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HARD NEWS 09/3/01 - Spooks, Shocks and Submarines

Approved: hardnews.kiwifruit
Subject: HARD NEWS 09/3/01 - Spooks, Shocks and Submarines

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... the emergency doctors gather anxiously around the patient. They charge the paddles, shout "Clear!" and send a few thousand volts coursing through the patient's torso. They can't get a heartbeat. But they keep trying. For a decade.

That's pretty much where the Japanese economy is at. Its body diseased and afflicted by decades of bad financial and political habits, it is now, according to the country's finance minister, in danger of permanently flatlining.

The Japanese government has been running budget deficits for nearly a decade in order to shock its domestic economy back into life. It hasn't worked, and now Japan has the largest national debt in the world - 13 trillion dollars, or a third more than the country's entire annual economic output.

Quite what will be the impact of this disease, or where the body might fall, I don't know, but you might care to recall that when our little economy was dragged into economic reform after years of hopeful fiscal deficit, things got pretty messy.

On the other hand, even when Muldoon was freezing everything in sight, our economy did grow and our stock market did do quite well. If our government for some reason was tomorrow to start running vast deficits and pumping money into the streets, you can bet we'd get appropriately overstimulated. Not so in Japan.

We've been able to observe this week not only Japan's contortions, but those of Australia - where they've suffered their first quarterly contraction in a decade and their dollar is at a new low against the greenback.

Remarkably, given our fondness for the economic cringe, we got more good news. Standard and Poors put the New Zealand economy on a warning in 1999, and affirmed that in March last year. This week they restored us to AA+ or whatever it is, citing renewed confidence in the government's fiscal discipline. Goodness.

If there's a threat from the East, it's economic rather than military, which is why I am neither surprised or upset that a new report to government this week has recommended that we don't spent buy new submarine tracking systems for our ageing Orion aircraft.

The Orions have not detected an enemy submarine in the 35 years they've been able to look for them. Should we really spend half a billion dollars more on a new system to even more effectively track submarines that aren't there?

David Dickens of the Centre for Strategic Studies, where they had a Year Zero conversion to the idea of military might after Terence O'Brien departed, is predictably concerned. He has pointed out that the Orions have detected submarines - in exercises. That about sums it up for me. We appear to have a military philosophy based largely on tokenism.

The last government was prepared to send soldiers to Timor with radios that didn't work, but spend half a billion on anti-submarine systems to please the Americans.

The Holmes show recently replayed criticism of the government's diffidence on buying new assault aircraft from an air force pilot who had died when his Skyhawk crashed. Did he die defending his country? Well, no. Our fighter planes have never been used in anger. He died practising for an air pageant in Australia. The phrase "waste of life and fuel" comes to mind.

I watched Holmes again this week. It was an accident, honest. Brian Neeson, the National MP, was on expressing outrage that Paul Dally, killer of Karla Cardno, step-daughter of celebrity thug Mark Middleton, had been allowed out of jail four times. Four times! What are you going to do about this, minister? demanded Holmes of Matt Robson.

The odd thing was the supervised outings - for a parole hearing and to register for educational courses - all took place under the previous government, of which the highly outraged Brian Neeson was a member. Robson says the outings couldn't happen under the new government's policy.

Far be it from me to suggest that Neeson was making an absurd and belated attempt to climb aboard the Mark Middleton bandwagon, but why the hell did this even get to air?

And once it was on live, national television, why wasn't Neeson asked by his host what the hell he thought he was doing? Because his appearance was a jack-up. Because asking sensible questions might have gotten in the way of the story; spoiled the chance for another run-through of the same old pictures of a dead schoolgirl. It strikes me that the use and abuse of Karla Cardno did not stop with her merciful death. God, I despise Holmes.

Better you read The Listener, which is packed with good relevant reading this week. Check out Chris Bourke's story on our shonky record charts, which have little to do with sales and a lot to do with the opinions of a half a dozen radio programmers.

And by all means, plunge into the cover story on privacy and surveillance, even if it is a bit alarmist in tone. Bruce Ansley, who is a fine journalist, interviewed me for the story but only used the most alarming thing I said in the whole conversation.

For the record, I've read the Crimes Amendment Bill No.6 and its controversial supplementary order paper and I just can't see the part where it allows for mass public surveillance.

At the moment, police and the SIS have access to one use of the telecommunications system - voice calls - but not to another - data. Having spent my recent working life insisting that email is a normal use of the telecommunications system, I'd find it difficult to turn around and start arguing the opposite.

And while it seems clear that an international police organisation called ILETS has pushed for law change in countries like ours, they look to me more like a law enforcement lobby group than emissaries of the New World Order. Sorry, but I'm just not one for conspiracy theories.

This is a balancing act. While extending interception powers to data communications does considerably increase the potential for abuse, it will almost certainly see tighter rules on interception than we've ever had. The bill will pass, probably with National's support. But mindful of the protests, the select committee will almost certainly make the law regulating the granting of interception warrants stricter - and it is sufficiently strict that fewer than 20 warrants a year are granted. So the protest will in that sense have been effective.

The issue is actually reasonably simple in principle. The police should, under strict and specific terms, be able to gain an interception warrant with the approval of a High Court judge. What they should not be able to do is go on casual fishing expeditions. They have requested a change to the Telecommunication Act - that they be given the keys to Vodafone's encrypted mobile network and to Telecom's forthcoming one - which would allow them to do just that. If they get that concession - and my impression is they haven't got a hope in hell - then you will hear my voice in protest.

Anyway, a couple of apologies stemming from last week's bulletin. One: my God, maybe they really have sold nearly all the good seats at Eden Park into membership packages. There were 30,000 people there on Friday night! The rugby might have been appalling but the money's there.

And you might have heard me refer last week to something called "GSB". That was a slip of the tongue; I meant "GHB". I emphasise this lest anyone in the media mistakenly believe that there is in fact a deadly new party drug called GSB that ought to be banned immediately for the sake of the kids. No, so far as I'm aware there is no recreational substance called GSB. But KFC - that's the one you want to watch out for ... G'bye!

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