Hard News by Russell Brown

Temperance man

One of the curiosities of our era is the way political conservatives have become fiscal lunatics while the erstwhile looney left pitches itself as the soul of stewardship.

In the run-up to Michael Cullen's Budget speech, Richard Prebble became particularly amusing. Unless I misheard him, when he was talking to Damian Christie on 95bFM's The Wire yesterday, Prebble seemed to completely lose the plot and demand that this year's entire $4 billion "overtaxation" be immediately returned to the public in the form of permanent tax cuts.

To make, as conservatives like to do, a comparison with private business: if a CEO coming off a decent year - but facing a recession of unknown severity - screwed his cash position like that his board would want to know when he planned to stop smoking crack.

Oh, but it's not really cash anyway, as Cullen has been explaining in a patient, slightly patronising tone that had the effect of making Sean Plunket shout at him on Morning Report today. Accrual accounting has that effect on people. It was also hard not to notice that Cullen referred disapprovingly to the reckless deficit policies of the US administration not once, but twice. We will not, said the neo-Keynesian, be carrying on like the drunk in the corner over there. We're going to have our 2.5 standard drinks and go to bed early.

So, if hadn't been facing Sars, global recession and a power crisis, would Cullen have tossed out a few more lollies instead of being so notably cautious? It's hard to say, but it's clear that one thing this Finance minister won't do is endanger his revenue base. The lollies flagged for next year seem set to come entirely in the form of income support and taxation measures targeted at families. A break is well overdue for the poorest families, but it did get me wondering that if all the breaks continue to go to the breeders, will the Labour Party's non-breeding gay support base start to feel a bit left out?

Anyway, the students are outraged that after a three-year freeze on student fees, the cap has been raised and will henceforth be indexed to the CPI. But the sad fact is that unless the Greens join a government, this is the best deal anyone's going to give them.

Not in the Budget but jolly interesting is the government's promised response next Tuesday to our scary little shortage of generating capacity. Judging by a Star-Times interview with Pete Hodgson, it will be something a little like what goes in telecommunications, where all parties are required to chip in to the cost of the universal service obligation - or in this case, otherwise unprofitable contingency generation capacity. It's worth noting that this current lack of stand-by capacity is exactly what people worried about when National first started deregulating the industry.

Meanwhile, southerners can get that chip off their shoulders: the reason Aucklanders can't save so much electricity is because we use less in the first place. Of course, having Leighton Smith and Garth George behaving like hyperactive children and urging everyone to use more electricity to show the bastards what's what doesn't help.

Salon has an interview with Eric 'Fast Food Nation' Schlosser, whose new book I'm about to review for The Listener. Short version of the review: another fascinating book, and just the tonic for lefties feeling alienated by Michael Moore's unfortunate liberties with the facts.

Speaking of which, how about this? The saving of Private Jessica Lynch is turning out to be yet another golden media moment from Iraq that just wasn't what it seemed.

The Toronto Star has been able to interview the hospital staff and discover that not only was there no call for a "daring raid" - there no Iraqi soldiers at the hospital - the staff had actually tried to return Private Lynch to the American lines the day before she was "rescued", but had to turn back after their ambulance was fired on by US troops! But what turned up on the world's front pages is, sadly, probably the version that history will record.