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HARD NEWS 5/6/00 - Abort, Retry, Ignore?

HARD NEWS 5/6/00 - Abort, Retry, Ignore?

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... so the brakes are on. The full-steam progress of the Employment Relations Bill and the second phase of ACC reforms has been slowed down by Prime Ministerial edict.

Little else will pass that has the sniff of a cost to business. The Alliance's employer-funded paid parental leave plan is out - although Labour's six-week taxpayer-funded version appears still to be on the cards.

What has prompted this is a failure of political management influenced, no doubt, by a quite remarkable honeymoon with the public. The intent was clearly to shovel through as much of the "difficult stuff" early in the piece and spend the next two years on an agreeable, steady course. The effect was: too much, too soon.

It's not that the Labour-led government has actually made a legislative or operational blunder - no WINZ merger, no electricity reform legislation put to the vote before it's written - but that it has allowed the public to forget how abysmal the last government was.

The Employment Relations Bill has been drafted too quickly and has some flaws - but unlike Max Bradford's electricity reform bill, they have not to become law.

National campaigned on the claim that the bill would be bad for workers and would somehow deprive them of rights - when in fact it sought to restore the basic rights enjoyed by employees throughout the developed world. But - startlingly - parts of the bill dealing with contractors do actually stand to hurt the people it aims to help.

The intent of the measure - to address the process of casualisation by which people have been stripped of holidays and other benefits by unscrupulous employers - is laudable. But the fact is, many thousands of New Zealanders have become used to life as independent operators. It is a natural implication of the networked economy that more of us will choose to be free agents.

The contractual provision, even in its original fuzzy state, was not nearly as prescriptive as similar provisions in Britain or in Australia - where your status as a contractor or not is liable to be ordained by tribunal - but it unnerved some of the government's own voters.

As did Annette King's musings on banning smoking in bars and cafes. Not unexpectedly, this struck a don't-tell-me-what-to-do nerve. It's easy to forget the party currently in Opposition wanted to morally contract us to a whole range of behaviours with its Code of Social Responsibility. It spent millions on a bogus and frankly offensive "survey" designed to prop up its ideas. It proposed witholding benefits from families that didn't follow orders.

That plan was allowed to quietly die - it didn't require urgent action because the people who objected to it didn't have the ear of newspaper editors. But right now, hey presto, a hissy fit, a word in the ear and you've got a front page declaring the economy to be in "nosedive". It wasn't and it isn't.

That there has been a propaganda campaign by the conservative establishment is beyond doubt. That the apparent crisis in business confidence is not particularly related to external reality is equally clear. But business confidence is not like your moods and mine - it feeds on itself and becomes self-fulfilling.

Hence the record-breaking turnaround between March and April. Although the economic fundamentals haven't changed - indeed, respondents to the National Bank business confidence survey this week remained bouyant about exports, profits and investment - the overall mood has plummeted to that of the 1998 recession, to the days of Winston Peters as Treasurer.

A similar trend has taken on in Australia, where the business community is fretting about the introduction of GST and higher interest rates and confidence is at its lowest in seven years.

Now you and I might suggest that our business community, metaphorically at least, takes a pill and goes out dancing for a change, but that ain't gonna happen.

So the Prime Minister has decided to reboot the relationship. To take a hit now in pursuit of a long stay in government. She hasn't been talking football during those conversations with Tony Blair after all. So be it. But it is contingent now on the business community to stop trying to talk down the economy. To get with the programme and to acknowledge the mandate of a democratically elected government.

Democracy does not appear to mean much to Fran O'Sullivan; whom the Herald allows to fill the highly unusual dual role of in-house corporate PR maven and frontline business columnist. O'Sullivan's hallucinatory columns have been taken to conflating everything the government does - from stopping native logging on crown land to the Prime Minister briefly leaving the country to attend a major meeting of heads of state - into some anti-business masterplan.

O'Sullivan has even gone so far as to attack her paper's own business reporters for suggesting - in the face of that infamous "nosedive" front page - that the economy is actually alright.

She is also the prime offender in a curious little campaign to recast the Reserve Bank Act as some sort of interventionist - if not out-and-out socialist - plot. If these people think price stability's not all it's cracked up to be they should come out and say so, instead of trying to blame the government for interest rate rises.

The low-cost, low-wage economic place in which we have found ourselves is, to O'Sullivan, the only place we can possibly prosper, whatever evidence there may be to the contrary. But it's about time she and her chums also howed some appreciation for positive initiatives like the current ministerial inquiry into telecommunications - a modern marvel of open government.

Maurice Williamson sat on his hands for nearly 10 years in which New Zealand business telecommunications charges became almost the highest in the world. This government has actually had the courage to look for a way forward, and to make the process as open as possible.

This week's reboot has no doubt been timed to clear the way for the government's first Budget, so that its initiatives aren't lost in the static the way the historic arts funding initiative was three weeks ago. It will be interesting now to see who gets the lollies.

In the longer term, Labour ought not be too concerned about National trying to make capital out of social conservatism. Let National be the party that opposes gay and defacto rights, sensible cannabis laws and all the rest.

And let the Alliance have a go at a slightly bigger slice of the left-hand side of the spectrum. The manner of the reboot might have been a slight to the minority coalition partner - and has fuelled the perception of Clark as dictatorial - but it gives the Alliance some much-needed room to brand.

For Labour, the most effective Cabinet ministers have been its centrists - Goff, Mallard - while the likes of Marion Hobbs have floundered. Regardless of the events which prompted it, the jump to the economic centre is unlikely to be reversed.

Elsewhere, the disintegration of Team New Zealand - which has dented the national mood the way the All Blacks World Cup debacle did when the last government was in power - will at some point be completed.

But I can't help but feel there will be endless mileage in the labyrinth international financial structure of the new Team New Zealand "charitable trust". Who is the charity here? And is it really necessarily for a boat race to be structured like a money-laundering operation? We'll see.

Concluding congratulations to the Canterbury Crusaders and Todd Blackadder, and to the All Black selectors for coming up with a quite logical team. And can I just say how much I miss and mourn for the five minutes I spent reading Brian Edwards' column in this week's Listener when I could have been scratching my arse? Sorry Brian - G'bye!


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