Saturday, December 03, 2005

John Armstrong: Too feisty for his own good

Here's some advice for the pugnacious David Benson-Pope: attack is not always the best form of defence, especially when you are trying to shed accusations you were a bully as a teacher.

But then the Cabinet minister from Dunedin is sometimes his own worst enemy, a trait that has not gone unnoticed in the Beehive.

Given the somewhat inconclusive police inquiry into allegations that he assaulted pupils while teaching at Dunedin's Bayfield High School in the 1980s, he might have kept his head down, even if he is indignant at the police finding there is a prima facie case to answer.

Benson-Pope may be no bully. But he is definitely a bulldog. He lashed out, describing the police language as a "bit bozo-ish". He then tried to redefine the meaning of "prima facie" as nothing more than someone merely laying a complaint when it actually means there is evidence to suggest something did happen.

Worse was his lunching with John Cleese in the Beehive when he should have been answering questions next door in Parliament.

Benson-Pope is not the first Cabinet minister to duck the House when things get difficult.

But most have the decency to be embarrassed by it. However, his absence was not solely his decision.

Labour strategists decided it was better that he not be in the firing line when Act's Rodney Hide and National's Judith Collins got their first chance to question him after last week's police announcement that there was a prima facie case, although they would not be prosecuting the minister.

Labour was aware that the subsequent release of the full police report of the inquiry - which should occur next week - would give Hide and Collins a further chance to blast Benson-Pope. Why give his tormentors two free hits?

However, Labour wanted to keep Benson-Pope out of the House in case he said something that was out of step with what is in the police report. The precaution was understandable.

Although he was aware that Hide and TV3 were digging over his past, Benson-Pope failed to have a suitably carefully worded statement on hand when the allegations about tennis balls and sticky tape first surfaced in Parliament in May.

His seeming off-the-cuff outright rejection of the accusations carried the risk of coming back to bite him. It may still.

But those who have seen the police report say 26 former pupils were interviewed, 16 of whom said the alleged incidents never happened or whose recollection is extremely hazy. Only nine witnessed incidents and their accounts are described as "highly variable".

The view in the Beehive is that the report will show the police set a very low threshold for declaring there was a prima facie case and that Benson-Pope would have been easily cleared of any wrongdoing had the police prosecuted - all of which he will likely stress when he finally fronts in Parliament next week.

Despite the advance spin, Benson-Pope's problem is that attention is bound to focus on aspects of the report which are unfavourable to him.

That will highlight the two questions still hovering over him. Should he remain a Cabinet minister? And - given he has no intention of quitting - will his staying on make him a political liability?

The police report may be too weak to force his resignation on the grounds of his failing to meet the standards expected of a Cabinet minister.

Unfortunately for Benson-Pope, he is still in an unsatisfactory limbo because of the police determining there is a prima facie case, rather than declaring there was no basis to the allegations.

The police concluded that two key incidents, including the infamous jamming of a tennis ball into a pupil's mouth, could have happened. But that does not mean they definitely happened.

Does that uncertainty still place him under a cloud so that, while not forced to go, he is still morally obliged to resign?

That might be best answered by harking back to John Tamihere's downfall, especially as claims are already being made of differing standards being applied to Maori ministers and Clark "favourites" such as Benson-Pope.

Tamihere was sacked for accepting a payment he said he would not take.

In contrast, Benson-Pope utterly rejects the claims made against him and the police decision not to prosecute means they remain unproven.

As with Tamihere, the Prime Minister would have to have made a judgment call - one that was considerably easier in the current case given the absence of any groundswell of public opinion for Benson-Pope to be dumped.

But part of the consideration in him staying would have been whether he can still do his job effectively.

The immediate worry for Labour was that the police report might contain damaging information which would have seen him up before Parliament's privileges committee.

Hide argues that the existence of a prima facie case means Benson-Pope misled Parliament when he rubbished the allegations as "ridiculous" after they first surfaced.

However, the Speaker has already ruled against referring the matter to the privileges committee.

The report's contents would have to seriously compromise Benson-Pope for the matter to be reopened.

Benson-Pope is still vulnerable in the House. As Social Development Minister, he has overall responsibility for the safety of children.

That permits the Opposition to keep questioning him about his behaviour as a teacher, which it could not do if he held a different portfolio.

But if National thinks he could turn out to be the new George Hawkins, it is dreaming.

Hawkins plodded along in police and a few other smaller portfolios.

A former chief whip, Benson-Pope was marked out early on for higher things. Since becoming a member of the Cabinet, he has moved swiftly into senior roles.

As a minister, he is very much in the Bill Birch mould - someone who can defuse an issue, sort things out to most people's satisfaction and then move on to the next problem.

Every Government needs such hard-headed operators.

His elevation into the vast and complex Social Development portfolio previously held by Steve Maharey was a vote of confidence by Helen Clark.

Labour will hope that he has heeded some lessons from his experience of recent months. But that does not seem to be the case.

He is abrasive. He has an acid tongue. His style is to get the verbal punches in first. And maybe it is always going to be.

Fran O'Sullivan: Clark lays down cards

I am sure Helen Clark was wearing the trousers when she rolled up to the European Union's Brussels headquarters this week as the latest international leader to whip the "naughty school-boy" of global trade into shape.

Peter Mandelson - British Prime Minister Tony Blair's old political sidekick - is in a neat ideological bind as he finds his way into promoting Europe's interests as the EU's latest trade czar.

The pair - who know each other well - are both old-stagers from "progressive" political circles. He could reasonably expect "Clark the Europhile" to sit easily within the structured confines of European-style politics.

But when it comes to promoting agricultural liberalisation she is proving herself nothing but self-interested - almost a Friedmanite - pitting herself squarely against Mandelson on the concessions on agricultural liberalisation she believes Europe needs to make to secure a successful global trade round.

Clark clearly believes there has not been enough focus on market access, which is the "third leg of the trade stool", when it comes to reducing agricultural protectionism.

Europe - and the United States (but that is a different story) - has made progress on reducing subsidies at both domestic and export level.

But the tight quota system by which Europe still controls access to what is the world's richest consumer market means that even if other countries (such as New Zealand) can produce agricultural products more competitively than the Europeans they will not necessarily be guaranteed unbridled access.

This salient point does get lost during the jargon heavy reportage of the world's trade ministers' lengthy gavotte.

Brussels, however, is not going to lift its skirts unless big agricultural producers such as India and Brazil (and the US) also throw open their doors more comprehensively to European industrial exports.

Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton - who is now in the last lap of his World Trade Organisation swansong - has been urging the WTO heavies that they should all be "flexible".

No one close to the action now believes that the WTO's Hong Kong meeting in 10 days will do other than agree a template on which the real negotiating concessions will be nailed at another meeting about March or April.

Sutton - like all trade ministers - has to publicly play WTO cheerleader far more often that his own farmer instincts would stomach.

But the reality is not lost on Clark.

The deep irony is that the Prime Minister chose Europe, rather than New Zealand, to make the most critical public concession I've yet heard from a Government politician on the upcoming global trade talks.

And that is that there will be nothing much in it for this country's exporters unless the international trade heavies can persuade the EU (it is not the only recalcitrant) to lever open its doors for more agricultural products from developed and developing nations alike in the Hong Kong talks.

New Zealand does not usually "lift the diplomatic" veil too high when it comes to international tradespeak unless our own self-interest gets unmasked.

The "subtleties" are not lost in Brussels where a number of European MPs (who believe the WTO's Doha Round is being skewed in favour of industrialised agricultural exporting nations) have attacked New Zealand's position as "self-interested".

The New Zealand press contingent - side-tracked by latest instalment of "Hunt the Winston" - downplayed her EU admission.

But it was a major exercise in truth-telling that maybe only a smaller player can get away with without losing its own remaining privileged EU quotas.

In an interview with Berliner Zeitung, Mandelson struck out at the tough stance Paris, in particular, has adopted against further farm liberalisation. "With its criticism, France has done no favour to itself or to the EU," he told the German daily.

"In this way, they [the French] have given the impression that they are the single European brake [on progress], while other EU countries were ready to make more concessions."

Mandelson could have added - but chose not to - that even now-wealthy nations such as Ireland and Belgium are singing the French tune on protecting agricultural markets.

But Mandelson's key admission is that Paris obstructionism has created room for big agricultural players - such as Brazil, Australia, Canada and the US - to intensify pressure on the EU ahead of the Hong Kong talks.

"Big agricultural exporters are now flexing their muscles and demand a complete liberalisation of farm trade."

That Mandelson left New Zealand off this list is not a signal that we do not count among the world's top agricultural exporters.

Clark made it abundantly clear to Brussels that our own competitiveness is down to the fact that we faced up to reality two decades ago that subsidies ultimately skew economic performance. "There is little else we can give," she says.

But other nations can.

This is really the subtext to the public spat between Clark and Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon over his suggestion that democracy might take second place to trade when it comes to putting food on the table of the world's poorer nations.

The Commonwealth houses many African, Caribbean and Pacific nations which would keel over without preferential access to the EU market.

Clark, concerned that other struggling democracies will follow Zimbabwe's path, condemned his remarks as ill-judged.

But McKinnon is right to put the emphasis on economic prosperity as the WTO round reaches endgame.

Editorial: Loan move unfair for early payers

Why, in all fairness, is the Government closing a "loophole" in the student loan scheme that lets some students who have already made repayments take advantage of the interest-free offer?

Labour's election sweetener to students was inevitably going to be unfair to those who have already paid back their loans with interest.

When the Government was alerted last week to a clause in the legislation that allows people to reclaim voluntary repayments within six months, Tertiary Education Minister Michael Cullen could have welcomed those people to the fold of Labour's beneficence.

Instead he has decided to legislate retrospectively, preventing them from renewing their loans on the interest-free basis that will apply from April 1. These are people who had voluntarily repaid all or part of their debt before they had to. There will be no reason for anyone to do that after April 1 when loans will cease to accumulate interest.

Indeed, it would be astonishing if anybody has made a voluntary repayment since Labour announced the interest-free policy early in the election campaign as a desperate response to the National Party's popular tax-cutting intentions.

It was the National Party that drew Dr Cullen's attention to the "loophole" last week with a certain glee. It had found a former student, Thomas Banfield, now a Wellington stockbroker, who had used the refund provision to recover his voluntary repayment from Inland Revenue and put the money into an interest-bearing account.

But National, too, has taken the case the wrong way. The party is congratulating itself for identifying a slip-up in the Government's policy. "This proves beyond any doubt that Labour's no-interest loans scheme is rushed and reckless, thrown together in desperation before the election," says finance spokesman John Key.

But that is not the worst of it. The offensive feature of the no-interest policy is that it is unfair to many thousands of people who have been paying interest on student loans and now find interest to be waived for no reason that will stand scrutiny.

A great deal of claptrap is heard about student debt. Figures released by the Statistics Department this week show that in the six years to March last year borrowers had an average balance of $13,000. Half of them owed less than $8570.

Sums such as those are manageable for a person earning a regular income, and nobody makes compulsory repayments of a student loan until he or she is earning a specified minimum income, at present $16,588 a year. Contrary to what is often claimed, women are paying back their loans at about the same rate as men, according to the figures.

Of those who have taken out the loans since 1997, about 14 per cent have paid them back in full - with interest. They have a right to feel aggrieved when they hear the Government cancelling interest from the end of this tax year for no better reason than it felt a need to shore up the votes of students, the parents of students and many former students who still had outstanding debt.

The losers under this policy will be those who cleared their debt as soon as they could. The winners will be those we constantly hear have skipped the country or otherwise put off repaying their debt to the taxpayer for as long as possible.

The Treasury estimates that early repayers will fall to a fifth of their present number when interest is abolished. And the number of additional loans taken out is anyone's guess. Who would not take free money when it is offered? Quite a number, the Government consoles itself.

But the Banfield strategy caught it by surprise. It takes a dim view of "gaming" with taxpayers' money but it had better get used to it. The terms it is offering make borrowing the maximum, and repaying the minimum, the only intelligent response.

John Roughan: Let's save poor from rock stars

Where is Bob Geldof now that he could really do some good? Six months ago the self-appointed pop star for Africa was saturating the news with his mission to put poverty at the top of the agenda for a meeting in Britain of the G8.

The G8 (the world's seven richest nations and Russia) is one of those regular and fairly inconsequential forums where governments discuss common issues and try to agree on resolutions but have no machinery to make them act.

It is quite unlike the World Trade Organisation. The WTO has rules and dispute procedures that have the potential to punish those who put up devious barriers to trade.

Governments think twice about joining the WTO, and the organisation looks long and hard at their economic habits before admitting them.

Every 10 years or so the WTO tries to reduce all remaining trade impediments by the unanimous agreement of member countries. Each time it takes years of arcane bargaining and a series of summit conferences to agree on even glacial progress.

And always there is the fear that failure could leave all countries to look out for themselves by doing deals where they can and devil take the hindmost.

I'm sorry this is boring - too boring for Bob Geldof, probably - but it is important.

Poor countries have been flocking to join the WTO over the past 10 years and they have made their presence felt for the first time in this "Doha round" of bargaining that has been struggling now for four years.

It is coming to its crunch conference in Hong Kong the week after next and it could easily fail. Already it appears to have sidelined the interests of poorer members, and the rock culture's champion of Africa doesn't seem to care.

Trade may not be cool, but Geldof and co have proved, if nothing else, that it is possible to turn the power of popular music to a tedious cause.

Debt relief, the aim of his Live 8 production for the already forgotten G8, is not only tedious, it is also of dubious lasting value to the people he wants to help.

Debt cancellation is warm and comforting until the next time the under-capitalised country needs money. Then the write-off turns out to have been even less helpful than the last injection of aid, which is exactly what debts become when they are not repaid.

Nobody liked to put this very strongly to Geldof when he was on British television day after day through May and June, conviction in his eye, a challenge in his voice.

When he railed against debt he was not asked if poor countries, once relieved, should be denied another dose of it. Neither was he reminded that 20 years after Live Aid the condition of Ethiopia is no better.

But it was gently put to him once or twice that trade was really the answer, wasn't it? And he agreed. Not passionately, not with the same conviction, but he agreed. He wanted the G8 to push for progress in the Doha round, too.

Yet over the past few weeks, as the round comes to its moment of truth in Hong Kong, it could have done with some conscience-raising music.

"Live Trade" might lack sex appeal but if Geldof seriously meant to make poverty history he should have saved his promotional power for this moment.

In July he was wasting a great deal of energy, his own and many others'. He drew 200,000 people to Edinburgh when the G8 were about to meet at Gleneagles nearby. The same day he staged free concerts in nine countries.

At the end, the G8 leaders said they would double their collective aid to Africa by 2010 and write off the debts of 18 countries, 14 of them African.

Geldof called it "the most important summit there has ever been for Africa". A musical colleague in the cause, Bono, added, "The world spoke and politicians listened."

Not long ago the Independent in London published a re-assessment of the G8. It reported that even as the rock stars were congratulating themselves, the serious humanitarian groups in the Make Poverty History campaign were reading the fine print.

More than half the promised increase in aid by 2010 wasn't new money but a restatement of previous pledges, future aid budgets and some debt relief.

The debt relief package would apply to debts held by only three of the world's 19 multilateral creditors, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank.

Well, that's show business.

Okay, you might say, but what harm is done by the aid-show business if it raises public awareness? Considerable harm, possibly, if showtime is chosen for the sake of a production in the northern summer rather than when it could be most effective.

The Independent report said: "Geldof and Bono's endorsement of the G8 deal came as a blow to many within the Make Poverty History coalition, ensuring that the issues of Africa, poverty and development disappeared from the spotlight within days of the summit's end."

The word from international trade conferences such as Apec last month is that Doha will survive Hong Kong without the high hopes that it would spread the benefits of trade to those countries that have not yet caught the modern wave.

Only Africa is now largely missing out on the prosperity generated by open markets, trans-national investment, new telecommunications and (since Don McKinnon asked) democracy.

Restrained government and allegiance to law are proving necessary to strong economies.

If Doha fails, the cost will be borne most heavily by those Geldof wants to help. Agriculture, which provides 80 per cent of Africans with their livelihood, will continue to face high tariffs and subsidised prices in the best markets.

The World Bank calculates that trade liberalisation would be worth $196 billion to developing countries, more than they receive annually in aid and much more than they stand to gain from debt relief.

Perhaps it is time to save the poor from show business.

Paul Thomas: Loving it in the limelight

We can run but we can't hide from these two. They give new meaning to the word ubiquitous.

Before kick-off in the All Blacks-Scotland game, the camera zoomed in on the flag-waving figure of Sonny Shaw, contract accountant and have-passport-will-travel sports tragic.

And when Tana Umaga went up to collect the silverware, there he was in the best seat in the house, smirking like a wily old merchant in a Middle Eastern bazaar: Winston Peters, our guaranteed 100 per cent bauble-free Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Ubiquitousness isn't all they have in common.

Both, obviously, are sports-lovers. Young Winston was a useful midfield back who played in University's 1971 Gallaher Shield-winning team and was one of the few sportsmen to master the art of smoking in the shower.

Both have love-hate relationships with the media. Winston has been pretty much in hate mode since assuming office, to the extent of taking a leaf from the Robert Mugabe Manual of Media Management and accusing this newspaper of treason.

Sonny gets his face on TV almost as much as the weather girl. Last summer Sky Television got sick of his camera-hogging antics and tried to restrict him to parts of the ground where he couldn't constantly thrust himself into the frame. As an exercise in futility, it was up there with farting against thunder.

Both have a history of late-night scuffles in Wellington's club-land.

Sonny got on All Black Jerry Collins' fighting side and lived to tell the tale, which is something to relate to the grandchildren.

His subsequent efforts to land Collins in hot water over what was, by all accounts, no more than a dismissive hand-off showed the sort of tit-for-tat prickliness that often marks international affairs.

Both jet around the world, seemingly driven by a compulsive urge to have their photos taken with famous people.

Both purport to represent New Zealand to the bewilderment of the international community - Helen Clark must be getting sick of being presented with please explains - and the embarrassment of their compatriots.

Historians searching for precedents for Winston's bizarre appointment have gone all the way back to Caligula's horse.

The Roman Emperor Caligula supposedly gave serious consideration to making his horse Consul, although there's a school of thought that it was a joke which went over the head of his long-suffering subjects. Given that he was a megalomaniacal fruitcake with a penchant for incest, how were they meant to know?

Since Helen Clark and her deputy Michael Cullen are supposedly ultra-smart political operators, it's tempting to assume that a cunning plan is unfolding before our eyes.

On the other hand, ultra-smart operators have been known to do dumb, politically disastrous things.

Bill Clinton's supremely tacky liaison with a White House intern young enough to be his daughter is one example.

Another is Paul Keating's admirable but doomed attempt simultaneously to promote an alliance with Indonesia and reconciliation with the Aborigines, thereby delivering the working-class redneck vote to John Howard who has pandered to it ever since.

Perhaps, though, it was an appropriate appointment in that Winston can be seen as epitomising a New Zealand stereotype.

The model here is France's former Foreign Minister, Dominique De Villepin. Dubbed "the silver wolf with burning eyes" by an obviously love-struck journalist, De Villepin recently graduated to the Prime Ministership without ever having taken part in an election, which tells us something about the state of French democracy.

A self-published poet and self-styled intellectual, De Villepin has written a biography of Napoleon (fancy that) and the startlingly titled Elegy To The Fire Thieves, an 824-page homage to various deranged poets, including Antonin Artaud, the founder of the theatre of cruelty. (The cruelty in question is that inflicted on the audience.)

Artaud believed that all sexual activity was harmful to the creative process and should be avoided by those hoping to achieve purity in their art.

This is eerily similar to the mania afflicting the character of General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb.

Ripper, who ushers in the end of the world by turning a training exercise code-named Operation Drop Kick into a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, believes women sense his power and seek his essence.

"I do not avoid women," he says, "but I do deny them my essence."

Just as the haughty, aristocratic, monumentally pretentious De Villepin is a certain French self-image come vividly if not satirically to life, it's possible to view Winston as the personification of the mythical Kiwi bloke.

Half-Maori and half-Scottish, a rugby fan who enjoys a fag, a drink and a roughhouse, suspicious of difference yet at ease in any company, a populist with no discernible political philosophy, unworldly but cunning, Winston is a New Zealand Everyman.

Next time the Prime Minister is being badgered by presumptuous foreigners - did we seek urgent clarification when our neighbours unleashed Alexander Downer, the Australian version of an upper-class twit, on an unsuspecting world? Did we protest at the appointment of Madeleine Albright, the Mrs Doubtfire of diplomacy? - she should point this out.

Greg Ansley: Australian tale born of tragedy

Nguyen Tuong Van, the 25-year-old former Melbourne salesman and heroin smuggler who was hanged at dawn yesterday in Singapore, was a modern Australian tragedy, the product of a string of other tragedies that have scarred the nation.

He was also a modern nightmare: a young man of previous good character trapped fatally in the drug underworld and caught by a state that has no mercy for his kind; and a diplomatic agony for a country whose powerful convictions clash impossibly with those of its closest, and most sensitive, neighbours.

Above all, Nguyen was the son of a devoted mother who had already seen more than her share of grief, and whose agony as she held her boy's hand for the last time as he waited to be led to the gallows can barely be imagined.

Nguyen was raised in Melbourne because of the Vietnam war and Australia's still bitterly debated part in it.

His mother, Kim, became pregnant with Nguyen and his twin brother Khoa in a brief and failed marriage as South Vietnam fell to the communists.

Her father and an uncle were arrested and imprisoned. Five years later, Kim Nguyen joined the flood of refugees pouring into overcrowded camps in Thailand, where her sons were born.

This was the time of the great Vietnamese diaspora. Canberra felt a deep obligation to the exiled supporters of its former ally and, after the first refugee boats began arriving, opened its doors.

In the decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975, about 88,000 Vietnamese arrived in Australia, mainly rescued from the abominable conditions of the border camps and founding a community that now numbers about 170,000. But the diaspora also brought with it the evil that ultimately trapped Nguyen.

By the early 1990s Vietnamese crime gangs had become significant players in heroin trafficking, extortion and illegal gambling, frequently in association with Chinese Triads and other Asian syndicates.

Inevitably, their own communities were infected with a plague that had already taken a tragic number of Australia's youth.

The Nguyen family's early years in Melbourne were hard, as they are for most refugees, living in a city block of Housing Commission flats.

Kim married a Vietnamese-Australian man whom she left after he began violently striking her sons.

Later the family moved to Chadstone, a blue-collar suburb in the city's southwest, where Kim worked two jobs to support her sons in a three-bedroom home.

Nguyen by all accounts was a good son, steeped in the Vietnamese tradition of responsibility.

Kim told the Sydney Morning Herald her twins had been delivered by caesarean and, because she did not know which one was born first, picked Van as the elder because he was larger than Khoa.

Nguyen reportedly took the responsibility of elder son seriously. He joined the Scouts, worked hard at school, took a night job at McDonald's and tried to keep Khoa out of trouble.

This became increasingly difficult, and ultimately lethal. His twin was expelled from school, turned to heroin and was busted for dealing the drug. Last year, Khoa was given a three-month suspended sentence for brutally assaulting another man.

Both boys fell into heavy debt. But it was the A$30,000 ($31,544) owed by Khoa that most worried Nguyen. Desperate to help his brother, he accepted a commission from a Vietnamese man in Sydney to take a parcel from Cambodia to Australia. He told his mother he was taking a holiday.

Nguyen, his statements to police reveal, was under no illusions. He was sure he was being asked to smuggle drugs. In Phnom Penh he realised how much trouble he was in: the suppliers forced him to smoke heroin, and threatened him with death if he tried to pull out.

He milled blocks of heroin with a coffee grinder and taped 396.2g of the powdered drug in two plastic bags to his body. At Changi Airport in Singapore, where possession of 15g of heroin carries an automatic death penalty, his mobile phone set off the security alarms.

When he was stopped and searched, Nguyen reportedly pulled off the two bags himself, handed them to police and said: "It's heroin, sir."

For Australia, the admission and the inevitable execution has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger, even in a country that shares Singapore's loathing of drugs and in which polls show opinion to be divided on whether he should have been hanged.

Australia executed its last prisoner, Robert Ryam, at Melbourne's Pentridge jail in 1967, and has opposed the death penalty ever since. In 1986, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke severely strained relations with Malaysia with his outspoken but fruitless efforts to save drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers from the noose.

Howard's Government stepped up its equally fruitless efforts to save Nguyen after growing criticism of inadequate action.

Nguyen himself appeared to have accepted his fate. In letters published in Australian newspapers he told of a newfound belief in God and his regrets for the lives he would have scarred with his shipment.

"In a place ravaged by fear and haunts I have found hope," he wrote in one letter published in Sydney's Sun-Herald. "I have discovered purpose. I have begun to learn the true meaning of life."

In the dark of a Singapore dawn yesterday, as vigils were held around Australia, that life ended.

Graham Reid: Scholar no gentleman

When you travel to foreign parts, make an effort to respect local customs. Usually they're common courtesies or fairly obvious - you don't wear shorts or a halter-top to St Peter's, or in some Muslim states, and you should always take your headgear off (or put something on, depending on the faith) when you enter a place where people communicate with their god.

In parts of Asia you don't stick chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice - it looks like incense being burned for the dead.

Wherever you are, you don't smoke between courses unless your hosts do.

And in Texas you eat that godawful chicken-fried steak pretending it is fine dining - unless you want an argument from a 2m and 120kg guy in a Stetson.

These things aren't in the nature of kowtowing to others - although kowtowing can be a good thing - they're just in the nature of simple courtesies.

When you are out of your cultural zone you simply watch what the locals do and follow their lead - unless they are fire-walking, diving off high cliffs into a roiling sea, or eating chicken-fried steak.

Temples, shrines and memorials have a universal code - unless you are an Eastern European with a cellphone, as recent experience showed me - and that is of quiet reverence. So switch off your cellphone.

If you have been lucky enough to have been to Hanoi where the late Ho Chi Minh is in residence, (unless he's been shipped off for routine cleaning) you'll know that you enter his mausoleum in single file, no talking, no stopping to gawk, and no hands in pockets.

Those who insist on smoking everywhere or pointing a camera at anything which takes their fancy would be unwise to get in the queue. The Hanoi jail is quite unpleasant.

I quite like paying the occasional visit to mausoleums, graves and memorials. At best it gives you a chance to reflect on the influential life of the person.

At worst - as with Jim Morrison's grave in Paris - it reminds you that you should never judge someone by the behaviour of their disciples and acolytes.

You might think similarly at Mao's mausoleum.

Monuments to political leaders can often be bizarre monstrosities - Chiang Kai-Shek's memorial in Taipei has an eerie, lifelike waxwork of him in his office and a changing of the guard choreographed by the Ministry of Silly Walks. But there are memorials worthy of quiet contemplation.

One afternoon in Guangzhou I went to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, the place which honours the man whose ideologies modernised China in the early 20th century on then-unfashionable principals of democracy, equality and nationalism.

He died disappointed when the country split into powerful factions out of which emerged nationalists, communists and rival warlords.

But Sun Yat-Sen is often recognised by all those factions so his Memorial Hall - on the site of his presidential offices - seemed worthy of serious attention, and his life a matter for contemplation.

When I arrived in the early afternoon only one other person was there, a bent old man intently reading every inscription.

I sat in the hall, which is often used for concerts and meetings, waiting for him to finish his serious business, not wishing to intrude. I thought of how China had changed- as the old man carried on reading the writings.

I mused on what odd circumstances had brought me here - as he shuffled slowly to the next piece of calligraphy. Then I thought of the unusual food I had eaten the previous evening - while the old man moved on slowly.

And finally I thought how bloody boring it was waiting - while the old man dragged his feet across the platform to some other piece of art, writing or some damn thing.

I assumed the man was a scholar or devotee, but finally decided I would have to interrupt his studious reverie.

I walked on to the stage alongside him with all the quiet reverence and respect for the cultural context I could muster.

Just as I did so, he let out a great sour fart - then left, leaving me considering the legacy of the great Sun Yat-Sen in cabbage-like Smell-O-Rama and mild hysterics.

Brian Gaynor: Body language tells a tale or three

There were two important shareholder developments this week.

On Monday, the High Court endorsed a decision by the Takeovers Panel regarding Oyster Bay Marlborough Vineyards that should ensure all relevant matters are included in target company statements.

Three days later, the Shareholders' Association had an important victory when its resolution to remove a Feltex director was successful after receiving unanimous support from the company's other board members.

The Feltex annual meeting was a fascinating study of human behaviour or, more accurately, "the corporate version of the blame game".

Chairman Tim Saunders blamed the Australian economy, exchange rates and outside economic advisers for the company's inability to achieve its prospectus forecasts.

The problem with that approach is that New Zealand investors have had a raw deal from private equity firms that have sold assets through IPOs. These private equity firms are supposed to employ some of the sharpest brains on the planet.

There have been four private equity IPOs in recent years: Feltex, Freightways, Frucor and Vertex.

As the accompanying table demonstrates, three of the four have missed the prospectus forecasts by the proverbial mile.

Feltex reported net earnings of $11.7 million for the June 2005 year compared with its forecast of $23.9 million.

Frucor achieved net earnings of only $11.7 million in its June 2001 year compared with a forecast of $20.4 million and Vertex could only achieve earnings of $1.2 million for its March 2003 year compared with its $5.8 million forecast.

One can't but get the feeling that private equity firms see New Zealand investors as a soft touch when they want to sell assets.

Another frustrating aspect of the Feltex meeting was Saunders' rejection of many requests to give up-to-date financial information and projections for the June 2006 year.

Why are companies willing to give detailed financial forecasts when they are selling shares to the public but are reluctant to supply forward-looking figures once investors have paid their money?

Saunders opened the proceedings with a 40-minute dissertation on the company's woes. The other directors sat with solemn faces while avoiding eye contact with shareholders.

When new chief executive officer Peter Thomas spoke, the body language of former CEO Sam Magill changed dramatically. He started twiddling his thumbs, tapping his fingertips on the table and shaking his head.

It was clear that Magill had no time for Thomas and his ideas.

That is not surprising as they have totally different backgrounds.

Magill has more than 36 years in the carpet industry and was either managing director or general manager of Carpets International Malaysia, Invicta Carpets, Capital Carpet Industries and Shaw Industries. The latter was bought by Feltex in 2000 and Magill was appointed managing director.

At one stage, Saunders thought highly of Magill, as he wrote in the prospectus: "Our senior executives are among the most experienced in the Australasian carpet industry and have the experience and market knowledge required to continue to grow the Feltex business."

By contrast, Thomas had 28 years as an investment banker, mainly with Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB). In the 1980s, he had an awesome reputation for travelling continuously between Wellington, Melbourne, New York, London and Hong Kong while working on investment-banking deals.

Thomas indicated that Feltex's poor performance was due to poor leadership and culture.

His address to shareholders would have gone down well in a foreign-exchange dealing room at CSFB as he placed a great deal of emphasis on team culture, using the word "team" 44 times.

The appointment of Thomas is difficult to comprehend. He has had a distinguished career in investment banking but there is a huge gap between Wall Street and carpet manufacturing.

In addition, he was appointed to the Feltex board in 1996 after it was acquired by CSFB. As a former CSFB senior executive - he left the investment bank in 2001 - it is reasonable to assume he has had a significant influence over the purchase of Shaw, the appointment of Magill, the IPO strategy and the prospectus.

Saunders told the meeting that there were four candidates for the CEO position. Thomas put his hat in the ring eight weeks after the selection process started and the board is delighted he is now chief executive.

But this raises two important questions:
* Would Thomas have even been considered if he was an outside candidate?
* Does an existing board member have an unfair advantage in the chief executive selection process?

The most interesting resolution was the Shareholders' Association proposal that Magill be removed from the board.

Magill told shareholders, as he fought back the tears, about the campaign to blame him for Feltex's problems. He spoke about the personal hurt he had experienced and his biggest regret was that he had not stood up to the board.

He argued that the recent Cavalier profit downgrade showed that the entire carpet industry was experiencing difficulties and he questioned the new strategies being implemented by Thomas.

The motion was carried by a huge majority, with only 235,905 shares voting to keep Magill on the board. This indicated that the former chief executive did not vote his 2.65 million shares in support of himself.

The association had a landmark victory and its three-pronged attack by Des Hunt, Bruce Sheppard and Ross Dillon was effective and applauded by Feltex shareholders.

Unfortunately, there was little other good news for shareholders as Feltex is expected to report another drop in earnings for the June 2006 and there will be no dividend.

The High Court decision regarding the Oyster Bay Marlborough Vineyard was a major victory for the Takeovers Panel, Peter Yealands and David Rankin.

Justice Miller found that the disclosure regarding land values in the target company statement and independent advisers' report was inadequate and Delegat's offer for Oyster Bay is now void.

The High Court decision is timely because the panel is concerned that parties are not complying with the Takeovers Code.

In its recent newsletter Code Word, the panel said: "It appears that companies and their legal advisers treat compliance with the code as an option rather than a legal obligation.

"When an incumbent management supports a takeover offer, possibly one made by an existing majority holder for the shares it does not already hold, there is less incentive for management to inflate the value of a company.

"In these circumstances, information about the target company's future prospects that is given to the adviser may be relatively conservative."

The latter comments could easily apply to Oyster Bay as Delegat's owned 32.6 per cent of the target company before the bidding battle began and both companies are run by the same management team.

The target company statement and independent adviser's report play important roles in the takeover process and it is encouraging to see that the panel is prepared to protect the integrity of these documents.

* Disclosure of interest: Brian Gaynor is an executive director of Milford Asset Management.

Brent Sheather: Money won't buy happiness

Anyone who watches Desperate Housewives or The Sopranos will know that one of the major downsides of having a busy career like that of a lawyer, doctor or company director is that the job can crowd out personal time for family, friends and other interests.

Sure, most high-powered jobs pay really well but behavioural finance studies suggests that earning lots of money doesn't make you happy.

A recent report by James Montier, investment strategist at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, explores this intersection of psychology and finance in more detail. Montier summarises much of the academic research on the subject and concludes that you really cannot equate money with happiness.

Apparently those people who value materialistic goals, like having a nice coastal property or a Ferrari, are usually less happy than those who are more into intrinsic goals like how we feel about ourselves, relationships and community.

Not only are they less happy than their children-kissing counterparts, research suggests capitalists pursuing the dollar are also much more likely to suffer from a variety of mental disorders including paranoia, histrionics and narcissism. Ouch!

Montier quotes a Dutch study that looked at the aspirations and objectives of two groups of students - those on a business course and those training to be teachers. The business study students were more likely to be seeking to attain wealth and establish a reputation. The infant school teachers, bless their souls, were more interested in helping the children.

The research found that the nice teachers, although they would earn less, were much happier than the shallow business school students.

Business students were less satisfied with their present lives, felt less vital because they were more oriented towards wealth than towards helping people in need. Readers who would like to see how they score on an aspiration index should go to http://www.psych. rochester.edu/SDT/measures/aspir - scl.html. It measures how important various factors are in our lives. After answering the questions, the scores can be combined to analyse how important the six dimensions are to you.

So what is the profit-oriented, private investor to do? Montier helpfully suggests that those coveting their neighbour's house need to recognise that the achievement of material objectives isn't going to lead to happiness but he adds, before you give away all your assets, that money can enhance happiness levels if you spend your cash on experiences rather than material goods.

Another study, also by some Dutch researchers, suggests that the purchase of experiential goods makes people happier and were generally seen as money well spent.

The research also found that as people's income rose so did the rate at which experiential purchases dominated their happiness. But why should experiences like, say, a cruise on the Sungoddess make us happier than staying at the Hilton? Evidence suggests three possible reasons:

* Firstly, experiences seem to be open to positive review. When looking back at the trip on the Sungoddess, you tend to remember the people you met and the places you visited and conveniently forget that you fell off the back of the boat two days out of Auckland. Also material goods are often assimilated sooner - you get used to the Ferrari really quick and driving to Auckland is still a drag, all a Rolex really does is tell the time and so on. Assimilating your present position, and judging it as the norm, is known to psychologists as hedonic adaption. Experiences on the other hand, tend to be reasonably unique thus preventing the hedonic adaption process from kicking in.

* Second, experiences are more central to one's identity. We are defined by our experiences. Material possessions tend to be peripheral.

* Third, experiences have more social value. Bragging about staying at the Hilton is unlikely to endear you to anyone but talking about falling off the Sungoddess and swimming 10km to shore through shark-infested waters is likely to be more interesting.

So Montier's message is clear; materialistic pursuits pose a significant stumbling block on the path to happiness.

The more people aspire to materialistic goals, the less satisfied they appear to be with life and the greater the risk that they may develop mental health problems.

Perhaps the real test for investors of whether one has made the transformation from materialistic aspirations to the pursuit of more intrinsic values is if one can still be cheerful after a 20 per cent fall in the Dow. Personally, I am still getting over 1987.

* Brent Sheather is a Whakatane-based investment adviser.

Paul McIntyre: Board member falls from lofty heights

It's taken four days of high controversy but Adelaide businessman and establishment figure Robert Gerard quit as a board member of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) yesterday.

Gerard, who happens to have slipped the Liberal Party of Australia about $1.1 million in donations since 1998, was under siege for his company, Gerard Industries, using tax havens and ultimately settling a 14-year investigation by the Australian Tax Office for more than A$75 million ($79 million) late in 2003.

The problem for Gerard and indeed federal Treasurer Peter Costello was the settlement was finalised seven months after he was appointed to the RBA board in March 2003. RBA board directors are supposed to be without blemish in these matters.

Until yesterday, Gerard sat on the RBA board with other industry bigwigs such as Westfield billionaire Frank Lowy, Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie and former chairman of miner WMC, Hugh Morgan.

About the same time as Gerard quit the RBA yesterday, Costello announced Woolworths boss Roger Corbett was joining the central bank to replace him. Corbett had been due to replace the retiring Frank Lowy this month.

But it was Gerard's resignation that stirred the most interest. "This week has been aimed at destroying my reputation and damaging the Government," he said in a statement released though his lawyers. "Even though I have done nothing wrong and broken no law, the accusations made against me by the media have seriously affected my health and have brought unwanted attention to the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia."

Indeed, Gerard's tenure was under intense heat all week. A few days back former Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser said Gerard should "do the right thing" and resign from the board and the former chairman of the National Companies and Securities Commission Henry Bosch, said on Thursday that if Gerard was on a public company board, colleagues would encourage him to go.

"What has occurred is damaging to the Reserve Bank, and I think if this was a major public corporation, his colleagues would be indicating to him that perhaps his presence was not adding much at this stage," Bosch told ABC Radio.

And Gerard's close links to the Liberal Party gave plenty of fodder for the federal Opposition. It claimed on Tuesday that either the Treasurer knew about Gerard's tax problems or Gerard himself had not been honest when he was vetted for the RBA position.

"Why did the Treasurer still appoint this man to the Reserve Bank board?" asked Labor's Julia Gillard four days ago. "Well it's crystal clear Mr Gerard had bought it and the going price was more than $1 million," referring to his donations to the Liberal party.

A report prepared for the Australian Government Solicitor, which was acting on behalf of the ATO, by an eminent reinsurance expert, John Allison, alleged that Gerard was involved in the set-up of a sham insurance company, FAI Insurances NV, in the tax haven of the Dutch Antilles (it has nothing to do with the Australian FAI Insurance operation).

Gerard's company, Gerard Industries, is alleged by the ATO to have claimed massive tax deductions on insurance it paid to FAI which Allison said had no "capability of fulfilling its obligations" as an insurer.

"I am totally convinced that the structure of this relationship bears no resemblance to a properly conducted insurance and reinsurance operation. It is as though they have drawn a railway engine and carriages and made some endeavour to get the picture right. But any trained engine driver, after inspecting the detail of the picture, would realise that it could not be driven on any of the railway tracks of the world which have been designed for the safety and protection of the passengers."

The increasingly embattled Gerard said in a statement earlier this week that he acted within the law "at all times" and rejected the ATO allegations. "They are not facts as they were never admitted, nor tested in court nor found by any court to be true," he said. "Settlement [with the ATO] was achieved on the basis that, at no stage, were any allegations by the ATO admitted and the fact of the settlement did not imply any fraud, evasion or a deliberate avoidance of taxes."

The statement also said Gerard had "never made any secret of the fact that, at the time of his appointment, his companies were involved in a dispute with the ATO".

And it's here where it got murky. The federal Treasurer has been reluctant to admit any knowledge of tax issues with Gerard but on Thursday claimed his appointee had not "avoided a dollar of tax" and had "fully answered" questions about his creation of a tax haven company.

The Treasurer's defence came despite a recent comment he made that "ordinary, law abiding taxpayers are rightfully outraged by the use of offshore havens to avoid paying Australian tax."

In Gerard's statement yesterday he said he had been asked by the RBA to provide a statement covering only his personal tax issues, which technically excluded the long Tax Office investigation into his family companies and the subsequent settlement. But the public exposure in the end pushed Gerard from the lofty heights of the RBA boardroom in Sydney's Martin Place.

* Paul McIntyre is a Sydney journalist

Richard Inder: Who's driving at Turners?

Guinness Peat Group executive director Tony Gibbs affects an innocent tone as he explains his decision to splash out $11 million, or $2.10 a share, for a cornerstone 19.4 per cent stake in car auctioneer Turners Auctions.

The shares are oversold, he sees value in the business. He made his decision only recently after he was told growth investor Fisher Funds wanted to sell its stake. He has no immediate plans.

"This is a company in which GPG has a history. It is a solid company," Gibbs said as he disclosed the acquisition last Friday.

However, it's hard to believe GPG, a corporate raider with a reputation for taking an active role in its investments, only sees Turners as a passive play.

And that begs the question: What are his intentions?

Fisher Funds baled out amid concerns the company was not quickly advancing key initiatives such as a finance operation and an online strategy to compete with the rapidly growing online auction site, Trade Me.

Before the deal Turners shares had fallen to about $1.80, reflecting these worries as well as a warning last month that higher petrol prices and a softer used-car market would knock full-year profits from $7 million to $5.4 million.

The shares closed yesterday down 5c at $2.10, well off the $4.30 a share that Fisher paid to top up its stake, but still well above the 2002 float price of $1.50.

The threat of Trade Me is perhaps the easiest to discount.

It will be relatively easy for Turners to replicate the Trade Me internet proposition. Moreover, the technology is a long way away from supplanting the necessary tyre-kicking before a purchase.

Turners can also offer services not easily replicated by Trade Me and the legions of dealers and private sellers advertising cars on the auction site. These include vehicle finance, guarantees of title, warranties, on-site expertise to assess the health of vehicles and - perhaps most importantly - stock.

Turners has about 20 per cent of the imported used-car market. Instead of multiple visits to disparate locations, buyers can see a representative range in one place and take advantage of these extras.

It is true there is some way to go in realising this vision and this is perhaps where Gibbs comes in. He spun the auction arm out of the fresh produce agent Turners & Growers. He also served as chairman and has an intimate knowledge of the operation.

However, it is not clear that giving the company a rev up will, by itself, give a meaningful lift to the share price, especially as the economy now appears headed for a slowdown, or perhaps worse, a hard landing. In such a climate, the decision to trade up to a better car is sure to be a lower priority for many.

GPG may see an opportunity for a quick flick, perhaps to a large Japanese vehicle exporter or a used car importer.

The stake is a starting block for such a move as it is just shy of the 20 per cent threshold where he must make a full takeover offer.

Meanwhile, New Zealand's car market looks set to be dominated by used-car imports for some time to come and scale matters. Apart from choice, large vehicle distributors can offer value by sharing with customers some of the gains they achieve from enhanced buying power.

Finally, the other major shareholder Bartel - owned by the Alvaro Noboa family of Ecuador who export the Bonita brand of bananas - is not a natural holder of the shares.

The family inherited the shares as part of the demerger. Bartel's man in New Zealand and Turners chairman Michael Dossor says the family is happy with its investment. But since he has a good relationship with Gibbs, some sort of co-ordinated action is not out of the question.