Hard News by Russell Brown

59

A fairly weird encounter

Would you vote for an Auckland mayoral candidate who didn't know who Doug Howlett was and had never heard of Bro Town? Is there some minimal level of engagement with popular culture that constitutes a qualification for office?

Radio New Zealand's Pacific issues correspondent Richard Pamatatau interviewed the Auckland mayoral candidates and gave them a multi-choice test on Pacific culture and politics.

None of them did wildly well -- Alex Swney confessed he was shocked at what he didn't know -- and Banks, after stumbling on Howlett (what island ethnicity does he identify with?) and Bro Town (in what suburb is it set?) actually refused to complete the test. It sounds like a fairly weird encounter.

Meanwhile, it was slightly ironic that Colin Espiner could greet National's foreign policy "discussion paper" on Tuesday with the words "It must have been a relief for the party to deliver a chunk of information without making a major gaffe," only to see John Key making a major gaffe hours later.

Of course you can argue that the Iraq war is over if you define war only as the one-sided fortnight preceding the occupation of Baghdad in 2003, rather than the longer, messier bit since, in which perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have died and four million fled their homes. 2007 will be the worst year yet for US casualties in Iraq and they are, frankly, running out of army. If a hypothetical Prime Minister Key were to call up the White House and ask if they had any bloody, intractable wars they wanted a hand with, I'm sure they'd be pleased to hear from him.

I think Espiner's also right to say that National's plan to allow private developers to build and run schools "really does seem to be a solution in need of a problem". It's not intrinsically bad, but as the New Zealand Treasury report on public-private partnerships pointed out with admirable clarity, the real, practical advantages over conventional procurement don't always stack up the way their cheerleaders say. In particular:

• There are other ways of obtaining private sector finance without having to enter into a PPP;

• most of the advantages of private sector construction and management can also be obtained from conventional procurement methods (under which the project is financed by the government, and construction and operation are contracted out separately);

• the advantages of PPPs must be weighed against the contractual complexities and rigidities they entail. These are avoided by the periodic competitive re-tendering that is possible under conventional procurement.


So whatever you might gain in access to private finance, you stand to lose in contestibility. Perhaps, in the case of very large projects whose long-term maintenance requires skills outside the competence of government, a PPP is a good option. But we're talking about building and running a school, not Vector bloody Arena.

There are

contrary arguments

, but I fear that Key isn't your man to make them; I can't ever recall thinking he was passionately all over a policy sector the way that various senior Labour MPs were in Opposition. And I think his utter flub over a foreign policy paper that actually had something to recommend it -- broad political consensus over foreign policy is indeed a good thing -- further demonstrated a weakness that will not have been lost on his opponents. Even this far in, we still don't know a lot about what Mr Key really thinks.

Okay: weekend mode now. I'm actually feeling pretty good, having finally delivered a discussion paper on the theme of public broadcasting in the digital age to NZ On Air: all 17,000 words of it. I daresay it'll be available soon, along with many more thousands of words gathered in the survey on the same topic that hundreds of you dear readers participated in a couple of months ago.

I also helped with the launch of the new Triangle Stratos channel this week, as MC. The turnout was very interesting: three Cabinet ministers, senior execs from both the major freeot-air broadcasters, and several lovely people from out of town community broadcasters. I also had a chat with Surya Patel, the sales and marketing director at Radio Tarana, the Indian radio station currently pulling a 5% share in the Auckland radio market -- which anyone who knows that market will recognise

as remarkable. They're presently just trying to keep things stable and bed in their success.

By the time I introduced Triangle's Jim Blackman during the speeches, I thought he was going to cry. And why not? It's been 10 years, and for Jim to see his ideas for a national backbone for all regional broadcasters actually become real is a remarkable thing.

I knew, but I was slightly surprised to hear him say it on the day that Stratos, the pride of Freeview, will also be available on Sky channel 89. It's a practical and inevitable decision for Jim, but it puts quite a weight on the Freeview-only channels to woo the public.

Speaking of which, I've been doing some Freeviewing, and I'm enjoying it. TVNZ 6's programming is quite smart, and I enjoyed The Gravy and The Living Room being shown together on Wednesday night. But I bet they wish they'd had their Showcase idea before Sky's Documentary Channel snaffled a lot of the good stuff. Only major glitch so far: a B&W episode of It's in the bag going out without sound. I think even the old days, we had that …

Anyway: by June next year you can expect to see new TV sets with built-in HD tuners for Freeview; next-generation PVR-style decoders for both Freeview and Sky, probably with IP and home networking functionality. It'll take years to bed in, but viewers are increasingly likely to make less distinction between traditional broadcast content and internet video.

Wanna know the rest? You'll have to wait a little …

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