On asset sales and the Mallard ticket sagaFebruary 17th, 2012
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Way back at the start of this week, the government was in deep trouble on at least three fronts. First, came the bombshell court ruling that Ministers had been mistakenly advised to accept the Chinese bid for Crafar farms. Secondly, Finance Minister Bill English hinted publicly that the government may not be able to sell the entire 49% stake in the state energy companies previously earmarked for the private sector, thus undermining at least some of the $5-7 billion returns that comprised the government’s basic rationale for the selldown. Thirdly, came news that many of the cheap railway wagons purchased by the government from China – at the cost of workplace redundancies, lost opportunities in skills and expertise at the Hillside railway workshops and a sorely needed stimulus for the Dunedin economy – were already in need of significant repairs.
All these issues focussed on the government’s weak point, its readiness to sell out New Zealand’s long term interests to foreign ownership, for short term gain. Unfortunately, the Labour opposition then lost most of this traction – and all of the moral high ground – thanks to Trevor Mallard, who decided to screw some teenage students for a few extra hundred dollars on the price of tickets he held to the sold out Homegrown music festival. At some time in the future, the saga of Trevor and the Traded Tickets should be taught in classrooms, as a textbook example of why politicians are held in such contempt.
As a simple morality tale this one was hard to beat. Here was a veteran MP earning about $170,000 a year (plus perks) selling tickets at above cost price to a group of teenage students who dearly wanted to hear their favourite bands. Leave aside that this same MP had spearheaded the legislation that criminalised ticket scalping at other events. Leave aside that Mallard reportedly used his parliamentary email and electorate office to conduct this transaction for his personal profit, thus making the taxpayer – who helps to fund these facilities – something of an accomplice in this shabby little scam. Wasn’t Pansy Wong’s parliamentary career brought to an end amid a swirl of allegations that she’d mixed up her parliamentary and personal business? What’s the difference in this case, exactly?
One could go on. The last Labour government had thrown a lot of resources into supporting the local music industry – remember Helen Clark going to the annual music awards ? – and Mallard now appeared to be cashing in on the enthusiasm this had generated. Not for the first time either. Reportedly, Mallard has sold tickets to Homegrown and the Sevens rugby on Trade Me and Facebook in years past. There was, of course, never anything to stop him – if he had bought those tickets in good faith, with any real intention of attending – from selling them at face value. As someone from Ticketek pointed out, that’s what the tickets have printed on them – that resale at a profit is not permitted.
Leave aside the simple morality for a moment. From the instant this story went viral, any sane politician would have immediately got out their chequebook and given the kids back the balance, or else quickly donated the profit portion to the SPCA or some other charity. And if Mallard was too greedy or stupid to realise that’s what he needed to do, you’d think his party leader would have been on the phone straight away to set him straight. Instead, the story ran for nearly 48 hours, virtually unimpeded.
Yesterday, as the story finally ran its course, the end game was just as instructive. During Question Time in Parliament, the National Party treated Mallard’s discomfort merely as a joke. No surprise there. Mallard’s own closing gambit though, was interesting. Did he pay the kids back the excess he’d charged them? No. Instead, he offered to buy back the tickets. You can almost hear Mallard and his dickhead advisers working this one out. ‘Look, they paid you the price, Trev. They can obviously afford it. The only reason they’re pissed off is because you’re an MP. So screw them. Offer to buy back the tickets. It’s a win/win. If they refuse, you keep the money. If they use the tickets and go to Homegrown it shows everyone they were willing to pay the price…And if they accept the buyback – which they won’t – at least the little bastards won’t get to go to Homegrown.” Dismayingly, RNZ carried a sound clip of David Shearer saying that this offer from Mallard was the only right thing to do.
Well, it wasn’t. There was always another option. As the students involved told the NZ Herald, Mallard should donate the profits he made to charity. He still should. Yet clearly, Mallard and the Labour leadership have learned nothing from this grubby little saga. Maybe the electorate has, though. Because any young voter has been given a very simple political lesson in terms that they can readily understand, Namely, that if you want to change the government, vote for the Greens. Because Labour are a party who’ll screw you over ticket prices for any music gig, any chance they get.
Already, the political carnival has moved on. Bill English – Mallard’s doppleganger in the government ranks – has come rushing to Labour’s rescue by saying publicly that Treasury $6 billion estimate of the returns from the asset sales programme is only “a guess”. Right. So, a year down the track on this proposal, the government is selling these prize assets on nothing more than a hunch that they might get back more than it would have cost them to keep the assets and borrow the difference. Do we really get the politicians we deserve? What on earth did we do in a past life to deserve Mallard and English ?