Hard News by Russell Brown

Moral imperatives

I have some sympathy with MPs who are wavering on their support for Tim Barnett's bill to legalise and regulate prostitution - but not much. MPs have had the chance to scrutinise the arguments more closely than the rest of us - that any of them should be feeling ill-informed by now is puzzling.

Yet, as The Listener's excellent coverage of the issue this week makes clear, it's not easy. There are conflicting moral imperatives in play here. Feminists disagree, and the Greens (who look more like good libertarians than the populist pipsqueaks in the Act party these days) are, among other things, citing the interests of those whose disabilities would otherwise deprive them of any sexual contact in their lives.

Few people want, apparently, to adopt the Swedish solution, which criminalises the clients of prostitutes, rather than sex workers themselves, and not even the opponents of the bill want to tighten enforcement on women who sell sexual services, who they regard as victims rather than criminals.

Yet persisting with the current wink-and-a-nod approach means that women will continue to work in the industry - but will also continue to be denied basic civil and employment rights and will continue to be vulnerable to pimps, clients and occasionally police. The idea that if we all hold our noses and think good thoughts one day prostitution will just go away is fanciful.

Hardly anyone wants legalised brothels to become a growth industry, but, however distasteful legitimising the industry might be, it is the least worst option.

There were a couple of email responses to last week's Hard News verdict on Act's parliamentary funding dodge: one abusive and one indignant. The former was truly pathetic (having had sad emails from both looney right-wingers and deranged greenies at various times, I would have to say that the looney right-wingers are much, much sadder) and the latter, apparently from someone currently working as an electorate agent, was marked not-for-publication, which was unfortunate, but I'll take up one point in it: the description of staff employed under the dodge as "Wellington electorate agents".

Listen up: these people weren't employed as "Wellington electorate agents" (given that Act doesn't have electorate MPs in Wellington or anywhere else, it's hard to see how they could be) but as the electorate agents of list MPs.

The public expectation - and certainly mine - would seem to be that list MPs would have electorate offices where they actually campaigned. Muriel Newman certainly spends enough energy claiming to represent the people of Northland - why would she have had an "electoral office" in her leader's spare bedroom in Wellington? The fact is that where members of Parliament do have a local shopfront, people do walk in and ask for help. Is that what Act was trying to avoid?

Why not ask Rodney Hide - who, apart from Donna Awatere-Huata, was the only Act MP to insist on using the funding to run a genuine electorate office? He didn't seem very impressed with the scheme when the Herald asked him to comment earlier this year.

I also talked to a former Act staffer who worked, in Parliament, under the dodge. He didn't regard it as an out-and-out scam, but all involved were apparently quite aware that what they were doing would be at risk from any scrutiny. Among other things, he had "electorate agent" employment contracts with five or six different Act MPs, for odd blocks like 2.5 or 5 hours per week. Hmmm.

Latest excuse from the top: looters ate my weapons of mass destruction.

A claim that the New York Times - which is probably feeling a bit weary at the moment - soft-pedalled on its recent revelations about the basis of pre-war weapons claims from the White House. A feistier paper might, indeed, have made a bit more of the fact that in his big address to the United Nations, Colin Powell's account of an intercepted conversation between Iraqi officials "departed significantly" from the State Department's official translation.

The Washington Post had this story on the difference between claims made Bush's in address to the American people last October - regarding links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda - and what was actually said in a still-classified national intelligence report.

Why on earth are the American media virtually ignoring the September 11 inquiry hearings?

Conservative columnist (there isn't any other kind at townhall.com) John Leo is becoming uneasy at the marginalisation of protest - and free speech along with it - in today's America.

Spinsanity has a typically adept essay on Bush's developing talent for "making statements that are factually true but misleading, while escaping criticism for doing so from the press corps."

Any sensible New Zealand rugby fan's delight at the All Blacks' 55-3 demolition of Wales on Saturday night will be tempered, just as was any despair at the previous weekend's narrow loss to England. Wales are pretty woeful - although the fact that the All Blacks basically held their pattern till the end had to be pleasing. I'd much rather see them start slowly and finish relentlessly, as they did, than go silly as soon as they get four tries up.

My online rugby buddy Tracey Nelson did a video analysis of the Welsh game, focusing on the number of times each player to the ball up into a tackle that resulted in a ruck or maul, and how many times each one was among the first three players at the breakdown. Her conclusions are fascinating. Among them, that Chris Jack played like the Eveready Bunny - he was in the first three to the breakdown no fewer than 48 times in the match, only one fewer than opensider Marty Holah. Carl Hoeft, amazingly, came in third.

There's little tempering of anything in the English press, however, in the wake of England's comprehensive victory over the Wallabies. Far be it from me to suggest that the Australians - who were actually troubled by Wales for stretches of last week's game - aren't really too much cop right now.

The Herald has a roundup of the various triumphalist tracts ("Is this the greatest British team of all time, and in all sports?"), as did the Daily Mirror.

But, as ever, the former public schoolboys in the rugby press are too busy composing dramatic hymns of blood and thunder to bother much with the actual details of a game. England were able to run in three tries against Australia because they comprehensively dominated territory and possession. They should really have scored three more, such was their advantage.

Against an All Black team playing at full strength for the first time in about nine months, England were on the wrong side of most of the statistics, infringed constantly and cynically - have you ever seen two test players sin-binned for professional fouls at the same time? - and were basically lucky to have been handed the game through a poor goalkicking performance. They deserved both wins - if for no other reason than that they could kick their goals - and Martin Johnson is probably the best forward and certainly the best captain in the international game, but really, chaps, keep it in your pants and we'll see you at the World Cup …