Saturday, August 9, 2008

What would Christ have made of these top-up clauses?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post and Press, August 5)

THERE’S A parable in the New Testament about a vineyard owner who goes out first thing in the morning and hires some labourers to harvest his grapes. The parties agree on a wage of one denarius for a day’s work. Later in the day – several times, in fact – the vineyard owner goes out again and recruits more workers. At the end of the day, when everyone is paid, they all get one denarius regardless of whether they have worked for one hour or 12.

The blokes who started work in the morning are peeved because the latecomers have been paid the same amount. But hang on – didn’t they agree that one denarius was fair payment for the day’s work? The landlord has kept his side of the deal, and the fact that the latecomers received the same amount is neither here nor there. Jesus Christ, who told the story, was obviously on the side of the vineyard owner.

There’s a parallel of sorts with the recent revelation that the Ngai Tahu and Tainui tribes’ Treaty settlements of the 1990s contained “top-up clauses”, which I don’t recall being publicised at the time they were negotiated. These clauses specify that the two settlements, each worth $170 million, could be ratcheted up if total Treaty settlements eventually surpassed $1 billion in 1994 terms. That point is likely to be reached soon as a result of the recent $500 million “Treelords” settlement with central North Island tribes.

In other words, $170 million was considered a fair deal by Tainui in 1995 and by Ngai Tahu in 1997, but because other tribes now stand to get bigger settlements than were apparently anticipated then, Tainui and Ngai Tahu can come back for more. This seems a bit crook to me – but then I’m neither a lawyer nor a politician.

It reminds me of the constant inflationary leap-frogging that went on with union pay rates back in the 1960s and 1970s under the guise of retaining “relativities”. That was a racket and so are the Treaty top-up clauses.

They also make a mockery of the phrase “full and final settlement”. Obviously they were full and final only till such time as Tainui and Ngai Tahu got envious of the deals other tribes were negotiating.

As usual, it’s the taxpayers who get suckered. I wonder what Christ would have said about it.

HAVE DAIRY farmers become a protected species politically?

In a decision that went against Hawke’s Bay Regional Council policy and the advice of the council’s own staff, a hearings panel recently granted an application to take water from two already stressed rivers at the rate of 215,000 cubic metres a week for new dairy farms in central Hawke’s Bay.

The applicants reportedly spent $3 million on dairy conversions before gaining resource consents and said they invested heavily in irrigation equipment on the understanding they would get approval. In other words, the hearings panel appears to have been presented with a fait accompli.

Urban property developers cottoned on to this approach long ago, exceeding maximum building height limits and then seeking retrospective approval knowing no council would be brave enough to demand that they tear down what had already been completed.

In an interesting choice of wording, the hearings panel decided the farmers’ application called for a “pragmatic approach”. As a disgruntled Fish and Game Council pointed out, the panel’s approval sends the message that farmers can expect to get resource consent on the basis of their investment in infrastructure.

The decision is highly provocative because the regional council acknowledges that the rivers concerned, the Tukituki and the Waipawa, are already over-allocated and have very low flow levels in summer. But it’s merely an example in microcosm of a much wider problem.

The aggressive spread of dairy farming into areas ill-suited for dairying, such as central Hawke’s Bay and the Canterbury Plains, is New Zealand’s environmental elephant in the kitchen. The impact of massive irrigation demands, heavy fertiliser application and polluted runoff is ignored because the dairying boom is helping to prop up a sagging economy. There is powerful pressure not to stand in the way.

And if you think it’s stretching things to suggest dairy farmers enjoy a degree of immunity from the processes other people are subject to, just think back to the dairy industry mega-merger that created Fonterra. Parliament passed special legislation exempting the merger from Commerce Commission scrutiny, thus sending a signal that dairy interests were to be accorded special treatment. The message seems to have got through.

COULD WE have a moratorium on this overworked word “stunning”? Stunning wines, stunning homes, stunning TV shows, stunning views, stunning fashion, stunning restaurants … the entire nation must be in a permanent state of concussion. Once confined to the hyperbole-strewn ghetto of real estate advertising, the word has spread like an invasive weed.

Is it now the second most frequently used word in the English language, after absolutely? “Absolutely”, I hear you chorus.

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