Hager’s Hollow Horror

05/07/2008

John Roghan  says Nicky Hager is carving out a new career in disingenuous political naivete.

Not content with a book based on Don Brash’s emails, since brought to the stage and soon to be a movie too, Hager is running a sequel on the discovery that some of the same “hollow men” are consultants to John Key.

The fact that someone in the National Party must be passing this material to Hager is far more interesting than the use he is making of it, and I have no objection to his using it.

I agree that where the material comes from is the more interesting, and for National, more serious point.

…email, I think, is fair game. A fair reporter, though, could reveal what he learns without feigned horror at the fact that people running for public office hire consultants who try to conceal some of their intentions during an election campaign.

Parties of all stripes are coy on some subjects before an election for good reasons.

The public interest can be greater than the sum of personal interests, sometimes even in conflict with direct personal gains. It is easy to sell benefits to a section of the electorate, harder to explain how the benefits hurt a country in the long run.

Some are minority interests that should be advanced in the national interest. Hager should ponder how much progress Maori would have made in recent decades if every step in their recognition had been an election issue.

Quite.

Public debate usually favours the status quo. Not much could ever be done if every decision was put to the electorate for a prior mandate.

Take the present Government’s biggest economic moves, KiwiSaver and, this week, KiwiRail, which I don’t remember being canvassed, with all their costly implications, at elections beforehand.

Had Labour given an inkling at the last election of the premium they have had to pay to re-nationalise the railway, and the fortune it is going to cost to cover its likely losses, National’s last campaign would have feasted on the information.

If only.

But now that the deed is done, the politics have changed. The purchase is the status quo and National will not dare put re-privatisation before the electorate this year, though that may be what it ultimately does with the trains if not the tracks.

Yep – once something is underway it is difficult to change it, even if it’s because sometimes bad policy is good politics.

Likewise KiwiSaver, a year old this week. At the last election the savings scheme was an essentially voluntary proposal. The following year it was to become compulsory for employers and acquire some costly enticements of dubious economic value.

Not long ago my employers wound up my company super fund. I couldn’t blame them; from April they had to contribute to KiwiSaver if staff favoured it. And who of us were going to turn down Cullen’s $1000 handout and tax credits?

The scheme celebrated its first birthday on Tuesday with 718,000 members – more than double the number predicted in the first year. The only people complaining about it are those annoying economists who see the difference between individual gains and the national welfare.

They fear the scheme will not add to total personal savings, merely displace previous savings schemes.

In the Herald last weekend Maria Slade reported an estimate that as little as 9 per cent of the money in KiwiSaver accounts so far is new saving, a percentage the researcher reckoned would not cover the administration and compliance costs of the scheme.

Is anyone surprised by this?

Westpac economist Dominick Stephens said KiwiSaver had cost the taxpayers $497 million in its first 11 months, an amount that could have added to national savings if it had been left in the Budget’s fund for future public pensions.

Even that fund is questioned by some savings professionals who point out that a superannuation scheme is only as good as the future economy that will have to pay out. From that point of view, the best retirement insurance is the investment made in the economy today.

And not just retirement – health, education and every other service will be more secure in the future if we strengthen the economy now.

Anyone who believes that the best investments are made by those who stand to lose if they get it wrong would argue the economy would be stronger in the long run if the KiwiSaver incentives were turned into personal tax cuts.

And yes again.

Nevertheless, National will have to keep the scheme now that it is replacing private savings on such a scale. The best the party can do is continue to avoid saying whether it will keep the incentives.

It will not be easy, and should not be easy; it is the job of political opponents and the press to pin all policies down. But adroit tacticians can keep the options open and enable a government to come to power with room to move in the national interest. Voters, I think, understand this. They don’t need horrified disclosures that it happens. It is the horror that sounds hollow.

Exactly. National has learnt from the damage done by stupid promises made by Jim Bolger before the 1990 election; and Helen Clark has too which is why she keeps trying to under promise and over deliver.

Parties should be upfront about their philosophy, principles, general  policy, and – sometime before an election – some detailed policy. But they can’t be specific about everything because, once a party is in Government it must have room to adapt to events and circumstances.


Trainwreck Back To The Future

04/07/2008

The best advice I had from a racing driver was to look where you’re going because you’ll go where you’re looking.  Jim Hopkins  proves the lesson doesn’t just apply to the road:

We like looking back. We love the rear-vision mirror. It’s our true compass.

That’s why we’ve just bought all those trains, lock, stock and funnel – for $640 million or a billion, depending on who you believe.

And, apparently, all us good old, rear-vision Kiwis are positively chuffed we’ve got the trains back. We think it’s great that Michael Cullen’s the new Thin Controller.

No matter that we didn’t need to buy 100 per cent of Toll when 51 per cent would’ve been perfectly fine.

No matter that we’re now obliged to spend $300,000,000 on new kit. No matter that any increase in rail traffic will, paradoxically, increase the demand for better roads – to truck goods from the hinterland to the track.

Because we’re back where we were. And yesterday is such a cosy place.

Meanwhile, Kupe and Cook are in India, talking to the Tata motor company, which is busily developing a French-invented compressed-air engine that will replace the gas-guzzlers we’ve got in our cars and trucks.

And that’s just one of the innovations under way in places where people look forward.

Mark my words. Within a decade, the world’s roads will be teeming with vehicles running on air, hydrogen, fuel cells, electricity and, who knows, maybe even that weird stuff you find in your belly button when you’ve forgotten to wash it for a while.

The combination of a ubiquitous infrastructure and a propulsive revolution will make trains even quainter than they are now. And no amount of sticking up RUCs to screw the transport scrum on the very day you become Brutish Rail will change that.

If you haven’t read this yet, it’s probably because your paper’s late and that’s probably because the roads are jammed with angry truckers who’ve probably decided they’ve had enough because they probably think our great leap backwards has gone off the rails.

And we’ll all be casualties of the train wreck that results from this reckless ride back to the future on 19th century technology, fuelled by 20th century ideology and funded by 21st century tax payers.


Riverstone Kitchen

23/06/2008

Lauraine Jacobs waxed lyrical about the delights of Riverstone Kitchen  duirng her guest chef slot on Nine to Noon this morning.

The praise is well deserved. Chef Bevan Smith serves delicious food in simple but elegant surroundings. Most of the fruit and vegetables served are grown on the property and he features as much local produce as possible.

If you’ve time, a wander round the adjourning gift shop run by Bevan’s mother, Dot, is a delightful way to finish your visit.


Thank You Air NZ

23/06/2008

We had used airpoints to upgrade our economy fares to business class for our flight home from Australia yesterday.

When we got to the counter we got the good news-bad news story: we had been upgraded but the unexpected absence of a staff member meant we might not get the normal level of service. However, to compensate for this we’d get vouchers which we could redeem for air points or Air New Zealand services.

When we boarded, the flight attendent greeted us with more apologies and explanations and thanks to her efficient and friendly attention we were more than happy with the service. We also appreciate the vouchers ($60 worth each).

Air New Zealand exceeded our expectations and gets full marks for service, communciation and compensation.


Ag & Science not Mutually Exclusive

23/06/2008

International scientist Lord Robert Winston reckons our future is in science not agriculture.

The popular TV documentary host told the Herald yesterday he believed the country’s days of relying on agriculture for income were numbered.

How many times have I heard this before? Though never when the world is facing a critical shortage of food which gives us an unprecedented opportunity to get even better at what we already do – producing high quality food at a relatively low price.

 

But while science was the ideal vehicle to lift the economy, New Zealand researchers lacked the funding to reach the lofty, but achievable, goal, he said.

New Zealand spent about 1 per cent of GDP, or $700 million, on research spending last year – three times lower than some other OECD countries.

Of that, New Zealand’s primary blue-skies research fund, the Marsden Fund, was able to distribute just $39 million.

Blue skies research is funded on its scientific excellence rather than a specific commercial drive. The Herald reported in March an open letter to Science Minister Pete Hodgson, signed by 460 of the country’s leading scientists, contained a plea for the fund’s budget to be trebled. Mr Hodgson responded by drawing attention to a new research fund, worth $700 million over four years, aimed entirely at the agricultural sector.

In an ideal world we could indeed do more blue sky research. But in the real world, where we are not a wealthy country, it makes sense to direct most funding to areas where scientific research will result in commercial opportunities which will enable us to fund more research, some of which would not be driven by a financial imperative.

Lord Winston spoke to the Herald yesterday at the opening of New Zealand’s newest and most advanced fertility facility, Fertility Associates, in Auckland.

He said the new facilities were world class and followed a long tradition of New Zealand leading the world in fertility science. Bio-technology, especially in the human reproductive field, was something New Zealand could lead the world in.

And hasn’t some of what we’re doing in this area been a by-product of agricultural research?

Developments in the field were likely to focus on lowering the need for hormone treatment and improving embryo selection, he said. Such advancements would improve the lives of people around the world and offered a potential financial windfall.

“That would be fantastically valuable. I think with a smaller economy there has to be considerable wisdom about how you focus on what you do well. I think that’s a very important message for your country. New Zealand should certainly continue on its strengths.”

Like a usually mild climate which enables us to grow grass which we are very, very good at turning into protein?

The country’s history, and generations of pioneering science in the agricultural sector, had set it up for such a triumph, he said.

“It’s because of sheep, basically. You were interested in breeding animals. International industry drove it forward. But it might not be the answer any more.”

Meat was losing favour because of its environmental impact, and as an industry it was low profit, he said.

 

Would that be a scientific view about extensive sheep farming here, or a misinformed one based on intensive and more expensive, financially and environmentally, practices in other countries? And while conventional sheep farming hasn’t been profitable for the last couple of seasons all signs are positive for next season.

“New Zealand isn’t a great producer of many things that are profitable. But scientific knowledge really is important and can be very profitable.

“That’s a wonderful model for a small economy. The niche area of biotechnology is a big prospect. New Zealand [tends to] regard it as essential to find the economic value of the research … before you do the research. It’s got to be done on the understanding that you have the basic blue skies research there.”

Among the things we generally do produce profitably are milk and meat; a lot of our profitable science has come from agricultural research and some of that has been adapted for human applications.

Science has never been more important in agriculture (less methane, anyone?), and if we are to have more money for more science then directing a lot of our scarce resources at agriculture is sensible.

It would be foolish to put all our scientific eggs in the agricultural basket. But we are not a wealthy country and therefore do not have the luxury of being able to spend large amounts of the limited funding we have on blue sky research; especially given so much existing expertise and our natural advantage in agriculture.

But it’s not either science or agriculture, the two are not mutually exclusive. IMHO our future should be with science in agriculture.


Greenstone Editorial Gone

22/06/2008

The story of the pounamu  gifted by the Christchurch City Council to China which flew first class because it would be culturally insensitive to put it in the hold prompted an editorial in The Press. Private Bin in the NBR (which isn’t on-line) noted the editorial had disappeared from the website and it hasn’t reappeared so here is a copy from the print edition:

 

Ngai Tahu asserts that Christchurch’s gift to China is imbued with spiritual force. That is debatable, but the boulder certainly is imbued with farce.

Its journey from Fiordland to Wuhan provides the basis for a novel of the absurd, in which the voyage is preposterous, the characters pretentious and the implications portentous.

Fortunately for the reputation of Christchurch, this wacky combination will initially be laughed at and attributed to the city’s liking for crankiness. But underneath the nonsense is a city council losing touch with reality.

The request for an inanimate rock to have a partly ratepayer-funded escort and a seat in first class should have been vetoed before it had a change to develop legs. However serious the claims by Ngai Tahu about the boulder’s spirituality they are not supported by the large majority of Christchurch citizens, in whose name the gift was being made. A mayor in tune with his citizens would not have associated them with such hocus-pocus, let Ngai Tahu pay for the exercise of its religious beliefs and had the rock presented with typical Kiwi restraint.

 

But Christchurch has a council so in thrall to its sister-city relationships that its successive mayors and councillors repeatedly risk political demerits to cement the international contacts with visits, hospitality and gifts. So enthusiastic is city hall about these shenanigans that it now has a paid official with the title of international relations manager.

Part of her job, it seems, is ensuring Christchurch ratepayers do not get to know about things like the rummage in Fiordland for a rack, its luxurious passage halfway round the world, and the associating of the city with cultish beliefs. These facts were made public only because The Press forced them into the open by way of the Official Information Act.

Mayor Bob Parker need merely have remembered the public’s contempt for retiring MPs’ junketing on the Speaker’s tour to curtail the madcap greenstone trail. His lack of nous about such international skylarking will now require him to deflect a spectrum of critics: those unimpressed with Maori claims to privileged spirituality; those sickened by gravy-eating politicians; those intent on pillorying over-inflated city burghers.

The pounamu is now resting in the unkind keeping of the Communist Party of China. If the rock is consigned to the attic, as are most official gifts – even those received by totalitarian vulgarians – Christchurch’s spiritual out-reach will have been in vain. But there is hope of a more productive outcome.

China’s political bosses, driven into a corner by adherence to the unswerving olgic of dialectical materialism, might find the rock’s spirtiual immaterialism useful. An unquiet Tibet, a spluttering Olympic torch, a carbon-laden atmosphere, a political structure immune to renewal – these and China’s other gigantic problems seem so unlikely to be solved by Marxist administration that genuflection to a green stone could reasonably be tried.

On the other hand, Bob Parker, embarked on a mayoralty littered with gaffs, might need to reclaim the pounamu and beseech it for political advice. If he does, he would be wise to bring it home escorted only by recycled wrapping, protected by a butter box and placed in the belly of a plane.

 

The following letters to the editor were printed in response the following day:

Your editorial yesterday contained errors of concern to the Christchurch City Council.

The first of these is the implication that information about the gift of pounamu to Christchurch’s Friendship City of Wuhan, China, was discovered only through the Official Information Act.

The council issued a media release on April 22, detailing this gift and how it had travelled to Wuhan. Your newspaper received this release on this date, and published an article about the gift on April 26. The Star also ran the story on April 30.

At this time, no reporter called the council requesting any additional information, which we would have been happy to release.

The second point is that you inferred that the position of civic and international relations manager was new to the council. This position has been in existence for at least 10 years.

The manager’s role is not just to source gifts for our sister cities, as inferred in your editorial. She is responsible for identifying and developing international relationships that result in economic benefits for Christchurch – Tony Marryatt CHief Executive CCC.

The views expressed in your editorial yesterday displayed a remarkable level of insensitivity and ignorance, and are full of inaccuracies.

For generations pounamu has been central to Ngai Tahu culture and survival, with the gifting of pounamu an important Ngai Tahu tradition that carries with it our mana and protection. It is an act that has become commonplace, as was displayed in 2004 when the entire New Zealand Olympic team wore pounamu to Athens.

Your comments do your publication, the citizens of Wuhan and Ngai Tahu great disservice when one considers the spirit with which the gift is intended. Mark Solomon Kaiwhakahaere Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu

Yesterday’s editorial was intended to be tongue-in-cheek and whimsical. It ailed badly in making that clear and the intemperate, and in some instances offensive, sentiments are The Press’s editorial policy. I can only apologise. – Andrew Holden, Editor.

And:

New Zealand greenstone, a true jade, is pounemu. Bowenite – sometimes called greenstone by the geologically ignorant, and not a jade – is takiwai. Bowenite “greenstone” is not pounemu.

The addition of ‘stone” to pounemu, as pounamu is know in the south, is redundant.

This isn’t difficult nomenclature. How did your journalist get so muddled. (“Pounamu stone flies first class to satisfy protocol,: June 14)? Keri Hulme.


Update: Bill of Rights Court Decision

22/06/2008

Kiwiblog has more details and a link to a copy of the judgement on the court challenge over Bill of Rights issues when the Electoral Finance Bill was being debated in parliament.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, the computer keyboard is the modern weapon for those who fight for freedom of expression. As a republican Davd Farrar would no doubt turn down a knighthood (if they still existed), but he certainly deserves recognition for his determined, intelligent and prolific opposition to the EFA 🙂


Safer in the Bank

22/06/2008

Tough but true talking from Martin Hawes:

More finance companies are likely go under. I do not know which particular ones are most at risk, but I believe this sector is so poor there is not a finance company that I would recommend to a client or invest in myself.

I concede there are some reasonably good finance companies around, although you could count them on the fingers of one hand.

However, the ones that are fairly well- governed and managed, and which have well-diversified loan books (ie the few good ones), still do not pay enough interest over and above what I can get at the bank to attract me as an investor.

There are some very sad stories about people who have lost their life savings through investing in finance companies which have failed, and some have done so on supposedly good advice from supposed experts.

But the buyer should always be beware. There is too much to lose and not enough to gain from taking a higher risk for only slightly more interest from most finance companies than you’d get from a safer option at a bank. 


Strategy Not Structure

21/06/2008

Primary industry should concentrate on strategy not structure according to Associate Professor Hamish Gow, an ex-pat New Zealander who is a leading US food marekting specialist.

The primary sector has increased its contribution to New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP) from 14% in 1986 to 17% today, something Associate Prof Hamish Gow, an ex-patriate New Zealander now a leading United States food marketing specialist, said had not been achieved elsewhere.

Prof Gow, of Michigan State University, told the recent New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management conference in Queenstown that farmers throughout the world were trying to develop branded marketing channels, but itwas not easily achieved because they could not get industry unity.

Despite that, Prof Gow believed New Zealand’s primary sector had done well, although the models used needed some improving.

The key was to concentrate on strategy not structure.

He gave the example of New Zealand apple growers who, in the process of remodelling the sector’s structure, sold off the profitable juicing business and lost control of the industry.

A strategy had to create value and provide consumers with what they wanted, he said.

There is a lesson here for those who are concerned about the meat industry because any public utterances show that those wanting change are concentrating on structure not strategy.


Competition Irrelevant in Consent Application

21/06/2008

One of the most frustrating aspects of the RMA is the way it allows those in competition to the applicant to lodge objections to consent on grounds which are irrelevant to the application.

Barnados tried this in Oamaru yesterday, against an application for consent to establish a child care centre, but hearings panel chair Cr Struan Munro recognised the attempt for what it was:

 However, Cr Munro pointed out that most of the issues raised by Barnardos were not related to effects on the environment and its submission was based on competition, which could not be considered as part of the Little Wonders’ discretionary land use resource consent application.


EFA Opponents’ Court Bid Fails

21/06/2008

The bid for a judicial review of the Attorney General’s decision not to raise BIll of Rights issues in the EFA when it was considered by Parliament, has been struck out by the High Court.

Update: Kiwiblog has a fuller report and response.


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