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HARD NEWS 19/11/99 - MMP = More Moral Panic

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... trust the Tories, eh? Put them under pressure and they try and manufacture a moral crisis. There's been Ecstasy, there's been Home Invasions - and this week it's drugs and terrorism with the Green Party.

Remember at the start of the year, when The Prime Minister was having trouble getting her story straight about dinner with Kevin Roberts? Up jumped her so-called Minister of Justice Tony Ryall, right in the middle of it, and declared that he wanted to pass his Home Invasion bill under urgency, without select committee scrutiny, by the following week? Even Act couldn't pay out on that one.

Ryall, who plainly regards the criminal code as some sort of promotional device, was right in the thick of it again as it suddenly dawned on National that Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons is going to win in Coromandel, delivering the Greens as many as six seats and making it possible for Labour to form a government without need of Winston Peters.

So Shipley set sail for Fitzsimmon's home turf this week, to lend support to National's hopeless incumbent, Murray McLean, and, most of all, to dish it out to the Greens. The Greens, she reminded a Coromandel crowd, favour the decriminalisation of the possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use.

"National does not want to see young people smoking dope and wasting their lives," she said in a speech to a bunch of locals who were really more interested in discussing why their hospital is only open five days a week. "But Labour is welcoming Greens' policies which would see people smoking dope alongside cigarette smokers in family restaurants throughout New Zealand.

"We do not want to see young people dropped out of school, polytechnic or university, stoned and paranoid hanging around in parks and other public areas."

As if that didn't sound quite mad enough, she then called on Helen Clark and Jeanette Fitzsimmons to join her and "declare war on all drugs". Oh, right.

She left it, of course, to Ryall to get really grubby. He released a statement "revealing" that the Greens' Nandor Tanczos believes he is worshipping God by smoking pot. A man who wears dreadlocks and leaves campaign flyers in the reggae section at Real Groovy Records? Surprise me. When more than half of all New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 45 have smoked marijuana, maybe we should have one MP who admits to breaking what he regards as a bad law.

It was Ryall also who debated the issue on National Radio with Fitzsimmons. Or, rather, Fitzsimmons debated the issue and Ryall blathered on rather desperately about how middle New Zealand was behind him in rejecting the drug culture, about how we had to hold the line, about how we had to send a message to young people.

Most of what Ryall had to offer was platitudinous crap, some of it was offensive and some of it was simply lies. Most notably, he claimed the psych ward of his local hospital in Whakatane was "full of young people with drug-induced psychosis. These people have had to be admitted because of the excessive use of cannabis. It's destroyed their lives."

Ryall had to apologise on the same day after the director of the unit complained, pointing out that of the seven people in the warn, four had schizophrenia, two suffered from depressive disorders and one had senile dementia. Ryall claimed he had "misinterpreted" conversations with local health and youth workers. A more likely explanation is that he took a cheap shot and hoped he wouldn't get caught.

The problem for National is that plenty of its own MPs agree with the Greens and Labour that the law is clearly not working and at least deserves a look. National's police minister Clem Simich is on record as favouring decriminalisation. We were invited to believe this week that he has, for no apparent reason, changed his mind.

That still leaves Brian Neeson, Katherine O'Regan, Roger Maxwell and Shane Ardern, the National members of the health select committee that investigated the effects of cannabis on mental health last year and concluded, after hearing the evidence, that the law needed looking at. There wasn't even a minority finding against that view. All the MPs on that committee were of a mind.

Then there's Maurice Williamson, with whom I disagree on many things, but who is at least consistent in his philosophy and is known to favour decriminalisation. Ditto for Act's Rodney Hide. Richard Prebble has been publicly evasive on the issue, but probably would too, so long as he thought it would play well in Wellington Central

What annoys me is Ryall and Shipley trying to sound the air-raid sirens just because somebody has suggested seriously debating the law. Debate, apparently, is verboten.

Operation Nobble the Greens actually began earlier in the week when Nick Smith revealed that the Wild Greens' section of the Greens' Website had a link to a Web site that offered advice on how to sabotage trucks, ships and machinery engaged in ungreenlike activities.

Smith piled in, making a complaint to the police and blaming Tanczos, whose denial of responsibility was made more plausible by the fact that he didn't know how to put anything on a Web page. The link was, said the Greens, the work of an injudicious volunteer Webmaster.

The Young Nationals got involved too, with their chairman Daniel Gordon boasting that "you won't find links to ultra-left revolutionary groups and eco-terrorist organisations on our site."

No, but you will find a link to a site whose home page carries an "Anarchy Now!" button, and where a man chiefly infamous for masturbating in public at Auckland University can be found demanding the legalisation of all drugs. I'm sure Mummy wouldn't like that, would she? I am outraged and I demand that Nick Smith resign immediately. Or at least stop behaving like such a dick.

Choosing to attack the Greens in this way has been a complete disaster for National. For a start, a would-be governing party simply looks silly and petty picking on a party that isn't even cracking the five per cent barrier. National has really only given the Greens a whole lot of public profile.

To make it worse, Fitzsimmons and Tanczos have both come across as reasonable and rather nice people. National has probably helped their vote up a couple of points inside a week.

In the past week, we've also seen Act release its economic policy, under which it would freeze all public expenditure and scrap any allowance for new initiatives for the next half a decade while it moved to a 20 cent flat tax rate. Snake oil would probably be too generous a term.

Let's actually think a little about life under Act's plan: Take it as read that the numbers wouldn't pan out for Act. Their prison policy alone is going to cost them much more than they admit, and they're not going to get even half of the 1.6 billion they pretend they're going to sell TVNZ for.

Act would, inevitably, have to start slashing budgets in the sectors it had already frozen. Where would the money come from? Well, conservation is an obvious guess, given Act's robust anti-green stance.

You could expect less money for DOC, extensive commercialisation of national parks and walking tracks - and, although it's not directly revenue-related, pressure on that great icon of what it is to be a New Zealander in the summer, The Queen's Chain. This is a party, after all, whose president and founder has already advocated privatising rivers. Speak ing of which, it was predictable that Prebble should jump in and promise a select committee inquiry on Contact's Energy's management of the Roxburgh Dam. A week out from an election, with select committees unlikely to form until well into the next millennium, it's hard to imagine a more empty promise.

Anyway, the good folk of Alexandra believe that Contact's failure to remedy silting has caused the Clutha Rover, once again, to flood their properties. The irony, of course, is that their only protection at the moment is the Resource Management Act, which Act has promised to thoroughly gut if it gets the chance.

Oh, by the way ... another little gem from Act's local government policy. Act will, it says, "review land-based rates as a revenue source". Let's look at what that means, shall we? Even Act would concede that local government revenue would have to come from somewhere.

There are four options: central government funding of local councils - unlikely, and frankly impossible under Act's proposed tax structure. Local sales or income taxes - not a starter at all. Trading revenue from council businesses - well, they're all going to be sold off under Act.

The only other source I can think of is ... a Poll Tax. A tax levied, regardless of ability to pay, on every person in the council's catchment. A tax, essentially, on breathing within the city limits.

I was living in the UK when Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce a poll tax. I'll tell you what happened. Poor people disappeared. They dropped off the electoral roll to try and avoid a tax that, in the areas of most need, ran to hundreds of pounds a year. It is hard to imagine anything worse for democracy.

Anyway, it does look, at last, like it's all becoming moot. Three polls in 24 hours have put Labour firmly ahead of National and shown the centre-left able to govern without Winston Peters, who, with all his troubles with his party list and his candidates being most embarrassingly investigated by IRD and ACC, is staring at a loss in Tauranga and consequent political oblivion.

Labour having delivered the-we're-the-ones-who-can-do-it-without-Winston message, can now safely concentrate on the message it has been waiting so long to deliver to the soft National vote. That is: we're going to win anyway, so you may as well vote for us and give us as big a share of our coalition with the Alliance as possible.

Labour hasn't explicitly delivered that message yet. And perhaps, given this morning's editorial in the New Zealand Herald - headed 'Labour with one week to go' - it doesn't need to.

"The virtue of polls," intoned the Herald, after sniffing at the Alliance and the Greens. "Is that voters can see difficulties coming and strengthen the position of whichever party they believe should have the upper hand." Yes, it has been a very bad week indeed for National ... G'bye!


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