Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

24th May 2002 - Dear Prudence

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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There was never going to be a whole lot in this Budget. The economy is flush, but Michael Cullen set himself a cap of .125 billion dollars in new spending for his first three years - and spent most of it in his first year.

Having tucked away a little extra cash by being able to underspend in some areas - there are fewer unemployed people needing benefits - he had a little over a billion new dollars to play with, and he spent every cent. There must have been temptation to carve into the fat .3 billion surplus - double last year's forecast - for the coming year, but Cullen is keen - desperate - to be seen as prudent and consistent.

It has, inevitably, been described as dull and cautious - but what Budgets are not? The last "exciting" Budget was Ruth Richardson's first effort, which proved to be a shambles.

It's a little unfair to carp about a lack of vision. The philosophy behind the new tertiary funding model is nothing if not strategic, and industry training - which became virtually extinct under National - has been strengthened again.

The consistent focus on housing investment as a way of addressing poverty - which began with the scrapping of state house market rents in Cullen's first Budget - continues, and continues to make sense. The super fund is underway - without the need to borrow.

Health gets 0 million a year. But family support has not been increased since 1996; households on fixed incomes, and their children, are missing out on the economic boom. And the extra spending on education - which brings per-student funding back to about where it was in 1992 - contains more for secondary teachers, but not nearly enough to make them happy. More of that later.

And then there were the speeches. Bill English gave a bloody awful speech. All that braying and shouting, and he forgot to move a vote of no confidence. Prebble delivered an irrelevant election speech about zero tolerance for crime. I wouldn't understand what Winston Peters was on about when he took his turn.

But the leader of the Alliance - well, the Parliamentary leader - meanwhile gave an absolutely bravura speech. Jim Anderton has spent weeks declaring black to be white, but in his speech in reply was entertaining and convincing. Way better than English's and better than Cullen or the indifferent effort from Clark. It was a reminder of why he has a following.

Meanwhile, as I said, many of the country's secondary school teachers remain unhappy with their lot - and some are behaving in a fashion they would not accept from their own students.

Last week - just in time for the Labour Party conference, the government and the PPTA announced a new deal in the 14-month dispute over secondary teachers' pay and conditions. This agreement - largely negotiated while Trevor Mallard was safely out of the country - would see the government stump up million more than it was previously offering.

That is still not a great increase - it will barely keep pace with inflation over the next three years. But it comes with the breakthrough promise of guaranteed non-contact time for all teachers, special payments for NCEA implementation, several hundred more teaching positions to be funded and a new taskforce to report back on pay and conditions in the profession.

It also worth noting that average pay among secondary teachers has risen appreciably since the government scrapped bulk funding two years ago. Maybe it's not enough. Maybe teachers will rightly feel they deserve more and reject, for the second time, their union's proposal.

But if they are to do that, they ought do it properly. The PPTA asked for industrial action to be suspended while its representatives met with all teachers to seek ratification. Apart from anything else, the details are still being negotiated. And what happens? Staff at a dozen schools immediately stage another round of illegal wildcat strikes.

Trade union members currently enjoy the most favourable industrial relations law in a decade. If they wish that law to have credibility, they should respect it and act democratically and collectively. That's the whole damned idea.

Even the Council of Trade Unions has piped up to voice its concern that what some teachers are doing damages the whole union movement. Please sir, sort it out will you?

There was further stunt action at Parliament this week when the Green Party MPs staged a walkout and refused to vote - either way - on the law enshrining the moratorium on applications for GM releases. Their problem is that the moratorium expires in 18 months' time - which rather begs the question of why they voted for the legislation at every stage up until this final one.

They will, according to their statement, support a future Labour-led government after the election - but will subsequently vote with the Opposition and bring down that government if the current moratorium on applications for GM release is ever allowed to expire.

They have every right to take such a stand and be judged by voters. But the sense that things are changing for the Greens was embedded in the very announcement. It had spin.

If voters didn't want "widespread release of genetically engineered crops, animals or viruses next year" they'd better vote Green to hold the government back, said Jeanette Fitzsimons in her statement.

Not unexpected? Possibly. But factually wrong, and she must know it. Whatever happens and whatever your view of the issue, there will be no GM release at all next year, let alone a flood of them. The moratorium does no expire until October 2003.

After that, it will be possible to make applications to begin a studiedly onerous case-by-case process of public submissions and ERMA hearings. It is quite possible that there won't be any decisions through 2004, or that approvals will be granted only under the prospective new category of "conditional release", as recommended by the Royal Commission. This isn't "widespread" and it sure as hell isn't next year.

The Greens like to ascribe to themselves a higher moral purpose. But when they get loose with the truth like that, they look just as venal as every other political party. I thought Jeanette Fitzsimons was a bit classier than that.

In making their announcement through the media - thus supposedly breaching a "no surprises" agreement with the present government - the Greens appear to have abruptly extinguished any warmth in the relationship. A clearly annoyed Helen Clark took the opportunity to loudly deliver the message Labour has only been whispering up till now: that wavering National supporters should vote Labour to avoid the next government being held hostage by the Greens.

After their declaration, the Greens had the novel experience of being rounded on by every other party in Parliament. National, Act and New Zealand First, and Jim Anderton, future leader of The Party That Cannot For Legal Reasons Currently Speak Its Name. Peter Dunne put out a press release that didn't so much float the possibility of United Future's support for a Labour coalition as scream "Pick me! Pick me!" Even Laila Harre weighed in with an admonition against "brinkswomanship". They will be more isolated from now on.

The big announcement may have been timed in conjunction with this week's Assignment documentary, with which the Green MPs co-operated to the extent of all sitting in their seats in Parliament pretending to do stuff.

The programme certainly gave them a launch - but its effect may not be entirely positive. The Greens depend to an extent on a kind of urban cool factor. What we saw of the party conference was in parts very uncool. The snatch of what appeared to be a discussion over whether cats were oppressing mice by eating them - "surely you're not denying a cat's right to follow its natural instincts!" - made them look completely insane.

Worse, the programme highlighted the obvious fault line in the party. Rod Donald was asked straight-up what his bottom line for coalition would be - and seemed to reply that nothing was non-negotiable. Even GM. Presumably, the interview was recorded before the ultimatum was conceived. Messy.

It is often held that the Greens will always be happier away from government. But not Donald. He wants to be a Cabinet minister, to have real influence. And he and Sue Bradford - pragmatists, workers and organisers - would be good at it, just as just as Laila Harre is, and just as Jim Anderton is an irritating party leader but a useful Deputy Prime Minister.

Anyway, Christ, enough of that. Many thanks to Festival Mushroom Records for throwing a really rock 'n' roll party at their Freeman's Bay digs last Friday. Pan Am and Betchadupa were good, the D4 were a revelation. They tore the goddamn roof off, basically.

They also all appear on Under the Influence, the double CD of in-house covers and new tunes that is the most relevant thing Flying Nun's done in ages. Very post-modern indeed, especially the Graeme Downes composition. You should also look forward a lot to the Headless Chickens compilation. Five new remixes, kids.

It was nice, too, to see Bianca Zander's Dawn Raid/Mai FM story in the Listener - she's pretty tuned in. I remember 10 years ago, making Planet magazine, becoming aware that it was brewing in South Auckland. It's good to see it here. Interesting place, Auckland.

The same Listener also has a nicely turned critique of Attack of the Clones by Philip Matthews. I'll just say that it sucks a whole lot less than the last one. I was amused to discover this week that there is a school of liberal thought in America that believes Jango Fett is a racist Hispanic caricature. Uh, right. I don't think Tem could have been any less Latino if he'd greeted Obi Wan with a cheery "kia ora bro!" In fact, I think he almost did.

Anyway, looking forward to Pacifier at True Colours next weekend. And if you're near London, you may want to make a note that there's a good gig at Fabric on July 4: Nathan Haines, Freq Nasty, Salmonella Dub, Pitch Black, International Observer, Fat Freddie's Drop, Ebb. Epsilon Blue and Downtown Brown. Apparently my name's on the door. If only ...


Russell Brown

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