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Hard News 07/06/02: Wanna Fight?

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... I won't revisit the Greens and GE at great length this week. It makes my head hurt. But it was gratifying that none of the emails I got after last week's bulletin were hysterical - a couple of people with Green connections even thanked me. Perhaps that terrible newspaper ad has been abandoned forever.

The policy hasn't, of course. Over the weekend the Green Party conference unanimously approved the plan to bring down any government that failed to extend indefinitely the current moratorium on GM release. They threw out a compromise which would have had the party reconsider its stance if and when members became convinced the science was safe. Jeanette Fitzsimons re-emphasised the point, saying the ban was "forever". She then spent the rest of the week accusing the Labour Party, which hadn't said anything, of being "intransigent". Whatever.

I'm increasingly of the mind that perhaps the policy doesn't matter. Labour is running at 53 per cent according to this week's NBR poll, and four out of 10 National voters are apparently considering giving their votes to Labour to keep the Greens out of government. Even if the Greens do form part of the next government, an 18-month hold on GM releases it will probably make no difference, because there weren't going to be any anyway.

I just hope the new regulatory system will have a chance to get up and running on field trial applications. This isn't - or shouldn't be - a case of an entire branch of science being declared either right or wrong, but one of weighing the merits of every case.

The anti-GM campaign is well-organised, grassroots and attractive in a way that most lobbyists can only dream of. It does represent a new political force. But I wish they'd be a bit more careful. I know some of the Mothers Against Genetic Engineering and I bear them no ill. Their newsletter has some sound stuff, but it also lists a number of claims about bad GE that have either been thoroughly debunked or are proof of nothing. Some of it isn't so much science as anecdote.

We don't accept one-off global warming deniers, we go with the bulk of the science, right? And while I could justify protests against GM food on the basis that it's probably a marker of poor farming practice, the present demonstrable risk to human health in most of those foods is in the extra fat, salt and sugar. Those are what kill people. It's not, on the other hand, quite as clear-cut as the nice, Monsanto-funded folks from the Life Sciences Network would have you believe either. I'll have to come back this.

Speaking of global warming, the Australian government, in a fit of greed and denial, has confirmed its decision to ignore the Kyoto Protocol in case it costs some money. We hear so much about how the US and Australia aren't ratifying that it's easy to forget that 70 other countries already have.

Act and National, of course, praised John Howard for putting national interest above global good. Our government should be more like theirs, they said. Right. I think desert concentration camps for refugees are something we're really missing.

Perhaps we could send Trevor Mallard over there for a month or two. Really, teachers are antsy enough as it is without him threatening to put them all on individual contracts if they don't accept their union's proposed deal with the government. The last bit of progress occurred in his absence and a further absence might help everyone's state of mind.

Remember when the dollar was falling, and that was really bad? Now it's soaring - threatening US 50 cents again - and that's bad too. Could we perhaps just rewrite the Reserve Bank Act to manipulate interest rates so that the dollar is up for six months - during which we buy everything - and down for six months, during which we sell all our exports? We could have government-approved currency hedging schemes for ordinary punters. Just joking. I think ...

More from the you-can-tell-it's-election-year file: The Prime Minister used her speech at the celebration of Samoa's 40th anniversary of independence to offer an apology for the actions of the New Zealand government in the years after we took Samoa off the Germans during World War 1.

These included the callous and reckless decision to allow an influenza-bearing ship to dock at Apia, resulting in the death of around a quarter of the islands' population, and the machine-gunning of peaceful independence protestors.

The apology has been well-received by many older Samoans. But it was not sought by the Samoan government, and has been seen - with some justification - as an election-year attempt to woo the PI vote. But, I confess, I knew nothing of this and I'm grateful to learn of it.

Bill English, of course, boxed against suicide. Or, more correctly, boxed as part of a campaign aimed at making him into a character that men admire and women desire. This campaign also includes a Bill English calendar, in which he is Mr Every Month, performing a different manly act on each page. Can you imagine the derision if somebody had tried this with Helen Clark?

It's a reality of modern politics that leaders must be made - and, of necessary, remade - in the media. The remaking of Helen Clark was a crucial element of her political turnaround. But the campaign foisted on English - presumably in response to his perceived failings with focus groups - is so ham-fisted that it must surely trip him up at some point. He needs to be careful that his imaging team does not turf out what is good about him in the first place.

But perhaps I'm wrong: the morning-after response to his appearance in the Fight for Life - much of it from the 15 media organisations that dominate the sponsorship list - seems to be extremely warm: Good old Bill; doing it for the kids; helping prevent youth suicide. And so on, and on.

But boxing is not Bill English's job. He was in government in 1993, when New Zealand's youth suicide rate became the highest in the OECD. It continued to rise for fully five years, during which he was Minister of Health, before it was addressed as a priority - and then only by a Youth Affairs minister, Deborah Morris, who had come into government as a member of the New Zealand First Party. Pardon me if I seem a bit cynical.

Anyway, the event raised $300,000 for the Yellow Ribbon Trust - rather less than the value of the free advertising tossed in by media sponsors and a drop in the ocean of public health budgets. The Trust seems to do good work and presumably has played some part, along with the wider government strategy, in bringing down rates since 1999.

But I guess I don't entirely share the organisers' confidence that the violence - and some of these people really hurt each other - stays nicely quarantined in the ring. If I was being bullied at school, I don't think I would regard the Fight for Life as good news.

Every participant can be relied upon to explain that they're doing it because they lost a friend or an extended family member to suicide. Well, same here. It just doesn't make me think celebrity slugfest.

So I was out last night at Tabac's fifth birthday party - they've got a top bar manager there, you know - which helpfully removed the temptation to tune in and see what happened, who English was fighting and how well John Campbell managed to suppress his horror at having to front the thing.

Boxing, after all, is stupid, and does not easily lend itself to being dolled up with social worthiness. This weekend's heavyweight title bout promises to be an appalling spectacle. But it doesn't tout itself as anything else - no apologies, no justification, no doing-it-for-the-kids. I'll watch that without pretending to any higher goal. See you at the pub on Sunday, then.

Mostly, I prefer my entertainment to come from the arts and sport. There was plenty of the former on show at the True Colours gig on Saturday night. To be honest, I thought Pacifier were a bit flat and I didn't like the new songs. Strangely, that didn't matter. I managed to secure myself a pass-out from the beer-free St James - they've got a great venue manager there, you know - and, of all the local acts I saw, Nesian Mystic stood out. They were amazing. And to think they're from my 'hood and everything ...

So, sport for the weekend and great containerloads of it too. The World Cup looks lovely, but does serve to remind one that football, in between its spurts of joy, can be remarkably dull. Hooliganism is surely a response to the special kind of frustration that football provides. I mean, France versus Uruguay, nil-nil - like two lovers spending an hour and a half in bed and neither of them managing to come. You'd go spare too, wouldn't you? - G'bye!

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