Saturday, December 24, 2005

Editorial: We wish you a merry Christmas

There are of course a thousand things still to do. Pick up the turkey, find a few last-minute gifts, prepare a dish for the dinner, don't forget the strawberries. This is the day we wonder why we do it, tomorrow we know why.

In truth, we have known for weeks, ever since the streets were decked in holly and the shops started playing Jingle Bells. It's Christmas, it's crass, it's commercial and it is good.

It is good beyond belief. Christmas reunites people, friends and families, for no other reason than they want to be together, however briefly, for this occasion. The Christmas spirit is not an empty phrase or a contrived one. It infects all of us, even the sad or solitary who feel the loss or absence of loved ones particularly deeply this weekend. There is one more chore busy people should do today: think of acquaintances you suspect might be facing tomorrow alone. Call them and if they seem to have no plans, tell them you have over-prepared and you would love them to join you. It is a little thing; it is Christmas.

This spirit is something we too seldom stop to think about, even at this time every year. Most of us are not "spiritual" in a religious sense but Christmas is capable of raising our spirit above the routine of life and feeling a certain good will to all. At carol services tonight or tomorrow morning most churches will welcome people they never have seen before and do not expect to see again for a year. Christmas is not the primary event on the Christian calendar, Easter is that, but Christmas provides the most public evidence that human beings can respond to something especially good within themselves. Something divine.

Christmas is, of course, a Christian festival and no less so for being celebrated these days in places where Christianity is not, and has never been, the dominant faith. Places such as Japan right now will be awash with Santa Claus and reindeer, angels and harps and holly and the Christmas carols. The Santa parade in central Auckland a few weeks ago featured enthusiastic immigrant participants from non-Christian parts of the world.

There is a tendency, probably totally unnecessary, to downplay the religious character of Christmas in deference to the diversity of the population today. In extreme cases even the word Christmas is being replaced by terms that are more secular and supposedly more inclusive. Cards sent out by the Bush White House, for all the incumbent's religiosity, are wishing people "Happy Holidays" this year. "They are sent to people of all faiths," explained a spokeswoman for Mrs Bush.

Yet the Japanese who delight in Christmas, the immigrant communities who took part in Auckland's Santa Parade and people of all cultures who celebrate Christmas know its origins and meaning. They no more resent the Christian character of the occasion than Aucklanders who attend the annual Diwali festival of lights mind its Hinduism. Far from resenting it, they probably sense that to take religion out of Christmas, or Diwali, would reduce the rituals to mere performance and destroy something of value in the human heritage.

Christmas is the story of the baby born in a stable whose influence on the world was to be more profound than perhaps any person in history. Christians hold him to be the human manifestation of God, who was to sacrifice himself in human form for a purpose that perhaps even his adherents can dimly understand - the promise that there is, indeed, life after death.

There is no denying the love and hope that pervades the world at this time. It is a unique day, which should be celebrated for what it is. We mean it, as everyone does, when we wish you warmly a merry Christmas.

Jim Hopkins: The day of recovery

Jim Hopkins: The day of recovery

24.12.05

It's a bit tricky, this, because there's not a lot to say about Boxing Day around here. Sleep, sleep, and more sleep pretty much covers it.

Unless you go back in time a day or two ... Christmas Eve and the tension's building. It always does. Every year we ask ourselves, "Is this the year it all turns to soot?"

People don't realise that. They see the suit, the beard, the smile and they take them for granted. They never think about the organisation, the planning, the team behind the scenes.

But we do. We being the SAS, or Sleigh Assistance Squad. Officially, we don't exist. No one knows who we are or where we go, but "to the rescue" is near enough.

And we do that every Christmas. In the hours before C Day, we assemble at a secret location "somewhere in the Southern Alps" and wait for The Boss to arrive.

He always starts his run here because of the time zones and after the long trip from the North Pole there are invariably a few technical problems with SST (Supersonic Santa Transport). It's actually built by British Sleighland and is a very high-tech piece of kit.

Mind you, it has to be. You don't do four billion house calls in a clunky import with a dodgy odo!

We never know when Mr S will turn up because he does the North Island first and Remuera always takes a while, but once he arrives, it's all go.

We check out the high-speed engines first. Hyperbaric, Cross-Oscillating, Nano-sonic Moleculisers, they run on a blend of Kryptonite, de-radiated Plutonium and reindeer fat.

"Waste not, want not," is The Boss' motto.

We also double-check the GPS (Gift Positioning System). There was a huge row one year when Aunty Ethel got Uncle Norm's adult videos by mistake.

Although, to be fair, once the dust had settled, she did get on a lot better with the vicar.

But we don't want a repeat. And we don't want Santa Claus turning into Santa Crisp over the Indian Ocean either, so we're extra careful with the all-important Beard Shield that prevents meltdown during re-entry.

Finally, when the job's done, we all hop in the BUS (Back-up Sleigh) and follow "S" around the world.

Twenty-four hours later, the job's done; a quick de-brief and we're safely tucked up in bed, usually round 7am on the 26th.

And that's Boxing Day. Pretty boring, really.

Te Radar: The day the cows come out to play

The major failing of the cow is that it cannot milk itself. Thus, as children, we were invariably at home on Boxing Day, with the knowledge that between milkings there were several hours which my father instinctively knew needed to be put to productive use.

Public holidays, it seems, were anathema to him.

So, weather permitting, Boxing Day was when we would invariably start making hay.

Despite this, Boxing Day was then, and remains now, my favourite day of the festive season, for by then the almost banal drama of Christmas has passed.

But times have changed. With the advent of larger, less time-consuming, round hay bales, it isn't as critical to begin haymaking at this time.

So it was, at lunch-time one Boxing Day a few years back, that a large contingent of my whanau were seated around my brother's kitchen table on the farm.

As we began eating the better part of a plump heifer I noticed that a few metres away, across the lawn, standing at the fence, four bovine eyes were peering intently at us.

This in itself wasn't unusual, nor off-putting. What was unusual and off-putting was what the curious cattle were doing while staring at us. Their actions may have escaped attention had I not started sniggering.

It seems that another failing of the cow is a lack of modesty. For several seconds no one spoke, as we all watched them watching us while they copulated.

Steaks cooled beneath an exhalation of laughter.

My grandmother looked resolutely at her meal. So did my grandfather, the whisper of a smirk hidden behind a mouthful of salad.

"Charming", was all my mother could mutter.

The amorous cattle, once satiated, casually strolled away. Eating resumed. But the plates were only half empty before they returned to once again stare fixedly at us while entertaining themselves.

For a fleeting second a look passed between the bull and I, and I finally understood why my father had insisted we work on public holidays: you have to make hay while the sun shines.

James Griffin: All the days of the year

Yes, it frightens me, too, that I should have considered this issue, but it's my job and somebody's got to do it.

With that out of the way, I have to report that I have seriously wondered, in the course of writing this article, what the days of the year would look like if they were kids in a primary school photo.

Some were easy: Christmas Day is the chubby, happy kid; December 31 is the cheeky kid pulling faces at the camera, and the pale, sickly kid next to them is January 1. February 29 is the depressed kid with no mates who appears only in every fourth photo.

But what would Boxing Day, December 26, look like?

Would he be the bloated, dyspeptic- looking kid, after eating not only his but also Christmas Day's play-lunch? Would he be the manic kid in the back row, driving the photographer mental because he can't sit still, still on yesterday's sugar rush?

Or would it be a glum kid, because his toys were either wrong or uncool or broke the first time he used them? Or would he be a nerdy type with a calculator in his pocket, a horrified look on his face because he's realised how much money he would have saved if he'd done his shopping in the sales that started today?

So I seriously considered a school class photo with 365 pupils in it (about right on today's teacher/student ratios) in an effort to understand the essence of Boxing Day. Then I realised what an idiot I was being.

Because Boxing Day wouldn't be in the photo. Because the beauty of Boxing Day is that it's the one day of the year where you shouldn't have to be anywhere you don't want to be.

And why on Earth would you be in a stupid imaginary photo when you could be lying around at home or even at the beach if it's not raining? So there's this imaginary photo, of all the days of the year, and at the bottom is a caption that reads: Absent: December 26.

Paul Thomas: Many a strange day has been sent to plague us

"May you live in interesting times" is supposedly an old Chinese curse to be flung at people who would prefer a quiet life in which nothing ever changes and acts of God are minor and infrequent.

But, say scholars in the field, it's a fake. Apparently the closest thing Confucius and Co came up with is, "It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic period" which, no matter how you look at it, can't be construed as a curse.

New research has fingered an obscure 1950s science fiction writer or one of Robert F. Kennedy's speechwriters as the author.

Whoever it was, the suspicion is that the Chinese curse background was invented to give it some oriental mystique and make sure people got the irony.

These are interesting times in the ironic, fake curse sense: strange, troubled, disconcertingly eventful.

Back in March I wrote about bird flu, prompted by the claim from a leading British microbiologist that a pandemic will kill two million Britons, roughly one in 30.

The threat of a pandemic has been a godsend for the doomsday industry whose crystal ball gazers often seem engaged in a contest to see who can come up with the bleakest scenario: I'll see your two million and raise you a four-year recession.

For those of us who lived through the Cold War with its ever-present threat of nuclear incineration, it's almost like old times.

Terror Inc stepped up its onslaught on the Western way of life but the London subway bombings and attacks on tourist targets in Egypt, Jordan and Bali were flea-bites compared with the insurgency's pitiless assault on their fellow - in some cases - Iraqis.

America now seems divided between those who still believe victory is achievable if they hang in there indefinitely (the Bush Administration) and those who want to cut and run as soon as possible regardless of the consequences, a somewhat larger body of opinion.

There is a fate worse than having your suffering ignored by the West and that's having the West come to your rescue. Meanwhile, the War on Terror continues to redefine the term "public relations disaster".

As the old lags at Guantanamo Bay enter their fifth year of detention without trial and we learn more about the CIA's circumvention of conventions prohibiting the use of torture, it emerges that Iraqi security forces actually captured terrorist mastermind and self-confessed mass murderer Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi last year. Failing to recognise a man whose face is on virtual permanent display in the global media, they promptly let him go.

We had a mid-year election campaign, the highlights of which were the leaders of the Exclusive Brethren stumbling into the media spotlight blinking like moles and the brawl over new Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson's left testicle.

There must be something in Tauranga's water that produces characters like Clarkson, who seems to have the sort of relationship with his left testicle that a ventriloquist has with his dummy, his nemesis the implacable and fabulously named Vivienne d'Or and, of course, his predecessor.

Incidentally, I understand there's no truth to the rumour that when Winston Peters arrived at Government House to be sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister greeted him with the words, "Is that a bauble in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"

The sporting landscape was dominated by the Lions tour, which was in turn dominated by their captain Brian O'Driscoll's near-death experience.

With all the sound and fury generated by the incident, it almost escaped notice that O'Driscoll introduced into rugby folk-lore a mystery woman to rank alongside Susie the waitress, who supposedly poisoned the All Blacks before the 1995 World Cup final but whose existence has never been established, despite the best efforts of Laurie Mains and his posse of private detectives.

In his tour diary O'Driscoll claims that as he was suffering the torments of the damned somewhere in the bowels of Jade Stadium, a nurse tried to souvenir the shirt off his back.

But the New Zealand Rugby Union insists O'Driscoll was treated by the Lions' medical team and the stadium authorities insist there was no nurse on duty at the match.

Like Susie, this devil in disguise has vanished - if indeed she existed - without trace.

New Zealand then proceeded to enrage the gentlemen of the British press all over again by being granted the right to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. We shouldn't have been surprised by their readiness to swallow the snake oil that lubricated Japan's bid, given that they repeatedly assure their readers that half the All Black team were snatched off various Pacific Island beaches by NZRU press gangs.

In April I wrote about the exciting new socio-sexual phenomenon of polyamorism, a daisy-chain arrangement in which participants have multiple partners, often of both genders, who themselves have multiple partners. It crossed my mind that polyamorics might turn out to be an urban myth, akin to the alligators that infest New York's sewers, but they popped up again this month in canvas, so they must be real.

Strange days indeed. All the more reason to have a happy Christmas.

Thomas Pippos: Not even Santa can avoid tax clauses

Christmas is a busy time for Santa, made worse as he also seeks to manage his tax affairs.

As early as October, Santa starts appearing in advertising, malls and parades - all providing him with the appearance fees and royalties required to keep the Grotto at the North Pole up and running. On the big night - December 24 - Santa cashes in, collecting enough milk and cakes, and occasionally beer, to feed all the elves and reindeer for the coming year.

Making matters worse, he imports all manner of goods into New Zealand, triggering even more tax compliance.

Like all other non-residents coming to New Zealand to do business, Santa needs to consider the tax implications of his actions.

The easy - Santa's income

The appearance fees Santa receives for listening to the wishes of long lines of children, and his share of photography income, should have been tax-deducted at source.

As a non-resident entertainer, the relevant rate is 20 per cent. Fortunately for the forgetful Santa, if the withholding tax is not deducted at source, he doesn't have a secondary obligation to make this withholding payment himself.

Unfortunately, though, he would have to include this income in his tax return which, in the absence of professional assistance, will generally be due the following July. Santa is also likely to be receiving royalties for the use of his image and catch-phrases such as "Ho, Ho, Ho" and "Merry Christmas" as used in advertising and Christmas cards.

As is the case with appearance fees, royalties received by a non-resident should have been tax-deducted by the payer but, this time, non-resident withholding tax deducted at 15 per cent. This is the only New Zealand tax Santa has to pay on this royalty income but he has to ensure that his sometimes neglectful clients pay it, because if they don't, he has to pay it directly.

The tricky - GST

Santa, like all others in business, has to think about GST and, in this case, he should register and account for GST on all supplies he makes. He needs to ensure that he sends timely and accurate tax invoices and files his GST return each month, given the volume of transactions he undertakes.

On the positive side, as a result of registering, Santa will be able to claim back GST on any expenses he incurs. Most importantly, he can claim back the GST that Customs charges him for importing all those toys.

A little bit tricky in Santa's case is the fact that he is big on barter - getting milk, cake and beer - all of which have GST implications.

The staff

Santa also needs to consider the tax obligations of his staff. Depending whether his team of dedicated New Zealand resident elves are either employees or contractors, Santa will have obligations to deduct PAYE or a withholding tax. He also has to consider FBT as they can use the sleigh during the off-season, and specified superannuation contribution withholding tax deductions for their monthly employer contributions.

Fortunately for Santa, those elves he brings in from the North Pole generally escape the tax net as they are in New Zealand for fewer than 92 days and they pay full taxes back home.

The forgotten - Gift duty

Yet another tax Santa would be liable for on his visit to New Zealand is gift duty. As he gives away more than $27,000 of presents on the big night, gift duty must be paid, quite a substantial amount in Santa's case. And if he forgot, then that liability would fall on all the recipients of the gift. How many years has Santa been promised that this archaic tax would be repealed?

The anticipated - Carbon tax

A relief for poor old Santa, the expected introduction of carbon tax was dropped on the eve of Christmas. Although he expected that he was to be largely unaffected by the proposals (as the sleigh does not use fossil fuels), he was riddled with guilt as livestock (including reindeer) are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The afterthought - Tax return

If all Santa's income has been taxed by the withholding taxes discussed above, he has the option of not filing a return. But that would not be the smart thing to do, given the expenses he has incurred.

If he decides to file a return, he has to remember not only all the income he earned and try to work out what expenses he can deduct against it, he also needs to reflect whether he has appropriately documented the way in which he calculated everything from a transfer-pricing perspective to ensure he doesn't get stuck between the New Zealand and North Pole authorities. He also needs to reflect whether his gearing model falls foul of our thin capitalisation rules.

The simply mindless - Statistics

Having left New Zealand, Santa is finally swamped with questionnaires about his turnover, level of and gender of employees, how much time is spent in New Zealand and each other country - all useful stuff if ever anyone cares to know his business.

The uncloaking - Santa's accounts

If statistics weren't bad enough as Santa is looking to incorporate his activities via a limited liability company to protect his personal assets from unscrupulous fiends, he may have to file full accounts of his Kiwi operations with the New Zealand Companies Office each year. Worse, he may have to have them audited. Someone said he should use a trust.

The rest

To add insult to injury, Santa has just been informed that the use of his sleigh requires various Resource Management Act consents before operating again next year - made worse by the fact that they will need to be notified and one Ebenezer Scrooge is thought to be using the process to make Santa's life a living hell. Thankfully his tax affairs, although painful, are manageable.

* Thomas Pippos is managing tax partner at Deloitte.