Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

16th April 1999

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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and we'll open this week with a lesson for the young folk: no matter how ridiculous they look, don't make fun of the Goths.

'Death in Denver', as the Herald called it in devoting its entire front page to the Columbine High massacre, occasioned some weird journalistic bloat. TV3 even blew out its news into a "special extended bulletin", thus giving it something that might rate in that difficult 7pm slot.

I'm sorry, am I missing something here? I know the incident was pretty shocking, but it's the fifth American school shooting in 18 months - and wasn't the slaughter of quite a few more people quite a bit closer to home in Easter Timor really more important?

Anyway, I'm afraid I'm down on sympathy for states where there is no age limit on the purchase of firearms, no waiting period and no requirement to provide even the most cursory registration details. There will always be weird adolescents - the difference is whether or not you sell them assault weapons to play with.

We might also be more concerned about pages 3, 5, 6 of yesterday's Herald, where we find the headlines: 'Bradford imposes price controls', 'Unlawful payments may be in tight grip', 'IRD admits to mistakes', 'Proof of (benefit) rip-offs hard to get', 'We apologise, Winz chief tells students' - and the headline that is a crime against nature, 'Treasury points computer finger at top policeman'.

It's all politicians trying to patch up gaffes and belated apologies from public officials. There's an almost systemic failure of governance going on here, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the people responsible - the government - just have no talent for the job.

Earlier in the week there was John Luxton's party piece in Parliament, when, standing in for Max Bradford, he claimed that "If we go back to the beginning of the power reforms, it was not promised that householders would necessarily get cheaper power." But of course, Luxton himself had promised just that, on the record, and so had Bradford and so had Bill Birch.

Having ordered Orion, a power company owned by the people of Christchurch to sell half its business to a Canadian multinational, Bradford is now gearing up to set Orion's prices for it, in order to protect the multinational's margins. Even the Employers' Federation is losing patience with this one.

There seems to be patience yet in the Cabinet bag for the Fire Service Commission chief Roger Estall, even though after two years in the job, he has no strategy in place, burgeoning legal bills and further disputes with his workforce inevitable. So bereft of good news is Estall that he's been reduced to displaying bar graphs of smoke alarm sales to justify his position.

It got worse this week, much worse. A select committee heard from the audit office that under Estall's restructured management regime, the commission's rating on financial controls has dropped from a B to an E.

An E is taken to mean that the system isn't working at all and needs to be ripped out and replaced. Nice work, Roger.

At the same select committee meeting, Estall refused to tell elected representatives of the people what his strategy now was, or discuss his budget for the next financial year, which starts in June.

When do you reckon someone in the government will finally decide he's not really working out?

Further audit strife arrived this week in the shape of the auditor-general's report into events at the Tourism Board. The sharp end of the report finds that $340,000 in payments to the departing board members Bryan Mogridge and Michael Wall were illegal, should never have been made and should be recovered. It opines that Tourism Minister Murray McCully was "imprudent" in failing to seek independent legal advice on the payouts.

But that's not the half of it. If you have any interest, get hold of a copy of the report on the Internet - has it. Its fascinating story begins with McCully getting the job of Minister of Tourism after the 1996 election.

One of his first tasks was to appoint some new board members. He appointed two businesspeople and friends of the National Party - Mogridge as chairman and Wall as deputy chairman. Both were under the impression they were there for two three-year-terms.

In February 1998, something odd happened. A little tourism advisory unit was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Internal Affairs in order that it might be combined with another unit. Together, they became the Office of Tourism and Sport.

Can anybody else see a compelling synergy between tourism and sport - beyond the fact that McCully was minister of both and the impression that he wanted to build his own little empire at the taxpayer's expense?

Incredibly, it didn't stop there. McCully set up another body, known as the Tourism and Sport Ministerial Advisory Board. Its role, apparently, was to advise and support the director of the Office of Tourism and Sport, which in turn would advise the Minister himself.

You might well wonder what the hell was going on here - especially given that the auditor general could find no evidence that Cabinet even knew about the TSMAB, let alone approved it. It was entirely McCully's idea, and the way it is constituted - with the minister himself appointing all members - has no precedent in the New Zealand public service.

While all this was going on, a strategic review of the Tourism Board's business was completed. Among other things, it called for internal restructuring of the Tourism Board's operations. It was over this that relations began to break down.

McCully told the auditor-general what he told the public - that he was unhappy with the board's progress and that he was under pressure from prominent figures in the industry to make changes. To this day, unfortunately, not one of those people in the industry has emerged to confirm that this was the case.

McCully turned on the board, especially those members he had appointed. A further, independent review of operations was recommended in the board's purchase agreement. It was carried out by Price Waterhouse. Or, rather, most people thought it was.

But, to widespread surprise, McCully's man at the Office of Tourism and Sport, Scott Morrison, declared that it was his report, even though he had no authority at all to do so.

It turned out that he had told the Price Waterhouse people the same thing. Even McCully was surprised by this. Morrison also took it upon himself to broaden the review's terms of reference from a simple study of operational costs to a broad-ranging study of the whole business. Again, he had no authority to do so.

Having had their review hi-jacked - our money again, folks - the board members were, at Morrison's order, not even allowed an opportunity to comment on it. If it was a turf war, then only one side was in it.

Morrison wrote to McCully saying the report had uncovered extremely serious shortcomings, so much so that Mogridge, the board chairman, should be dismissed immediately. The auditor-general was surprised by this advice, especially given that the board had never even seen a draft of the report - and that its authors at Price Waterhouse made plain their view that their report did not support or justify Morrison's advice to theminister.

"For their part," says the auditor general, "The Board members felt justifiably aggrieved that their performance had been criticised without foundation or an opportunity to comment."

This all dragged on until December, when, under McCully's threat to fire the entire board, the directors decided on the sacrifice of Mogridge and Wall. They settled on tax-free payments of $200,000 to the chairman and $140,000 to Wall, and gained the minister's approval of same. Or, rather, they thought they did.

McCully now claims that "in the pressure of the moment" - I mean, whose ultimatum was this anyway? - he took the board's advice on the legality of the payments at face value and let them go. Which brings us back to the "imprudence" for which the minister will not resign.

It should also be noted that the changes to the board forced by McCully swiftly led to the departure of the Tourism Board's chief executive, Paul Winter, who, because he had a contract, quite legally took more than half a million dollars in settlement with him. Got expensive, didn't it?

So, have things improved? Hardly. McCully's new chairman, Peter Allport, issued a statement this week declaring that pressure from McCully and his advisers "virtually paralysed the board and prevented the directors from working in the best interests of tourism at a critical time for New Zealand."

We haven't even mentioned the debacle of the Saatchi and Saatchi campaign that never was, the Prime Minister's dalliances with her close friend Kevin Roberts, or McCully's self-ordained foreign junkets. It's awful, frankly. Even if the Tourism Board did need root and branch reform, it didn't get it and was never likely to from McCully and his public-payroll power-junkie offsiders.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with being a control freak. Through history, control freaks have got things done. But a control freak who lacks both talent and judgement? The worst of all worlds. Begone, you shitty little clown, and take your stupid moustache with you - G'bye!


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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