Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Lunacy Sightings

29/03/2005


Award-winning journalist Deborah Coddington MP produces a column about what she calls "lunacy sightings". Not things like the recent road-side advertisement for "orgasmic vegetables", but the results from years of ideological claptrap and political correctness. There's a lot about. I can't work out whether it's the proximity to April Fools Day, a full moon, or the coming election that has produced so many recent sightings. Take minimum wages for starters.

We now have more than 20 years of international evidence that high minimum wages, overly regulated labour markets, and hire-and-fire rules tilted extravagantly against employers, penalise people out of work while protecting those in jobs. Readers of European newspapers or the Economist will know that Spanish unemployment under the Socialists in the 1990s remained intractably high because employers wouldn't take on untried workers when the risks in doing so were high. In France and Germany, no matter what else governments do, unemployment won't sink below 10% of the workforce. High minimum wages in particular have been identified as the biggest single factor, even by government inquiries. But our trade unions know better. They parrot failed nostrums from former decades. A sort of "back to leading the world!" mentality prevails. Worse. The same ostrich stance affects ministers. Minimum wages went up again last week. They risk a double whammy. The economy is slowing, and employers will now be slightly more wary of taking on new workers. School leavers and new immigrants will suffer. Who really benefits from higher minimum wages? Answer: relatively few in work. Instead it will be the ideologues more interested in feeling good than in producing good outcomes.

Sightings continue. Despite an outcry, sheltered workshops will have to start paying the minimum wage as well. Ruth Dyson has decreed it. She has had representations from workshop providers, family members, the disabled themselves, and from the Health and Disability Commissioner, all of whom demonstrate that the disabled will be worse off financially from her changes. Some workshops will close. But the minister knows best. Instead of abusing the champions of the disabled, Dyson saved her invective for Muriel Newman who always keeps up with the international literature and thinks about serious issues. Another triumph for ideology over knowledge and experience, and a worthy companion for Margaret Wilson's Holidays Act that knocked two days' employment, profits and pleasure out of Easter.

Lunacy isn't confined to the Beehive. On Monday 21 March TV One screened a truly bizarre programme called "The Children of 1984". The commentator sounded like the last remaining member of Jim Anderton's one-time Alliance. He prattled incoherently about materialism, asserting that it suddenly appeared in 1984 with the economic changes. Did he consult his parents? The fifties was the decade when a massive increase in materialism occurred. Women went to work so the family could buy carpets, fridges, washing machines and cars. Historians acknowledge that modern society as we know it developed rapidly thereafter. The programme's implication that padded bras for 9 year olds and pernicious glamour magazines were linked to the Lange Government was mind-bogglingly silly. Whoever in TV One funded this drivel should hang his/her head in shame. Somebody should own up. New Zealanders need accurate information to adjust to today's rapidly globalising world, not inaccurately based nostalgia and romancing. Over-indulging a sense of insularity, labelled recently as "New Zealanders' recessive gene", caused our economic problems before 1984. Its persistence is a factor many worldly-wise ex-pats cite these days for staying away. Was this programme one of those fillers so that TV One can reach its quota of "local content"? If so, the sooner the charter goes, the better.

A sad recent lunacy sighting has been at our premier seat of learning. A handful of Auckland University academics worried about lagging salaries want industrial action to secure "national pay rates". Some 70% of the staff refuse to join the union, meaning industrial action has disaster written all over it. But how otherwise intelligent Aucklanders experiencing costs exceeding everywhere else in the country, think they will be better off with the same pay as Dunedin or Palmerston North, mystifies me. I suspect those who won't join the union have worked this out. A few romantic academics fancy themselves as shop stewards, and are enjoying themselves. Spare a thought for the journalists, teachers and social workers they pretend to educate. Outmoded ideology lurks under many rocks. It's a pity, but it almost always retards economic and social progress.