Monday, December 19, 2005

Brian Rudman: As Auckland gorges, the Queen St makeover commences

Vulcan Lane and those automated tui feeders. Khartoum Place and the suffragist memorial. Swanson St and the dreaded blue stone. They were supposed to be the triumphant curtain-raisers to the $100 million makeover of the CBD streetscape, providing the build-up for the grand climax, the transformation of Queen St itself.

But so far it's been a disaster, with all three of the above games postponed following pitch invasions by protesting shopkeepers and/or ageing feminists.

Shell-shocked and under the cover of Christmas, Auckland City's battered but ever-plucky bureaucrats have now staggered back with their plans for the big one, the $30 million-plus facelift of the golden mile.

While the rest of us are lying on a beach somewhere, digesting our Christmas excesses, they're planning to whip in a team from Hire a Hubby on January 4 to begin transforming "Auckland's iconic Queen St into a world-class, people-friendly main street".

Since the initial plans were unrolled in March, a lot of fine-tuning has gone on, and, because of cost inflation, we are told, the price has escalated from an initial $23.4 million to make over from Customs St to Karangahape Rd to $30 million for the shortened stretch from Customs St to Mayoral Drive.

There's even a nod in the direction of my earlier criticism about the rickety verandas needing replacement if Queen St was ever to achieve the dream of becoming world-class. But only a nod. "The council is aware that concern is often raised over the state of repair of existing canopies in the street. The council will be working with Heart of the City and the Property Council in the New Year to encourage property owners to repair existing canopies, where necessary, in support of the upgrade of Queen St."

You would think that when ratepayers were forking out $100 million to upgrade the CBD streetscape, shop and property owners wouldn't need the"encouragement" of city hall to make their front doors world-class as well.

You might have thought, also, that the property owners would have been interested in upgrading the quality of their tenants, if creating a first-class shopping environment was to become a reality. But Connal Townsend, national director of the Property Council, who joined Mayor Dick Hubbard at the launch of the upgrade on Friday, rather bridled at this, saying his members "weren't into social engineering". Mayor Hubbard came to his rescue suggesting "the invisible hand" of the market would ensure a better class of shopping would naturally emerge. I like to think he was having a gentle dig at Mr Townsend. But perhaps not.

Still, why should the property owners feel shamed into providing decent overhead cover from the elements when the city council continues to renege on it's obligation? The area of pavement crying out for cover is the stretch fronting Aotea Square up to the Town Hall entrance.

The latest excuse is "no built structures including canopies are allowed to be positioned in front of the Town Hall facade which is a Protected Zone under the council's District Plan". So instead, they've decided to put up a stretch of glass canopy on the footpath on the opposite side of Queen St. How weird is that?

If there's a dopey provision in the District Plan, then for goodness sake change it. Or ignore it, as the council is quite happy to do as far as noise level restrictions at Western Springs Stadium are concerned.

I must also have another bleat about the planned destruction of the thriving foreign trees along Queen St in favour of nikau palms and cabbage trees. It's a gesture towards the swampy origins of the street. Between Fort St and Custom St there will be no trees, to signify this area is reclaimed from the sea. Of course, to be consistent they'd also then need to rip out the ridiculous kauri forest opposite Britomart Station. But another clique of bureaucrats backed that stupid idea, so it stays.

I like Queen St's liquid ambers and its cabbage trees, but the isolated trial nikau should be returned to the wild. As for more cabbage trees, what if the incurable, sudden-death-syndrome that has been wiping out this native for two decades strikes. What price a resilient liquid amber then?

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

A shopper from Howick writes: "The item today about the clamped disabled parkers at Botany Town Centre falls under the "two sides to every story" category. It is most frustrating for prospective parkers to cruise for an unacceptable amount of wasted time. Worse is that there are rows and rows of unoccupied spots marked 'disabled'. There are many ways to be 'disabled'. For example as a member of the 'sandwich generation', meanwhile I have struggled with grandchildren in baby-buggies and grandparents on walking-frames. I do not qualify as disabled but notice others with their mobility cards who just bounce in and out of their cars like athletes. I think at Botany the 'disabled' could share with 'new mums'. A study found that the 'disabled' spots were occupied only 10 per cent of the time at Howick's main shopping area, so the shopping management did the sensible thing and eliminated some to free space for the disadvantaged 'normal' shoppers."

* * *

The Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox snubbed Orlando Bloom at a film premiere in London. When he asked for her autograph she allegedly told him: "I just want a quiet night. Please leave me alone and get a life." A witness told Britain's Daily Star newspaper: "It was like watching a car crash unfold. Nobody could understand why she was being so rude to Orlando. It was difficult to believe she didn't know who he was. He's been in almost every blockbuster this year. But it turns out she genuinely thought he was an unusually good-looking fan. She must have been living under a rock for the past few years." Annie was said to be horrified when she realised her embarrassing mistake and rushed over to apologise. What makes it worse for Lennox is that she wrote the Oscar-winning song Into the West from The Return of the King.

* * *

A Thai man suspected of killing his wife with a cobra to cash in on her eight million baht ($291,400) life insurance policy has turned himself in to authorities. Nired Ngamdee, 49, denied he had arranged for a cobra to bite his wife, Monrey Feungfoo, 51, in November, and then given her painkillers instead of rushing her to hospital. Shortly after Monrey's death, Nirid tried to collect on the policy he had taken out one month before. Finanza Nationwide Insurance Company refused to pay, finding the circumstances somewhat suspicious, and asked police to investigate.

Editorial: Iraq's fate poised for final count

Just over a thousand days after the United States-led invasion, a watershed has been reached in Iraq. The final result of Thursday's election may not be known for a fortnight but the democratic legislature promised to the Iraqi people is about to be realised. All the country's ethnic groups have participated in the election for a 275-seat Parliament that will hold power for the next four years. Iraq's future, and possibly its very existence, rests on the Government that emerges.

Under the scenario favoured by the US, there will be an Administration committed to national reconciliation and capable of winning the trust of the Sunni minority, thereby defusing the insurgency. Under another view, that Government will be a precursor to the country's disintegration.

For the first time, the Sunnis have cast their vote. This was their way of demanding, by whatever means, a say in Iraq's future. Their previous refusal to vote had locked them out of the debate on the country's new constitution. Yet if, as seems certain, Iraqis voted along ethnic and religious lines, the Sunnis might be doomed to disappointment. They have held the whip-hand for much of the country's history, but in a democratic poll, their five million-strong population pales beside the 15 to 16 million Shiite majority.

The Shiites, through the United Iraqi Alliance, had 140 seats in the 275-member transitional assembly, which was elected on January 30. Sunni participation this time will dilute that total, but the Shiite alliance is still expected to be the dominating force. If it shows no appetite for a more consensual Administration, the balance will tilt towards a clerical state, civil war and the eventual break-up of Iraq.

To prevent that outcome, the Bush Administration pushed the credentials of Iyad Allawi, a former Prime Minister, as a secular Shiite who could hold the country together. He appealed for the middle ground, urging Iraqis away from a vote based on religion. But he is tainted by association with the US, and in the January election finished a distant third behind coalitions representing the Shiites and the Kurds, the other main minority group.

At best, Mr Allawi could be a pivotal player in the horse-trading that precedes the formation of the new Government. Indeed, the best chance for a representative regime, which might win nationwide trust, could come if he were able to forge an alliance with parties representing the Kurds and the Sunnis, and again take the role of Prime Minister. That, however, would depend on Mr Allawi winning enough votes and the Kurds being willing to abandon their strategic alliance with the United Iraqi Alliance.

This must be counted as an outside prospect. Voting patterns will reflect the increased bitterness between the peoples of Iraq. The Sunnis accuse the Shiites of condoning militia death squads, and their Kurdish allies of grabbing land and oil in the north by intimidation. The Sunnis, in turn, are seen as being in cahoots with al Qaeda terrorists to regain the power they lost with the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein.

An ABC News poll, conducted in the lead-up to the election, found that two-thirds of Iraqis expected things to get better in their country in the coming months. But that degree of optimism tumbled to a third in the Sunni regions. The Sunnis, while willing to throw their lot in with the democratic process on this occasion, have little confidence that it will produce an inclusive Iraq.

A stable state and calmer times depend on that impression being proved wrong.

Claire Harvey: A nation sullied by cowardly rioters

Nothing provides a bit of insight into patriotism like standing back about 2000km from your homeland and watching its disgrace.

Of all the disgusting events which are occurring in Australia at the moment, the worst sight for an expat like me has not been the screamed racist slogans, or the gang of thousands who chased a teenage boy through the streets with murderous intent, or the reports of carol singers being spat upon, or the young Muslim woman who was thrown to the ground and kicked.

Even more distressing than all of this is to watch my compatriots prepare for a bit of Muslim-bashing by draping themselves in the Australian flag, singing Waltzing Matilda and chanting "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!"

To most Australian eyes, that kind of barracking has always been intrinsically harmless; slightly irritating when it's conducted by the six-pack of beery yobbos sitting one row in front at the cricket, maybe, but not otherwise too offensive.

But the white rioters of Cronulla have assaulted every one of their fellow Australians by hijacking and misusing symbols which are supposed to represent something higher than lynch-mob cowardice.

To see that image on television in Australia would be bad enough, but to see it on television in a foreign land is like looking into a mirror and struggling to recognise the foul reflection, because it is accompanied by the knowledge that forever more, foreigners will be a little bit justified when they say, however unfairly, that all Australians are racist.

One of the sort-of compliments New Zealanders often pay Australia is to praise the innate self-belief and ruthless drive of the country's sportspeople.

"You Aussies just have that take-no-prisoners attitude that we don't have," a Kiwi spectator at a rugby league match once remarked as we watched the Warriors lie down for a little nap while the Sydney Bulldogs played football.

It was hard to argue at the time, but that sort of accolade has always felt uncomfortable, and not just because the Sydney Bulldogs were mired in gang-rape allegations at the time.

It's uncomfortable because patriotism is a dangerous game, and ascribing good or bad characteristics to any national or cultural group is always risky, even if it might feel good when things are going well.

It's horrible to hear the kind of remarks some New Zealanders have made over the past week; the suggestion that all white Australians hate and fear foreigners (many do, but they are the same bitter fools who fester in all societies), or that most Australians are comfortable calling black people "Abos" (actually, that's a term so taboo it would stop the conversation in any group of thinking Australians).

The criticism of Australia hurts not just because it all contains a painful element of truth, but because it would be nice to think that New Zealanders might learn from Australia's pain, and see that this kind of generalisation is exactly the problem infecting Cronulla.

There's nothing new about beach tribalism in Sydney. The surfies have been fighting the westies on Cronulla Beach for decades, but the difference today is that both sides are able to recruit idiots from all over the nation with text-messages and with the support of radio talkback hate-mongers like Sydney 2UE's Alan Jones, a close adviser to John Howard and a former Wallaby coach who repeatedly incited the rioters.

Now, too, the Anglo yobbos feel bolstered by well-publicised examples of misbehaviour by nasty little thugs who happen to be Muslim, like the Pakistani gang-rapist who told the NSW Supreme Court on December 9 that he thought it was all right to rape a white girl because she wasn't dressed modestly like a Muslim woman.

The visceral anger that racism inspires in the fair and decent majority of Australians is another reason it is galling to hear Howard - the man who has done so much to foster intolerance and fear of foreigners - using a phrase like "un-Australian" to describe the rioters. Un-Australian must be the least helpful term ever coined; it can apparently be used to describe anything from vegetarianism to car-jacking.

Isn't the root of Cronulla's problem the notion of things being either Australian or un-Australian? Can't we get beyond that kind of simplistic dualism in solving problems which are clearly more complex?

New Zealanders should be thankful that the name of their country doesn't lend itself very well to use as a negative descriptor; every option sounds ridiculous (non-Kiwi? un-New Zealandish?).

Because while the invocation of patriotic language can make us feel good about the best of our societies, it can also be used to justify our worst inclinations.

Don Brash tried it the other day, describing the dorks who put up racist posters in Wellington as "un-Kiwi". It's not going to catch on, thank goodness, because hopefully this country can do better.

Dr Muriel Newman: Bill of Rights will put power back in hands of ratepayers

The revelation that Auckland City rates could rise to more than $70 a week for the average ratepayer strengthens my view that New Zealand may be ready for a Ratepayers' Bill of Rights.

This would not only protect ratepayers from exorbitant rate rises but guide local authorities in their activities.

The bill would contain three principles: a requirement for councils to focus on the provision of core services as their primary role, a restriction on rate increases through the introduction of a cap on rates, and the establishment of a system of direct democracy to give ratepayers a say in local councils' decision-making processes.

In 2002, changes were made to the Local Government Act that fundamentally altered the way local government operates.

Instead of being focused largely on providing core infrastructural services to ratepayers - road maintenance, rubbish collection, reserve upkeep, the provision of water and other utilities - as well as the issuing and monitoring of consents, local government was unleashed to undertake any activity that could be deemed to be contributing to the increased "well-being" of the community.

In particular, the amendments redefined the purpose of local government to "promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future".

In promoting these four well-beings, local authorities were given sweeping new powers of general competence, allowing them to embark on almost any project the politicians or staff fancied.

From the provision of Rolls-Royce social services that were traditionally the responsibility of central Government to local think-big projects such as stadiums and events centres, underground streets and inner-city canals, to the operation of risky commercial ventures - underwritten by ratepayers and in competition with the private sector - the sky is their limit.

As a result, around the country rates are rising relentlessly as council debt levels mount and interest payments escalate. With user charges for core services becoming commonplace, it is little wonder that ratepayers - especially those on fixed incomes - are feeling increasingly frustrated and powerless.

Central Government is also adding significantly to that rates burden as they push more responsibilities on to local authorities: there are new strategies for waste minimisation to be developed, costly new dog-control laws to be administered, prostitutes to look out for, and expensive new water quality standards in the pipeline.

Councils are busy drafting policies for trees, for cats, for the elderly - you name it and it's likely to be on the drawing board.

With local government on the brink of a bureaucratic and cost explosion, the time is right to consider the merits of a Ratepayers' Bill of Rights to protect ratepayers from exploitation by empire builders, central planners and activists.

The first requirement of such a bill would be to redirect councils back to providing core services as their prime responsibility. That would mean amending the Local Government Act 2002 to remove the power of general competence and the need to promote the four community well-beings.

The second requirement would be a rates cap to restrict the level of rate increases that a local authority can impose on residents in any one year. The cap would be based on the previous year's rates with an inflation and population growth adjustment.

The third requirement would be to introduce a system of binding ratepayers' referendums, as the Wanganui District Council has done. Using this system, ratepayers can be given a direct say in how their rates are to be spent and their city or district run.

Such a system would also ensure that ratepayers are directly involved in deciding whether those expensive projects that cause so much angst in any community should go ahead.

A Ratepayers' Bill of Rights would restore a sense of power and control over local government back into the hands of the ratepayers who fund it. It would also provide councils with feedback from ratepayers on the best way forward for their community.

* Dr Muriel Newman, a former Act list MP, is chairwoman of her local ratepayers' association and founder of the New Zealand Centre for Political Debate, a web-based think tank at www.nzcpd.com.

Thomas Pippos: Taxing times for Peter Dunne

After two months in power, filling a position he previously held under a National Government, what has Peter Dunne done?

The critics would say not a lot. But the jury must still be out as to whether United Future's leader will stamp his mark as Minister of Revenue.

Having held the position before and as the longest serving member on the finance and expenditure committee, Dunne is qualified for the role.

But failure to make a mark could see United Future consigned to the political wilderness.

So what's Dunne been up to?

And how will he be able to make a difference in a minority role, with an influential figure like Michael Cullen still in play?

Business tax review:

One thing that Dunne has initiated/inherited is the business tax review. Inherited in the sense that this is part of the agreement that Labour has with both United Future and New Zealand First to "conduct a review of the current business taxation regimes with the view of ensuring the system works to give better incentives for productivity gains and improved competitiveness with Australia".

Sounds good, but the review will be fraught with difficulty unless it is focused.

And it could suffer the fate of many other reviews, destined to hold up real and virtual dust.

Initial indications are that the review could be drawn out to span the full term of the 48th Government - a death of a thousand consultative cuts.

It would be somewhat sad if all we end up with is yet another process that consumes energy throughout a political term but adds little substantive change.

Details of what is planned are not yet known, but one would have thought that existing reviews (most recently the McLeod report) could have been used as a springboard for the latest review, to enable any initiatives to be implemented well within the current Government's term.

There are other difficulties, like the numerous special interest groups that will inevitably use the process to drive pet projects; identifying tax policy changes that are sensible and, from a political level, visible and meaningful; getting officials over the line; and, finally, getting Dr Cullen over the line. Add to the mix the smorgasbord of tax initiatives mooted in the last election by New Zealand First (23) and United Future (nine) and one ends up with the makings of a pot luck dinner.

At least historically it had a common theme of a reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Charities:

The agreement between United Future and Labour also provides that "a new tax rebate regime for charities will be developed".

To date we have seen no work on this, but efforts are likely to be stepped up next year once registrations under the new Charities Act are completed.

There will be considerable interest in this, from changes to the threshold for the existing charitable rebate and increases for company donation rebates, to big ticket items such as allowing refunds for imputation credits when charities invest in New Zealand companies.

Carbon tax review:

The confidence and supply agreement between Labour and United Future also provides that "a new cost-benefit analysis of the proposal to introduce a carbon tax as part of our Kyoto obligations will be conducted and no legislation introduced before the analysis is completed.

"The criteria and/or the terms of reference for this analysis will be agreed through sector-wide consultation."

In an oral question in the House, Dunne has said his "view has always been that the way in which the carbon tax has been designed to date makes it unworkable".

Anticipated prognosis - terminal. Notwithstanding that, Dunne has said "until that review is completed no decisions will be made on the outcome" of this tax.

Income splitting:

A favourite campaigning point for United Future was in respect of income splitting. Peter Dunne has indicated that a discussion document will be released on this topic. Don't hold your breath, though - the target date for this discussion document is early 2008.

NZ/Australia double tax agreement:

This is a topic of interest to those dealing on both sides of the Tasman - supported by Dunne, New Zealand and Australia have signed a protocol updating the 1995 double tax agreement between the two countries.

Of more moment was the indication that "whether we negotiate a completely new double tax agreement between the two countries is still under review. It will depend in part on whether New Zealand is willing to lower the withholding rates covered by the agreement, a decision the Government expects to make next year".

Expect change, but this is the type of change that does not secure political tenure.

Post election briefings:

An ace Dunne welcomed with open arms was the Inland Revenue Department's briefing to the incoming Government. As he put it, a "constructive contribution to the Government's work on tax issues". Put another way, the strongest ammunition a new Minister of Revenue could have hoped for to drive change in a three-year window. But will he use it?

Putting the scene into context, however, Dr Cullen has stated in relation to those briefings: "I am elected, they're not".

Where to from here:

So what's Dunne done? The scene has been set to achieve material change. Early next year we can expect Dunne to release his planned tax policy programme that will include details around the business tax review.

At that stage we can judge the minister's ambition to drive change and look to evaluate what he plans to do to stay relevant.

A factor not to lose sight of is that National's John Key has the resources and ability to critically attack any inaction by the current Government and Dunne in this area, an opportunity he will undoubtedly take.

The dust is far from settled.

Promises

Pre-election United Future tax policies included:
* Adjusting the 33 per cent and 39 per cent tax brackets by $5000.
* Providing income splitting for couples with dependent children.
* Lowering the company tax rate from 33 per cent to 30 per cent over the next three years.
* Increasing the tax rebate on donations by individuals to charities tenfold, from $630 a year to $6300 and, for companies, from 5 per cent to 50 per cent of net profit.

Pre-election NZ First tax policies included:

* Reducing company tax upon achieving short-term growth goals, beginning with a 20 per cent tax rate for "new exports" net income.
* It was opposed to any increase in general taxation.
* It aimed to reduce personal income tax levels, following the achievement of intermediate growth goals and focused social expenditure.
* It wanted a tax regime which guaranteed that overseas companies were treated the same as New Zealand ones for tax purposes.

* Thomas Pippos is the managing tax partner at accounting firm Deloitte.

William Pesek: Flat-Earth theory only works on paper

Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat is a fascinating read, especially while visiting one of the nations that is supposed to thrive amid the borderless world created by globalisation and technology. In my case: Sri Lanka.

Walking the streets of Colombo after reading Friedman's book it's easy to see where the New York Times columnist is coming from. The internet, globalisation and the fall of the Berlin Wall have obliterated national borders, challenging countries, companies and citizens everywhere to shape up.

An unplanned collage of social and technological changes "accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next-door neighbours", Friedman writes.

By 2000, they "created a flat world: a global web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography and, increasingly, language".

As this new paradigm appeared, the enormous populations of three huge economies - China, India and the former Soviet states - "who were out of the game, walked on to the playing field", Friedman says.

Whatever the merits of Friedman's insights into the forces reshaping global economies, Sri Lanka is a reminder that the world still is round in many places. This island nation of 20 million people should be an ideal candidate for the kind of world Friedman envisions, in which globalisation helps eradicate poverty, war and tyranny.

In spite of efforts to embrace globalisation and its promise of prosperity, Sri Lanka's per capita income was just over US$1000 in 2004.

In the 1960s, income was greater than Thailand's. Now it's less than half. Perhaps it's not hard to understand why last month Sri Lankans elected a president who pledged to halt sales of state assets to overseas investors and raise corporate tax rates.

"The image of a 'flat world' is more appropriate for the end-game of globalisation," Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley's New York-based chief economist, wrote in a recent report.

"In my view, that ideal state is decades into the future - if that. In the meantime, the global economy is distinguished far more by its disparities and tensions, and how the resulting imbalances are likely to be vented in world financial markets."

Friedman's book does indeed explore how destabilising the opening of economies and flow of capital and jobs from one nation or continent to another can be.

Yet Roach, in his report that reads like a rebuttal of Friedman's book, has a point when he argues "globalisation may well be a win-win in the long run but, in the here and now, it's profoundly asymmetrical". It's not that Friedman is wrong; in fact Roach lauds him for "bringing globalisation for the masses".

Yet Friedman seems to have got ahead of the benefits of a flat world. The idea that Roach is right today and that Friedman may be right in the future were making the rounds this week in Hong Kong, where World Trade Organisation delegates and an army of protesters gathered.

Globalisation holds that as nations such as China and India enter the international economy they provide cheap goods and services, while their rising prosperity creates new consumers. The concern is that the phenomenon has given rise to a multitude of new entrants on the supply side but few consumers on the demand side.

Liam Dann: French farming shameful rort

How is it that that the European Union - a bunch of countries that built their enormous wealth by plundering Africa and Asia well into the 20th century - has the gall to stand in the way of trade reforms that might give the world's poorest countries a half- chance of creating economies where children don't starve to death.

Did I say gall? I probably should have said Gaul.

It is becoming increasingly clear that without the French resistance the UK, Germany and other less agriculturally dependent nations would be prepared to offer more to help the World Trade Organisation reach an agreement.

The French are lovely people but their of approach to agriculture is just appalling. What is really infuriating is that the system they are so determined to preserve is collapsing from within.

Perpetuating that system is putting their farmers at greater risk than reforming it. It is tragic and pathetic that they are too stubborn to recognise a win-win situation.

Free trade would not destroy European agriculture. European food is still recognised as the best in the world. The farmers who produce that aren't all going to suddenly go out of business. Some will.

But frankly the EU system is so bloated and inefficient that some just don't deserve to be in business.

An editorial this month in British magazine the Spectator highlights examples of why the EU's common agricultural policy is so wrong.

In 2003 the European Court of Auditors found that 50 per cent of the suckling cows claimed to be grazing in Portugal did not exist. Eighty-nine per cent of farms had claimed subsidies based on acreage numbers so inaccurate that they added up to more than the total area of the country.

Subsidising agriculture is consuming more than half of the EU's $180 billion budget every year.

Throw in the arrival of new EU members with huge farming populations (such as Poland, whose eligibility for full subsidy rights is being introduced gradually) and it becomes obvious that already over-burdened European governments can't afford to subsidise into perpetuity.

A cynic might conclude that this is the reason (rather than any genuine altruism) for EU offers to give ground on the subsidy debate - offers still being opposed by the French.

But the chance of the EU giving up protectionist tariffs look slim. It is the tariff issue that is killing the Doha Round of trade talks.

What are the French afraid of?

The image of the proud French farmer is a thin veneer. There is simply no way for a fully developed nation to be proud when it is hiding behind tariffs. Could French rugby fans be proud of EU regulations which guaranteed their teams a 30-point head-start before the whistle blew? Of course not. It would be an embarrassment.

And in reality, the tariffs on many agricultural products are more like a 100-point advantage in rugby terms. They rule out any possibility of competition.

The shameful exhibition we see from the French every time trade talks begin is at least a good reminder of how far New Zealand farming has come in 20 years.

New Zealand dropped its protectionist policies so fast that it really wasn't fair on a lot of farmers. But the benefits of the move are now beyond dispute.

Our farmers are clever, resourceful people. They are pragmatists but beneath their common sense outlook lurks an intense passion and love for what they do. They are justly proud guardians of our economy.

These things are not widely understood by this country's young urban population. I didn't really understand them when I took on the job of Primary Industries Editor three years ago. I have had a wonderful (and eye-opening time) learning about the sector and its people.

This is my last column as Primary Industries Editor. I am moving on but will be writing for the Business Herald and am pleased to be carrying that passion for agriculture that is, frankly, the only thing that keeps this South Pacific paradise in the First World.

Entertainment picks: From forceps to feathers

By Rebecca Barry

Movies
Hats off to Zach Braff for the most interesting acting career we've seen, from starring in a medical sitcom to making his own film to, um, voicing a chicken.

In Chicken Little (opening Thursday) he gets to yell, "The sky is falling!" as an acorn drops on his animated noggin, much to fellow poultry's disgust. Reputation in tatters, the sky then falls and clobbers him on the head. Brilliant piece of satire, that.

Sarah Jessica Parker loses the frou-frou skirts and berets of Sex & the City to play Dermot Mulroney's ice-queen girlfriend in The Family Stone, a sort of dry Meet the Parents.

Bollywood buffs check out Bluffmaster, starring Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra and Ritesh Deshmukh, about a con man called Roy. (Now why would you believe a man named Roy?) So con man meets girl, falls in love, loses girl (as con men do), con man meets fellow con man, teaches him con man tricks, has epiphany, etc.

The Rialto has the pick of the week in Cannes favourite Joyeux Noel, France's nomination for best film at the Oscars for this based-on-a-true-story. On Christmas Eve 1914 in Northern France, Brits and Germans who had fought each other from the trenches barely 100m apart on a daily basis, put down their weapons to share wine and food, exchange photos and memories and play a game of soccer in the snow.

I don't know what happens next but if anyone dies post-plum-pud I will lose faith in humanity altogether. Merry Christmas.

TV
Desperate Housewives are the TV Spice Girls. There's a Posh, a Ginger and a Crazy. So which one are you? When you go to the supermarket you wear: a) a blouse covered in baby sick; b) something out of Stepford Wives; c) jeans with a piece of toilet paper sticking out the bottom; d) a lacy push-up bra under a tight dress. Answers: you already know the answers.

What you don't know will be revealed in the season finale tonight - the secrets surrounding Mary-Alice's suicide, the truth about Mike's mission and the reason Zach is such a freak. We also meet new characters who create drama for next year's series.

Then there's the final of the impressive yet oh-so-Wellington drama Insiders Guide to Love. Although that's competing with the must-watch-in-ad-breaks Stars Without Makeup (TV3, 9.35pm).

By jingies, you'd better retouch that fuzzy perm and get your huffy puffy out of the way because tomorrow night's a date with culture junkies, Kath & Kim. This time it's the telemovie Da Kath & Kim Code (TV3, 7.30pm). Kath and Kel have returned from a Da Vinci Code tour of Europe for the Christmas break, but only Sharon seems to be lucky in love.

And on Friday, Trinny and Susannah try to spice up their What Not To Wear format with Dresses Up: Tips for Party-going Celebrities, (TV One, 7.30pm), none of whom we are likely to know, as the celebs are British talkshow hosts and the like, but it's fun to watch egos get crushed.

And on Friday we farewell Mother of the Nation Judy Bailey, who we hope signs off from One News with a resounding, "Yesssss."

Social
Nothing to report outside of the schmooze-worthy Ralston-lunch variety. Although we doubt he'll be lunching much in public this week.

Music
It must be sacrilege to host a gig this week without calling it a Christmas Party. Hence, the Christmas Party at the Dogs Bollix on Tuesday night, (apparently the regular deal but with carol singers).

Then there's the Kings Arms Christmas Party on Thursday (a showcase of bands called the Furys, Tim Werry and the Waltons).

On Friday it's the 95bFM Christmas Party (code for gig by Guitar Wolf, the Tokyo punk band who are also playing with old mates the D4 at the Masonic on Christmas Eve).

For those who hate Christmas, are Jewish or simply feel like going out for going out's sake, Ministry of Sound favourite Judge Jules plays on Wednesday at Starzz, which leads us to ask, who gave permission to spell it like that?

Fellow punctuationally challenged lads the feelers play the Empire on Wednesday, and Elemeno P, Steriogram and Deja Voodoo are at the London Shed, Pakuranga, on Thursday and the Brownzie on Friday. Katchafire are at Harbour Masters, Waiheke, on Friday, and the Riverhead Tavern the following night.