, to continue to pretend that the WTO is irrevocably a citadel of evil, is just sour and cynical.

Add in the agreement on curbing drug patents - to the horror of the big drug corporations - and you absolutely have a result here. New Zealand argued for the incorporation of labour standards into the next WTO round, and we didn't get it - in part because the idea is rejected by developing nations. But we got to put the argument - and, with Mike Moore and all, I'm proud of New Zealand's contribution here.

I'm also proud of the government for finally getting the PACE scheme in place this week. You could call it the arts dole, but it's more a recognition of the arts as a real job. You can now call yourself an artist, declare your income and have it assessed across the time it took to make. The welfare's historical contribution to our cultural life is one of our dirty little secrets - nobody's been prepared to talk about it. Now, it's right out there in the open.

Anyway, so the Australians had an election - and how awful and embarrassing was it? Very. To make it worse, their rugby union and rugby league teams lost and their all-conquering cricket side was so very nearly skittled by little old New Zealand in what turned out to be a thrilling draw. Yes, cricket is a game in which thrilling draws a very possible.

Still, at least they've got a good band; Gerling. Best new Aussie band in ages, actually, although I'm sure they'll be claiming Shihad any day now. And they're playing next Thursday at the 95bFM Private Function. Speaking of which, no Hard News next Friday. I plan on being unwell - or, at least, unavailable


Russell Brown                      

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