Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

14th June 2002 - Blessed Relief

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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so, July 27 for the general election. It's either an outrage, a blessed relief or of no particular account. Opposition parties, letters columns and talkback radio have been foaming, but vox pops seemed to indicate that the general public aren't all that fussed about it being ten weeks earlier than it might have been. Why should they be?

Oddly, it's probably less skin off the public's nose than it is off the government's - several initiatives, including the TVNZ Charter, have been left in limbo as Parliament ended without time to pass the legislation. It's probably also earlier than Labour's own party organisation wants.

It's way too soon for Jim Anderton, who now misses out on public funding for election advertising. But my well of sympathy for him has run dry. I do feel sorry for the Alliance - they have a fine leader in Laila Harre and a coherent policy programme. After this year's bloodbath, they're currently polling bugger all.

Labour might even have been minded to cut Harre some slack in her West Auckland electorate, were it not for the fact that its own candidate, Lynne Pillay, is from the Engineers - a large, responsible and well-organised union that has consistently failed to get one of its own into Parliament on the Labour list. They would be very angry if the PM nodded in the direction of Harre.

Bill English has been braying up and down the country and Act does whatever Act does. Winston Peters, meanwhile, has been making statements on race issues that border on the offensive. Check to see what I mean.

Amusingly enough, The Economist's country page for New Zealand, which hasn't been updated this month, says this: "Opposition National MPs are agitating for an early general election, and their party has started to make some policy promises, with a populist tinge. But the opposition parties appear in general ill-prepared for an early contest."

Apart, of course, from the Greens, whose vote has risen to between seven and eight per cent since the release of their GM bottom line. I have, of course, some issues with the way the Greens are selling that policy: Jeanette, "people don't read long ads," would not be an acceptable excuse from a multinational corporation that ran an advertisement that left out as much as yours does. It should not be an excuse for you.

The odd hysterical email from a Green Party member (most of them, I hasten to add, are not like that) doesn't bother me - but I am not comfortable finding myself edged into advocacy for GM release. I simply think that we spent millions of dollars on a very public process - one that, if you read the legislation, sets the bar for release very high - and I prefer that to not hearing any case at all, ever. I'm sure I'd find fault with GM boosters if they were actually saying anything at the moment.

But I have quickly realised that any time anyone trumpets this or that new report, it's necessary to go back and read that report and see what else it says. And it always does say something else. This is not an issue that gains anything from simplification. But I am paid very modestly in kind for Hard News and I just don't have the time to do that week after week.

So this is what we're doing: on Thursday week, June 27, I will host a Wire show on bFM, from 12 to 2pm. In those two hours we'll talk to scientists - pro, anti and agnostic - to a member of the Royal Commission, to one of the regulators and finally, to the politicians. Don't fret if you can't listen to the broadcast. All the interviews will be transcribed by unfortunate student minions and hopefully we'll get the audio online too. After that, hopefully, everybody will know more about the GM issue.

The other sticky issue is, quite clearly, the secondary teachers' dispute, which is all on again, after 74 per cent of teachers voted to reject the latest settlement between their union and the government. Curiously, only 56 per cent rejected the original, less generous, offer, which shows how bitter this has become.

But no marks at all to the TV3 reporter who this week hailed the worst industrial dispute in "decades" in schools. It has dragged on for 15 months - and that hasn't happened for oooh, three years, when a 20-month dispute was settled under National.

But it is bad, no mistake. Trevor Mallard's reputation for having a safe pair of hands is well tarnished, and the teachers' union seems to get it wrong constantly. The PPTA agreed two deals it couldn't sell to its members, and now it has decreed industrial action in support of a claim it hasn't made.

Mallard has given broad hints that there's more money available, but the teachers need to make a claim first. He could have the whole damn surplus in his back pocket and he couldn't give it to them until they asked for it. The ban on school activities now is just counter-intuitive. Even some of the teachers who staged wildcat strikes think it's silly.

There is, it must be said, an enormous amount of uninformed comment about this dispute. The entry-level salary for teachers is about $32,000, which is slightly better than, say, journalism. But it doesn't climb much over the course of a career. The average salary -including principals, which makes it a little misleading - is $52,000, and it has risen by eight per cent in the past two years, thanks to the scrapping of bulk funding. But that also happens to be near the career ceiling for working teachers.

It's also less than teachers get in many wealthy countries - but you could say the same for salaries in almost every profession. We became a low-wage, low-cost economy in the 90s. So a gap between teachers here and there isn't necessarily a compelling reason to move. But the recruitment and retention problem is. That's the market speaking. Yes. They need more.

There are two problems in that direction: one being that which we constantly have in the health sector - we value good practitioners, but our employment culture rewards management.

The other problem is that, as it finally admitted last week, the PPTA and its members want to get shot of pay parity with primary teachers. The Herald noted such in an editorial this week, declaring that pay parity - which was established by National and extended to pre-school teachers by Labour - was absurd and should be done away with. If only it were that simple.

The moment the government breaks pay parity, the primary teachers, who fought for it for years, will go berserk. They believe their work is important, and that qualifications and seniority should be rewarded the same as they are in secondary school. A friend of mine, who is a brilliant new entrants teacher, these days gets paid more like what she's worth. But secondary teachers will tell you there's no comparison, and that their job is infinitely more challenging.

Who's right? I wouldn't know. But the whole thing is a lot trickier than most people think. If secondary teachers get a substantial basic pay increase, that has to be applied through the rest of the system too. It's a lot of money. Which is why the government has been fiddling around with payments for NCEA implementation and trying to steer clear of salaries. But, clearly, more money is there for when the PPTA comes back. It should have waited to see how much before it ordered more action.

Thank goodness for sport, then, and lots of it, into which to escape. Japan and Korea seem to be doing a magnificent job of hosting the World Cup. The people are endlessly willing to dress up and scream, the stadiums are huge and, for whatever reason, hooliganism has stayed home for this tournament.

While most New Zealanders probably struggle with the idea that feigning injury is an integral part of the game - it is not our way - there's no denying the sizzle Brazil have brought to the game since Rivaldo put on his performance. But what was the referee's assistant doing when Rivaldo dived to the ground clutching his face after getting a little bump on the leg? He was standing about 18 inches away! Was he blind? Did the referee award a red card without seeing any of it? These things puzzle me about football.

I had to laugh when Lennox Lewis fronted up at his day-after press conference and devoted his heavyweight boxing win to "the British soccer team" in their quest for the World Cup. Er Lennox, that would be "England" ...

So Lewis was comprehensively better than Tyson, who had the good grace not to throw a wobbly while he got knocked around. It wasn't a bad fight I suppose. And beforehand we all sat around and discussed what we'd learned from the Fight for Life and youth suicide and how it was okay to ask for help and bullying and self-esteem and all that ...

No, of course we didn't. Not a word of that. Everybody just talked about how Tawera Nikau had beaten the crap out of whoever he fought and so on, and on. Not being a big fan, as I explained last week, of celebrities hitting each other for the kids, I had nothing to contribute. That it raised money for a good cause is a fact; that it raised consciousness in any widespread way is highly doubtful.

Meanwhile, Scott Styris contributed a legendary six wickets and 63 runs to a most welcome win over the Windies, and the All Blacks looked no more than tolerable against the Italians. I'm looking forward to Ireland at Eden Park - I'm booked in with a group of 55, with "hooleys" scheduled before and after. BYO Guinness, it says. Big ups to yer man Jimmy Macken for that. And to Chris "The Lawyer" Hocquard, whose 40th birthday party I missed on account of being too tired.

Indeed, I won't be seen on the tiles again until June 28, for Ooonst - but then, you can be assured, I will be having it large


Russell Brown

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