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HARD NEWS 7/4/00 - Sympathy for the Devil

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... sometimes, probably times when you're heavily sedated, you have to love the dear old New Zealand Stock Exchange. As markets the world over slumped on Tuesday, the NZSE boomed.

Normal service was soon resumed, of course, once the market had got over the excitement of the $5 billion sale of Fletcher Paper to Norske Skog of Norway. The company's local employees weighed up the merits of working for a basket-case division of a lame giant versus working for the fourth-largest paper company in the world and probably decided it wasn't too bad a deal. The shareholders, offered an 83% premium on the market value of their shares, probably thought they were dreaming.

The event that triggered the skittish behaviour of the other markets was, of course, the inevitable and unsurprising ruling on Microsoft's anti-competitive transgressions. Bill Gates was no doubt left quaking in his boots after a stern telling-off from our Minister of Consumer Affairs, Phillida Bunkle.

The Alliance, which desperately needs some issues with which to brand itself - and there aren't many issues that aren't already owned by the Greens or the personal property of Helen Clark - looks set to seize on competition and consumer matters. Jim Anderton flew in boots and all on the matter of Telecom's blocking of the free ISP i4free this week; turning up the outrage-o-meter way past 10.

I don't think he really understood what he was on about, but, hey, hardly anybody really understood the Microsoft thing either. It was simply a chance to bash Telecom. Far be it from me to express sympathy for the Devil, but there's more to this than there appears.

i4free, its associated companies and its carrier, Clear, did a fine job of appearing shocked and surprised when Telecom cut off their 0867 dial-up numbers last Friday.

In reality, they were warned five times in writing that their dodge of diverting an 0867 number to a Telecom number associated with Clear via number portability - thus enabling Clear to ding Telecom two cents a minute in interconnect charges, a share of which is i4free's only present income - would not be tolerated. Telecom cutting them off was about as surprising as the news that Dubhead is fond of a little reggae.

The timing was certainly right - on a Friday so as to score Monday morning's headlines, with the Deputy Prime Minister as a bonus. From the press release headed, gloriously, 'Telecom chops off Muscular Dystrophy Association', it just got better.

A judge granted an injunction obliging Telecom to put i4free back on. And then Ihug shot itself in the foot with a bazooka by preventing its customers from going to the i4free Website. I4free's rep as the put-upon little guy was rock-solid, if not particularly well-founded.

An array of rich folk, including Suzanne Paul's offsider, Paul Meier, are behind the venture, which is not, as some folk seem to believe, a public-spirited adventure. Free ISPs exist to sell advertising, to collect email addresses for marketing purposes, to sell aggregated information about their customers to other companies and to deliver sales to affiliate partners. Well, that's the theory, anyway. Even in the States it's a marginal model and I can't see it lasting here. Still, that's not my problem.

Lest it appear that I actually approve of what Telecom does, I very much don't. Telecom's use of the numbering system as a weapon is despicable. I saw a report this week that showed that Telecom's return on equity in the past two years has been 77%. The nearest comparison amongst large New Zealand companies is Fernz Corporation's 13-odd percent. Either Telecom's management are utter bloody genuises or we're being gouged.

Still, it might all finally be ending, what with the government's telecommunications inquiry laying out its cards. The idiots on the Business Roundtable will object of course, but having stuffed up the stock exchange, they shouldn't be allowed to prevent the unstuffing of telecommunications.

Speaking of stuffing up, who the hell has been advising John Tamihere? He might have apologised now for calling the people he thought were leaking Waiparera documents to the Act Party "thieves and drug addicts" under Parliamentary privilege, but it's probably too late. Tamihere now looks no better than Rodney Hide - well, actually, he looks a whole lot better, but you know what I mean.

The key here for Richard Prebble is that he can now safely step back and let it stew. It's brown-on-brown now, and the people with whom Tamihere is feuding will front up to the Maori Affairs select committee and dish whatever dirt they have to hand. It's still not clear whether that amounts to much. Hide's riveting question about the disappearance of a small boat in Parliament this week suggests the bottom of the barrel may already have been reached.

But the government hasn't let the Waipareira wobbles slow it down at all this week; hatching grand plans for the health system based around a bulk-funding model that it may have trouble explaining in the context of its cancellation of bulk-funding in education. The changes being wrought in health seem sound, but they are so sweeping that it seems inevitable that something will blow up in Annette King's face.

The unstoppable legislating machine that is Margaret Wilson also announced this that the government would be extending basic property rights to same-sex couples. Jenny Shipley turned up at the Hero Parade two years in a row promising this, but responded this week with a lot of wittering about "holy matrimony" and what "offence" it might give decent married types to have to share their rights with poofs and defactos. Don't come back to Hero, Jen. Matter of fact, don't came back to Auckland. Not west of Freeman's Bay anyway.

Wilson also intends to fill the gaping holes in the Matrimonial Property Act, but the three-year trigger for cohabitation to turn into a union recognisable to the law seems a bit enthusiastic to me. Some people spend three years just working out where they're going next. Five years seems far more prudent. The government is under no popular pressure to pull up on anything at the moment, but it might just be nice.

And speaking of nice, ladies bat their eyelids and gentlemen applaud, Carlos Spencer is back. He's only warming the bench this weekend, but he has to start again soon. But where? The lad Ai'i show signs of settling down at first-five, Innes is a rock at second - so will it be Carlos the centre? I don't mind, so long as the Blues keep winning and the bloody Brumbies don't take the title.

But why oh why can't rugby unions get someone with a clue to run their events? If the best thing about the staging of the last match at Eden Park was Salmonella Dub and Shihad ringing around the ground at half time, the worst thing was a tie between pretty much everything else, from the blasting load pop pap before and during the game - one song over and over again, mostly - to the siren at what the dimwits responsible figured was the end of it. There is no siren in rugby. The referee is the sole judge of time. Grrrr ... G'bye!

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