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HARD NEWS - Exposing the Soft White Underpants

HARD NEWS 22/10/99 - Exposing the Soft White Underpants

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... so anyway, there I was in Melbourne when Jeff Kennett got rolled. Did you know I was there at either end of Auckland's great Ranfurly Shield run, too?

Like Margaret Thatcher, the Premier of Victoria left with ill grace. Like Thatcher - and, for that matter, like Rob Muldoon or any other control freak - he has left a vacuum of talent and leadership in his own party.

His achievement in seven years in hauling the state of Victoria out of the toilet remains remarkable. He balanced the books and reduced the state's debt by $6 billion, largely by selling off the state's energy assets, its TAB and the state-owned ticketing agency - why on earth did they own a ticketing agency? - Bass.

Victoria, when he took over from a frankly terrible Labour administration, had a bloated public sector. He slashed it, many people thought, too far; closing 350 schools, firing 7000 teachers and fostering shortfalls in health services that never went away.

He bashed the unions, which would have made him popular with the political right in this country. But he also did things - building monumental public spaces, working closely with business and creating posts like Minister of Multimedia - that would have seen him tagged as a raving lefty in this country. In so doing, he gave his state a shape; the kind of shape we're still looking for and commissioning reports on. To paraphrase Fred Dagg, we don't know how ascetic we are.

But, as one of his opponents noted during one scandal or another, Kennett simply did not know the meaning of the words "conflict of interest". If it wasn't dodgy dealings between the state's Urban Land Authority, the ad agency he founded and which his wife ran, and several wealthy developers, it was his wife being gifted a BMW by some other business friend.

When the state auditor general looked like kicking up a fuss about the highly unusual tendering process for a newly-privatised ambulance service, he just nobbled the auditor-general. He had a government-appointed panel conclude that the post of auditor-general should be contracted out.

When journalists pointed out that this was unusual behaviour, he intimidated the journalists - physically, on occasion. In general, he behaved like such an arrogant jerk that the voters eventually decided that he'd done his job and they wanted to see the back of him.

It happened quickly and unexpectedly - a state election he was expected to win comfortably finished up as a cliffhanger, with three independents holding the balance of power. Then, while, everyone tried to work out what to do, the member for Frankston East up and died.

Everything froze for a month, until a by-election in the seat went thumpingly to Labour - and so did the independents. Kennett, having failed to see the six-foot tall writing on the wall, was eventually persuaded to resign, and the likeable young Labour leader Steve Bracks, who seemed unable to quite believe what was happening, prepared to take the helm.

We can only hope we get something that decisive in our own vote on November 27. Unless the polls tilt decisively one way or the other, Winston Peters will once again hold the balance of power. Just to show that he is not exactly targeting the youth vote, he announced his party's plans for compulsory military training this week. He currently is refusing to indicate which way he might lean - and if he does, denying he said anything of the sort the next day. Aarrggh ...

As it stands, a Labour-Alliance coalition is more likely to be able to either form a government either with or without New Zealand First than a National-Act one.

Even with Act picking up points on the back of its pitch for every disgruntled redneck in the country - from Treaty-haters to the gun lobby - the coalition of the right still doesn't look like achieving a majority.

And it cannot, Prebble has declared, include New Zealand First in its coalition. The only alternative possibility - a National-Act coalition supported issue-by-issue from outside by Peters - is remarkably unattractive.

The government's Apec gloss - which has persisted longer than anyone expected - may finally be beginning to tarnish. Since Bruiser Bradford necked The Most Annoying Student in the World, National ministers are avoiding universities. And now, Bendon has gone bust.

Well, not bust - it's still profitable. But the undie company's Te Aroha factory, opened with great fanfare by Jim Bolger and Elle Macpherson in 1994, is to be mothballed, along with those in Te Rapa and East Tamaki. Bendon is heading elsewhere for "better manufacturing and export opportunities" - for which, read dirt-cheap labour somewhere in Asia - and 400 mostly skilled workers in a small communities have no foreseeable future.

So, who you gonna blame? Bendon, for walking out on the people who built its business, or the government for failing to create an economy in which Bendon felt it had a future? A bit of both, I suppose.

Unlike car assembly, New Zealand apparel is an industry with a future. Or rather, it could be. The government's desire to strip away tariffs on clothing imports faster than our trading partners indicates that it regards the rag trade as just another sunset industry.

That, indeed, is pretty much what Treasurer Bill English said. Low-skilled, low-value industry was on the way out, he said - adding insult to injury for the skilled workers of Te Aroha - and our future was with the knowledge economy.

Thing is, fashion - with its elements of brand and creativity and culture - is a definitive knowledge industry. And good on Francis Hooper from World for standing up and saying so. His is one of a handful of fashion houses poised to make a real impact on the world stage.

And, he pointed out, if it does, it won't have a skilled manufacturing base. It'll be gone. And it'll make Karen Walker's star turn at the National Party conference - where she was rewarded for her efforts by being publicly leered at by one of the delegates - look just a bit sick. But I understand Karen Walker has decided she's big enough to go the Asian sweatshop route herself anyway. Figures.

We may be adding manufacturing jobs, but they're in ones and twos and they won't be in Te Aroha. Nobody wants to be held to ransom by Bendon, but I find the idea that there's nothing that can possibly be said or done to offer those people and that industry a future exasperating. I'll tell you one thing: Jeff Kennett wouldn't have let it happen.

It does all cast something of an ironic light on the tastily-clad middle-class white kids who populate National's new "no crap" Website. Yes, it is a National Party Website, although nothing on it tells you that - well, apart from the opening slogan "My Life, My Future, My Choice", which roughly translates as "Me, Me, Me".

It's very slick and it certainly kicks the butt of the rather earnest and dowdy Young Labour Website - Jesus! Do something about that, guys! - but it's too calculated by half. I'll believe it's all the work of some keen young National voters from all around the country when someone can tell us their names.

Intriguingly, it's hosted by the corporate Web developer Clearview Communications, just a couple of IP addresses away from the official New Zealand First Website. Fancy that.

Anyway, to go out on the fashion tip ... sighted on the way in to the Goldmine this week - a fairly hideous selection of official Te Papa shirts, go ing at a reasonable Ray Mills price. Some munter or other will buy them. It'll be Auckland cleaning up behind Wellington again .... G'bye!


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