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HARD NEWS 03/05/02 - Fright Club

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... who's for an early election, then? For the second week in a row, it appears that the entire Parliamentary Opposition is up for it - even if they'd clearly get the fright of their lives if it happened.

And, as I noted last week, there's no constitutional reason that it should. There is, let us be clear, very little risk to the stability of the government. It has just as many votes as it had last month or last year. There's nothing wrong with people forming new parties either - especially when there is a clear aspirational split, as there is within the Alliance membership. It had to happen.

It has happened before: most notably in the case of the United Party, which was formed by people who deserted from the two main parties during a Parliamentary term, and propped up since by National's electorate deal with Peter Dunne. Dunne, indeed, stands for a slightly different party at every election.

There is no thwarting of the voters' will, as there was in Jenny Shipley's despicable wooing of Alamein Kopu. Pretty much everyone who voted for the Alliance at the last election would wish both factions to continue to stay in the governing coalition.

The only problem is the contortions that have been necessary for Anderton to stay the right side of the Electoral Integrity Act. It was a stupid law in the first place, and National says it would repeal it given the chance. But Jim Anderton campaigned for that law and he's now thoroughly hoist on it.

Thus, he has to pretend that his new party, the Progressive Coalition Party, is being created by someone else - some people he met down the pub or something - when you know, I know, and the Opposition knows that it's Jim's party. It exists for him and he will jump over and become its official leader as soon as this Parliament ends. Even this wouldn't be such a problem if he didn't keep doing his Honest Jim act and insisting that black is white.

This could go a couple of ways. Either the public could take the view that this is all a bit bloody Wellington and remain unmoved. Or it could start to erode the credibility of the government as a whole. In which case, maybe an early election will be contrived, even though the government is perfectly stable. We'll see.

Meanwhile, National's response to its need for policy differentiation seems to have been to dress up as Act. Michelle Boag has wooed the very far right Don Brash to become a National candidate - something I actually, if accidentally, predicted two weeks ago.

They also seem to be raiding Act's policy cupboard. In the last few weeks we've seen the promise of tax cuts at the top of the scale, a life-means-life sentencing gimmick and now, a rather hopeful deadline for the filing of all outstanding Treaty claims of December next year and their full and final settlement by 2008.

Whether by accident or design, the policy has been released into a particularly turbulent climate. The unmasking of John Davy as a fraud leaves the Maori Television Service contemplating another public humiliation for those who would get Maori on air.

Davy is, as the New Zealand Herald showed, a fantasist and a rascal of quite remarkable degree. Millennium People, the executive search firm paid tens of thousands of dollars to find the right talent, insisted it had checked with his last three employers, but that was hardly the point. Most of the reports this week have missed the fact that his last employer - Intercom3000 - was pretty much a pyramid scheme. It was not in a million years the place where you would find a genuine chief executive.

Perhaps the MTS board couldn't be blamed for trusting their search firm. But they can certainly be blamed for hiring it. Millennium People is a husband and wife company with a track record of less than two years. It can only be assumed the board took the risk because it was a Maori company. In the circumstances, that should not have been the prime consideration.

But even if his CV hadn't been a tissue of lies, Davy was something of a wiggy choice - couldn't speak Maori, no TV experience. That was an indication of how few good people were willing to take on a politically dangerous job. Finding a replacement just got that much harder.

Anyway, National's new Treaty policy is timely also in that concern over the so-called "Treaty industry" is rising not just in the usual quarters - the minds of Stephen Franks and Winston Peters - but on the Maori Affairs select committee and in the quality setting of TV One's Assignment show.

It was ironic, then, that one of the few Maori to speak in the policy's favour - National Party stalwart Sir Graham Latimer - is very much more part of the problem than the solution. He chairs the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, which collects the rent on the land under state forests to which cutting rights have been sold.

The rent money is then used to fund research into Treaty forestry claims. It's a tidy enough arrangement. But the trust is under investigation by the Maori Affairs select committee on the basis of what looks like rank favouritism in the allocation of money.

Most notably, claimants in Kaipara district - where Sir Graham comes from - have so far received $5.5 million, half a million more than the researchers of the far, far bigger Volcanic Plateau claim. It could be seen that the Trust under Sir Graham's chairmanship is looking after his cuzzie-bros. And, in an amazing statement in the Herald on Thursday, he said that he regarded it as his job to do just that. Does anybody else see something very, very wrong here?

Even though Assignment this week was rather kinder to its dissidents than its gravy-trainers - it wasn't hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys - and made one or two heroically unsupported assumptions, it raised issues that do need addressing. The ambition is right - has the process gone bad?

In the sense that it aims to provoke change as the present government seems determined to muddle along, National's policy is salient. It contains some good ideas - such as making the post of Treaty Settlements minister a full-time gig. But it appears to lack both real substance and the support of National's only Maori MP, Georgina Te Heu Heu. In the end, it looks quick and cheap.

Speaking of quick and cheap - Bill English got plenty of coverage this week for his announcement that he will enter the boxing ring at the Fight For Life, which raises money for the Yellow Ribbon Trust, which aims to fight youth suicide.

He doesn't actually have an opponent yet - and the procession of unknowns who have declared their willingness to not so much get in the ring for a gentlemanly round of fisticuffs but, basically, assault him, has become something of an embarrassment.

But more to the point, it's ludicrous to believe that the best way Bill English could address the problem of youth suicide is to do this. For goodness sake, he's an elected MP and the leader of the National Party: if he really wants do something about the issue he should sit down with his caucus - and, if necessary, with the government - find funding and develop a proper, long-term response.

It's just like the Green MPs protesting about the Treaty at Waitangi this year when they hadn't bothered doing anything about it in Parliament. English's participation in the Fight for Life is just a cheap publicity stunt to make him appear less of a goober.

The irony is that celebrity slugfests represent precisely the culture that probably drives many young people to self-harm. You're being bullied at school to the point where you feel that life is no longer worth living - and watching the Fight for Life is supposed to make you feel better? Whilst I don't doubt the good intentions of Dean Lonergan and the other people involved, the concept is much too weird for me.

So anyway, it's a quiet one for me this week. I got a fair old slice of Auckland by night last Friday, what with the Blues at Eden Park, the Clean at the KA and, some time Saturday morning a couple of hours at Cardiac. I kind of liked it, actually. Heineken on tap, polite bouncers and a frankly wiggy work of dŽcor by, er, Sally Ridge.

I swear, the toilets are like a dream sequence from Twin Peaks. And that can be quite confusing for an old chap at 2am - G'bye!

Ends

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