Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Sideswipe

An excellent command of English is in short supply
By Ana Samways

Bryan Melville from Hamilton shares a conversation overheard at a local supermarket last Saturday:
Checkout: What are those? Never seen them before.
Customer: Globe artichokes.
Checkout: Glow what?
Customer: No, no, globe. Globe artichokes. You know, globe, like the globe of the world.
Checkout: The what?
Customer: Like that big basketball-sized thing in the classroom when you were at school. You know. Shows where all the countries and oceans are.
Checkout: Don't think we had one of those. Ummmm, yes I've found it. Globe artichokes. What was that you said that the world is like a ball?
Customer: Well, yes, it is, actually.
Checkout: Mmmm. Interesting idea, I guess. That'll be $54.70 in total. Do you want any cash out?

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It's now official: Angelina Jolie is the sexiest woman on the planet. In November USA Today named Angelina Jolie the sexiest woman alive. The following day another magazine, Jane, has the results of a sex poll which asked readers which celebrity they would most like to seduce ... the winner was Jude Law, at 24 per cent, but the only woman to register on the poll was Jolie, at 23 per cent. The next day the UK's Gaydar radio discovered that its lesbian listeners would most like to marry Jolie at 32 per cent (followed by Jodie Foster, Keira Knightly and Charlize Theron). This research affirms previous findings. In October, British Cosmo reports that 73 per cent of men polled would like to have sex with Jolie, who easily tops the poll. (They'd like to marry Jennifer Aniston.) In September the National Ledger discovers women would most like to sexually resemble ... Jolie (followed by Halle Berry and Demi Moore). And Playboy asks college girls whom they would cheat on their boyfriend with. Fifty-seven per cent chose Jolie. In April the first Middle East sex survey finds the sexiest star is Jolie and in March Date.com says Jolie is voted sexiest single mother (followed by Nicole Kidman and Uma Thurman. The male winner was P Diddy). Also in March, FHM Sexiest Women Poll picked Jolie (followed by Jennifer Garner, Paris Hilton and Charlize Theron). (Source: Nerve)

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Did you know ... each king in a deck of playing cards represents a great king from history: Spades - King David; Hearts - Charlemagne; Clubs - Alexander the Great; Diamonds - Julius Caesar.

Fran O'Sullivan: Business wise, the turkey will be stone cold

Ready for that "hair of the dog yet"?

Don't be surprised if the person administering the post-Christmas poison this year is your friendly banker, freshly armed with scintillating insider gossip on how much you have splurged on credit cards and what you have in store with your 2006 spend-up plan - and ready with just the right personal loan plan to see you right.

In case you missed it, yesterday's contestant for silliest story of the Silly Season was the news that Bank of New Zealand staffers had been sent on holiday pumped up by management to use "life event clues" to go "social prospecting" for business among family and friends.

Unfortunately, it is true.

Fast as Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard tries to dampen Kiwis' credit-bingeing habits by raising interest rates and inducing a debt-fuelled hangover, the Aussie banks are sending their scouts to provide "financial solutions" to our problems.

Clearly the banks - BNZ will not be the only financial institution on the make - are not that generous that they will solve anyone's problem by actually giving away cash.

What's in store is personal loans - or other financial products - at usurious rates which will make a bundle for their investing clients but stand to beggar borrowers.

The memo is a classic: "It does not matter where you are over the holiday period ... at work or on the beach ... there will be numerous opportunities to provide financial solutions to family and friends by referring them to Bank of New Zealand."

Among "life event clues for social prospecting" were a child attending university, purchases of property, cars or boats, bonus payments, overseas holidays and transient cashflow during Christmas.

Feeling angry yet? Still got lots of bankers on your New Year's Eve party lists?

I am sure that Bollard - already hacked off by his tussles with the Aussie banks over prudential supervision issues - will be feeling pretty sore about BNZ's open transgression.

He would have preferred that people actually managed "transient cashflow during Christmas" by using their own cash reserves - not do what BNZ implies: borrow to cover the seasonal out-flowings.

The upshot is that such behaviour may just be factored in by Bollard as yet another reason why it is too early yet to stop raising interest rates.

The bank's memo will be excused away internally as just good marketing and an incentive for the staffer making the most referrals to win a trip for two to the Commonwealth Games.

But this push by a bank - that still boasts New Zealand as part of its brand-name to increase market share in the fullout competitive banking environment - smacks of desperation.

BNZ has already been down the route of marginal lending practices before. It was slow off the mark in making an aggressive push for market share against Westpac and ANZ National in the competitive mortgages market and had to offer some good deals to maintain its situation.

Trouble is the Aussie-owned banks will face difficulties if some of the loans they have secured against the equity in New Zealanders' homes become risky when property values ultimately fall.

It is cyclical and the banks have been there before.

But the reality is that we are meant to be in the "get real" stage now - where we take a more prudent approach to debt as the economy shortens - not playing "blue sky" games at our bankers' behest.

When banks start to write loans so that their staffers can chalk up brownie points to win an internal competition - you get some perverse incentives where the self-interest of banking staff to leverage up the face value of the loans business outweighs that of the bank in the first place to ensure that the increased debt levels can be adequately serviced.

It may not be a major issue. Bank research shows home mortgages, for instance, are relatively safe: people would rather pay interest rates reflecting Bollard's rate increases than sell their homes.

But if the BNZ's approach to its commercial clients mirrors the solutions its aggressive marketing manager is pushing on the banks' retail customer base, then it won't be long before there are debt digestion problems all round.

It is not as if anyone needed any encouragement in the first place.

I hate to say, "I told you so" - again. But "we" - as in all of us - did spend up large on the big-ticket items at Christmas despite Bollard's warnings.

Was it rational to do so knowing the good doctor will in all likelihood rain on our parade next month?

That has to be a qualified yes.

The dollar is still riding relatively high against the greenback and other currencies. Thus it makes sense to buy imported items now rather than wait for the cost to slide later next year.

And the seasonal discounts some big city retailers offered were valuable.

Against that, those imported items will probably be discounted later to keep cashflows moving.

Eftpos figures showed total Christmas spending last week up by about 8 per cent on last year but traders reported takings on Christmas Eve itself down by 21 per cent.

Not enough figures are through yet to make an objective assessment. But the anecdotal evidence is the borrow-and-spend boom is still in full swing.

Bollard's problem is his ability to call "stop" is lessened when the banks are still pushing their hangover cures.

If they don't wise up, he may well impose lending ratio restraints. If that happens, it's cold turkey all round.

Fran O'Sullivan: Testing times ahead for the major players in politics

Goodbye to Christmas 2005 - all those good news stories and lists of heroes that we have pored over in our annual escape from reality.

You know them: New Zealanders of the year; politicians of the year; businessmen of the year (very few business women consistently make top rank); sportsmen and women of the year.

They make our hearts feel warm and are welcome respite from the news game's focus on the negative.

But take a look around you. The bonhomie is already evaporating as children put away their Lego sets and Harry Potter's latest wizardry in favour of Roboraptor - and that's just the boys!

It is no different in the news business where bad news often makes for better trade than good news - particularly in the other 50 weeks of the year.

So instead of celebrating 2005's heroes I'm going to elevate the anti-heroes - those who nearly got there but were let down by fatal flaws.

Or those who are just more flawed - and interesting - than the Ken and Barbie types who populate the recent lists.

National's John Key topped many. Political pundits rated the chirpy National MP's performance as one of the highlights of the election campaign. The former money markets man is now rated odds-on favourite to take out Don Brash as National's leader next year.

But how real is Key's reputation? My sense is that Key has yet to be tested on major issues. Sure, he wants to cut taxes, and let's face it, that is a surefire attraction for all of us who do not qualify for Government welfare through the Working for Families election bribe.

But he has yet to show off the big-picture thinking that will enable him to present himself as alternative Prime Minister at the next election. Is he the politician who has the courage to undertake sweeping changes - like the Singaporeans, Irish or Norwegians - that Helen Clark won't (yet).

Has he really earned his reputation as a prospective Prime Minister? I don't think so.

The truth is that without the less than stellar performances by two of my 2005 anti-heroes, Key would not have rated so high.

But deep flaws in the performances of Finance Minister Michael Cullen and National leader Don Brash allowed Key's reputation to flourish relatively unchallenged.

Cullen created the tax-cutting gap by refusing to cut personal and company incomes rates in the Budget, remaining true to his fiscal Scrooge role.

But I don't rule him out for the long count.

By the time the next election comes round Cullen will have backfilled the tax-cutting gap with Labour's election bribes, leaving Key less room for manoeuvre.

He may yet draw on reservoirs of political courage - fuelled by the certainty that his wife wants this to be his last parliamentary term - to tackle head-on major tax issues like introducing capital gains taxes on property, which his predecessors lacked the courage to confront.

If Cullen goes down this route he won't be a hero to the many New Zealanders who are relying on capital gains from their "renters" to top up retirement nest eggs.

But if he introduces tax cuts at the same time he may still leave politics with his reputation greatly enhanced.

Brash is of a different order.

He was also promoted as a natural Prime Minister. He's too courtly to mix it in Parliament's bear pit, but that's not what let him down.

He entered Parliament with a reputation as a person prepared to confront the big roadblocks to increasing our national performance.

But he marred his campaign performance with clunky repeats of his equality-for-all message, which sounded like Maori-bashing, and, was right-footed by Clark on nuclear issues.

He failed to distinguish where National stood in relation to the Exclusive Brethren until tripped up on student radio.

Clark capitalised on his flaws.

Against Brash's dithering, Key was strongly on message - but was hardly tested.

Brash is unlikely to get a go at the top political job now, whereas Clark, who has learned to deflect public focus from her flaws, survives to implement policies which are less likely than those Brash was promoting to stop the steady loss of talent across the Tasman.

That's why Brash still deserves a rating on the anti-hero stakes - for having the courage to pursue policies that more wised-up hero politicians fail to address.

I had intended to make this column a Winston Peters-free zone until New Year in the interests of global peace.

But Peters doesn't need typecasting as an anti-hero.

He did that himself with his "Dirty Harry" challenge to National MPs who ridiculed in Parliament his contribution to New Zealand foreign affairs.

Peters still has more lives than the proverbial cat, despite having lost the Tauranga seat comprehensively to Bob Clarkson.

This anti-hero still pulled off the coup of the year by persuading Clark to make him Foreign Minister, a role which he will no doubt perform to great aplomb if he is not deflected by internal strife.

My final anti-hero is Clark.

It sometimes defies belief that a Prime Minister who has sacked or pushed out a third of her Cabinet for various political sins that she has herself committed, continues to flourish so well.

But to be a true political hero Clark has to put in place policies that really fuel New Zealand's growth, not just look after the interests of Labour's support base.

On this front she is still lacking. But if she wants to go out of politics as New Zealand's greatest leader - not just its best manager - next year will provide her biggest challenges.

She should take them.

Editorial: Arrogance, not trees, blights city

Twenty trees on central Auckland's main shopping thoroughfare, Queen St, are listed for removal at the quietest time of the year and members of the public are in uproar. It does not matter that some of these specimens are ailing and that they are exotic, or more precisely "non-native".

News of the culling is producing hundreds of emails to this newspaper, including some entitled "the Queen St chainsaw massacre". Their authors are serious. A prominent Auckland writer and advocate for children, Lesley Max, threatens to chain herself to a tree in protest, and there are murmurings of a wider group willing to follow her to the trunks of the liquidambars.

So why the fuss?

It can be taken as read that many people think verdant trees of any description are better visually, for tidiness and for shade than spindly, sensitive natives like nikau palms and cabbage trees. And there is the thrifty view that "if Queen Street's trees ain't broke, don't fix them".

But as always, the reaction is prompted by far broader and much deeper issues.

First, there is near universal agreement around the barbecues and dinner tables and bars of Auckland that the central business district is becoming an eyesore. Cheap, ugly apartments, cheap shops, tacky amusements and expensive carparking.

Second, the city council feigns consultation, as it must, but appears to force predetermined change upon the huddled retailers, commuters and ratepayers who make up the CBD's daily foot traffic. This council has consistently failed to bring the central city community aboard for even its most minor plans, despite or because of its petulant protests that the people have been consulted, even if they do not know it.

In the case of the Queen St trees it does not help that the council denies residents the right even to prune trees above a certain height, let alone beg its favour to cut them down. And while insisting on punitive fees and resource management applications and hearings for others, it plans to take to Queen St's unfortunate trees without public notification. All the while, its tree management in public reserves and roadsides has the non-accountability of the autocracy of which it is part.

A third and broader frustration sits behind the public disquiet over Queen St. Any change in 2005 which seeks to dictate native or indigenous anything over counterparts from across the sea - be they trees, values or the language in a verse of the national anthem - meets a new resistance. It might be a carry-over from the Orewa speech by National leader Dr Don Brash, but the council's policy to cut out trees from a city street has become an easy target for the anti-PC backlash.

Why, people ask, are indigenous components of society more valued than those of a European, North American or Asian heritage?

These wider concerns, however relevant, are real. It is true that the current lush foliage up much of Queen St is its only saving grace, hiding a jerry-built jumble of buildings, awnings and signage. That the council has lost public trust on such redevelopments because of past arrogance and its own, exempt actions. And that there is a weariness about any view that native should automatically be preferred over imported.

Surely the city will not wade further into this controversy without insisting that its thinking be publicly tested. No tree, however sick, should fall before hearings are held and true accountability is restored. Then, perhaps, we will all be able to see the wood for the trees.

Andre Spicer: Creativity vital to enterprise

During the past two decades we have become obsessed with all things entrepreneurial. A person who runs a tiny business is a micro entrepreneur; a middle manager working in the bowels of a hulking multinational is an intrapreneur; and a government employee is a public sector entrepreneur.

We even encourage children to build their entrepreneurial skills.

Some people say our obsession with enterprise has produced many of the fruits of success on which we now feast. They claim that the sustained economic success that countries like New Zealand have enjoyed recently is attributable to the pro-enterprise reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

Supporters of our enterprise obsession remind us that countries which have not attempted to "enterprise up" their economies (such as Germany and France) have experienced sustained economic stagnation.

They say the only way out of this spiral of economic decline is to vigorously encourage a culture of enterprise.

But critics of enterprise obsession point out that enterprising-up the economy has created disasters.

There is a stark division between rich and poor. Whole sectors of the population are in increasingly precarious short-term employment and there has been a rapid decline in our commitment to community and public service.

This catalogue of failures has led critics to say that we must abandon our enterprise obsession and roll back many of the pro-enterprise reforms.

The polemical points scoring means there has rarely been any sustained reflection about what this thing called entrepreneurship is.

For both the critics and the pundits, being enterprising means ruthlessly applying economic methods such as cost-benefit analysis.

Being an entrepreneur means increasing the amount of output while decreasing the amount of input.

The strange part about this is that simply being committed to efficiency has little to do with entrepreneurship.

What both the promoters and critics of enterprise culture seem to be arguing about is management. Managers try to stretch out a budget across competing needs. Managers try to goad employees into being more productive. Managers slave over budgets.

Distinguishing managers and entrepreneurs may seem like splitting hairs. To succeed as an entrepreneur, people must be able to manage.

But an entrepreneur is far more than just a good business manager. Studies show that what makes a great entrepreneur is the ability to perceive and create opportunities.

Managers, by contrast, do their best with the scarce resources they have. People who are great at creating exhilarating opportunities are often bad at managing the businesses they build.

If we agree that it is important to encourage enterprise, then the way we are going about it seems wrong-headed. Programmes in school that encourage students' entrepreneurial capacities emphasise traditional business management skills such as accounting, people management, operations management and marketing.

If we were concerned with creating entrepreneurs, what should we do?

It is essential to recognise that entrepreneurship requires different skills than management. Instead of equipping people with skills in getting more from less, they must be provided with the skills to create opportunities.

That would include ensuring people have the creative skills to perceive opportunities, develop new ideas, and give older ideas an unusual twist.

Most important, we would ensure they have a commitment to bring to life new ways of doing things.

Perhaps the most urgent matter is to recognise that our obsession with managing nearly anything, from public sector organisation to personal relationships, can cramp our ability to innovate.

Entrepreneurship gives people a sense that they can be creative, and that they have the power to change things.

* Andre Spicer is an academic at Warwick Business School in England. He visited the University of Victoria in Wellington this month.