What you already know won't hurt "us"

by Jane Clifton / 24 August, 2012
This has been a week in which politicians seemed determined to resist telling us anything we didn’t already know, says Jane Clifton.
Politics - Finance minister Bill English speaks at Trans Tasman Business Circle


What you don’t know is popularly reckoned not to be injurious. But this week, it’s been more like, what you already know won’t hurt us: “us” being the Government, mostly. This has been a week in which politicians seemed determined to resist telling us anything we didn’t already know.

The most obvious and persistent culprit was Business Development Minister Steven Joyce, recycling all those “action plans” and export strategy goals into new glossy publications, and re-announcing funding decisions in research and science,  in the hope we might get confused into thinking new initiatives were actually underway, and new money had been injected.  They weren’t and it hadn’t.  Joyce’s maxim appears to be that good news is worth repeating.  Over and over again.

But rather more predictably, the Privacy Commissioner’s inquiry into privacy issues at ACC found – you’ll never guess in a million years – that the corporation had been insufficiently careful with clients’ privacy.  Also that there was a slack, dysfunctional culture at the corporation – again, hardly a revelation to anyone who hasn’t been hiding out in a cave for the past year.   But it’s an ill wind....  The announcement day was like a re-run of the inaugural car-crushing that was ACC Minister Judith Collins’s legacy to her previous portfolios.  She mounted the crushed carcass of ACC in S and M boots and vowed to maintain mastery over the unworthy creature.  There was even a “fireside chat” promotional message on YouTube, aimed at pasting the minister’s take-no-prisoners brand all over the exercise.  Collins is a minister proactive about not being part of the problem, but part of the solution – with extreme prejudice if necessary.  Readers will doubtless be unable to forget that Crusher’s modus operandi has a lot in common with the old “burning the village to save it” ethos.  The well-respected chief executive, the chairman and two high-powered, financially qualified directors have bitten the dust since the ACC leaks fiasco began, leaving the big fund’s organisational heft severely depleted for the foreseeable future.  With the minister lately nudging, at least verbally, at the boundaries of executive interference, this rather unhappy shop will continue to be a hotbed of news.  "They have to act in the way that I expect them to act,” Collins said recently of ACC staff, adding that breaches should cost staff their jobs.

Another un-surprise from Crusher, wearing her Justice Minister helmet: the Government wouldn’t be supporting mandatory restrictions on alco-pops, but would be giving the booze barons the “opportunity” to self-regulate.  It was an open secret that the Government didn’t have its heart and soul in curbs on the availability of alcohol.  It’s one of the defining divides between National and Labour that the latter likes to make the many share the burden of discouraging the few who who behave badly, while the former prefers to leave the well-behaved unmolested, even if it makes targeting the problematic element more difficult.

As with obesity, National is ideologically in favour of carrot rather than stick (even though there are obviously more calories in the former than the latter.)  So the idea with alcohol reform is that the supply side of the equation will be encouraged to behave more responsibly, by the producers and retailers being left with their notional freedom, but with the “stick” factor of nasty legislative restrictions later if...well, if our youth drinking problem doesn’t improve.  Whenever that might be judged not to have happened.

A further foregone conclusion, giving rise to a distinct lack of gasping all round: KiwiRail is suffering from a lot of deferred maintenance. And this makes train travel less rather than more safe.  This was disclosed, in lieu of a Radio New Zealand scoop which was kiboshed by a court injunction, by the Labour Party, which read out to Parliament the key elements of a rather worrying internal risk assessment report about the rail network’s decrepitude.  To noone’s great surprise, the rundown of the chronically unprofitable railway has created a slew of accident precursors, which will require serious application of both staff and money – neither of which seem guaranteed to be applied in reassuring quantities, according to Opposition calculations.

Answering questions on behalf of the SOE minister, Gerry Brownlee seemed to think that what maintenance there had been, and would be, was reassuring – on the grounds that there had already been fewer derailments.  The incidence of derailments, he said, was a gauge of how safe a rail network was, and KiwiRail’s trains were derailed less often than they used to be. Perhaps this writer has seen one too many of NZ First MP Brendan Horan’s snapshots of rotten sleepers brandished in Parliament, but the notion of fewer derailments struck her as not entirely comforting.  There is a scale of severity, obviously, but trains coming wholly or partially off their tracks during a journey is a bit of a deal-breaker for most of us lay people in the general notion of successful rail travel.

Having failed to be surprised by any of the above, political junkies have been further underwhelmed by the escalating unreadiness of the state assets being prepared for partial float under National’s mixed-ownership model. Solid Energy is now revealed to be facing a considerable capital shortfall and other challenges –  and as such is now tactfully styled “the last cab off the rank” by the Government – and Cab No. 1, Mighty River, still faces imponderables stemming from the Maori water rights tussle.  Not to mention iffy market conditions and political and public opinion opprobrium.  And the possibility that not selling the thing might be better for the country’s balance sheet than selling it, at least in the short term.  Finance Minister Bill English has continued to exude an insouciant confidence that there’s all the time in the world for the orderly sharing of the energy companies’ bounty.  The daily question and answer sessions between him and an increasingly scandalised Russel Norman is becoming a veritable comedy of manners, with Norman approaching Lady Bracknell at her most exercised.

Finally, leave it to John Banks to tell us something we didn’t know; and didn’t know we needed to know: that he believes in creationism.  Is it mean to speculate that the sudden disappearance of one’s political party leaves one with an existential void?  Notwithstanding that Banks is understood to be seriously considering voting in favour of the Marriage Equity Bill – he says these days he is no longer so judgemental – Banks revealed in an interview that he believes in the Biblical account of how the world began.  Critics set land-speed records extrapolating this into a Government plot to set up fundamentalist religious Charter Schools, but this remains uncorroborated.
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