Monday, January 02, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

A lady who is new to Auckland receives a $40 parking ticket. Anxious to pay the fine immediately but not knowing how to get from Avondale to the city, she summons a taxi and tells the driver to drive into the CBD - with her following behind him. When they get to the city the taxi driver tells her the price of the taxi "ride" was $55, which she refuses to pay on the grounds that she wasn't actually "in" the taxi. The driver, needless to say, insists and $55 is duly paid. Expensive parking ticket at $95.

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Is greater Auckland the unluckiest place on the planet? A reader writes: "In the big Christmas Lotto promotion Aucklanders won eight of the 55 prizes - that's 14.5 per cent. Yet the region accounts for about one-third of the population. So Aucklanders appear to be half as lucky as the average for the rest of the country. Even the Wellington area, with about one-third Auckland's population, won as many of the prizes as Auckland did."

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Susan Henderson from Browns Bay bought a fan from Farmers and had to chortle at the instructions, which advised that "babies, patients and old men shouldn't be blown directly for a long time".

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A fake beer belly to allow morons to drink booze at sporting events is described as "a neoprene sling and a polyurethane bladder with a tube for dispensing worn under clothing for concealment ... looks just like a beer belly". (Ladies, if your bloke seriously thinks this is a good idea - dump him quick.)

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We've all heard of workplace discrimination based on sex, race, religion and age. But discrimination based on the zodiac sign under which you were born? Apparently this is the case in China, where the year of the rooster gives way to the year of the dog late this month. Chinese tradition holds 2006 will be a year of bad luck for people born under the sign of the dog, but misfortune has come early for some looking for jobs, the state media say. Chinese companies looking for recruits have deliberately passed over candidates born as dogs in China's ancient 12-animal astrological cycle to ward off the bad luck expected for people in years of the same sign, the China Youth Daily said. In China, hiring biases have reached ridiculous proportions, even discriminating over things such as height and blood type. (Source: Reuters)

Editorial: A country happy to do the honours

The New Year Honours are increasingly, and commendably, becoming a snapshot of our society. No longer do those who have made valuable contributions wait years for recognition, as was often the case under the traditional honours system.

The latest list rewards those who played prominent roles in tsunami relief operations, just as it contains the likes of rugby league's Stacey Jones and rugby's Andrew Mehrtens, both of whom have just concluded distinguished careers in New Zealand. Golfer Michael Campbell's victory in the 2005 United States Open is also recognised immediately. He becomes a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

But that snapshot also reflects the changing face of society. In particular, it charts new priorities. Of these, none has been talked about as much in the past few years as the concept of a knowledge economy. Therefore, it is highly appropriate that the biggest accolade goes to Professor Paul Callaghan, who becomes a principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the periodically appointed and supposed equivalent of a knighthood.

If there is a knowledge economy pin-up boy, it is Professor Callaghan. A nuclear physicist, he has won world renown after making a conscious decision to work as a scientist in this country. Among other things, he became, in 2004, the first non-European to win the Ampere Prize, an award given for notable strides in magnetic resonance.

Professor Callaghan has also been at the forefront of efforts to achieve a better environment for scientists in New Zealand, an environment in which it is possible to produce world-class work. His success suggests scientists need no longer, as a matter of course, follow the path overseas trodden by the likes of Rutherford, Pickering and MacDiarmid. Indeed, in Professor Callaghan's area of endeavour, there has already been a reverse of the brain drain. Foreign students queue to work under him at Victoria University.

There is also a noteworthy inclusion in the list of those named distinguished companions of the order, the other award said to be comparable to a knighthood. Ralph Norris is rewarded for a business career that culminated in this country with the rescue of the financially stricken Air New Zealand. His naming is a riposte, even if overdue, to those who say that New Zealand, and particularly the Government, is slow to recognise the importance of successful businessmen and women.

The likes of artists, athletes, politicians and bureaucrats are, so the criticism goes, rated more highly than those who create wealth. Especially when, like Mr Norris, they have been harsh critics of Government policies. It might have helped in his case, of course, that the very same Government was a major beneficiary of his expertise.

Part of the fascination of the New Year Honours lies in the familiarity of the names on the list. As usual, there are those who, across a wide range of activities, are well known to most people. The likes of Wellington businessman Alan Martin, famed for his quirky television advertising, cartoonist and writer Tom Scott, former All Black and sports administrator Matthew Cooper, cricketer Emily Drumm, rock musician Midge Marsden and singer Bic Runga.

But there are also those recognised by being made companions of the Queen's Service Order or given the Queen's Service Medal whose names resonate only in the communities they serve. These are the people who, in working selflessly for others, comprise the nuts and bolts of society. They, quite deservedly, remain a constant even as, at the other end of the spectrum, the list is a barometer of a changing New Zealand.

Phil Chase: $1.2 billion new road the wrong way to go

The week before Christmas saw Auckland City's Mayor and councillors give approval in principle to construction of the Avondale extension of State Highway 20, after pressure from Transit New Zealand.

With a price tag of $1.2 billion and the potential loss of 300 homes, this motorway will be Auckland's largest single roading project since the building of the harbour bridge. But is it a sensible one?

How valid are the arguments in favour of SH20 motorway - planned from Mt Roskill, through Owairaka, Avondale and Waterview to the Northwestern Motorway at Pt Chevalier?

One key Transit NZ justification for SH20 is that Auckland needs an alternative route to SH1 to relieve congestion on the central motorway network and take pressure off Spaghetti Junction.

Once SH20 is built, north- and southbound vehicles will be able to bypass the city centre and traffic volumes will be eased.

This appears to be logical, but in reality is not. New roading encourages new vehicle journeys. Induced traffic demand and the growth in new vehicle numbers will quickly defeat any advantages gained.

Vehicles switching to a completed SH20 would merely join commuters opting off trains and buses because of a perceived new faster vehicle route. Add in Auckland's predicted vehicle growth - around 100 a day - and an increase in optional trips, and the new arterial route will inevitably become as congested as existing motorways. SH1, perceived as a result of SH20 to be less jammed , will attract new traffic as commuters change route, travel times or travel mode, and quickly return to its former snail's pace in peak hours.

Case studies of new arterial roading projects being defeated by growth in traffic volumes can be found around the globe. In the early 1990s, Washington DC's Interstate 270 was expanded from six to 12 lanes at a cost of US$200 million ($293 million). Yet within eight years the highway was again reduced to a "slow moving carpark", as congested as it had been a decade earlier.

By OECD standards Auckland already has one of the most extensive motorway networks in the world, measured by population size and kilometres of lanes.

We are far ahead of Australian cities in the motorway count and yet our congestion is as bad, if not worse. Brisbane and Perth are similarly sprawling suburban cities, but have fewer motorways. Both cities are enticing increasing numbers of commuters off roads by investing in modern electric trains, co-ordinated with buses, integrated ticketing and realistic destination choices. By comparison Aucklanders lack modern, integrated public transport alternatives.

Another key proposition for SH20 is that it will relieve local traffic congestion and help provide safer streets. Looking at Auckland's motorway expansion over the past few decades there is good evidence that such benefits are barely discernable and temporary at best.

The Northwestern Motorway was built to relieve a congested Great North Rd. Yet today SH16 and Great North Rd are equally congested.

Even with the constant widening of SH16, Great North Rd carries 60,000 vehicles a day along the Waterview straight, making it a hazardous exercise for locals seeking to cross the carriageway or turn right from side roads. What little benefit was gained from the construction of SH16 has been quickly lost.

Would the city's freight and business traffic benefit from SH20? Another route is appealing but if it is congested too, it's hardly a solution. Interestingly London, with its ever increasing population and business traffic, hasn't built a new urban motorway in 25 years.

The answer to goods and service traffic woes lies in reducing vehicle numbers using the roading network. Every commuter who boards public transport leaves the roadway free for freight vehicles. Sweden's capital, Stockholm, has constructed public and alternative transport systems which carry a phenomenal 70 per cent of commuters, freeing up the roading network for business vehicles.

Auckland's Third World public transport attracts less than 8 per cent of commuters out of their cars. The best thing business leaders could do would be to advocate for SH20's billion-plus dollars to be invested in a modern, integrated public transport system.

A completed SH20 is seen as providing an alternative route across the region in case a terrorist attack or an earthquake severs SH1. This proposal seems to discount using the local roading networks should such a disaster strike, but exactly why is not clear.

Evidence suggests that motorways are not effective in dealing with such emergencies. When Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina approached New Orleans last year, thousands sought to escape inland via the Interstate. This quickly jammed, trapping occupants in their near-stationary vehicles for up to eight hours. In emergencies motorways quickly seize up with high vehicle volumes and few entry and exit points, making their use limited.

Worryingly, none of the arguments for SH20 seriously takes account of the likely community, health, environmental and amenity costs of constructing such a project. The proposed route runs through hundreds of city homes, severing existing neighbourhoods and increasing noise and carbon monoxide levels.

The motorway seriously threatens Oakley Stream, the city's longest urban stream and walkway. Regardless of whether SH20 is built on the surface or in a cut-and-cover fashion, up to 60ha of irreplaceable recreation and amenity space will be degraded or destroyed.

Such a loss would be the largest in Auckland City's history and fall hardest on the wards with the lowest ratio of parks to people - Mt Eden, Mt Albert and Avondale. The consequential social and health costs to the city will be determined only in the years to come.

In terms of community liveability, decongesting Auckland's roads and wise use of our public transport dollar, SH20 is the wrong way to go.

* Phil Chase, a former transport planner, is a member of Auckland City's Eden-Albert Community Board.

Peter Luiten: One vote is too scant a margin for error

I remember feeling, even as a child, the injustice in the idea that the votes of 61 could quell the wishes of 60. If the 60 were overruled, I reasoned, it could hardly be held that the people had spoken.

A meagre numerical advantage seemed too primitive a tool for the task of shaping a civilised world. Surely, my conscience argued, we could do better than this.

These reflections came to the fore when the election decided who would represent our electorates, which parties would represent us in government, which parties would coalesce, which would support confidence and supply, and which of this 48th Parliament's bills - already numbering dozens - would be supported and which opposed.

Most of these decisions have far-reaching consequences.

Many of them walk straight through our front door and make it clear they are here to stay. They get into our wallets, into the fridge, into the bedroom. They get into our bloodstream and into our sleep.

All of them gain relatively easy access through our acceptance of simple majority rule.

Despite our electoral rejection of the first-past-the-post ethos in the early 90s, the notion that 61 beats 60 remains entrenched in our political consciousness.

In sport it is easy to accept the validity of the scoreboard and, in the event of a tie, the sudden death of a playoff.

We take the score to be very close to the core of what sport is all about. We understand that a split second can make all the difference. But even in this arena, death need not always be so sudden.

In tennis, a close contest is decided with a two-up advantage. This refinement alone is enough to make the outcome appear so much more convincingly a matter of skill than of chance.

If we appreciate the distinction in sport, then the world of families, meals, jobs and debt gives all the more reason to question how appropriate it is to let narrow margins determine either the selection of our political representatives or their collective decisions.

It might be that the simple majority model is among the worst ways of deciding how best to order our country, yet we cling to it despite there being no shortage of other models.

For inspiration we need not go past our own jury system.

We consider the outcome of an inquiry into an accused person's innocence or guilt so important that we are prepared to spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in order that 12 people, hearing both sides, might come to one mind.

It is a grievous thing to ponder that one mind is not considered necessary for the creation of the law.

Even with consensus, mistakes are made. We need not be mathematicians to see how much more room there is for human error when Parliament passes a bill - as it did last month - by 61 votes to 60. Hanging by a thread, of all things, was our Electoral Integrity Bill.

What gives the one-vote margin particularly dangerous scope in Parliament is the penchant of our MPs for vendetta, symptomatic of deeply disturbing us-and-them dichotomies.

The tone of the message from one side of the House since the election can be summarised in five words: "Nyah nyah, scum, you lost."

The response needs even fewer words: "You wait, you woofters."

Taunting is not a new phenomenon but it does tend to prejudice good law.

It would be futile to legislate against such a tone. But there is one structural change which would replace personal jibes with a more dispassionate approach to the issues involved in each bill.

Admittedly a compromise with consensus, it was one that was adopted by the Christian Church 826 years ago when it replaced its simple majority process in the election of a pope.

Our country would be much better served with a two-thirds majority rule in our House of Parliament.

Bills this term have largely fallen into two categories - those receiving unanimous or near-unanimous votes and those split about 70:50.

With a two-thirds majority rule, the Government would have had to argue very persuasively to win the extra 10 votes needed for the more controversial bills.

It would not have been able to afford to alienate a single MP of the other parties. They, in turn, may not have felt so bound to vote along party lines. Cabinet might even have included one or two Opposition members.

We would have taken another step towards civilisation, another step towards democracy. We would be feeling the repercussions of the new constructive approach from Cape Reinga to Rakiura.

* Peter Luiten is an Auckland voter.

Chris Brady: Tie tradition is a pain in the neck

The Herald's survey suggesting that most people agree it is not necessary to wear a tie in the office is not surprising. Ties are without a doubt the silliest piece of fashion invented and that they have lasted so long is a surprise in itself.

Why any self-respecting male would want to flaunt so openly the most obvious of phallic symbols is beyond my understanding.

My own experience of wearing the wretched things is limited. Fortunately I have not worked in an office but have been gainfully employed for the past 25 years opening the minds of our young people to the meaning of life.

That is to say, I am a history teacher and at no stage have I seen the need to strangle myself in the classroom. I have enough to cope with, let alone adding the problem of breathing.

I have also been lucky to have worked at schools that valued what I could do as a teacher, not what I could do as a fashion model.

For 20 years I taught on Waiheke Island, where I happily trotted off to work in shorts, sandals and T-shirt.

I suppose this would horrify traditionalists - and some of my history colleagues - but I could never see the point of wearing a colonial relic that even the British themselves did not invent.

Although some sort of cloth around the neck has been around for thousands of years - the Romans had some - it is Charles II whom we can blame for bringing the things to Britain. Let's jolly the place up a bit, he thought, after Cromwell's killjoy interregnum, and the tie, or cravat, made its appearance.

It's a bit ironic, really, Charles II introducing what is seen today as a sign of propriety and good manners, when his own shenanigans would cause outrage among today's standard bearers of morality.

Wearing a tie didn't seem to limit the number of women he bedded, but maybe that's why some men still cling to the notion that if they wear a tie they'll impress the ladies.

As for myself, I've never needed a tie for such purposes. My wife says I'm lovely as I am, although I have to confess I did sell out and wear one to my wedding. The last time I suffered the rigours of throat choke was when I went teaching on my OE at the ripe old age of 49.

I was employed at a secondary school in London and had been informed that I would be expected to wear a tie. So I turned up for work on day one, not in my Waiheke uniform but resplendent in longs, long-sleeved shirt and a tie. By chance I happened to start my British teaching career in the hottest English autumn you could possibly imagine and I was unbelievably uncomfortable.

All the other male teachers wore ties and suits and I just thought, "How very odd, don't they know it's ragingly hot?"

After five weeks I just stopped wearing the accursed noose and waited for the principal to come and tell me off. For some reason he never did and I spent the next three years as the only neck-showing male teacher. I could never understand why the others didn't do the same.

The next step was to try wearing shorts to work, but the principal drew the line at that. Clearly he felt that the boys and girls could handle an antipodean neck but the sight of Kiwi calves might just be too much.

I didn't mind overly. I'd rather breathe easily than expose my knees to an ungrateful audience.

Maybe I just have no idea of what's sartorially appropriate. Maybe it's time I grew up and went out to buy an entire new wardrobe - suits, ties, proper shoes, the lot.

But hang on a second, every time I see George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard on telly, they're wearing suits and ties. Maybe I won't.

* Chris Brady is a history teacher.