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HARD NEWS 10/3/00 - Maximum Moral Deficiency

HARD NEWS 10/3/00 - Maximum Moral Deficiency

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES - and so the Prime Minister is tested on foreign affairs - and passes.

Max Bradford's deal of the century on 28 F-16 fighter planes is all but off. This lease-to-buy special would have cost us $125 million of over 10 years plus $238 million to run the planes. But wait! There's more! Another $287 million if we wanted to keep them at the end of 10 years! This, for planes that would never - and could never - fly our own friendly skies.

It's the stupidest deal you could imagine. But it looked hard to get out of. The Australians wouldn't wear it; the Americans were officially insisting that a deal was a deal. The Aussie papers were declaring, in the most patronising terms, that New Zealand had no choice in the matter.

Suddenly, there doesn't seem to be a problem. Bradford's stupidity has cost us $30 or $40 million in initial payments, but both our erstwhile defence partners seem to have accepted that we do have the right to choose our own defence priorities. And, just possibly, that these might more usefully rest on maritime and peace-keeping capabilities than a token air strikeforce.

Having done the diplomacy in Canberra, Helen Clark is off to Chile. She is, I'd guess, the first Asia-Pacific leader not from the Philippines to be able to arrive in Santiago and address her hosts in their own language - not just a sort-of Spanish accent, like Bolger, but an actual foreign language. On this basis alone, she's likely to be a hit there.

After attending the inauguration of Chile's new centre-left leader ,she's off to a meeting of other social-democratic leaders, where they will - thanks to British MP Austin Mitchell, who wrote about it - probably already know about New Zealand's mountain-climbing, intellectual Prime Minister. Pardon me if I sound gushy, but I find it such a relief to have a PM who isn't a bumpkin.

But while she's away being effective, her government is getting deeper and deeper in good intentions. So many legislative initiatives are in motion that it's getting crowded - especially with Michael Cullen choosing this week to wave around the broad brush on Labour's new pre-funded superannuation plans.

The basic idea is simple - that the government will ring-fence a part of our taxes for delivery to a dedicated super fund that will be managed at arm's length and invested. Some people are simply horrified at the idea of any government minding such a large pot of money, but I can see some advantage in owning an investment fund that invests overseas, rather than paying premiums to be repatriated as profits to foreign-owned banks and life insurance companies.

Anyway, there'll be plenty of time to chew it over. When, that is, there's more substance to chew on. There is plenty of detail to be filled in and Clark will want to pay heed to the number of fronts on which her government is fighting the good fight.

She can't control it all herself, which would of course be the safest option - and she may have noted the UK Labour Party's debacle this week as an example of where unrestrained control-freakery gets you. Because it couldn't stand a non-Blairite - Ken Livingstone - standing as Mayor of London, the Labour mind control centre rigged a bunch of block votes against him.

This, ironically, looked a lot like the kind of anti-democratic union vote Blair had allegedly ended. And it didn't work. Ken has left the party. And, even as an independent, he is held in such affection by Londoners that he will probably win.

So anyway, the annual Furore Over Craccum has come early this year. In this case, the young editors of the student weekly sought to challenge their readership with a story called 'Suicide is Painless', which listed - in detail meant to be unpleasant and off-putting - the ways and means of topping oneself.

It didn't come off and it upset a lot of people. But did anyone else find it ironic that the youngsters' misfire on youth suicide drew such a broadside from their elders and betters? The Herald editorial column thundered about "this sort of moral deficiency" and everybody from Holmes to the Health ministry went to town on it.

I have less sympathy for Tim Selwyn, author of an adjacent column which tried to be smartarsed about suicide counselling. Selwyn is one of those people who try to be clever but just aren't bright enough. Like others before him, he should go and get a job.

The Herald's moral trumpet was blowing rather less loudly after the Broadcasting Standards Authority's thumping of TVNZ over the lyprinol debacle. You remember lyprinol: comes from mussels, cures cancer. Or not.

In a highly embarrassing episode last year, senior news staff at TVNZ got themselves hyped by a company that just happened to distribute the extract. Holmes himself flew to Adelaide, John Luxton was wheeled on to bestow a ministerial blessing; and we were going to mash up our mussels and get rich selling them to the world.

The following morning, the Herald arrived with the huge headline: 'A cure for cancer?', burying doubts about the miracle cure beneath more hype. As a result, desperate New Zealanders spent two million dollars on basically useless lyprinol extracts. If I'd been responsible for that, I think I'd be a bit more careful about lecturing student journalists on the matter of their "moral deficiency".

The Herald also this week - and again, rather pompously - told off Ross Armstrong, the new chairman of TVNZ, about him lecturing his senior news executives over the lyprinol debacle. By not remaining at arm's length he was risking the credibility of his news service, the paper warned. Maybe. But you might also say that a firm branding statement with regard to worthless, ratings-driven so-called "news" efforts from a public broadcaster is useful from a new chairman.

Armstrong, a former National Party stalwart, seems set to be a key figure in the new Labour-Alliance landscape. Not only is he bringing a human face to the governance of state TV, in his role at New Zealand Post, he is set to make Jim Anderton's dreams come true.

It seems that NZ Post will provide the backbone of a "people's bank" that will welcome the poor and unglamorous, will run branches where people actually live, and won't hammer them with service charges. And the mainstream banks seem to be quite happy about it. The people's bank will soak up the unprofitable customers the other banks don't want anyway.

What the proposed new bank is going to do is entirely laudable. Banks can be appalling to people from whom they can't make buck with an array of financial services. But high street banking is a dying phenomenon; the inexorable momentum is off the street and into cyberspace. Obliging the big banks by sucking up all their cost centres into a big, juicy publicly-backed retail banking operation is not without its risks.

But hey, summer's come at last - just in time for the end of daylight saving - Shihad were legendarily large last weekend, the economy's on an upswing, and the new tackled-ball rule has given us back our rugby. The horror of summer TV scheduling is passing, as Queer as Folk and The Sopranos kick off in the same week. As Graeme Hughes would have it, there's a lot to like.

And me? I'm out like Alamein Kopu - G'bye!


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