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Anything Could Happen | Sep 16, 2005 10:06

New Zealand has been a good place these past six years. There are the hard numbers: the lowest unemployment in the OECD and, for part of that time, the highest economic growth. The New Zealand stock market has boomed while others have gone south. The rich got richer - and so, remarkably, did the poor. While unacceptable need remains, a long trend in poverty rates has been reversed. That is a remarkable achievement in itself. We have even managed to take a step that has eluded most OECD countries and begun to save for the baby-boomer retirement bulge.

This is not the performance of a becalmed socialist state. Indeed, three days ago, the New York Times ran a story on the results of this year's World Bank "doing business" survey. It was headed: New Zealand Named Best Nation for Business. That is, "the most business-friendly nation in the world". A couple of days before that, New Zealand was placed third equal on the Cato Institute's Economic Freedom of the World report. Ahead of us, only the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore.

In general, this is a good thing. Markets are usually the best way of allocating resources. But they don't buy you social cohesion and a sense of identity. And we've had that: a kind of national confidence, a good sense of ourselves, that I don't recall being apparent at many, if any, other times in my life.

Where we remain off the pace is in wages and salaries. The proportion of our GDP composed of wages and salaries remains lower than that in comparable countries (most of them with a good deal less "economic freedom" than us). If I agree with Winston Peters on anything, it's that our problem is not high taxes, it's low wages. And not unrelated to that is a developing sense in sections of the public that they are not being well-served and have not had their just deserts. Hence, our interesting election.

So here's where I'm at …

Policy

Labour bollocksed up its tax policy - Cullen should have strengthened Working for Families at the low and middle end and made a meaningful adjustment to income thresholds for everyone else. (This is not to say that most families won't be at least as well off, if not better, under the expanded Working for families, just that it has proven so difficult to sell that fact that Labour has apparently just given up.) It also bollocksed up the presentation of its student loans sweetie, to potentially damaging effect.

National bollocksed up nearly everything else.

Honestly, anyone who thinks National's policy in good order simply hasn't been reading National's policy. An alarming amount of it is vague (I've lost count of how many "reviews" have been promised), some of it is derisory (that pathetic 82-word Communications policy) and some of it simply doesn't make sense in the face of evidence (work for the dole, abolishing parole, energy).

Georgina Te Heuheu, who is responsible for Arts & Culture and Broadcasting, has no apparent affinity for either. I assume she'd be rolled pretty easily come Budget time, and that worries me. I am, as I have noted before, a cultural nationalist, and I think a good part of our sense of ourselves springs from diverse cultural expression. Although I had my doubts about it at the time, I think the voluntary music targets scheme agreed with the commercial radio industry has been an extraordinarily successful accord. One in five songs on commercial radio are ours. Ten years ago, the figure was one in 50. In 1999, the National Library of New Zealand was selling books to cover costs. Now, it is entrusted with guidance of the National Content Strategy, a visionary project aimed at creating a common repository of information. I find it immensely heartening that the words "Creative Commons" currently appear in New Zealand government policy.

The way that a number of National's policies have needed a touch-up before the paint was even dry on them is bizarre. John Key's improbable (as in, I don't believe it for a minute) promise that National would come up with some special new benefit - costing hundreds of millions of dollars! - to make sure that existing state house tenants were no worse off under market rents is probably the most notable example.

If there is one policy among them all that truly deserves to be called evil, it's that of market rents for state houses. There is a mountain of evidence to say that that policy created poverty and great public health problems in the 1990s, and reasonable evidence that it caused rental inflation across the market, hurting the private renters National claims to be helping. Brash told Linda Clark that he simply hadn't read the evidence. It's not clear whether anybody did. If Centrebet starts offering odds on the poverty rate rising if National gets in, get yourself a piece of that. It's a racing certainty.

The wider issue with National's policy promises is that, as I've explained in some detail over the past couple of weeks, I seriously don't believe they have all been funded in its budgeting. I'm more relaxed about the proposal to raise debt for infrastructure spending - that's quite conventional (it is Cullen's hard-nosed attitude to public debt that has been unconventional, although, with an eye on future demographic pressures, I've been comfortable enough with it). But National's tax and spending promises do not hold water and the lack of transparency on them makes me uneasy.

I've been pondering the possibility that National simply wouldn't implement its ropier, or less practical, policies. We've perhaps seen something of the kind with the covert rollout of work for the dole, under the guise of environment policy. (A National spokesman later said that all that that had been budgeted for with respect to work for the dole was two pilot schemes.) This wouldn't impress me. You elect governments on the basis of what they say they will do, not what they decide they can get away with.

Leadership

I don't rate Don Brash, primarily because I really don't think he's his own man. I find his lack of knowledge of his own party's policies bewildering (can you imagine Helen Clark not knowing even the basics of major policy areas like Housing, on the day they're released?), and it seems unlikely that his idiot-savant behaviour would end with his election. Even The Press, which has been fanatically pro-National in this campaign called him "ignorant" and "bumbling" and described the "unpleasant undertones" of his views on race relations in its editorial backing National.

Frogblog today has a look at the vastly better public assessment of Clark's character over that of Brash in two polls in the last 24 hours. If National wins, Brash will suffer the dubious distinction of becoming Prime Minister without being the preferred Prime Minister in any recent poll. (By way of comparison, even Jenny Shipley's APEC-factor boost in the polls had been completely erased by the time we went to the 1999 election.) That would not be a very promising basis on which to start.

Helen Clark? She has her obvious flaws, most notably that the first person she convinces when she's bullshitting is herself (Brash, on the other hand, frequently gives the impression of not having convinced himself). She showed a strange lack of political nous in her handling of the motorcade business, and it is clear that a chunk of the voting population loathes her with a passion. Sometimes she seems too consumed with management to stand up and express a vision.

But she is, demonstrably, a genuine leader. If the shit was to hit the fan, she's the one any sensible person would want at the helm.

Coalition

The Greens absolutely deserve a shot at government. They have been organised and consistent and on one or two key issues, they are ahead of the pack on policy. National's high-stakes strategy of grabbing all the vote by killing off minor parties may or may not bear fruit. But even if Winston makes it back, his offer of support on confidence and supply does not bode well for manageable government, especially for National, which has no other options.

The Mainstream and the Maoris

I'm not mainstream. Don Brash said so in the TV3 leaders' debate last night. Indeed, according to Dr Brash, no one who subscribes to Labour's ideas, or is Maori, is a mainstream New Zealander. This isn't a vision, it's an insult. Indeed, the problem with National's appeal to the "mainstream" is that it is simply a campaign pitch aimed at unearthing residual resentment.

I'm familiar with the resentment: it came up frequently in research for Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves. For much of last century, New Zealanders were smug, suspicious of difference and the perceived privilege of others. We denied ourselves economic dynamism through denying cultural dynamism. At the same time, of course, we were a practical and caring people.

Chris Trotter wrote a great column this week on the "Janus-faced" nature of the national character, called Whaddarya? The title is a reference to Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers'. ("Is Pearson's twisted version of our national character the aspect of ourselves that we should never wake?" writes Trotter. "All those 'fretful sleepers' twitching and groaning in their suburban fastnesses, dreaming of the day when every hurt and slight, real or imagined, can be paid back with interest.") I've been thinking of 'Fretful Sleepers' too.

One of the more depressing moments of this campaign was the deliberate demonisation of the poor old man in in Taranaki who had applied for one of the handful of publicly-funded sex-change operations conducted each year. Applied, that is, not been granted. He had every right to do so, and he had every right not to be roped into a callous political appeal to resentment and bigotry. The pursuit of a moral backlash has been stage-managed, even unto Brash voting against his own liberal philosophy on the Civil Union Bill.

But if there is one element of National's platform that really makes me fear for the future, it is its stance on "race". National promises to abolish Te Puni Kokiri, Te Mangai Paho, the Maori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the Office of Treaty Settlements; to wipe out the Maori seats; to remove references to the Treaty from legislation; to cut off any acknowledgement of Maori interest in the seabed and foreshore. To, in sum, dispose of 20 years' of solution-finding with nothing to put in its place.

It never ventures on the extent to which this might cause damaging social unrest, but does anybody think Maori are going to just lie down while their constitutional distinctiveness is erased? While they are compulsorily assimilated? I'm not willing to see that happen. I have to live here too.

The terrifying ease with which this platform can be advanced on the hoof has been demonstrated on the campaign trail. Gerry Brownlee, in a live interview, venturing that perhaps the "race based" Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs could be folded into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Brash, under questioning from Alastair Thompson, saying that "of course" the Treaty curriculum in schools would be changed to bring it into line with his government's policy. Whether, presumably, the teachers, the historians and the parents liked it or not.

If Labour loses the election, it will be on tax policy. If National loses, it will be because a grouo of otherwise sympathetic voters decided that they could not stomach its appeal to resentment and bigotry. Were National presenting itself as a modern, pluralist party with essentially the same economic vision, I would be far more relaxed about a change of government. Perhaps we'd find that it wasn't so bad after all. But as things stand, I'm pretty sure that this year's model - with the grubby little fixers in the engine room - would be bad for the country I live in.

At any rate, we'll have to wait and see, because the polls are telling us nothing on which we can rely. The remarkable thing is that, in the words of The Clean, 'Anything Could Happen'. And (although it is about something else altogether) the chorus of that song is as a good a way to conclude as any:

Anything could happen
And it could be right now
The choice is yours
So make it worthwhile …

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National forcibly marries lesbians! | Sep 15, 2005 09:15

It is not only godless co-habiters like myself and my ladyfriend who have been "married" in the course of National's nationwide letter-drop. I can exclusively reveal that at least four lesbian couples have found themselves united under one surname, and one chap has found himself hitched to his flatmate. And in an unmistakable sign of the creeping feminist takeover, one Public Address reader has found himself addressed under his wife's maiden name. Horrors! And not a little ironic ...

On more serious matters: Ouch. As No Right Turn points out today, it was quite conventional for Labour to decline to release Treasury's initial advice on student loan costs until told to by the Ombudsman. It just wasn't very wise. Labour could have dealt with the argument over the numbers, which rest on conflicting assumptions about uptake, weeks ago. Everyone knew roughly what they were anyway.

And as Keith points out, the assumptions behind Labour's original claims for its interest-free loans scheme could hardly have been more optimistic. You're cruising for a bruising when you present policy that way.

Of course, you might still think that even the worst-case scenario is money well spent: and that after 14 years of compound GDP growth, a $984 million annual cost in 2019 won't look as daunting as it does now. After all, most of this isn't a new cost to the economy, but a redistribution of the burden. And by any estimate, the cost of the loans policy is substantially less than the income National is forgoing in tax cuts. But you'd still think that case should have been made to you before now.

On the other hand, John Key has an advantage that Michael Cullen doesn't: his costings aren't discoverable under the official information process, and he doesn't have to - and won't - release them. Yet there's reason to believe that some extremely fond assumptions have been made about the cost of key policies such as law and order, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. You just have to believe John and Tony when they assure you they've got it covered. (As Gareth Morgan pointed out, the private costing done by Infometrics did no more than confirm that National could use a calculator.)

FightingTalk's Hamish McKenzie has a highly amusing roundup of the blogosphere as if we were the candidates. As the "old campaigner" I got the most seats. I should note that after a week or two of escalating snippiness, I think the left and right bloggers are becoming a bit more collegial again. Except for Sir Humphreys, who are all nasty, all the time.

Sunday Star Times editor Cate Brett has been in touch to say that the paper's use of a Friday night Fairfax snap poll while political editor Helen Bain's column referred to a full poll that wasn't published was "cock-up. Not conspiracy … For mechanical production reasons the Political editor's column was processed before the second poll was taken and so carried a reference to the earlier poll. It should have been updated." Orders didn't come from "on high". Fair enough, I guess. But it would have been better if the paper had simply said what had happened in the first place.

Meanwhile hat-tip to Tim Selwyn for spotting Bren's report on a poll hardly anyone has noticed, by the Otago Daily Times. It has National ahead of Labour, but, with New Zealand First failing to make the threshold, a photo finish on who can assemble a majority.

PS: Do read David Haywood's assessment of the various parties' Energy policies. It's informed and informative, and the kind of thing that I wish the mainstream media had done right across the policy spectrum.

PPS: This just in from Stephen Judd: Bush asks Condi for a bathroom break. Seriously.

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Hitching Sinners | Sep 14, 2005 09:55

I appear to have been married by Don Brash! A letter from Dr Brash arrived this week addressed to "Russell and Fiona Brown". As far as I know there is no database in which we are listed by anything other than the surnames we have used all our lives, so it's a bit of a mystery. Perhaps marriage for the likes of us sinners will be made compulsory as part of our lurch back to the 1950s.

UPDATE: It's a plague! I have already had a number of emails from readers who have been unwittingly married by the National Party, or had their wives' maiden names changed to their own. Someone called Dave reports that he has even been married to his flatmate! Does anybody have any idea what's going on here?

Certainly, some of the sweaty little Tory boys who heckled Helen Clark at Canterbury University seemed determinedly unreconstructed. Although given all National's whingeing about personal attacks, the signs they waved around - 'Y R U So Ugly?", "Nice teeth" and "Speed kills and so do your looks Helen" - rather had the effect of grotesque hypocrisy. Apparently, however, it's what Jesus would have done.

Don Brash had his troubles on the campaign trail yesterday too - although the Wananga staff made their protest with a style and warmth that eluded the right-wing students. I was trying to think of a more polite word for Brash's actions yesterday, but I couldn't go past "gutless".

Brash's handlers had planned to have him reading his lines outside the wananga - quite cynical in itself - but to his surprise, he was invited in for a powhiri and a feed. Inside the wananga, he applauded the efforts of staff and told them and students that the wananga faced a long and successful future under National, which would help it continue to deliver high-quality courses. Then he went outside and read a prepared statement dumping on them. He woodenly enunciated all the buzzwords someone else had written for him - "racial separatism", "political correctness", etc - and described the wananga as an "embarrassment".

There is a relevant Maori proverb here (alright, it's the only one I can quote): "Kanohi ki te kanohi." It literally means "face to face" and it implies that if there is business to be settled, people should meet face to face, look each other in the eye. Which is precisely what Brash lacked the gumption to do. I thought it was shabby.

Some follow-ups: I can confirm that the Sunday Star Times quashed a completed Fairfax poll last week that had National two points ahead of Labour but struggling to form a government and instead published a less robust one-night snap poll that had National seven points ahead. Also, that key editorial staff weren't told about it until after the fact.

Or maybe it's not just the Star Times: after all, its Fairfax stablemate, the Sunday News, carried the same, dodgy poll. Did the order come from on high? And exactly what the hell is going on?

Also: Mr Jonathan Pontell, the mysterious "Generation Jones" political consultant, who refused to tell Linda Clark or Campbell Live which party he was working for. After exhaustive enquiry, my learned conclusion is that he wasn't actually working for any party, just touting for business. This is not to say that Mr Pontell is just a fraud (his website is packed with details of his many media appearances), just that he is working for himself and has a tendency to claim he's working for people who say he damn well isn't. The Guardian ran a story in May noting a similar situation with respect to the Conservative Party.

But get this: according to an impeccable source, Pontell's ponytail is a wig.

Anyway, Keith has his final word today (I guess mine will be tomorrow) and Dr Jon Johansson makes a thoughtful guest contribution. If you're interested, my Wire show on 95bFM today will feature Gordon Dryden at 12.30 comparing the current campaign with those he's covered in the past (and we're talking since 1949!) and Paul Casserly at 1pm talking about The Unauthorised History of New Zealand. About 1.30, Jeremy Hall will have his interview with one of the creators of EPIC 2014. The live stream is here.

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