Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

A U2 fan reckons someone's pulled a swifty. Last week he tried to get tickets to the Friday concert and dutifully printed out the U2 Vertigo tour seating plan from the Ticketmaster website. Missing out on Friday tickets, he went through it all again to get Saturday tickets and was triumphant. Trouble is, Ticketmaster had revised its seating plan. What were B Reserve seats ($129) for the Friday night show are now A Reserve seats ($199) for the Saturday show. "I guess the promoters felt it shouldn't be just the scalpers profiting from this frenzy," he said. Adding: "So what do I get on Saturday that a Friday night B Reserve doesn't get? We both appear to be stuck behind the same lighting tower in Section 15."

A spokesman for the promoter in Australia (we'll call him Australian ticket-guy) said they reviewed the prices of some areas for the second concert and felt the higher price was a "better reflection of the true value of those seats". But isn't it unfair that someone who went to the concert on Saturday paid $70 more than the person who sat in exactly the same seat the night before? Australian ticket-guy launched into something about meeting financial targets, so I guess not. In the end, he suggested those who had actually had tickets were very, very lucky and the greater issue was the profiteering from those selling tickets for inflated prices ... er, elsewhere.

* * *

It's not scalping if you call it a "package": Corporate Host is offering a general admission package to the U2 Vertigo concert for $349. Take off the $99 for the ticket and the punters are paying $250 for a turn in the mosh-pit and some wine and cheese in a tent packed with merchandise before the concert ... Better be some primo cheese on offer.

* * *

Richard Symonds of Onehunga writes: "There are two Charlie's Juice adverts showing at the moment. The first compares Charlie's pure product with one that contains additives including ascorbic acid. (Additives bad, boo! hiss!). The other advert compares a product jam-packed with additives with Charlie's, which contains nothing but pure squeezed juice and added vitamin C. (Charlie's great, hooray! Made even better by the vitamin C!). But, hang on a minute. Isn't ascorbic acid just another name for vitamin C?"

John Armstrong: To read or not to read, or to dodge the question

Wondering what you should say about that embarrassing memo, minister? Just tell everyone you have not read it.

That seems to be the tactic Labour is adopting when under pressure to respond to documents, leaked or otherwise, whose contents cannot be lightly dismissed.

During a press conference last week, the Prime Minister ducked questions on David Benson-Pope's treatment of the police report covering the investigation into assault allegations against him by repeatedly stressing she had not read the hundreds of pages in the police file.

In Parliament yesterday, Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey parried questions about a critical internal TVNZ memo by chief executive Ian Fraser before his resignation by saying he had yet to read it. Both examples stretch credulity.

Helen Clark did not need to read the whole police file. It would have taken her all of five minutes to absorb the key document - the report of the investigating officer. It would have taken even less time to read the police interview of the pupil who allegedly had a tennis ball stuffed in his mouth. It would have taken her a fraction of a second to realise just how selective Mr Benson-Pope was in quoting from the former pupil's statement to police.

Given pressure on her time, her staff could have given her a summary and analysis of the key portions of the file. It would be surprising if such a brief was not available.

However, knowing what was in the police report would have made it all the more difficult for Helen Clark to defend Mr Benson-Pope remaining a Cabinet minister. Mr Maharey had more than three hours between journalists first seeking comment on the Fraser memo and his being questioned about it in Parliament.

True, he was busy in between attending Labour's weekly caucus meeting and then holding a press conference to try to douse the potentially far more damaging flare-up in his education portfolio over the marking of NCEA papers. Yet, the Fraser memo runs to just seven pages.

Unfortunately for the minister, it brutally catalogues TVNZ's woes with its charter - a Maharey creation.

It warns local content will "shrink markedly" next year and beyond.

And it says it will be difficult for TVNZ to sustain its claim that local content differentiates it from competitors.

By the time he got to Parliament, Mr Maharey sought to contain the damage by downplaying the importance of the memo. He claimed it had been prepared for the TVNZ board for a "planning session" and was "something from the chief executive for them to think about".

And, by saying he would "try to have a proper read of the document" when he had time, he belittled it even further - a case perhaps of ignoring the messenger rather than shooting him.

Editorial: US still out in the cold on climate

Only a combination of inexperience and overexuberance can explain the proclamation from the Minister for Climate Change that the United States is "effectively back in the tent". David Parker, fresh from the United Nations climate summit in Montreal, was clearly keen to portray the Bush Administration's agreement to join an exploratory global "dialogue" on future steps to combat global warming as a breakthrough. Sober analysis, however, suggest a far different conclusion.

Mr Parker was not alone in his enthusiasm. Britain's Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett, hailed the US participation as more significant than the original agreement on the Kyoto Protocol eight years ago. But, given that Tony Blair has made climate change a priority of Britain's presidencies of the European Union and the G8, there was a strong vested interest in her cheerleading.

Mr Parker was in a position to cast a more unemotional eye. Had he done so, he would surely have judged that the US had conceded nothing of significance, and had sidestepped any discussion that might lead to mandatory targets and timetables. Its position remains essentially as it was before Montreal, as does the divide between it on one side, and Europe, Japan and other supporters of the Kyoto Protocol on the other.

The dialogue in which the US will participate had already been agreed to, albeit reluctantly, by President George W. Bush at the G8 summit at Gleneagles earlier this year. Indeed, at Montreal, the US worked at, and succeeded in, getting its substance watered down.

Therefore, its commitment is to talks that will be "open and non-binding". Specifically ruled out is "negotiation leading to new commitments". That ensures the US will not find itself involved in discussions that could lead to the type of emission cap enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol. It also signifies that the questions raised by this year's extreme weather, especially Hurricane Katrina, have failed to resonate in the White House.

If the Montreal summit could be termed a success, it is only because the US failed to persuade any other nation to join its hard-line stance. This averted any prospect of the talks collapsing, or of the Kyoto schedule being undermined. As it was, parallel negotiations at the conference produced agreement by the 157 protocol nations to begin talks on mandatory post-2012 reductions in greenhouse gases.

This means that all the industrialised countries, except the US and Australia, have agreed in principle to make deeper cuts in pollution emissions when their present clean-up commitments expire in seven years. Talks between now and then will seek, but are not guaranteed, to provide a seamless transition.

The US, meanwhile, will pursue the voluntary adoption of new, energy-efficient technologies by businesses. The weakness of this policy is its lack of Kyoto-style targets and timetables. And while the protocol nations have signalled their willingness to move forward, they know their efforts will always be constrained by the indifference of the US, the world's biggest single source of industrial carbon-dioxide emissions.

The Montreal summit was an embarrassment for the Bush Administration, such was the condemnation of its approach. Its response was a single-minded refusal to enter meaningful negotiations. The US is far from being inside the tent. Indeed, it seems destined to remain outside until a President more amenable to UN-lead action sits in the White House.

Fran O'Sullivan: Spadework needed to win trade place

New Zealand's formal invitation to join what might ultimately prove to be the world's largest free-trade area will not be in the mail anytime soon.

But Prime Minister Helen Clark's inclusion at the inaugural East Asia summit here today should be seen as an indication that, over time, New Zealand will be formally invited into the club (if we play our cards right).

This is a welcome development for business, particularly those companies that are astute enough to read the geo-political shifts and take a longer term strategic view towards the region.

It may take years, perhaps a decade or so, before a new free-trade area reaching from Russia, Japan and South Korea in the north, across China to India in the east, then down to cover the 10 Southeast Asian nations and finally to encompass Australia and NZ actually emerges.

The resultant free-trade area may not even use the words East Asia.

There are plenty of sensitivities around that term particularly among smaller Asean nations (and some bigger ones) that are already scared stiff of being overrun by the two fast-emerging economic giants: China and India.

But make no mistake about it: if the initial steps under way in Kuala Lumpur today ultimately emerge in a new trade bloc that will far outweigh the economic and political power of the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.

The multilateral trade talks in Hong Kong look unlikely to post the aggressive gains that New Zealand's agricultural exporters want so it is essential that we do not find ourselves locked out if the global trade game ultimately becomes a matter of negotiations between three huge trading blocs.

This admittedly is a pessimistic view. But even if the WTO talks result in a high-quality deal - a new (East Asian) free-trade area will create preferences for its members that are not open to all the WTO's 149 members.

This presents this country (and Australia) an opportunity to overcome the tyranny of distance from the world's main markets that we have not enjoyed since Britain said "goodbye chaps" and joined the European common market nearly 30 years ago.

What needs to be said (loudly) is that Clark and her officials are not going to get there on their own. Diplomacy has limitations. There is no guarantee that Clark's ultimate successor as prime minister will win the same amount of respect within East Asia that she has won from Asean's political leaders.

Here's the wakeup call:

First: NZ Inc needs to demonstrate it wants to be involved.

There is a posse of Kiwi business players accompanying Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton at the WTO talks in Hong Kong this week. That's fair enough. But surely a couple of representatives could have peeled off to wave the flag at the third Asean business summit that preceded today's summit.

It is not as if Australian businesspeople were thick on the ground either, just a smattering turned up. But New Zealand's absence was noted by the raft of influential politicians, officials and businesspeople present that I spoke to over the weekend.

They were surprised that NZ Inc did not take advantage of the opportunity to position itself for the longer game and be seen to support the political effort at this historic summit.

New Zealand business may not want to position itself (and shouldn't) as a government court jester at home. But if this country wants to be seen as East Asian it has to give regard to form as well as substance.

Second: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade should appropriately resource New Zealand's two business representatives in Asean circles, Griffins Food managing director Tony Nowell and Carter Holt Harvey chairman John Maasland.

It would appear that there is not so far a sufficiently dedicated resource for the pair to undertake to a high level the vital track two diplomacy which will be required to ensure our business interests are underpinned as the political agenda proceeds.

Third: Business New Zealand and the Chambers of Commerce must quickly put their territorial disputes to one side and form a Business International umbrella organisation.

All the key players have been banging on about this longer than I care to remember. Business needs a co-ordinated private-sector voice in offshore forums that NZ Trade & Enterprise cannot provide. It should be independent and also involve Federated Farmers, the Export Institute and what's left of our NZ-domiciled corporates. How hard can this be?

Fourth: Foreign companies with investments in New Zealand need to get over treating their Kiwi subsidiaries as branch offices and wake up to the fact that their investments are situated in a small country that, over time, may be able to grow rapidly, rather like Ireland did, once it gets access to a big free-trade area. Capitalising their New Zealand domestic subsidiaries so they have the wherewithal to make investments in the region rather than directly at head-office level - and support New Zealand's business-led diplomacy - would be a step in the right direction. Profit-shipping has limitations.

That's the sermon.

Here are a few points to absorb.

Asean's bigger game is that it stays centre-stage in the new free-trade area.

That is why the 10 Southeast Asian nations are pursuing their strategy in a piecemeal fashion negotiating the Asean Plus Three deal involving Japan, China and South Korea first, then the Asean-CER (Asean plus New Zealand and Australia) next before tacking on similar deals with India and probably Russia.

Despite bird flu and high oil prices the Asean countries still managed to score an average growth rate of 6.3 per cent last year, more than 50 per cent higher than New Zealand's own growth rate.

Kiwi business take note.


Dynamic area

Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, includes Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei.

It is one of world's most dynamic growth areas and has a population of 500 million.

The region has a GDP of $1 trillion and exports of $700 billion.

The average per capita income is $1400 and growing.

Fran O'Sullivan: Tearing down tariffs for NZ's good

New Zealand has mustered a crack negotiating team for the pivotal world trade talks that got under way in Hong Kong yesterday. The trouble is what's on the table - so far - is so lacking in specifics that more than a few forum- bound delegates have openly joked they might as well take advantage of the location and "go shopping".

They won't, of course.

Trade Ministers from the 149 member nations of the World Trade Organisation will want to avoid the embarrassment of chalking up the second failed talks in a row after a disastrous meeting in Cancun in 2003 that put the clock back on multilateral trade liberalisation.

Trade liberalisation is almost an article of faith as far as New Zealanders are concerned. We stripped the struts out from under our farmers in the mid-1980s and laid waste to most tariffs on manufactured goods.

But much of the rest of the world has taken a long time to come around to our thinking. The successful Uruguay Round of trade negotiations added an extra $900 million a year to the New Zealand economy through (mainly) increased farming returns, but little has happened since.

Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton has started to "manage expectations down" in line with his WTO colleagues. After years of pushing for an "ambitious" outcome from the WTO's current Doha Development Round, Sutton is now (quietly) conceding that the organisation will be hard-pressed to forge a consensus for the almost full removal of subsidies that New Zealand basically favours.

Sutton is among a list of 22 trade ministers who were issued invitations to the "green room", which held its first meeting late last night. The insiders group of trade ministers basically will negotiate the blueprint on behalf of the 149 member nations. The system has been attacked as "undemocratic", but getting 149 trade ministers to agree on fine print is impossible.

But to negotiate a blueprint there needs to be a draft text in the first place. WTO director-general Pascal Lamy had hoped to have a draft text in place that would contain all the key decisions on guidelines for cutting farm subsidies and reducing tariffs on industrial goods. But he has had to admit he is little more than "halfway down the road".

What happens over the next few days will have a determinant effect on the New Zealand economy.

New Zealand farmers face high tariffs into other markets on many key export products. Japan applies tariffs on meat as high as 50 per cent, the EU meat tariffs run out at 140 per cent and it's up to 700 per cent in Norway and Switzerland for some products.

Our negotiators argue tariff cuts of sufficient depth are needed so that barriers will be reduced sufficiently to let new trade flow across borders. In pursuit of this ambition New Zealand is supporting a proposal tabled by US Trade Representative Rob Portman.

The US wants a 90 per cent cut on high tariffs ranging down to a 55 per cent cut on the lowest tariffs (for developing countries). The European Union - whose major consumer market is distorted by farmer protection - will not go so far. The EU has offered 60 per cent cuts (high tariffs) and 25 per cent (low tariffs). The G20 group of developing countries is proposing a middle ground: 75 per cent cut for the top tier; 45 per cent for the lowest.

The brute reality is that high-cost farming producers from countries such as Japan, Norway, Korea and those of the EU do not want barriers reduced so far that they are swamped by New Zealand's more competitive lower-cost producers.

Many are now questioning the very raison d'etre for the Doha Development Round. Predictions by the World Bank that it could result in income lifts of between US$290 billion and US$500 billion and lift 144 million people out of poverty by 2015 are now looking decidedly fanciful.

A report out last month by World Bank economists Kym Anderson and Will Martin predicts removing all trade barriers would lift the world's output by US$287 billion as resources move from high-cost producers to lower-cost producers from countries such as New Zealand and Australia, which would score a 1 per cent lift in national income.

But New Zealand and Australia's 24 million people would also get more income than the 720 million in sub-Saharan Africa, which is in conflict with the objective of the Doha Round to deliver more to the world's poor.

New Zealand's overriding concern - and probable bottom-line - is that the multilateral trading system survives Hong Kong. It will be a miracle now if a major breakthrough occurs.

But this country needs the safety net of a rules-based trading system to which we can refer dispute - like the lamb controversy with the US - when others ignore the rules.

Towards lower tariffs

* What's at stake?

New Zealand will be one of the biggest beneficiaries if global agriculture tariffs and subsidies are fully removed - but don't hold your breath.

The last round (Uruguay) put $900 million a year extra into New Zealand's pockets but the Doha Dividend will not be anywhere near as big unless the European Union and other protectionist nations provide greater access to their markets.

* What if the WTO talks fail?

New Zealand could live with the current agricultural subsidy system. But it could not thrive without a proper rules-based trading system and if the talks fail the WTO itself could fall into disrepute.

The players

* Pascal Lamy

Director-General World Trade Organisation

The French-born Lamy has been "managing expectations down" but the WTO's "persuader" must use a combination of bullying and charm if he is to get the 149 nations present in Hong Kong to agree on a template that can be forwarded to Geneva for more nitty-gritty negotiations in the New Year. Lamy famously described the WTO as a "medieval court" after the last ministerial talks failed.

* Peter Mandelson

Trade Commissioner

European Union

Mandelson has put his foot down, saying Europe will not make any fresh concessions on farm trade this week. His member states say they have gone far enough in agreeing to reform the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and cut subsidies. Mandelson has attacked protectionists (read French) in his own camp but must take all EU members with him to offer flexibility around agricultural protection.

* Rob Portman

US Trade Representative

United States

Portman has taken up the cause of agricultural liberalisation in a much more focused way than his predecessors. But the United States - with its extraordinarily cosseted farmers - still faces a credibility gap. The US farm lobby has said it will "live without subsidies" if its members can also get greater access to the markets of Brazil and other richer members of the G20 developing countries bloc.

* Celso Amorin

Brazilian Foreign Minister

Putative leader G20 developing countries bloc

A foreign minister who "trades", Amorin leads the G20 group that wants the EU to move much harder on agriculture protectionism. G20 emerged as a force at the WTO's Cancun meeting in 2003. Amorin offered to lower Brazil's duties on industrial goods by 50 per cent to help persuade Europe to move but drew a nil response.

* Mark Vaile

Australian Trade Minister

Cairns Group leader

Vaile leads the clique of major agricultural exporting nations (to which New Zealand belongs), which is under attack from the EU as a bunch of "self-interested" and "rich" countries out to advantage themselves from the Doha Round at the expense of others.

The hard-nosed Aussie is returning to the fray after treatment for a melanoma.

* Jim Sutton

Trade Negotiations Minister

New Zealand

Sutton is on his swansong after a career that has seen him build credibility within the WTOs inner circles as a useful player to have in the "green room" where deals get done. He will blood Phil Goff over the next six days, but Goff will have to earn his own stripes before he makes the inner sanctum. Crawford Falconer, the second Kiwi to chair WTO agriculture negotiations, will also be in Hong Kong.

Brian Rudman: State Highway 20 still has to wend a tricky constituency

And now for the trickiest bit of State Highway 20 - the final gasp that runs through Prime Minister Helen Clark's Mt Albert electorate.

Tomorrow, Auckland City councillors have their tuppence-worth, egged on by Mayor Dick Hubbard, who wants the road ready for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

But I suspect the embarrassing battle to protect Mt Roskill during the designing of the previous stretch of the highway has left a deeper impression on Transit New Zealand road designers and their Auckland City equivalents than anything the councillors or the local MP might say over the next few days.

Before Mt Roskill blew up in their faces, the road builders saw nothing wrong with bulldozing through the side of a landmark volcano.

For this last stage of the highway the road builders seem to have absorbed the lessons of that fiasco, concerning themselves with conserving green spaces and even a minor waterfall. And rightly so.

As for money, well with $1.15 billion being waved about, that seems to be no object in the drive to protect, as best one can, the surrounding neighbourhood from the intrusive effects of a motorway.

Auckland City officials, having supported Transit New Zealand's preference for connecting SH20 with the Northwestern Motorway at Waterview rather than the costlier, $1.55 billion, Rosebank Peninsula alternative, are pushing for environmentally friendly alterations to the scheme.

Transit's basic plan is one anyone picking up a street map would come up with. Draw a line from the end point of the Mt Roskill section of SH20 at Richardson Rd and just follow the parks marked green, the valley of Oakley Creek in fact, from Hendon Park across New North Rd and along the green space between Great North Rd and Unitec to the Waterview interchange.

Transit's route proposes an elevated structure across the "swampy" Hendon Park, descending into a tunnel under New North Rd, then carrying on, partly underground, to Waterview.

Auckland officials want two major changes. The first is to eliminate a proposed interchange at New North Rd. This would avoid Avondale town centre being clogged with traffic. It would also allow more undergrounding to occur, resulting in more open space above. Instead, there would be only the one interchange, that adjacent to the Blockhouse Bay intersection with Great North Rd.

The other major change being proposed is to avoid the Oakley Creek valley next to Unitec by shoving Great North Rd west on to land at present occupied by houses, and running the motorway, in a half-buried trench, along where Great North Rd now runs.

Auckland City's acting transport planning group manager, Allen Bufton, says part of the new motorway could run under Great North Rd, but at this stage there's a lot of fine-tuning to be done. He acknowledges that talk of shifting a row of houses will be alarming to those concerned, but says it's a matter of treating people fairly.

He says that often in the past "cost rears its ugly head and we fall back and end up widening a road three or four metres closer to someone's bedroom or living room and they're left with a pretty awful situation."

He says if you do deal fairly and offer good compensation and, if desired, alternative housing in the locality, "at least they're away from it, they're not going to have a road nearer to their living room or bedroom".

He also holds out hope for those who can't escape, arguing the traffic will drop in Great North Rd from 45,000 vehicles a day to fewer than 20,000.

While conceding the completion of the western bypass is long overdue, my fear is that, once again, a roading project will gobble up the money, leaving the purse empty for the equally urgent and overdue completion of a decent public transport system.

At yesterday's launch of the Auckland regional land transport strategy, regional land transport committee chairman Joel Cayford added his voice to the chorus of warnings to the Government of the need to change its funding priorities and give public transport a fair go.

In the run-up to last election, we were promised a public transit revolution.

It's time to deliver.

Tapu Misa: Inequality is the real evil at the heart of hardship

There is a fatigue that creeps up on people who work with those at the bottom of the social and economic heap, a sense of futility that comes from feeling that no matter how hard they try they can never keep up with the human wreckage that arrives on their doorstep.

I've noticed it with some social workers and some teachers at low-income schools. Faced with a tidal wave of social problems, and no easy solutions, they start blaming poor people for their predicament. Perhaps, some suggest, the problem is not material poverty, but a poverty of the spirit. Perhaps it's the fault of bleeding-heart liberals for giving poor people excuses to fail.

Maybe. But it's clear we have a perceptual problem with poverty.

If some of the poor can afford luxuries that were unheard of in the old days - the widescreen TVs, PlayStation consoles, and late-model cars - how can anyone claim there's poverty in this country? Some readers insist the problem would be solved if the poor had fewer children, made their own clothes, grew their own vegetables and had more gumption.

No wonder there's little support in the wider community when the Child Poverty Action Group takes the Government to court for discriminating against the children of beneficiaries in its Working for Families package.

Similarly, moves to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour have drawn sighs of exasperation from the business sector and predictions of higher unemployment and economic doom, in contrast to the sector's outright approval for the bloated salaries of the, naturally, more deserving management at the top of the ladder.

If mum, dad and the eldest siblings are all working to make their mortgage payments - I met one Year 12 student who was working 20 hours a week after school - they should be grateful. Who cares that the family is stressed to breaking point when they have food?

But here's the thing. If we're doing so well - if, as our champions of the free market are wont to claim, the pain of the last two decades was truly worth it - why are we paying increasing amounts of money to fix up the mess?

Why do we have such wide health disparities between poor and rich? Why does CYF report ever-growing numbers of children needing its help and intervention? Why do we need more social workers in our schools? Why do we need more prisons? Why do our educational gaps show no signs of narrowing? Why do so many fall through the educational gaps that an institute like Te Wananga o Aotearoa, which managed to plug them back into the system, is overcome by adults who missed out on their first-chance education?

The right and the rich believe that the poor are victims of their own shortcomings. They're too dumb, too lazy, too lacking in moral fibre.

I prefer the analysis drawn by Richard Wilkinson, a British professor of social epidemiology, in his 2005 book Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality.

Wilkinson is the latest in a growing number of public-health specialists who has come to the irrefutable conclusion, based on a mountain of international data, that inequality is the real evil. The more unequal a society is, the more unhealthy and dysfunctional that society is.

Wilkinson says that once wealthy societies have gone beyond the threshold at which modern medical care and higher living standards make a difference to life expectancy, the critical factor becomes not so much material poverty, as relative poverty.

In the developed world, it's not the richest countries which have the best health, but the most egalitarian.

The United States, despite being the richest country in the developed world, is also the most unequal country with the lowest life expectancy. Greece, with half the GDP per head but a more equal distribution of income, has a higher life expectancy. People in Harlem have a shorter life expectancy than people in Bangladesh. Heart disease is two-thirds of the reason, once violence and drugs are accounted for - and that's due to stress, says Wilkinson; the stress of living at the bottom of a very steep social heap.

What counts is one's place on the social ladder, and how sharply that ladder tilts. Tests have shown, for example, that stressful social hierarchies have the same negative health effects on low-status baboons - who developed high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which leads to arteriosclerosis - as on low-ranking Whitehall civil servants, who were three times more likely to die in a year than their seniors. Change the pecking order, as researchers did with the baboons, and you change the health outcomes.

What about individual behavioural risk factors, such as smoking, exercise and diet? Wilkinson says these don't explain the big health differences between societies.

That's why spending millions of pounds on stop-smoking programmes for the homeless, as Britain did this year, is an exercise in futility. The stress of being homeless will kill long before the cigarettes do.

Wilkinson says the stress arising from this lack of social status and respect is far more damaging to human beings than exposure to other toxic environmental materials.

It is social cohesion, he says, that makes egalitarian countries healthier than less egalitarian ones. The most egalitarian countries have the highest levels of trust and social capital.

"They have a strong community life. The individualism and the values of the market are restrained by a social morality. People are more likely to be involved in social and voluntary activities outside the home. These societies have more of what is called 'social capital' which lubricates the workings of the whole society and economy. There are fewer signs of anti-social aggressiveness, and society appears more caring. In short, the social fabric is in better condition."

How's our social fabric looking? Not too flash. Until we understand the relationship between inequality and social cohesion, we're doomed to spend ever-increasing amounts stitching it up.

Michael Richardson: Asia and friends seek sense of community

Asia, alone among the regions of the world, lacks a co-operative forum with continental reach. Instead of an umbrella organisation, it has a bewildering array of sub-regional groups that reflect its historic diversity but do not adequately mould the growing forces of economic integration and incipient regional identity.

This could change, beginning today, when the leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries meet their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand for the first time in what is being called, inaccurately, an East Asia Summit.

Earlier this year, when Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations, invited the three non-East Asian states - India, Australia and New Zealand - to join the inaugural summit, they defined East Asia not as an exclusive geographical entity but as an inclusive zone that would extend its connections based on substantive relations and interests.

Nonetheless, there remains much for the heads of government to decide this week if they really want to create the framework of an Indo-Pacific community centred on East Asia.

Should Russia be admitted as a member, as Moscow has requested, since two-thirds of Russian territory lies in Asia? Should the European Union be granted observer status, opening the way for the United States to become an observer in future, or even a member if it signs Asean's friendship treaty, as close ally Australia did in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday? Joining the treaty, as New Zealand did earlier this year, is a condition for participating in the East Asia Summit.

Will leaders of the new Indo-Pacific group meet annually, and set up a secretariat, to help give its work momentum and direction? What will the core activities of the group be? India wants the 16 countries to focus on economic integration with the aim of creating the world's biggest free trade area of nearly 3 billion people.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who is hosting the summit talks, said at the weekend that a study was under way to explore the feasibility of an East Asian Free Trade Area involving Asean, China, Japan and South Korea. "As for the other friends of Asean, like Australia, India and New Zealand, it is only natural to eventually have free trade agreements with them."

Asean, Australia and New Zealand are negotiating a FTA while Asean is talking about a similar accord with India. In the long-term, these deals could be meshed together to form an Indo-Pacific FTA. But there are many barriers to closer economic and political ties. Asean and its Northeast Asian partners - China, Japan and South Korea - will have to decide in practical terms whether to enlarge their East Asia enterprise to encompass new members outside the region.

Enlargement could dilute East Asian goals and weaken the pivotal role of Asean. However, it may be a way to cushion the presently poisonous relations between China and Japan.

Political ties between three of Asia's four largest economies - Japan, China and South Korea - are severely strained and this undermines prospects for cohesion in any regional framework. China's leaders have refused point-blank to meet Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for bilateral talks.

Still, the East Asia Summit participants were always likely to proceed cautiously towards closer co-operation. An EU-style customs union, single central bank, common currency, and borderless trade and migration are likely to be a long way off in Asia, if not a pipe dream. Instead, the 16 leaders will probably look at ways to strengthen existing pan-regional activities in security and confidence-building, trade, monetary and financial co-operation, and improving transportation and communication links.

Constructing closer Indo-Pacific ties will take time and probably be contentious. The East Asia Summit may turn out to be a hollow shell. But it could also become a major factor in global affairs, in addition to shaping the future of Asia. The stakes are especially high for Australia and New Zealand which need to be part of the giant Asia market and have a hand in shaping the architecture of the region.

If current rates of economic growth continue, East Asia will overtake the US and EU in less than 20 years. However, its ascent will be even quicker with the combined economic weight of India and of Australia-New Zealand, which are already integrated into a virtual single market. The 16 nations in the group represent about half the world's population, have a combined GDP greater than the EU, and a trading volume larger than Nafta, the North American Free Trade Area.

Of course, history seldom moves on predictable lines. Stability and growth in Asia could be derailed by conflict and recession. However, if the energies of the Indo-Pacific area can be harnessed in pragmatic and effective ways, it clearly has enormous potential. A region that is more cohesive, economically and politically, would be a buffer against instability and a magnet for investment and progress.

* The writer, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

Aytug Fazil Plumer: Time to grasp olive branch

It is disheartening to see from Achilleas Antoniades (Perspectives, Nov 30) that the Greek Cypriot administration still harbours every intention of abusing its full membership status within the EU to force Turkey to forfeit its legitimate rights and obligations over Cyprus and to abandon the Turkish Cypriots.

Let us recall at the outset that had the Greek Cypriot side not rejected the comprehensive settlement plan of the UN Secretary-General in the simultaneous referendums held in April 2004, Cyprus would have joined the EU as a reunified federal republic.

However, 76 per cent of the Greek Cypriot people voted against the blueprint, signifying their overwhelming refusal to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the Turkish Cypriots, who voted "yes", demonstrating their desire for a bi-zonal solution based on political equality.

The Greek Cypriot side, having been given the green light by the EU for membership, had no incentive or political will to reconcile with the Turkish Cypriot side, and thus opted to enjoy the benefits of the usurped title of the "Republic of Cyprus" and EU membership on its own.

Antoniades raises the issue of troop presence, as well as the issues of abandoned properties and displaced people.

These are issues which have affected people on both sides of the border, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots alike, not since 1974 but since 1963 when the seat of government was occupied forcefully by the Greek Cypriot wing of the bi-communal Republic of Cyprus. These issues were effectively and fairly addressed by the UN comprehensive settlement plan.

The rejection of the plan by the Greek Cypriots was a missed opportunity, but more significantly an outright no to a compromise solution by one of the two parties.

After the referendum, the UN Secretary-General applauded the Turkish Cypriots for approving the plan, notwithstanding the sacrifices it entailed, and expressed regret that they would not equally enjoy the benefits of EU membership.

Antoniades' claim that the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots is "self-imposed" is ridiculous. Turkish Cypriots have been subject to economic restrictions and human rights violations since 1963, when they were pushed out of the government structures and forced to live in enclaves.

These restrictions are still being implemented by the Greek Cypriot administration in all spheres of life.

After the referendums, the EU Council asked the European Commission to regulate the direct disbursement of earmarked financial aid to North Cyprus, and to make proposals on regulating trade with North Cyprus with a view to helping its development. However, the Greek Cypriot administration, as a full member of the EU, has been sparing no effort to prevent the implementation of the two draft regulations.

Turkey's own EU membership process ought to be evaluated on its own merits and within agreed parameters. Turkey has fulfilled all of the required criteria prior to the start of accession talks. The attempts by the Greek Cypriot administration to introduce any political conditions for Turkey's full membership are unacceptable.

The Greek Cypriot side should be encouraged to reach for the olive branches extended by the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey, as would be consistent with the European approaches towards peace and reconciliation.

* Aytug Fazil Plumer is the representative of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in Abu Dhabi.