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HARD NEWS Who Needs Lotto When You're Michael Fay?

(Scoop Advisory: Scoop is delighted today to welcome a new columnist to the site. Russell Brown, a freelance writer for IDG, The Listener and Unlimited Magazine should be well known to readers. His HARD NEWS column is broadcast on radio 95bFM in Auckland on Fridays and will from now be a regular feature of the Scoop Weekend. )

GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... it was a week which began with the stark fact of the All Blacks going right off the rails against the Wallabies and ended with a poll result so bad for National that it might just have finally set them on the downhill run to oblivion. And in between, it got weird.

So weird, in fact, that last week's news on the Winebox appeal pretty much disappeared. A certain constituency has apparently found enough in it to make them want to vote for Winston again, but most of us just don't care any more.

Most of us probably also missed an amazing piece of analysis by Brian Gaynor in the Business Herald last Saturday. The picture he drew, from information on the public record, had a lot more to say about what's been wrong in this country than any argument on Winebox points of law.

His column was about Michael Fay and David Richwhite and a series of transactions in which their merchant bank was involved between 1986 and 1993 - involving their companies European Pacific, Capital Markets and Fay, Richwhite and the Bank of New Zealand, Tranz Rail and Telecom.

In the course of five major transactions, Fay and Richwhite personally pocketed over half a billion dollars - at the same time as their minority shareholders lost $277 million. Someone of less moderate inclination than Gaynor might say that they basically raped their shareholders.

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And the worst of it is, the government helped them do it, handing them sweetheart deals like the Telecom share option arrangement in September 1993, which allowed Fay and Richwhite to pocket $274 million from Telecom share sales without having to put up a penny in advance. While they wallowed around in cash, their shareholders made precisely nothing.

I apparently offended one Fay, Richwhite employee so much last week that he signed off the Hard News mailing list. In which case, let me say that again: anybody who believes those two ratbags to be any kind of heroes, any sort of role models, is utterly deluded. Disgust seems too weak a word for how I feel about those people.

The Business Roundtable insists there is no need for regulation of our stock exchange. And then they wonder why New Zealanders keep throwing their money into property and don't buy stock the way Americans do. I think it's pretty obvious, don't you?

But real change in New Zealand will be hard-won for so long as the status quo benefits a small number of large interests.

We all tut-tutted about the crony capitalism that finally undermined Asian economies last year, but the fact is that, after nearly a decade of one party in power, we're in no position to scold anyone.

Such was demonstrated in almost comical fashion this week when first Maurice Williamson then Jenny Shipley criticised the annual salary of David Bale, the chief executive of the Lotteries Commission. Bale was pulling in $400,000 a year which, the PM declared was "excessive".

The impression was the Bale was to blame for negotiating himself a most excellent package - but isn't that what we're all supposed to do these days? Especially if we believe, as Bale did, that we're doing a manifestly excellent job? So, while he was in Norway for a conference, Bale quit - declaring that seeing as the PM lacked confidence in him, he'd better stop doing the job.

And then it got worse for the government. Because it turns out that the Lotteries Commission, which has been negotiating Bale's salary up every year is not only chaired by a former president of the National Party, Geoff Thompson - who was also off in Norway - but all five of its appointed members are current or former National Party officials. There really isn't anyone else to blame, frankly.

And just to cap it off, the other member is the Secretary of Internal Affairs Dr Roger Blakely, who you may recall from his bit-part in the Tourism Commission debacle. Does anybody seriously doubt that public governance in New Zealand needs holding upside down and shaking?

Poor old Maurice just couldn't keep himself out of the news this week. He blundered into the Ansett pilots' dispute with a frankly bizarre press release suggesting that immigration controls could be waived in order to allow foreign pilots to be rushed into the country to fly Ansett's planes. He later implied he was being sarcastic. Or possibly spastic.

It's hard to tell, but this may have been an attempt to rope Ansett into the government's rather desperate spin on Labour's still-unreleased industrial relations policy. Almost the entire National Cabinet has taken turns to warn the country that what appear to be rather moderate plans to amend the Employment Contracts Act in favour of workers will plunge us into a dark age of industrial discontent and end-to-end strike action.

Labour has abetted this silliness by being unhelpfully vague on what its policy actually is, and has wound up under pressure for probably the first time this year. The extent of that pressure was indicated last Thursday, when Michael Cullen got himself suspended from Parliament for a day for calling Max Bradford a liar and refusing to withdraw.

One thing you can't do in Parliament is accuse another honourable member of lying. But you can, with certain limits, otherwise lie your head off. Which is what Bradford did. He supplied Parliament with a newspaper quote on Labour's industrial relations policy by Helen Clark which in fact never existed - she never said it and the Dominion never printed it. It didn't seem to matter.

Oddly enough, all the panic being generated by National doesn't seem to matter much to most people either. I heard National's Justice spokesman Tony Ryall lay it on thick at a lunch for computer professionals this week and they just didn't bite.

These guys already pay their staff plenty and they're not particularly concerned with keeping down the unwashed hordes. They were after some policy and some leadership on the road to electronic commerce and they didn't get it.

Ryall left the gathering plainly puzzled, Act's dimwitted Patricia Schnauer was completely humilated - and Labour's honest toiler Paul Swain, who quoted from a copy of Labour's forthcoming e-commerce strategy paper, Labour Online, was the man everyone wanted to talk to afterwards.

National's failure to face the future was highlighted even more starkly this week with the so-called Knowledge Economy Report. This report, from Maurice Williamson's Information Technology Advisory Group, makes truly depressing reading. Our hands-off approach to knowledge industries has basically seen us slip off the bottom of the scale.

In one telling statistic, it found that our tax treatment of resarch and development - the creation of ideas - is such that every dollar spent by a New Zealand company on R&D costs that company $1.13. In Australian and the US, the figure is 89 cents. We operate the most discouraging regime in the entire OECD.

The thing is, it could have been worse. In the course of a behind-the-scenes bloodbath taking in Cabinet, the various authors of the paper, Ministry of Commerce officials and Business Roundtable chairman Ralph Norris, who provided the report's introduction, at least half of the original paper was scrapped.

What I can't understand is why the high priests of hands-off think it's a great idea to discuss e-commerce with other governments at Apec, but that our government shouldn't have a vision for our own little economy.

Ah, yes ... Apec is almost upon us. Any expected benefits for the government are unlikely to materialise, what with the whole event overshadowed by the crisis in East Timor and the visiting heads of state all too aware that the current government is a lame duck.

And yet, I grow tired already of Apec whingers. If I hear or see Jane Kelsey again, I swear I'm gonna hurl. The simple fact is, whatever government was in place, it would be hosting Apec. It's our turn. It's part of being a participating nation. Were we supposed to say sorry, it's too inconvenient?

I also don't buy into the idea the Apec is the root of all evil. We all thought it was tremendous that Mike Moore's off to head the World Trade Organisation, but the only real difference between what the WTO does and what Apec does is that the WTO usually does it a long way away and not in Aotea Square.

Barbara's Sumner's Apec story in the new Metro is interesting - it focuses on what happened in Vancouver two years ago, when the Canadian cops went troppo and started beating protestors and showering them with pepper spray and tear gas. It's an instructive tale but I'm inclined to give the New Zealand police the benefit of the doubt until such time as they actually do start laying into lawful protestors. I might be wrong, but I don't think they will.

The only thing anybody remembers about the Vancouver conference is the policing. I don't think either the government or the police want that for our turn at bat.

I just hope the protest fraternity takes a similar view too. The Metro story provided a somewhat excited list of things Apec protestors should take along - including a facecloth to wet and place across the face in case of police gas attacks. I'd be inclined to advise that protestors try and turn up with some idea of what they're actually protesting about, to whom, and what they hope to achieve.

In that sense, I'm encouraged by the constructive atmosphere of the 'Reinventing Apec' seminar this week, which features an extremely impressive lineup of speakers and seeks to treat Apec as a useful institution that needs a better vision.

But I fear not everyone will be so wise. Indeed, the rather bizarre state of New Zealand protest was symbolised by yesterday's march down Queen Streen, where Linday Perigo and his chums in the pro-cigarette lobby marched shoulder to shoulder with Normal, a few students and some people with Dump Metrowater banners, protesting against ... well, everything, really.

This is the same sort of mindset that makes people keep on voting for Winston Peters - who, incidentally, said this week that everyone knew his party was more likely to support Labour in a coalition that National - and then denied saying anything of the sort the next day. What a wanker.

Anyway, look out for CIA operatives this week - they'll be the ones walking into lamp posts and getting lost in the Domain. Honestly, could there have been a more pathetic gaffe this week than the faxing of US Apec security documents to a South Auckland chicken farmer? Even when the poor man got in touch to say that they had the wrong fax number, the mighty brains in US intelligence - they're the people who organised the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade - kept on sending them.

It is this apparent lack of basic competence which argues most strong against Bob Harvey's theory that Norman Kirk was poisoned by the CIA. Poor old Bob copped a load for that this week, which is rather ridiculous given that he's been saying the same thing for years. I don't know if anyone was convinced by the spectacle of Jenny Shipley purporting to go into battle for the memory of Big Norm but I certainly wasn't.

In fact, very few people seem convinced by Jenny Shipley at all these days. The government's 28% rating in the NBR Consultus poll - and 26% in Auckjland - is rock bottom. These people, who achieved price stability three years in and haven't known what to do with themselves since, have been there far, far too long. They must go - and the way I feel now, November ain't soon enough ... G'bye!


HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 8.45am on Fridays and replayed around 4.30pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. A digest appears monthly in Re:Mix magazine. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need Real Audio 3.0 to be able to listen, plus a 28.8k modem. Currently New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of GMT.

HARD NEWS ON THE INTERNET appears at http://nz.com , which is the home of the Hard News mailing list, at the PLUG, at http://PLUG.co.nz/columns/hardnews/ at SCOOP http://www.scoop.co.nz/ and is posted to local newsgroups.

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