Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sideswipe

This French-made product manages to further demonise the humble, warm-as-toast hoodie.

By Ana Samways

Scott, a reader from Onehunga, would like to express, on behalf of his bedridden grandmother, his amazement at the exceptional dedication to the job by one Auckland real estate agent. He writes: "A sales agent visited my grandmother on three occasions wishing to list her house. The agent was informed that she was not interested. The same sales agent then learnt of my grandmother's terminal illness and visited her in hospital. How far will a sales agent go these days? He must have been rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of a pending estate sale. It's comforting to know some agents will go the extra mile."

* * *

Geoff Hopkins has found a cure for bird flu, as published in the Western Australia Country Women's Institute Cook Book and Handy Hints of 1936. "To cure flu in fowls dip a feather in Stockholm tar and touch their drinking water with it. This forms a film on the water and adheres to the beak. If this is done several times a day the epidemic will be checked and all cases cured within a week."

* * *

Children will read the following in Peta's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) pro-fish leaflet: "Imagine that a man dangles a piece of candy in front of you ... As you grab the candy, a huge metal hook stabs through your hand and you're ripped off the ground. You fight to get away, but it doesn't do any good ... That would be an awful trick to play on someone, wouldn't it?"

* * *

National Director of Catholic Communications Lyndsay Freer would like to dissociate herself and her church from a bogus letter drop in Mt Albert and Sandringham. The letter claims to reveal the third secret of Fatima, among other things, and suggests that earthquake, nuclear war and other horrendous cataclysms are about to be unleashed on the earth by a vengeful and angry God before the end of the year. She writes: "Though couched in poor English and in desperate need of spell-checking, the letter purports to be a message from the Virgin Mary, and thus might be supposed to originate within the Catholic Church. We would like to warn anyone receiving any such rubbish that it springs from the mind of credulous simpletons and certainly has no official Catholic endorsement whatsoever."

John Armstrong: Benson-Pope is in a heap of trouble

Richard Nixon had to leave the White House because the cover-up of Watergate was worse than the original crime.

In similar fashion, David Benson-Pope's deliberate misrepresentation of the police report into accusations he assaulted pupils while teaching in Dunedin threatens to undermine his credibility more than the allegations themselves.

His credibility as a Cabinet minister was always at stake after he told Parliament in May that those allegations were "ridiculous" and the police began their inquiry.

As it is, the subsequent findings released yesterday inevitably raise questions about his denials to Parliament, giving fresh grist to those who argue he misled the House.

However, at the very time he should be playing everything by the book, his credibility is being destroyed by the relentless spin coming from him and his Beehive office as they try to put a favourable gloss on the police report which simply cannot be justified.

As yet, there is no real whiff of dead political meat. But the vultures are circling.

By trying to bury the report with a snow job on its contents, he has jeopardised public opinion which until now appears, by and large, to have stood behind him - and which probably would have continued to do so if allowed to make its own judgment on the police report without him putting such a spin on it.

Furthermore, he has handed the Opposition all the arguments it needs to call for his sacking and, at the same time, made it extremely difficult for the Prime Minister to defend him when she is questioned in Parliament today.

By way of example, he claims the police files "reveal" that the majority of those in the fourth form class at Bayfield High School who would have witnessed the alleged jamming of a tennis ball into a pupil's mouth back his belief that the incident never happened.

What the police found was that 15 out of the 29 class members could not remember the incident - which is not the same thing as Mr Benson-Pope is claiming.

How will the Prime Minister square that?

And how will she defend Mr Benson-Pope's highly selective quoting of the affected pupil's testimony to police?

Helen Clark's inclination is to tough it out.

Parliament has less than two weeks to run and Labour will be gambling that the fuss will die over the summer break.

Expressing confidence in her minister at her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, she faced a barrage of questions about his fitness to stay in the Cabinet given the report's findings that there was sufficient evidence to put the assault allegations before a court.

In response, she repeatedly cited the police's decision not to prosecute the minister.

And, in the end, the Opposition's demands that he go are always going to run into that brick wall.

The only way around it is to try to get a privileges committee hearing to determine whether he misled Parliament. But the Speaker has already ruled out such a hearing and Parliament's rules make it difficult to reopen the case.

That still leaves questions about Mr Benson-Pope's credibility and his political judgment. Much hangs on how he behaves in Parliament this afternoon.

He has a major problem. His version of what the police report says is hugely at odds with its actual contents. Does he maintain his pretence or finally acknowledge the reality?

Either way, he is going to face charges of deception and be subject to intense ridicule. It is going to be a long afternoon for the member for Dunedin South.

Editorial: Innocent NZ hostage inevitable

An air of inevitability attends the news that a New Zealand resident is among the latest Westerners to be taken captive by insurgents in Iraq. It was always likely that this country would be caught up like others in the recriminations for the American occupation. And just as likely that the hostage would not be a soldier or any other official representative of the country, but somebody who went there in a private capacity, a construction worker perhaps, or a volunteer who hoped to do some good.

Harmeet Singh Sooden, African-born with Indian parentage, Canadian citizenship and New Zealand residency, sympathises with Arab resentment of Israel and the occupation of Iraq. When he finished the year's study at Auckland University a few weeks ago, he went to join a Christian organisation working inside Iraq. According to New Zealand relatives, he wanted to see what was happening there first-hand. He linked up with an organisation called Christian Peacemaking Teams, one of the few humanitarian organisations that did not retreat after the murder of British aid worker Margaret Hussein last year to the relative safety of the "green zone" maintained by coalition forces in Baghdad.

The Saturday before last, November 26, Mr Sooden and fellow peace activist Norman Kember, a retired British professor of medicine, were with members of the Christian team in a Sunni area of Baghdad when their car was stopped. They were seized along with American Tom Fox and their Canadian guide, James Loney. Four days later pictures of them sitting cross-legged and bound were screened by al-Jazeera television. They were said to be captives of an outfit called the Swords of the Righteous Brigade, which regarded them as spies and threatened to execute them unless all prisoners in Iraq and United States detention centres were released by Thursday.

The fate of previous Western hostages in the hands of bands such as this makes the threat deadly serious. At the same time, the unwavering stand of the United States and British Governments makes it equally clear there will be no dealing with their demand and there has been no suggestion from the other countries concerned, Canada and New Zealand, that any compromises should be made. The best that anybody can do for these men is to make it clear to Arabs everywhere that these captives are on the side of their captors. As pacifists the hostages would not condone violent resistance to the Iraqi occupation, but they sympathise with the cause. They have made it their mission to check the condition of the coalition's detainees and are credited with helping expose the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison.

All New Zealanders will share the desperate hope of Harmeet Sooden's family here that this message will get through. It is being supported by appeals from some of the most prominent anti-war voices in the United States, notably the left-wing thinker Noam Chomsky and consumer activist Ralph Nader. But nobody should be under any illusions that Western sympathy is necessarily welcome on the extremes of Islamic nationalism or credible to militant minds. It may be their captors' view that nobody from the West would be brave or foolhardy enough to operate outside the green zone unless they were spying.

The only hope for Mr Sooden and the others is that Islamic militants are concerned at the reported decline in popular support in the Middle East for acts of terrorism, especially since the latest outrage in Jordan. This misbegotten jihad has killed far more Muslims than Western citizens since it began. But these four men, and their families at home, are in the hands of people who do not normally exhibit political judgment or common humanity. We can only add our appeal to the rest and hope for the best.

Alistair Reese: Embrace the Treaty gains

Two disparate voices have pointed to Pakeha embracing the All Black haka as an identification of significance.

Colin James in his weekly column (in the print edition of the Herald) and Hone Harawira in his maiden parliamentary speech have identified the Te Rauparaha/All Black haka as an example of shared identity, and Harawira has suggested that the Treaty could be embraced in a similar way.

Some would suggest that he is drawing a long bow, but surely it is a question of vision - the ability to see a particular landscape not as it is but as it could be.

It would be a tragedy of significant proportions if the gains made through Treaty settlements over the past 30 years were not embraced by non-Maori. But that is a possibility, especially if the corporate voice expressed last year at Orewa gains momentum.

This perspective that wants to minimise the influence of the Treaty is one that is formed not necessarily from an entrenched racial bias, although this tendency is probably innate to all. Rather it is formed through an ignorance that comes from distance.

The rugby haka, as a symbol of national unity, is performed in the midst of an activity that unites the two cultures like few others. Through usage by all New Zealanders, against the backdrop of success by the All Blacks, it is something that has become a part of our psyche - evidenced especially by those on their OE or by sports representatives, who resort to either Te Rauparaha's Ka mate or Pokarekare Ana as demonstrations of their identity.

There is nothing wrong with this, because these are expressions of the land that are unique to Aotearoa. They are infinitely more powerful as anthems than Waltzing Matilda. But the performance of these iconic symbols doesn't necessarily translate into identification with their indigenous source upon return home.

Returning to the gains of the past 30 years, one has the feeling that the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal and the consequent reparations and apologies from the Government have been embraced by Maori, but at best only tolerated by most Pakeha.

Governments of the day have succeeded in eventually addressing issues relating back to 1840, and given the apparent views of the many, if not a majority, this can only be described as almost miraculous.

These years of reparation have presented a marvellous opportunity for healing and reconciliation that could lay the foundation for Colin James' appealing suggestion of a one-country culture rather than the one-culture country Orewa proponents would intend. There are no prizes for guessing what that one-culture should be.

The challenge to incorporate a bi-cultural foundation is undoubtedly great. It is especially challenging to those who are traditionally mono-lingual.

The irony about the mono-lingual tendencies of many New Zealanders is that it doesn't seem to extend towards the cultures of the Mediterranean; familiarity with these is seen as a sign of cultural sophistication. Correct pronunciation of French and Italian words, scattered throughout our vocabulary, and the knowledge of vintage and provincial culinary idiosyncrasies, are usually lauded.

There is no reason why identification with the Treaty cannot in time evoke similar feelings of enthusiasm as the haka or the latest Beaujolais vintage.

The key is a willingness to reach beyond the safety of one's own cultural boundary in this land. Maori have done this, not always on a voluntary basis, but they are better equipped at this stage than most Pakeha to traverse the complexities of a Treaty based nationhood.

Who knows, the recent references to Te Rauparaha's haka, which speaks of death and rebirth, may be prophetic statements about the Treaty itself. They may also provide for some Pakeha an insight that identification with tangata whenua is not something to be feared but a gift to be treasured.

* Alistair Reese is a Bay of Plenty orchardist and farmer working on a master's thesis on the impact of land and language alienation upon a small Maori community.

Jim Eagles: Rewards far outweigh risks

When three bombs exploded in the previously peaceful Jordanian capital of Amman last month, several acquaintances were quick to panic on my behalf. "Didn't you go there recently?" they asked. "Were you nervous? I bet you wouldn't go now."

Yes, I did go to Amman about a year ago; no, I didn't feel nervous while I was there; and, yes, I would happily go again. Jordan is a fascinating country and - notwithstanding the recent bombs - a very safe one.

The same questions were raised four months ago when three bombs exploded in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheik. And my answers were the same. Egypt may be diseased, dirty and demanding but it, too, is a fascinating country.

Sure, there is an element of risk in visiting such places, but it's pretty minute. In the past 10 years about 50 million people have visited Egypt and in that time about 50 tourists have been killed by terrorists.

In other words if you go there you've got about a one-in-a-million chance of being blown up.

By contrast, if you buy a Lucky Dip your chances of winning division one in Lotto are one in 383,838.

Certainly, some people do win Lotto, and true, you might be one of the unlucky few to be caught up in a terrorist attack.

Then again you might also be unlucky enough to die in a car crash driving to the Coromandel - especially if you have to take the killer stretch of road between Mangatawhiri and Maramarua - but you can't give up everything worthwhile because there's a faint possibility of disaster.

And a visit to the Middle East is very definitely worthwhile.

This is the cradle of civilisation, where people were erecting magnificent palaces and temples which still stand today, long before Maori discovered New Zealand or the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain.

It's an extraordinary experience to actually see the Pyramids and the Sphinx - structures I've been reading about all my life - and to realise that people have been looking and marvelling at them for 4000 years.

The Middle East is also the birthplace of several of the great religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which spread out across the world, hugely influenced our culture, and are still practised by millions of people.

Whether you are religious or not it is intensely moving to realise that you are standing on the hilltop from which Moses viewed the Holy Land for the first time or beside the pool where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

These are certainly places you must see if you want to enjoy some of the greatest wonders the world has to offer. They are surely on every traveller's list of places to see before you die.

On the other hand, you don't want to die seeing them, so it does pay to be sensible.

A good basic rule is to act pretty much as you would at home: avoid wandering down mean streets late at night, don't flash lots of money in front of people who don't have it, be a bit circumspect about going alone to lonely places and be careful about wandering off with strangers.

If you want more specific advice about places to avoid, or at least to view with caution, a good place to start is the travel advisories on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website.

The ministry takes a highly precautionary approach - for instance, it still warns of the risk of terrorist action in the United States and most of Europe - but only in the most dangerous places does it recommend not actually travelling.

For instance, its latest advice for most of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iran is basically the same: "Be security conscious. Avoid crowded/landmark places. Possibility of terrorist action."

The Ministry also suggests keeping clear of demonstrations and avoiding hotspots like the Sinai area of Egypt, northern Syria, Lebanon's Israeli border area and the Beka'a Valley, Iran's border areas and the towns of Zahedan, Zabol and Mirjaveh.

Not surprisingly the Ministry strongly advises against travelling to Iraq, although some intrepid adventurers have visited and escaped alive. The Ministry's view is: "Security situation remains dangerous and violent. Hostage taking. Those New Zealanders currently in Iraq should depart."

It also recommends New Zealanders should defer non-essential travel to Israel although I know of a number of people who have visited recently and had no problems.

The Ministry says there is: "Continuing high risk of terrorist attacks. Avoid crowded and landmark places. Avoid areas bordering Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Only travel on established roads as border areas with Lebanon, Syria and in the West Bank are mined. Care should be taken at crossing points between Israel and Jordan."

The advice for the occupied territories of Palestine, namely West Bank and Gaza, is even firmer. "We advise against all travel."

As for Saudi Arabia, the Ministry recommends, "Defer non-essential travel."

Ironically, one of the few places in the Middle East where there is not even a caution, is that former pariah state Libya, which shows you how quickly things can change.

So, unless you're a real adventure junkie, avoid Iraq and Palestine, and be very careful in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but don't avoid the Middle East.

Go there, behave sensibly, savour the experience ... and buy a Lotto ticket before you go.

Eye on China: Pollution the cost of development

By William Pesek

SHANGHAI - So you check in to the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai, touted as the tallest hotel in the world. That sinks in when the desk clerk says you're getting a coveted river-view room on the 81st floor.

As you zoom skyward in the elevator, you ponder the luck of getting an amazing view. This is a dazzling city that can almost make New York seem sleepy. You think: "Shanghai, 81st floor. Life is good."

Once in your room, you race to the floor-to-ceiling windows, pull back the curtains and what do you see?

Nothing - other than clouds of smog and soot obscuring the city of 17 million people below.

Such experiences get at an economic hazard few investors talk about: China's environment.

When pondering risks to China's outlook, investors tend to focus on non-performing loans, trends in per capita income or the success of initial public offerings. Yet nothing captures the tension between China's rapid growth and need to maintain social stability as the environment.

A change in the way China measures its economy may help.

Rather than getting straight measures of gross domestic product from regional governments, perhaps China should begin deducting environmental costs. That way, municipal leaders will have fewer incentives to boost growth at all costs.

Municipal leaders curry favour with Beijing by delivering rapid growth, leading to an infrastructure arms race. Each region aspires to be the next boomtown with an international airport, skyscrapers, six-lane highways, five-star hotels, major universities, an opera house and grand museums. It means China's building spree has only just begun and that its resources needs are sure to increase.

China already has six of the world's 10 most-polluted cities, says the World Bank, which estimates environmental damage and health problems cost more than US$54 billion ($75.6 billion) a year. That's more than the US$48.4 billion of foreign direct investment China attracted this year as of November. There are two things to keep in mind here:

* The World Bank's economic-cost estimate seems conservative.

* Pollution is a bigger risk to the Communist Party's credibility than investors may appreciate. It could be the thing that gets rural Chinese - the vast majority of China's 1.3 billion people - to turn on the Government.

Recent events in the Chinese city of Harbin got considerable media coverage. A November 25 explosion at PetroChina poisoned the drinking water of three million people.

"It's really just the tip of the iceberg," says Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The Harbin case is a "wake-up call" to the Government to focus more on environmental issues.

While the rise of every economic superpower comes with ugly environmental side-effects, China's - thanks to its size and huge population - is unprecedented and may have much bigger implications than those in Europe or the US.

One reason: Globalisation. Pollution in the world's fastest-growing major economy is "causing serious economic losses, social conflicts and health costs within China", Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond wrote in the June issue of Nature magazine. "China's environmental problems are also slipping over into other countries, while other countries affect China's environment through globalisation, pollution and resource exploitation."

To address this, Morgan Stanley is pushing a novel idea: China should change how it calculates economic output to reflect all its costs - including environmental ones - to give the appropriate incentives to local governments.

That means the costs of work-related deaths and injuries would be deducted from GDP, to shame regional officials and reduce their share of national expenditures. Morgan Stanley estimates 6-7 per cent would be deducted from regional GDP if growth were adjusted in that way.

Beijing has been toying with a so-called green GDP measure, though more as an economic indicator than a policy tool. And clearly, other nations should do the same, including the US.

China needs to get serious on the environment.

Otherwise, its pollution woes may act as a speed bump for a nation on which the economies and investors near and far are relying.

In late October, Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency, told the Wall Street Journal that China's pollution levels may rise four times to five times in the next 15 years because of rising power generation and increasing use of cars. It sure makes you feel bad for the Olympic athletes competing in Beijing in 2008.

Zhang's warning that China won't be able to cope with such high pollution levels should be heeded. Moreover, the issue should be discussed at meetings of the Group of Seven nations.

If China is held back by pollution, the global economy will suffer, too. If you think China has bad air now, just wait until 400 million Chinese have the money to buy cars.

"Recent environmental disasters suggest that China needs to find a better balance between growth and environmental protection," Morgan Stanley said in a recent report out of Hong Kong. "The obsession with GDP has led to a neglect of growth quality issues."

PILING UP

* China already has six of the world's 10 most-polluted cities.

* Environmental damage and health problems are estimated to cost more than US$54 billion a year.

* The Government predicts pollution levels may rise between four and five times in the next 15 years.

* This has been put down to rising power generation and the increasing use of cars.

Glynn Cardy: Lessons in being a soul survivor

The sober preparatory season of Advent is largely lost and gone forever. The tinsel has been up since mid-November, the shops are serenading us with carols, and we have joined the Christmas rush. It's the season to be jolly, or so we are told.

Let's face it: the end of the year is a frantic rush. At work we are rushing to meet deadlines, financial and other, before the holidays. There's usually a party or two thrown in. For parents it's a busy time of end-of-year concerts, prize-givings, and the start of school holidays.

At home we are deciding the wheres, and whats, and whos of Christmas. Advent means staying up late to finish things, worrying about money and how much to spend, finding time to join the shopping madness, and thinking about who and which relatives, if any, to spend Christmas with. For some, this is a frenetic yet joyful task. For others, it is a rigorous ordeal.

In times past it wasn't like this. The church taught that Advent was penitential, with judgment just around the corner. One needed to get one's life and the life of one's community in order. In Advent people would come to confession. They would remember their sins, ask God's forgiveness, and undertake acts of penance.

The Feast of Christmas being not primarily about presents, food and family, but about the incarnation of the holy God in our midst, people cleaned up their act to meet in a spiritual sense the holy child of God.

Sin is a loaded word that has passed its use-by date. It implies that people are born bad, become worse, and need forgiveness even if they are living decent lives. It is part of a system where God is holy and therefore unapproachable, we are sinful and therefore can't approach God, and only the Church can guarantee us access. Some of us have tried to re-fashion sin. Instead of individual failings there's been talk of corporate greed, foreign policy that serves only the rich, abuse of the environment, and refusal to address the causes of poverty.

But the stain of the "sin" word continued, and in our society it has become a word that the Church uses to condemn and disempower people it disapproves of.

It is loaded with presumptions, laced with guilt inducement, and likely to support I-know-better-than-you attitudes. It should be deleted as historical spam.

The heart of Christmas is love. In the words of poet Christina Rossetti: "Love came down at Christmas time".

Jesus was born to unmarried, and therefore "sinful", parents. He was born into poverty, vulnerable, a refugee, homeless, and pursued by a tyrannical killer.

Topsy-turvy thinking is at the heart of Christmas: the mighty one is weak, the holy one is born out of wedlock, the wealthy one is poor, and the sovereign one is a scantily clothed babe.

If you don't want to be spiritually run over at Christmas, you may want to put time aside in the midst of your day to pause, breathe deeply, look at the world with a sense of thanksgiving, and listen to your own soul.

When the world is telling you to buy, and buy more, think about giving more and getting less. Over-consumption is a disease.

Watch fewer commercials and less TV this Advent. Put a sign on your letterbox asking that advertising be directed elsewhere.

Send a picture of a beautiful Christmas hamper to all your family telling them it would cost only $20 each. Then tell them the money for this hamper will go to the City Mission. Yes, the Mission needs money but, more importantly, for your own spiritual well-being you need to give.

If you are hosting a Christmas meal, think of one non-family member you would like to invite. Then do it. The visitor at the table is as traditional to Christmas as turkey, and spiritually much more essential.

What I would ideally have liked on St Matthew's stone tower this Advent was not a Santa climbing it, like on the old Victoria Park furnace, but King Kong. The caption would read, "Guess who's coming for Christmas?"

Kong not only represents that which we fear in nature, others and ourselves - the untameable subconscious - but he also represents the holiness of modern creativity.

At St Matthew's table we welcome the creativity of our society and the sacredness of the imagination. There was no secular/sacred division at the first Christmas and there still isn't - save only in religious places that want to keep others out and stay safe.

Last, let's prepare for Christmas by being political. The arrival of Jesus was a political act. King Herod didn't slaughter countless numbers of babies for the hell of it.

Jesus was a political threat. The message of peace that the angels sang was making a mockery of Caesar's pretensions.

Caesars always use words like "peace" and "freedom" when they are invading others' lands, stealing their resources, and killing their citizens. Just listen to George Bush. If you believe in the peace of Christ it will lead you into conflict with those who profit from war and poverty.

When we cease to think politically and reduce our world to the parameters of our own vision, then we shrink spiritually. Our concerns might become God's concerns but God's concerns don't become ours.

So choose an issue to study this Advent: like America's thirst for Iraqi oil, dreaming democracy in Burma, or the circus that keeps Tibet caged.

Advent should bring us to our senses. "Stop," it signals. "Look both ways before crossing." Don't be lured by tinsel and piped music into soulless consumerism. Think about giving and hospitality as spiritual exercises.

There is a saying that the two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we know why.

Advent invites us to ask why.

* Glynn Cardy is the Vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland.