Island Life by David Slack


What I saw at the step change.

The Prime Minister was giving me the hard sell about his plans for transforming the New Zealand economy - a "Step Change" no less - when my phone rang. It was a client, on the line from Texas. I exported him a fresh copy of his speech and turned the sound back up. I may have missed a spellbinding moment, but I suspect not.

Baby Steps

In between breathless stories about the resuscitation of the breathless property market, most notably in the Sunday Property Times and the Herald on Veitch-Day, the mantra has been rising: New Zealand's economy will remain porked while everyone keeps pigging out on loans and using them to buy each other's houses.

For a narrow-based economy, we export sweet fuck all to pay for the wide variety of goods and services we import. This is a mantra I have been hearing (and endorsing) since I was a kid. It is dispiriting to consider how little has changed in half a lifetime.

A starting point would be to pull all the lazy greedy little piglets off the teat and let the property market slump. Get the true level, adjust, and start over on getting the composition of our economy right: a variety of exporters, capitalising on the growing Asian markets. Yes; of course it's not easy. But the alternative is harder yet, once the borrowed money runs out.

So anyway.

Here comes the man with the step change ladder. Will the government bring the boom down on property investment? Will they take advantage of the bloody big gun the Tax Working Group has conveniently wheeled all the way up to the emplacement for them? It has given them a complete rationalisation and justification for them to proffer as they step forward to regretfully but nobly fire the damn thing.

All around the village, the citizens are braced for it. We know this because the media has been full of it and the message is emphatic: the market is already taking a hit; there might be a land tax! A capital gains tax! A closing of the very big hole through which every Leonard-Cohen-going, black-polo-neck-wearing, four-rental-property-owning silver-haired baby boomer has been dragging the paperwork for their LAQC and their tax deductions.

You know for sure that a policy has real heft when the market is moving even before you announce it.

So what does that nice Mr Key do with this mighty once-in-a generation opportunity for a step change? He consults the polling.

He gets up there, stands alongside the mighty gun, pulls out a water pistol, squeezes it and says: "I make no apologies for making a few of you a bit wet."

Heaven forbid anyone should substantially change the 'investment' habits of a lifetime. That would be a step too far.


But a substantial policy statement is a cloak of many colours. Let's try Green. And Gold. Those Aussies are making out like bandits, just because they've got big drills. Why can't we dig up ours? Step change number two: We're going to drill in public lands. And each time we do, we're going to put a shiny dollar in Russel Norman's tip jar. Now I get it. Lay waste to the National Parks. It's a Steppe change!


This is like digging down the back of the couch for spare change. Next they'll put the couch on Trade Me.

That's not my real ladder. It's my step-ladder.

Needless to say, the ordinary New Zealanders have not been forgotten. They'll get to pay more GST. If that had been bracketed with Gareth Morgan's Big Kahuna, well, I might have gone for it. But as it stands, all it's likely to do is claw back some of the tax that everyone who should have been on the top rate was not paying because no-one had the nerve (or time and money, more likely) to properly work over some tens of thousands of family trusts of dubious merit. In its wake, expect a regressive tax burden on the low-paid.

It's possibly a step, it's possibly a change, but if this were the movies, I'd be rubbing my 3D glasses and trying to work out if I had the angle wrong. There wasn't even a hot woman with blue skin and a tail, and surely to God the National Party has some of them.

I have a mantra too, and I see no reason to change it on the strength of today's vision thing: I reckon these guys will be remembered in the end not for what they did, but for what they failed to do.


The World Is Full of Cu*ts

I can't say I'm surprised to hear that Brian Tamaki doesn't like people using the word cu*t.

In my last conversation with him, I used a pithy exclamation to express my surprise at a story he was relating.
I could have said to him: No way!
I might have just as likely said: You're kidding!
Or: Crikey!
As it happened - and because I am ill-mannered, uncouth, and from rural Manawatu - I said to him: Shit!
Which really means: My word, Bishop! Do go on.

But he did not go on. Rather, he stopped mid-sentence and stared at me. He might have raised an eyebrow quizzically.

I was full of TVNZ red wine. It took me a moment to register the silence; another to realise that he was waiting for me to apologise, and finally another to deduce that the apology was expected for uttering a profanity in the presence of a holy man. I stifled a guffaw and said Oh. Sorry. He paused a little longer, meaningfully, before he resumed his story.

The one other time we met we had a long, long talk. He was accompanied by his wife; I was accompanied by my tape recorder. I liked him in the way you might like a weird cousin you don't have to visit more than twice. The following Sunday I watched him give an interminable sermon, long on Vegas show-man, but not anything that would make your mind move any faster than a Sunday stroll to the shop for a packet of Rothmans.

Still, I admire what lies at the heart of the enterprise: they mend broken lives. I wouldn't use the word cu*t. I would use the other one: enterpri*e. It seems a bit off to be making money out of Christian charity.

The world, though, is full of cu*ts. Take the Catholics. According to this sign we saw in Carcassonne, they get the tag.

Perhaps the Bishop is propelling himself towards some kind of power mania that will yet culminate in harm, but I don't see it.

Consider the alternative possibility: enterpri*e. Let us turn to tax law.

Income is taxable. Gifts are not. Give enough and you, the giver, will pay gift duty. Donations, what's more, now enjoy greater deductibility.

So if - say - 500 people each year each decide to give you $1000 as far as I can see, you get that money tax free.

500 grand, TAX FREE. Shit! That can get you the baddest-ass metallic black chrome-plated jetski in all of Christendom.


I Am Drinking Again

Peter Calder knows how to review a meal without being the slightest bit pretentious. So does Simon Wilson. I am sitting at a long table in Clooneys about to begin a whisky degustation and I am thinking to myself "Whatever I write about this, I intend to make it as interesting and unpretentious as Peter Calder or Simon Wilson would." So I turn to the diner on my right and ask: "So, Simon, what do you think of it so far?"

I know he has already found it amusing because his greeting was something like: "So, what was it? They looked around Auckland for a writer who likes whisky more than breathing, and here you are?"

Oh, let me tell you. If you like whisky with your dinner, this is a treat. Let me also tell you: if you can't think of anything less appealing than whisky with your dinner, think again. It's a five course degustation. In your glass, Glenfiddich of a certain age; on your plate, something astounding. Every moment better than the one that preceded it.

Yes of course I'm singing for my supper. My malt of choice is Laphroaig, but hell, there is not a single malt I've ever disliked. The Larry Sanders Show had a great line about this. Artie, the producer, is describing what happens when you come at last to the Pearly Gates. St Peter shows you into the office. God beckons for you to take a seat, leaning forward in his leather executive chair, firm hand outstretched. On his breath - says Artie - you will notice the slightest trace of Glenfiddich.

The landscape of malt whisky drinking is blotted with snobs. Glenfiddich might be a single malt, but it's more U2 than hip, obscure indie band. U2, of course, sells more units, and gets plenty of good reviews. Here, try the 15 year old Glenfiddich. You simply will not believe how well it complements the seared deep sea scallops accompanied by a foie gras mousse and Iberico brioche crumb. Indeed, you may find yourself unable to resist turning to Simon Wilson and declaring the flavour to be sublime. If, on the other hand, drinking a lot of hooch is what matters to you most, it has a very mellow kick, it will go nicely with your cigar and it won't fuck up the flavour of your wedges.

I could not have enjoyed myself more. We worked our way up from the 12 year old, through 15, 18, 21 and finally a 30 year old that was so smooth you could have named it Bill Clinton.

We had Duck Consomme, we had Cervena Carpaccio. The chef, Des Harris appeared at the end of each course to a talk a little about what they'd done to marry the flavours of the whisky and the dish. We complimented him many times. We had Slow Roasted Duck Breast with Veal Sweetbreads, Confit Chestnuts, and Medjool Dates, and we had a Brulee that no mortal could fault.

And so can you, at Clooneys next Monday 7 September, but only if you're quick, because most of the tickets have already been sold.

What's that you say? Wellington? Christchurch? But of course.

Christchurch – 8 September at Crumpet Club
Wellington – 9 September at Martin Bosley's.

For Labour Weekend I will be going to Feilding. It is quite unrealistic to hope for a Cervena Carpaccio with an Oloroso Sherry Jelly. But I know where I can get some Glenfiddich.


On the waterfront

Here are three lessons you learn the hard way in Auckland:

1. No matter how sunny it is right now, it will start to rain on your party ten minutes after you move everyone outside.

2. The cost of your building project will be double. Whatever they told you, double it.

3. If the ferry for Devonport is leaving in one minute, the lights will keep you stranded on the far side of Quay Street for two.

I have changed my mind about Party Central. I had misgivings: a good opportunity likely to be squandered, a lot of money wasted. I still have my doubts about the politicians getting it right, but I have no doubt now about the possibility of getting something exciting built there.

Let us gather around the table. Copeland Associates - an Auckland firm of architects - have a model for us to look at.

Ask yourself: what is the best way to enjoy the outdoors in Auckland? Under a verandah, of course. You get the views and the sunshine, but when the rain rolls in, no-one has to move. That's what this does. What we have here is a giant verandah for the city.

Look at it. It's beautiful. It's a sail. It's like nothing you've seen anywhere else. Click the little picture to get a larger version and see it in all its glory. It sits alongside the water, undulating and meandering along Queen's Wharf, providing shelter enough to stage all manner of large gatherings and events.

Tucked into it, between the two old sheds is a passenger terminal: a skybridge, elevated and secure, and painted in the red of the fence that runs along the waterfront; fully functional, but sufficiently out of the way to permit the rest of us to come and go.

And now imagine how it might look like at night with a light show playing on it. Recall what the Town Hall looked like a few months ago. Think of the public art on the Wellington waterfront and imagine poetry illuminated upon those flowing sheets above you.

Imagine strolling down Queen Street and being able to walk UNIMPEDED, AND AT WILL, across to this wharf. With a verandah.

But. But. But. What about the money? What about the deadline?

Oh, it just keeps getting better. Money? The budget we've been hearing about so far has been $80 million. The verandah itself would be in the order of 10 million. Let's say it would cost 20. You still have 60 to work with to build your passenger terminal and renovate the two old sheds, which, you may recall, was the core idea of the Party Central site. Those two buildings could be problematic. You could spend a lot of money and take a lot of time in the construction and not, in the end, get what you need: namely a good passenger arrival terminal and an adequate facility for public partying. The beauty of the Copeland proposal is that it gets the partying space and the arrivals space created separately, leaving the sheds as optional extras.

That is to say: they could be renovated, but they wouldn't have to be. As long as there is a large sheltered area and a distinct arrivals area, you have the essential facility. That leaves you with the prospect of more facilities as and when you need them, can afford them and can agree on how to create them.

If this is to be developed in time for the Rugby World Cup, in 2011, simplicity has a lot to recommend it. Conveniently this kind of structure can be built very quickly. Copeland Associates say they have built several similar structures using this kind of roof material. They are working on one right now for the rugby stadium in Whangarei. In their words:

This fast to build and cost effective tension membrane structure can be ready in time for the Rugby World Cup. The project would showcase the skills of New Zealand architects, fabric engineers and constructors, world leaders in this technology.

My initial objection was that what we sorely needed was being rushed into action at the eleventh hour, and we would pay the price for hasty thinking. Pragmatically, though, I see that if this Rugby World Cup is what it takes to get a really good facility that links the city to the harbour side, then we had better get on the bus, because it's quite possibly the only one that's going to come bouncing down the road.

And with this plan, the risk of overcapitalising the project or squandering our one chance seems to be enormously diminished. It can be built in time and at relatively low cost, and yet the essence of the structure is remarkable and striking and bound to work.

Let's add the last important piece of the jigsaw. If you're in Queen Street or Albert Street or Shortland St, what could be better at lunch time than to stroll down to the harbourside? Well: how about this: strolling down to the wharf without having to wait at the lights while all of Auckland's cars and trucks hurtle by. This plan proposes a pedestrian precinct. The Quay street crossing would be closed to traffic, which would be diverted around. Build all this and they will surely come. Every day, in their thousands.

So what will be the fate of Queens' Wharf and its $80 million makeover? According to

this story

, an ideas and design competition for the development of Queens Wharf is currently being organised by Auckland City Council, Auckland Regional Council and central government. Copeland Associates are very eager to submit theirs. I hope it fares well. I could only admire it more if it included

a travelator to Stanley Bay.


There is no alternative

If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog," said National Lampoon. I thought of that cover when I picked up this morning's paper.

One by one they appear: the halt, the sick, the lame, and all with the same sad tale: "the Government has cut off our money."

You need money for therapists to treat your special needs children? Sorry we're all out of it.

You need help to get a qualification and move off the benefit? Sorry: we're strapped.

The implicit proposition in any of these cuts is: "we really don't want to do this, but we have no alternative."

But this is not true. It would be better expressed as: "we have no political alternative."

There were tax cuts by the last government last year, there were tax cuts in April this year. In the end, there were only a lonely few of us arguing against them, and there probably would be few people who would argue now to have them unwound, and certainly not Bill English.

The Minister of Finance talks about the Decade of Deficits, but he doesn't mention one of the reasonably enormous contributing factors. He was frankly regretful in this year's budget about cancelling the tax cuts still to come, but he left entirely unanswered the logical next question: what about the ones we've already had?

Those tax cuts his party spent five years clamouring for constitute a lot of red ink. They add up to $3.3 billion dollars of revenue per year the government has foregone.

It's not entirely red ink; there's a stimulus contribution you have to factor in. Nonetheless: each time we read a front page story about the $2.5 million the government can no longer afford, let's bear in mind the $3.3 billion that could have covered it.