Government and Treasury officials were thrown into turmoil yesterday with the announcement by well-known freelance writer S.E. Wheeler that he intended to raise his prices by 6c a story for both feature articles and satirical columns.
The announcement came in the wake of petrol price hikes, a survey showing both business and consumer confidence at a record low, and bad weather sweeping the North Island.
A source within Treasury said that Wheeler’s announcement -- on the eve of the first Cabinet meeting of the year -- could not have come at a worse time.
“With company layoffs now numbering in their hundreds, Cabinet and the Reserve Bank are already scrambling to keep the economy level. Wheeler’s action is bound to have a knock-on effect.”
The Auckland-based writer -- best known for articles on issues as diverse as the dairy industry, retailing and the role of reggae music in P-related crime -- said yesterday he felt he had no choice but to raise his rates.
“It was a combination of factors,” he told a press conference at an inner city Auckland restaurant late yesterday afternoon.
“The high dollar was certainly a factor but not the only one. There is the uncertainty in Nigeria, the concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme and of course the news that Linda Clark would be leaving National Radio.
“All these factors to a greater or lesser extent have impacted on my income which has not been reflected in lowering of mortgage interest rates, stability in the consumer food price index, and the increasing cost of sherry as a result of a government initiative which has had a short term impact but looks like it will remain in place for the medium term.
“So in this overheated economic environment I had little choice but to raise my rates.”
Prime Minister Helen Clark said last night she was “comfortable” with the situation although privately it is believed she has expressed fears that many other freelance writers will follow suit.
Last night the governor of the Reserve Bank, Alan Bollard, said that the move by Wheeler was “unfortunate but not unexpected” and he doubted he would have to factor the move into his plans to adjust the dollar to make it more competitive for exporters.
“I’ll be monitoring the situation, of course, and I am hoping that I can meet with Mr Wheeler today for a private discussion. I don’t think there is any need for panic yet, but I can see how in the medium to long term there may be ramifications.
"Quite what they might be I cannot say, it is too early to tell. And when it comes to steering the economy it's all pretty hit and miss anyway, isn't it?
"But we will be keeping a close eye on the situation.”
Wheeler’s price hike -- which is expected to come into effect immediately -- drew widespread support from friends and colleagues yesterday.
Former All Black Tane Shelford said he had read Wheeler’s work -- “his review of The Power of One actually, it’s my favourtite book” -- and he offered his support.
“Yeah, no. SE’s done the hard yards and given 110 percent, and I know he’s been enjoying his writing this year. So yeah, no. He’s should just go for it and . . . Yeah.”
The sharp rise in Wheeler’s rates reignited debate within the media on what writers, autocue readers and one-trick ponies should be paid for their work, but editors at various magazines and newspapers refused to be drawn into the debate.
Dave Sorenson, senior editor at the Auckland Times who did not wish to be named said, “It’s all very well for Wheeler to make this move but at this time, when people are more concerned with putting food on the table and paying off credit cards damaged by Christmas spending, I don’t think he’ll be getting much support.
“Anyway let’s be honest. He’s just a scribbler at the end of the day and he’ll work for what we offer to pay him. It’s a free market out there -- and he’s free to fuck off as far as I’m concerned.”
Consumers already reeling from news that main cities in the country are unaffordable, and that the impending bird flu pandemic means the likelihood of no electricity and deceased family members being buried in back gardens are expected to be unaffected by Wheeler's price hike, the highest in living memory by a freelance writer.
Wheeler could not be reached for further comment at the time of this story going to press but his wife told AltNation that her husband was severely hung-over and could barely remember what he had said at the hastily called press conference yesterday.
“It came at the end of a long and stressful lunch with a Mr Ralston from a television programme who had called SE in to discuss the Simon and Wendy show, and to ascertain whether SE thought Wendy really was ‘hot‘. Or something like that.
“Now please go away. We’ve got enough trouble today with a tree down in the backyard and SE not in any condition to get out the chainsaw.
"I‘ll probably have to call the council.”