HARD NEWS 26/11/99 - Bring it On!
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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... well, we're nearly there. I had intended to deliver a high-minded meditation on the need for change. Indeed, I will. But before that perhaps we ought to look at the campaign - and at ourselves.
The fashionable thing to say about this election is that one is ambivalent - which is really just a flash version of 'they're all bastards anyway', 'don't vote it only encourages them', 'the problem with voting is that the government always gets in' and other favourite sayings of people who undervalue democracy.
The people who accuse the parties of playing it safe, of failing to inspire - of being all bastards anyway - are themselves taking the safest option. If you don't commit you don't risk embarrassment.
As I noted before the campaign officially began, people want honesty and substance at the same time as they want their political product flashed up like a new energy drink. The media wants risks but hammers anyone who makes a mistake.
The media has sometimes been guilty of not just navel-gazing but of actually interviewing its own navel. TV was always going to be played safe: TV is, as it's done these days, primarily a vehicle for product sales.
Having met Helen Clark I can confirm that the person you see on TV is not the warm and witty person you meet in person. From my sole personal encounter with Jenny Shipley I can only reliably report that she has big hands, but I expect the same is true.
The TV did get better as the campaign went on. The Holmes leaders' debate actually provided the two top contenders with the space to define themselves, and Helen Clark came away looking not so much the next Prime Minister as simply The Boss.
At times she almost bullied Shipley, who was suffering with the flu, and she made expert craft of getting in the last word. She also pretty much confirmed that she had smoked pot in the 60s. Rock on.
It was to Shipley's great credit, then, that she came back in the following night's looser, more chaotic debate with John Campbell doing most of the talking in the middle. She still didn't really win it, but she fought a good draw.
Before that, I admit, there was not much up on TV. TV's problem is that TV took that to mean there was not much up at all.
But look at the Internet this campaign. You had National's scary-but-slick No Crap site for the kids, which was streets ahead of its dire newspaper advertising.
You had the Wild Greens' unfortunate link to a direct action sabotage guide from their page - which actually got liability issues, and even the simple fact that Web pages link to other Web pages into mainstream discourse.
And you had people doing wild things like publishing a leaked or lost Prime Ministerial phone list on a far-off free Website - and then linking to them. Or sites like wages.co.nz, a cryptic, private little page that simply lists public sector salaries.
And although I can testify that the Auckland contingent of the Act bovver boys were quite horrible people, they did make the political meeting I attended - and many others too, I expect - more interesting. Indeed, the way Michael Cullen lit up - metaphorically, that is - and responded to the situation greatly impressed me.
So a pox on people who keep their powder dry. And congratulations to the people - of whatever political stripe - who have stood as candidates, worked in electorate offices, been on campaign committees, gone to the bloody wine and cheese evenings and stuffed leaflets into letterboxes. It's easy to moan. It takes a bit more courage to actually participate in democracy.
Phew. Objectivity mode off. Because I have followed the issues and I have examined my values and I have formed an opinion. And I want the government to change so bloody much.
Labour, in the context of its campaign, has run a brilliant final week. Out from the filing cabinet - whoops, sorry, finally able to be confirmed this week - came a little gem from the circus we have been instructed to call Work and Income New Zealand, not just putting National on the back foot but pinning it there for three days.
And with good reason. The government might feel aggrieved at Labour bringing up something that happened in June, but the plain fact is that George Hickton had what used to be Income Support humming along pretty nicely. And then Roger Sowry, for what were overwhelmingly ideological reasons, merged it with the Employment Service. WINZ is now difficult to deal with, prone to screw-ups and blessed with a CEO who just has no idea of the meaning of public service.
This week's revelation by Steve Maharey concerned a $110,00 payout to a Winz executive dismissed because, apparently, he circulated a communication the CEO, Christine Rankin, did not want other staff to see.
Act and National had the gall to claim the problem was actually that the personal grievance procedures in the Employment Contracts Act were too soft and WINZ had to settle to save even more expense
Look, this person was fired basically because he pissed Christine Rankin off. WINZ broke the law in dismissing him without warning and Rankin then exceeded her statutory authority in putting up $100,000 of taxpayers' money to settle once the employee got a lawyer. Then, in a third go, WINZ paid out even more in a sham deal which seemed to be designed to hide the whole affair from public scrutiny. And it's far from the first time this has happened.
If you want a work environment where your livelihood and perhaps your family are put at risk because another employee who happens to be your boss is a flake like Rankin, fine, go vote Act or National.
Me, I prefer a little balance in the world. That's why I am a union member. A card-carrying member of the New Zealand Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, which is what journalists join these days. It's a good union; and the people I know who work for it are some of the best people I know.
It is also quite customer-focused. You can get deals on credit cards, chardonnay, airfares and mortgages through the union. But that's not why I'm a member.
I am a well-paid knowledge worker. I have moved from a collective contract to an individual employment contract that I was happy to negotiate for myself. Among the conditions was that I get to work from home, because that works better for me. I work hard.
But I am also aware that there are many, many people who work as hard as me, don't get paid as much and do not have the individual negotiating power that I do. That ought not mean they have no rights. I might one day require the support of my union, but for now I'm happy enough for support to flow the other way, because a country without a healthy trade union movement is not a good country.
One of the promises on which Mike Moore was made chair of the World Trade Organisation was to level the global playing field by forcing up labour standards in Asian economies. The lowest common denominator alternative to that is sweatshops in Papatoetoe.
Whilst I like what Finlay McDonald has done with the Listener and I think he's an excellent journalist and a good bloke, I was pissed off with his after-match summary of TV3's PMs' debate this week. On the differing views on the Employment Contracts Act, he evoked Karl Marx on the incompatibility of labour and capital and put it all down to a struggle between socialism and free-market global capitalism.
Spare me. Maybe it's because I didn't go to university, but I find ideological ultimatums from either wing pretty tiresome. I write for a business mag and I specialise on the Internet and increasingly on electronic commerce. I am acutely aware of radical and sweeping change in life and business, and of behaviour from the world that demands the conception of new rules.
One of the reasons I think Act's official economic policy is such a horror is that it leaves no scope for government to transform along with society, except to wither. Some people, I know, think that is what should happen, but leaving yourself with that sole option is idiocy because it precludes the debate.
I actually think governments are going to be more relevant than ever in the next millennium because they will provide what I think of as Shape, with a capital S.
Economic globalisation is a done deal; the technological and social forces behind it are irresistible. But if that's all there is, if there's just a handful of islands being washed over by international capital, welcome to life in the flea market.
Thus, I was really glad that Helen Clark concluded the last of the TV debates with a pitch for Labour's culture policy, which is really good, a real differentiator. Unlike Richard Prebble, Labour's policy does not regard the arts as a charity case not worth upsetting people over, but as an industry, as something we're really good at.
It's not expensive to have a culture. New Zealand On Air's total wage bill is about $665,000 a year - not much more than Don Brash's own salary. And our public investments in our own culture tend to pay off.
Prebble had either the cheek or the ignorance to tell Kim Hill that Peter Jackson bringing in $360m in foreign exchange to make Lord of the Rings showed that the creative industries could stand on their own two feet.
Well, I suppose so. If you don't count the first four movies that the Film Commission helped him make, or the pervasive role of NZ On Air in building the kind of skills base that lets you even think about projects like Lord of the Rings - or Xena, Warrior Princess, for that matter. Similarly, there'd have been no 'How Bizarre' as a worldwide hit without the Otara Music and Arts Centre.
What I really like about Labour's Arts Policy is that it's written like an industry policy - indeed, it's explicitly linked to Labour's industry development policy. There are contestable Arts Capital grants, short-term artists' allowances at the level of the dole to get businesses rolling. And there are local content broadcast quotas. It is coherent and it will pay off.
But it's not just about it paying off. It's about wanting to get up in the morning. I swear, if I could bottle a little of the juice I got - like I do every year - at the Apra Silver Scroll Awards this week and buy the nation a drink, I would. It made the Kevin Roberts' beer-ad version of Brand New Zealand look thin and silly. And go Kapisi! Bring out your album, man.
There are negative reasons for a change of government too, of course. Most simply, that the National Party has been in power for too damn long. Anything near a decade is getting a bit close to a one party state. They only got their last term because Winston Peters deceived a swag of centre-left voters.
Peters rather got his own back on Wednesday, when one of his defectors self-destructed. Tuariki John Delamere was sacked in the shadow of the election by Shipley, because he refused to rescind letters offering to bend the rules to let in some Chinese immigrants if they agreed to put money into certain Maori-owned business projects, including some in his own electorate.
It was outrageous - as Richard Prebble said shortly before discovering that the key player appears to have been the husband of Act's Auckland Central candidate, Donna Awatere-Huata. But Delamere has never had any idea. He turned the case of the Schier family into a personal vendetta. He has kept a group of refugees in Mt Eden jail since before Apec. They are now so far into a hunger strike they're pissing blood.
Delamere devised policy to suit himself. He exceeded his authority. He didn't tell Cabinet. Neither did Murray McCully, when he set up his little empire on our tab at the Tourism Board. Delamere got sacked. McCully didn't.
There have been others. Under the kind of employment laws he would impose on us, Max Bradford's performance would have got him fired from any real job. Last year he demanded urgency for his electricity reforms - meaning they couldn't be scrutinised. Then - for the first time in the history of our democracy - Parliament had to be suspended because the bill couldn't be read because Bradford hadn't finished writing it.
A year later, power prices were up 4% and Bradford was casting around for support for changes to the Act he had so hastily drafted. It was also Bradford who trashed a two-year defence select committee enquiry to do his own "deal of the century" on a bunch of useless F16s. Good chap to have in charge of tertiary education, huh?
The idea that National has provided good economic vision doesn't hold up. Economic growth might be forecast to pick up next year, but it has been negligible in the past two years. Our trade deficit is arguably at crisis level. Our labour force productivity is an embarrassment. The government got price stability then didn't know what to do next - besides promise to cut taxes again.
Our top tax rate is already almost the lowest in the developed world. Countries with much higher top personal tax rates - 47 cents in Australia, 46 cents in Ireland - are performing far better than us. Jenny Shipley claims a tax cut of 50 cents a week for a family on $12,000 - which is what National is promising - will make a difference. I beg to differ.
The tax issue is a red herring. Between my salaried employment and the earnings of my own small company, Dubwise Arrangements Limited, I earn what to me seems plenty - not far short of six figures this tax year. Labour's tax increase will cost me a bottle of wine a week - although a fairly good one, granted.
I'm wary of anyone who tries to evoke some past golden era in New Zealand, because I think New Zealand is, in many ways, a better country, and certainly a more open one, than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But this year, for the first time in decades, new cases of tuberculosis are appearing among New Zealand citizens, rather than new immigrants. That's happening 20 minutes down the motorway from me and I cannot and I will not tolerate that.
Can anything be done? Hell yes. To me, one of the most important things a centre-left government can do is to restore income-related rents for state housing. I don't know of anywhere else in the world where the government has had the mad idea that public housing should try and chase the private market.
National's housing policy has, indeed, been about the most abject failure you could imagine. There is ample evidence that the descent of South Auckland into the third world zone of health statistics began with the market rents policy.
National's emphasis on the accommodation benefit has been a disaster. The cost of that benefit is heading for $2 billion a year - nearly 20 times the legal aid bill.
As a subsidy to private landlords, the accomodation benefit fuelled the Auckland housing boom - bringing down the cruel hand of the Reserve Bank governor so hard that we had a recession we didn't need to have. It turned into such a vicious cycle they had to rip home mortgage interest rates out of the CPI.
National's other great policy failure is, of course, in telecommunications. Maurice Williamson has spent nine years insisting that black is white and that our telecommunications regime is the best in the world.
Sad fact: Growth in telecommunications revenue here last year was 1%. In Australia, where there is a regulator, it was 10 times that.
New Zealand's business telecommunications prices are now almost the
highest in the OECD - at up to 180% more than the best performers.
Telecom is doi ng things with its 0867 Internet access policy that would be illegal in most Western countries.
Employers whingeing about minor changes to labour laws might wish to consider that. And that only the centre-left is conceding there is even a problem with it.
Although I am relaxed about potentially seeing them in government, because they seem to have stable leadership and a responsible attitude, I will not be voting for the Alliance or the Greens because I don't buy into some of their economic policies, especially as regards trade.
I would change a few elements of the Labour manifesto too, if it were up to me, but Labour's policy comes much closer than anybody else's to meeting my requirements.
And in the end, there's leadership. I simply do not rate Jenny Shipley. I do not think she is smart enough and I have formed the impression that she is not good under pressure. Her supposed East Timor triumph at Apec was scripted by a Foreign Affairs minister she was lucky to still have on hand, after busting him down to an insulting 14th in her Cabinet - three places below Murray McCully, for God's sake.
I have more time for her Treasurer, Bill English, who I believe to be a serious, intelligent and responsible politician - his stone-age Catholic conservatism notwithstanding. He still gets his butt kicked by Cullen, but he might make a good party leader - but, of course, you don't get that if National forms the next government.
I have, on the other hand, interviewed Helen Clark twice and I mean it when I say she is the most impressive politician I have ever met. Like English, she is serious, intelligent and responsible, and like English she is perceived as lacking glamour. I tend to prefer my political leaders that way.
More to the point, I buy into Helen Clark's vision. I think it's time. I can't tell you how to vote, but I will be casting my party vote for Labour and my electorate vote for my local MP, Judith Tizard. And I know I'm doing the right thing ... G'bye!