Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sideswipe

Diana, the Princess of Wales doll


The American makers of this 30cm plastic Diana talking action figure have mistakenly called her the Princess of Whales. Commentators in Britain say the doll has garish make-up, unconvincing hair and an ill-fitting white suit that Di wouldn't have been caught dead in. Fortunately there are only 10,000 in circulation. The creepiest part of the doll? Some of the 16 historic phrases which include gems such as "I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts", "I don't sit here with resentment, I sit here with sadness", and "There's far too much about me in the newspaper", all recorded using Diana's voice.

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Watching One News on Sunday, a reader noted: "During an item on gliding champs, one Ben Flewett was interviewed, then, in an item on Fire Service equipment cleaning to avoid rock snot, one Don Bogie was interviewed."

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A visitor from the Hawkes Bay sums up her Anniversary Weekend experience down at the Viaduct: "Am I a fool for paying $5.75 for an underwhelming coffee at the Hilton? Do bars in the Viaduct only allow music from 1985 to be played? And why at midnight was I shunted inside O'Hagen's Bar despite the stinking heat, to keep the noise down for the yuppies who bought apartments there?"

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Days before his State of the Union speech, George W. Bush did a warm-up gig in Washington, in which he seemed to be taking the mickey out of ... himself. On the controversial eavesdropping without court approval, Mr Bush said: "You know, you can't please some people no matter what you do. Half the time they say I'm isolated and don't listen. Then when I do listen, they say I need a warrant."

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Regular Takapuna Beach walkers Susie and Kevin Wheller write: "On Friday's walk we were commenting on how much debris had washed up on the beach from last week's rough weather. We watched a young couple with their infant child investigate a huge pile of seaweed. It looked like they pulled out a large fish but, oh no, it was a live penguin stuck in the seaweed. It was promptly picked up and taken away by the family. Hopefully it won't appear on Trade Me like the dolphin did." Can anyone in officialdom who knows what happened to the aforementioned penguin, please contact Sideswipe.

John Armstrong: Repackaging lacks oomph

Float like a butterfly, sting like a butterfly: the Don Brash version of political pugilism was very much to the fore at Orewa last night.

The National Party leader's traditional start-of-year tub-thumper was all tub and little thump. No wonder his colleagues scrupulously avoided talking up the speech in advance.

To be fair, this year's sermon was necessarily more subdued than its raucous predecessors on race and welfare because it was delivered at a time of post-election reassessment.

But did it have to be so subdued?

The last two Orewa speeches were pre-election single-issue attention-grabbers designed to polarise opinion and jolt voters off the fence and down onto National's side.

National is now trying to appear more inclusive. To win in 2008, National must woo a chunk of middle-ground voters - mainly women - who have found the party's image too abrasive and too uncaring.

Last night's speech reveals National repackaging itself as a more sharing, caring beast.

The moderation was apparent in Dr Brash talking of getting much more value from the health dollar - not just for efficiency's sake, but to boost hospital services and the availability of new drugs.

However, the softening of National's image is no reason for a soft speech. Orewa IV - largely a dissertation on why Labour is to blame for the "faltering economy" - lacks oomph.

It should be measured against two yardsticks. Will its economic critique give Labour pause for worry? No. Will the new issues that Dr Brash has marked out for special attention this year - immigration, health spending, and striking a balance between building infrastructure and preserving the environment - reap more votes for National? Only marginally.

On the economy, Dr Brash does make the telling point that Labour will have no excuse to fall back on if things slump into recession.

His prime beef is that low growth in productivity is holding New Zealand back and widening the income gap with Australia.

National highlighted this argument at the last election and basically offered the same remedies - tax cuts, building more roads, altering labour laws and so on - as Dr Brash outlined in last night's speech. There was nothing new by way of solutions.

The debate about relative living standards between New Zealand and other countries failed to get any traction in the election campaign. Dr Brash will hope that it will do so now the economy is palpably slowing.

But immediate attention will focus on his call for a review of immigration policy. He fears it has evolved without serious public debate, yet could weaken the glue that holds New Zealand society together. It is about the only thing in the speech which might get talkback radio excited.

But if it is a "sleeper" issue about to burst into life, the Prime Minister has headed him off at the pass.

Labour is already scheduled to review immigration policy as part of its confidence and supply agreement with NZ First. Helen Clark has also got in first on health spending, saying two weeks ago she wanted far tighter fiscal discipline.

The best that can be said is that Orewa IV draws the political battlelines for the parliamentary year.

It pulls its punches on obvious targets - for example, Winston Peters being Foreign Minister and Helen Clark's governing arrangement.

Dr Brash may be saving all that for his next big speech - his reply to the Prime Minister's formal opening statement when Parliament resumes in two weeks. That speech was arguably shaping to be as important for Dr Brash in getting his year off on a strong note as was last night's - now maybe more so.

Editorial: Brash on right track for power

The Orewa speech has become the annual opportunity for National Party leaders to set the agenda for the opening of the political year. Two years ago Don Brash used the Orewa Rotary Club's rostrum to stunning effect, tapping underlying resentment of the official deference and dedicated services accorded a colonised minority. Last year he was less successful with an attack on a welfare system that does not insist able-bodied beneficiaries train or work in some way. Last night his target was the faltering economy and the Government's supposed failure of the past six years to make hay while the sun shone.

In Dr Brash's view, Labour has been resting on good fortune when it ought to have been taking steps to improve the economy's capacity and productivity. It is a more sophisticated argument than he has mounted in previous years at Orewa and its prospects of setting the agenda rest on what happens in the economy over the next few months. But with even the Government poised for a slump of some degree, the chances are the country will be receptive to his criticisms.

In fact the Government might very well act on them. Dr Brash was able to cite last night quite a list of National initiatives that have quietly been put into effect. Labour's backpedalling on Maori services two years ago is only one example. The Government has abandoned plans to tax animal flatulence and industry carbon emissions; it is reviewing its overall spending. This month it decided to look at the use of the conservation estate to make up for a decline in coastal camping grounds. A strong opposition party can have a powerful influence on the country's direction without winning the Treasury benches, particularly in matters for which the governing party has no definite programme of its own.

The Prime Minister's response to the economic outlook is to talk again of the need for "transformation", by which she means urging investment into higher-value "knowledge-based" products and services. Dr Brash predicts that it will mean more discussion of the economy by more committees while the Government continues to resist action it could take.

It could reduce personal and company tax rates as National advocated at the election and the Treasury recommended in its post-election briefing. The Resource Management Act procedures could be made less costly. Roading could be advanced, employment laws made less restrictive, welfare could offer better incentives to work. If these sound like National causes that Labour would not consider, so, until very recently, was cancellation of the carbon tax.

But a slump, if it comes this year, will not be relieved by any of these measures, save perhaps tax cuts if they can be done quickly enough. Even then, they would be potentially inflationary and make it less likely that interest rates could be lowered to allow the economy to recover more quickly. Dr Brash does not pretend his proposals can soften the landing. Their purpose, he says, is to stop our incomes falling further behind those of Australia and most other developed countries. The difference in real incomes measures not just pay packets but the standards of healthcare, education, housing and other services. He invites us to compare the range of subsidised medicines here with that in Australia.

Higher living standards, he warns, will lure away our young. It makes little sense, then, to restrict immigration in the way he flagged vaguely last night. Short-sighted populist policies have helped bring National out of the doldrums. Dr Brash's task now is to prepare the party for power. Immigration aside, last night's presentation was on the right track.

Don Brash: A faltering economy is Clark's legacy

The following is an edited version of National Party leader Don Brash's address to the Orewa Rotary Club last night.

The great boost in support National received at the last election brings with it a responsibility we take very seriously - to show we have the ideas and the people capable of addressing the challenges that lie ahead.

And to show we can do that while safeguarding the core values and the many strengths of our increasingly diverse society.

Given our faltering economy, and a Government that doesn't seem to know what to do, it is becoming increasingly clear that National's plan of action is what is needed.

I have spoken often about how we need to help our economy grow faster and deliver higher incomes; about how we need to reduce tax rates so that people have an incentive to get ahead under their own steam; about how we need to improve our road network, and reform the Resource Management Act, so it is not such an obstacle to investment; about how we need to sort out the problems in the energy sector, and get some balance into employment and holiday legislation.

The pressing need for change has been concealed by very low interest rates internationally - and the associated strong growth in the global economy - by good growing weather down on the farm, and by the boost to the housing market from an influx of people after September 11.

Those factors have allowed New Zealand businesses to prosper, but had nothing to do with any policies of the Labour Government. But now the chickens have come home to roost. Labour's legacy is a faltering economy.

Over recent weeks we have seen the start of a sharp downturn in economic activity, with business confidence falling to the lowest level in more than 30 years and almost every day bringing another example of an export company closing its doors or sharply reducing its staff.

Even if business confidence recovers somewhat in the near future, there can be little doubt that the economy will grow very much more slowly over the next 12 or 18 months than it has in recent years, that as a result many businesses will face very tough times, and that unemployment will rise steeply.

If business confidence stays around current levels - and this Government is doing nothing that might help avoid that - we are almost certainly headed for a recession. The blame for any recession will lie squarely with the Helen Clark Labour Government.

The collapse in business confidence is like the warning light on your petrol tank - ignore it at your peril. Well, it is flashing, and the Government is asleep at the wheel.

Despite being warned last year by the OECD (and no doubt by Treasury and Reserve Bank officials also) that the rapid growth in Government spending was putting inflationary pressure on the economy - thereby obliging the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates to try to keep inflation under control - the Government went right on spending like there was no tomorrow.

The New Zealand dollar remains at levels that make it impossible for many exporters to break even, let alone make a profit. They are forced to withdraw from foreign markets and lay off staff.

Not content with keeping the exchange rate high through profligate spending, the Government further erodes the competitive position of exporters with almost every policy they announce - complicated and expensive holidays legislation, less flexible employment laws, a less competitive accident insurance market, and red tape galore.

The tragedy is that people will lose their jobs - and their savings, as house, farm and share prices fall - because of the Government's incompetence.

Painful though this immediate problem will be, there is a second and even more serious problem facing the economy, and indeed facing our society.

It was illustrated for me by a woman I met 18 months ago at Napier Airport. She told me she had four adult daughters, and three of them had moved to Australia. "All my grandchildren," she told me, "are growing up Australian." Six months ago she wrote to me and told me that her fourth daughter was also thinking about moving overseas.

Since that chance encounter, I have met many scores of people who have told me that one or more of their adult children have moved overseas. One woman I met on Stewart Island told me that six of her seven children had moved overseas - and she didn't mean over Foveaux Strait!

Why is this happening? Because, despite the relatively good growth in recent years, our real incomes are continuing to fall behind Australia and other countries that New Zealanders can easily move to.

When Labour took office in 1999, the average after-tax income in Australia (calculated using OECD PPP exchange rate measures, which abstract from the year-to-year fluctuations that occur in foreign exchange markets) was 20 per cent ahead of that in New Zealand.

It is now 33 per cent ahead, an income gap equivalent to $200 a week. If that gap continues to widen, as it certainly will with present policies, the future is bleak and we will continue to lose more than 600 New Zealanders across the Tasman every week. There is not the slightest prospect of New Zealand's achieving the goal of getting living standards into the top half of the OECD within 10 years, which Labour said was an important goal five years ago.

If sliding down the OECD ranking was of purely statistical interest, perhaps we could ignore it. After all, haven't we got one of the most beautiful countries in the world?

We certainly have, but unless we do something to arrest our slow slide, or indeed reverse it, we will increasingly see our children and grandchildren disappearing as surely as the good people of Hamelin saw their children follow the Pied Piper.

A tragic example of what this means is subsidised medicines. When you compare the range we have in New Zealand with the much wider range the Australians can afford to subsidise, it's enough to make you sick. Suddenly the income gap is no longer economic theory - it's a matter of life and death. But wait a minute, I can almost hear you say, hasn't growth been quite good in recent years and didn't you just admit as much?

In the five years to last September, economic growth in New Zealand averaged roughly 3 per cent annually - not brilliant, given the great prices we enjoyed for meat and dairy exports, but not too bad.

But what is very disturbing is that three-quarters of that growth has come from more people working - lower unemployment, more immigrants and more adults entering the workforce.

Lower unemployment is a very good thing, of course, and more people entering the workforce and strong net immigration may be a good thing. But clearly there are limits to how far we can go in finding more people.

In the final analysis, significantly increasing the rate at which productivity is growing is absolutely fundamental to closing the gap between incomes in New Zealand and those in Australia.

The challenge is to work smarter and with better technology, not to work harder.

We have the unedifying spectacle of a Prime Minister who is supposed to be leading the country, instead frozen like an opossum in the headlights of an oncoming Aussie truck.

She just does not seem to understand how close we are to disaster. With a 20 per cent gap between our after-tax income and that in Australia we will, of course, lose some Kiwis to Australia, but many will choose to stay, given our many lifestyle advantages and a desire to be close to family and friends.

But with a gap of 33 per cent, the incentive to leave gets markedly bigger.

And with every prospect of the gap being 40 per cent or more in three years, with very slow growth in New Zealand and an aggressive package of tax reductions in Australia, the incentive to leave gets bigger still.

Looking ahead, we will be devoting particular attention to three more issues.

The first of these is immigration, not least because it is intimately connected to economic policy. New Zealand is a liberal, tolerant and secular society, a society that embraces the Western enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, private property and rationality as the basis of decision-making.

Immigration can add greatly to our society, but it also has the potential to undermine the glue that holds our society together.

Our current immigration policies have evolved without serious public discussion or debate.

A second issue of great importance for the longer term future of our country is how we provide for the healthcare of New Zealanders, especially when those over 60 will rise from one in six today to almost one in four in 15 years, and where many life-style illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, are projected to cause hugely increased health problems of many kinds.

There is precious little to show for the enormous increase in money spent, with appallingly long waiting lists and people dying while waiting for an operation.

Nobody should pretend that making Government health spending efficient and effective is easy. But I have no doubt National could do a much better job than Labour has done with the torrent of extra money that has been pumped into the sector in recent years.

For the sake of our future, we need to do much better.

The final issue we will be developing further this term is the tension between our desperate need for better infrastructure and for sustained economic growth on the one hand and the need to preserve our outstanding natural environment on the other.

We have great challenges ahead in maintaining a first-world roading system, and with ensuring reliable low-cost energy supplies.

We need to reform the RMA so developments are not unnecessarily delayed, so that business investment can expand, and so that the fundamentals that underpin faster productivity growth and higher incomes can be put in place.

But this must be achieved while ensuring that our natural environment is not sacrificed for the sake of a temporary boost in incomes.

Fran O'Sullivan: Straight talking on economy back in vogue

National's John Key is not about to throw his toys out of the cot just because leader Don Brash has delivered a call to arms on the economy.

When, like Key, you were once one of the legendary big swinging dicks of international foreign exchange, it takes more than a strut across your territory to throw you off your political stride.

But he jests: If one of National's white middle-aged men did throw a hissy fit it might be good for gender balance within caucus.

He's referring to Brash's lamentable failure to shore up support from his key (no pun intended) spokespeople before delivering incendiary speeches on race relations and welfare at two previous appearances at the Orewa Rotary Club commonly, but mistakenly, known as Orewa I and Orewa II.

Yesterday, Brash accused the Government of resting on its laurels while New Zealand inexorably teetered towards recession. The Clark Government had squandered six years of golden economic weather and the chickens were now coming home to roost.

The dollar was not about to fall, despite the Government's attempts to bad mouth the economy to foreign savers. Financial markets could see interest rates remain high for some time, underpinning the dollar's value (a factor Brash knows only too well from his own unsuccessful attempts to manage a swinging currency while Reserve Bank Governor).

The upshot was that firms would fail, exporters would cut back, jobs would be lost and, if business confidence was not increased, full-on recession was only a matter of time.

On top of that the brain drain to Australia would increase as young and not-so-young people left home for better opportunities and pay packets.

Overwhelmingly, there was now a danger that a tipping point - where economic decline moved towards economic freefall - would emerge.

That was the context on which Brash built his plan for action, basically setting out a framework for where his 45-strong caucus would put its efforts this parliamentary term.

The major question is whether, or for how long, the Government will allow National to occupy this gaping economic territory before announcing new policies.

There's been plenty of Beehive spin about a new economic agenda - emanating from Prime Minister Helen Clark's inner circle - which sounds suspiciously like yet another Labour carbon copy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's political agenda. More correctly, it's Blair rhetoric but without the action.

But there's been no detail yet on just what's on the table in the brain-storming sessions between Clark's inner circle of ministers and senior state CEOs.

Nor has there been any sign that Labour is prepared to adopt frank and fearless advice without slamming its authors as ideological if the suggestions run counter to their Scandinavian-style social-democratic nostrums.

Brash twigged the Government on this yesterday by rehearsing the litany of areas where Labour had pretended to adopt policies to cover glaring holes - race issues, welfare benefit abuse, law and order and education - but had, in fact, delivered sweet all.

He ramped up National's plans to act as an attack squad in uncovering corruption and exposing waste.

Mercifully, there was precious little on the usual business mantra of employment laws, Holidays Act and red tape.

But there were some useful political equations, such as the money that would be available for women to get the breast cancer drug Herceptin, if only it had not been squandered by the wananga.

But he also, and this is perhaps one of the most salient points of the speech, offered the Government his party's support in effecting policy changes necessary to avert reaching the tipping point. This is important, for instance, if the economy is subject to a major external shock or if some of the major strategic risks identified by the Reserve Bank come about.

This is my interpretation - Brash's words are still a bit too other-worldly to get the required precision on this point.

That's where Key, the former money-markets man, comes into play.

The Don took intensive soundings last week from some well-connected players before deciding to make the economy centre-stage.

Key was not privy to all the machinations, nor did he take part in writing the speech - but he was certainly consulted.

But unlike Georgina te Heu Heu (Maori Affairs) and Katherine Rich (Social Welfare), who were dropped from their roles because they believed their leader's Orewa speeches went too far, Key believes National has much further to go to achieve the platform Brash laid out yesterday.

Which is just as well, because the central point of their own pre-Orewa talks was Key's role in developing the substantive policies to underpin National's future economic agenda.

His task is to deliver five or six major speeches before the end of this year, which will put flesh on the bones of National's economic agenda.

There are two aspects to this:

* Key needs to show he is more than a one-trick pony. National's tax-cutting agenda was hugely popular with voters in last year's election, but subsequent analysis showed a considerable number, particularly women, were worried that the necessary Government spending cuts would affect their families.

* Key's stated ambition is to be National Treasurer. But if the party leadership mantle is to fall his way should Brash falter, he needs to paint a broader brush.

The issues he will tackle this year include just how New Zealand can grow productivity; increasing private savings; increasing export penetration; the move to form a single economic market with Australia; and further development of tax policies and asset-based welfare.

This is bog standard stuff. Key's challenge will be to ensure the policies are sufficiently bold and enticing to persuade voters to comprehensively go with National next time around. This will not be easy.

Take the story of the under-25s - motivated and easily able to seek a brighter future in Australia as a result of that country's proximity, open migration (for Kiwis) and better pay rates - which is frequently glossed over by this Government.

Believe me, it is a real and present danger, made worse by the glaring intransigence at Cabinet level where ministers, particularly Finance Minister Michael Cullen, have been too quick to dismiss as an ideological burp advice from Treasury officials to cut taxes to fuel economic growth.

Yesterday, Brash reprised an anecdote he'd used on the election trail about a Napier woman whose four adult daughters have moved offshore, three to Australia.

Last week, he was still privately perplexed that journalists had chosen to focus on Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson's testicles (the issue du jour) rather than his real-life illustration.

Key is more easily able to paint the risk and devise policies on this score. But he must be wary of advancing too loudly proposals such as adopting the Irish low-tax model without having a plan in place.

Key is working on generating ideas with press secretary Kevin Taylor (a former Herald journalist) and Rodney Jones, a former ex-pat who still consults for George Soros from his Dunedin base, along with a few other returning Kiwis who are part of his unofficial brains trust.

The ubiquitous David Skilling, the chief executive of the New Zealand Institute who has been delving into this country's woeful export performance, is also being tapped, which should not imply any party preference on Skilling's behalf, as Labour is also much taken by his work.

There are weaknesses in Orewa IV. Brash skirted over tax cuts, which were the central point of National's economic policy at the last election and would clearly have also posed a risk to monetary policy if implemented without countervailing cuts to government spending.

Brash could also have, but chose not to, panned over the substantive strategic risks to the economy outlined by Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard last week, which could affect the pricing of goods and services.

To my mind, National will need to think hard and outside the square if it is to develop policies that deal with the substantive developments Bollard has isolated.

These include:

* The integration into the global economy of China and other emerging market economies with large reserves of labour (this clearly depresses world labour prices).

* An increased "premium" placed on security, arising from geopolitical and biosecurity considerations, global warming and acts of nature (this could, for instance, see our trading routes affected).

* A housing boom in some OECD countries (this carries with it the risk of market collapse and a resultant economic tsunami).

These are issues for not just National to ponder.

The Government's Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, which risks being seen as a mere cheerleader, needs to put more focus on the real environment. So, too, the business lobbies, which risk being duchessed by the politicians they lobby in businesses interests.

If the Brash speech did anything, it made obvious the need for an environment in which straight-talking about economic risks is again acceptable.

Roll on the debate and the actions.

Brian Rudman: Speedway plan needs all our leaders to get behind the wheel

Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis is on to a winner with his idea of a motorsport venue out in the wop-wops by the airport. But why doesn't he do something, instead of just talk about it.

I got quite excited yesterday with his latest plans to develop a 61ha, council-owned block adjacent to Puhinui Reserve as the new home for Auckland speedway and other car racing events.

"There is a tremendous opportunity in the Auckland region to bring all the activities of motorsport together," he said, adding that Manukau City didn't just have the land, "we have the vision and political fortitude to make things happen".

But it quickly became clear that while the vision was there aplenty, the political fortitude was not so apparent. Instead of announcing an action plan, a senior official was immediately dousing the mayor's dream with cold water, saying he didn't expect much progress in the near future.

Indeed the Sir Barry Curtis memorial motorsport centre doesn't seem any further ahead than in December 2004 when Sir Barry rang me to promote it as an alternative to Western Springs. That was after some Westies had jumped in with the idea of converting Whenuapai air base.

Of course in this seven-headed region we all call home, achieving a united voice - let alone joint action - is a rare affair. But the new motorsport park is such a commonsense solution to the intractable problem of the existing speedway, you would have thought Auckland Mayor Dick Hubbard would have embraced Sir Barry's alternative and been encouraging him in every way. .

Instead, Auckland City is spending vast amounts on lawyers and investigations, trying to keep the speedway at its historic inner-city venue. This despite the bylaw-breaking levels of noise it inflicts on residential neighbours.

I've long considered the Mayoral Forum as about as useful as tits on the proverbial bull. Its recent sun-addled decision calling for an extra toll on Auckland road-users only reinforced this belief.

It's wishful thinking, I know, but I might develop a less jaundiced view if the seven mayors and the regional council chairman, could, from time to time, think regionally and reach a consensus on Auckland-wide issues. Such as a site for a much-needed new motorsport venue.

Of course any decision would have to go back to councils for ratification. But it would have been a step in the right direction. Who knows, in a spirit of goodwill, Auckland City might even be willing to contribute financially to the move to the new park, in return for freeing up Western Springs for more appropriate inner-city activities.

Unfortunately, instead of encouraging Sir Barry, Mayor Hubbard et al are pouring vast amounts of ratepayers cash down the drain trying to prolong the speedway's time at the Springs. By last October, the council had already spent around $100,000 in legal fees battling local residents who had legitimately complained that, for nearly 10 years, Auckland City had failed to enforce its own noise limits.

An expensive Environment Court battle still looms. In the meantime, council has appointed Peter Salmon QC as a commissioner to inquire into the environmental effects of the Western Springs speedway. Public submissions close on February 10 and his report is due by mid-May.

Ratepayers are also paying towards the residents' expert costs and for investigations into such noise attenuation measures as double glazing and forced ventilation.

Of course the simplest and most effective noise attenuation measure would be to shift the speedway to Puhinui. That would be the perfect response to the section 16 requirement of the Resource Management Act that the occupiers "adopt the best practicable option to ensure that the emission of noise does not exceed a reasonable level ..".

On January 20, one midget race at Western Springs exceeded the agreed 90 decibels maximum by one decibel. Auckland City, as land owner, and the promoter were fined $1000 for the breach. This, when the operators were on their best behaviour and trying hard. It doesn't bode well.

Sir Barry has a solution. It's a good one. But it needs some of that "political fortitude" he brags about. And not just from Manukau City.

John Langley: Proper role of teachers is to educate, not to parent

Over the past five years I have written and spoken on numerous occasions about the need for a public debate on what the role of our teachers and schools should be.

This concern has been prompted by the relentless increase in demands placed on schools for ensuring things that were once fairly and squarely the responsibility of families and communities.

The recent suggestion that schools should have up to an hour of physical education a day, and that this will somehow curb the relentless march (or should I say lurch) towards obesity, is another in a long line of such demands.

Schools are social institutions and to a large extent it is not possible to precisely separate what should be school learning from anything else that exists in the life of a child.

One of the reasons schools exist is to socialise children beyond the bounds of the family and introduce them into civil society in a systematic way.

However, it seems that schools have been required to take over vastly more than is either fair or reasonable. Some examples readily come to mind.

More and more often, schools and teachers seem to be charged not only with ensuring higher levels of socialisation but, more frequently, with teaching children the most fundamental behaviour, such as following simple instructions, taking turns with others and fundamental manners towards adults and peers.

Teachers and schools are more often charged with identifying and dealing with aberrant behaviour that not only prevents others learning but is, on occasions, a danger.

Teachers and schools seem to be charged with ensuring that various aspects of a child's health and well-being are catered for during school hours and, often, outside them as well.

Schools seem to have a major responsibility for teaching our young people about sex and sexuality.

It seems that teachers and schools have to assume responsibility for ensuring that children wear sunscreen and hats or be held accountable if they do not.

And now we have the absurd suggestion that by giving children physical education for an hour a day we will crack the obesity problem.

Any reasonable analysis of such a suggestion exposes its flaws. Contrived exercise of this kind without such things as a balanced diet, more natural exercise and activity and engaging in other community endeavours, such as sports, will make not one iota of difference.

What point is there in children doing physical exercise for an hour a day if they then retreat into a regular diet of junk food, video games and inactivity?

Not to mention the billions that fast-food conglomerates spend a year trying to entice children and young people to survive on their products.

Is some responsibility to be put back where it belongs, to families to monitor and take responsibility for what their children eat and to educate them towards their attitude to food?

How about a fat tax on families where members creep over a certain weight? I doubt it, even though it's no sillier than the exercise idea.

All of this is simply too hard because it requires the problem to be addressed by those who are truly responsible. Much easier to dump the whole thing on teachers and schools and blame them if something goes wrong.

The wider question, though, is who is primarily responsible and for what?

We are also asking our schools to take over aspects of the lives of children that have traditionally been, and must continue to be, the primary responsibilities of families.

Schools do have a role in supporting families. Good schools and teachers have always worked with families and parents in this regard. But it is not their primary role.

It is also not to say that physical education is unimportant. It is a fundamental part of any decent curriculum.

But it should not be used as a cheap means of fixing a problem whose causes and solutions lie elsewhere.

The job of a teacher and a school is potentially infinite. More and more can be added.

As a teacher educator this is a major worry, because we run the risk of teaching our children and young people less - and less about more and more - if is expected that we must assume the mantle that parents and communities have traditionally had.

It is time for some sense and clarity in this debate. It is neither possible nor desirable for our teachers and schools to become all things to all people.

* Dr John Langley is dean of education at the University of Auckland.

Keith Suter: Wisdom of studying stupidity

Being stupid is one of the main characteristics that distinguishes humans from animals.

Animals have an instinct for their own best interests. Humans, by contrast, occasionally act in a way that is contrary to the evidence - and contrary to their own best interests.

There is a lot of attention to "best practices" in business studies courses. Perhaps we need more attention to stupidity. There should be more "stupidology" - the study of stupidity.

I got this idea from my Club of Rome colleague Professor Manfred Max-Neef, vice-chancellor of a Chilean university.

He was so intrigued by what makes humans stupid that three decades ago he taught courses on stupidology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wesleyan University in the United States.

Unfortunately, his other commitments (including running unsuccessfully for the presidency of Chile) precluded his following up these pioneering courses.

The American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book on stupidology, her March of Folly. She examined why governments continued to persist with policies that were obviously failing, such as England's attempt to hold on to the 13 American colonies in the War of Independence, and the United States' war in Vietnam.

At the national government level there is a tendency to repeat in one country what is already showing signs of failing in another.

For example, the privatisation of government assets, though it has brought some successes, has also resulted in failures.

Finally, at the individual level, there is the example of some people (even in the medical profession) who continue to smoke.

There is now a great deal of evidence that shows the harm that smoking does to a person's health. And yet people still smoke, somehow expecting that they will not suffer the same adverse consequences as those who have become ill.

People continue to drink alcohol and drive, even though it is clear that such actions are risky.

A definition of "stupidity" is "doing the same thing and expecting different results". People continue to do, over and over again, the same thing in the hope that eventually there will be a different result.

For example, governments conduct anti-smoking campaigns. They repeat the same types of campaigns and get only limited results - and yet somehow expect to do better next time.

Organisations (governmental and commercial) get locked into a momentum of doing the same thing. Instead of standing back and asking whether a particular policy is being effective, the tendency is simply to repeat the policy but with more gusto.

Perhaps too many careers are tied up with the original policy to call for a questioning of it. Instead of "lateral thinking", people and organisations just dig themselves deeper into the same hole.

Here are three recommendations. First, educational institutions that currently teach "best practice" courses in the hope that students can detect a formula for success would perhaps also gain from looking at the failures. What is the "worst practice"? What are the lessons in the failures?

A variation of this is the creation of non-role models. People are often encouraged to follow positive role models. But they could be invited to think of the worst examples they know of and reflect on why they thought the non-role models were so bad and how they ought also to avoid behaving as badly.

Second, there should be the recognition that mistakes are an opportunity to learn. There should not be an organisational culture that punishes mistakes.

Instead, if a mistake has occurred there should be an open culture where the mistakes can be admitted, an exploration made of the lessons learned, and a desire to move on. Instead of quietly burying the mistakes, there should be a desire to learn from them.

Finally, organisations should not be risk-averse. Lawyers should be on tap - but not on top.

* Keith Suter is a member of the Club of Rome, a global think tank.

Terry Dunleavy: Spending spree on wine will pay dividends

Early last year, the CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, Philip Gregan, was in London and had a chance encounter in the corridors of New Zealand House with the retiring High Commissioner, Russell Marshall.

Never known for a significant interest in New Zealand wine, Marshall said, "I have to tell you that New Zealand wine has transformed the way people in Britain think about New Zealand."

This unsolicited accolade should be taken into account by those who have criticised our present High Commissioner, Jonathan Hunt, for spending a tad over $14,000 to replenish the diplomatic wine cellar in London.

Having just been in London for the 25th annual presentation of New Zealand wines to the British trade and media, I had the opportunity to view the list of wines chosen by Hunt, and I think I am qualified to say that his purchases will do our industry, and our country, proud.

As New Zealand's senior diplomatic representative in Britain, Hunt is expected to serve the best our country has to offer.

When it came to wine, he had to take into account the fact that for the past seven years New Zealand has enjoyed the singular distinction of having the highest average retail price per bottle of all wines imported into Britain - by a margin, currently, of £1.70 ($4.41) a bottle.

This is no mean distinction for little New Zealand in the country regarded as the most complex and influential in the world wine trade, and which imports from every known wine-producing country on the planet.

How satisfying, for instance, that in this statistic we beat France and, indeed, Australia, which is second.

Not only does Hunt have to pay a little more for the best of New Zealand wines, but he has to acquire them as soon as they come on the market, for some, such as the iconic Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, are on allocation and sell out very quickly.

New Zealand has for decades been known in Britain for our lamb and butter - everyday commodities - but they have now been overtaken in terms of media references by our wine.

In 1982, the then London-based Trade Commissioner Don Walker and I, in my role as inaugural CEO of the Wine Institute, arranged the first presentation of 47 wines from 14 wineries in a half-day tasting in the penthouse of New Zealand House. Our exports to Britain to June 30, 1982, were 106,677 litres, to the value of $253,491.

The most recent annual figures, to September 30, 2005, were 22 million litres, valued at $165 million.

For the 25th annual tasting held over two days in the Nursery Pavilion at Lord's cricket ground, there were 150 New Zealand wineries presenting 652 wines.

While those of us in the industry are proud of what we have achieved in Britain in the past 25 years, and while we are grateful to have as our High Commissioner in London such an ardent and knowledgeable patron of our wines, we are disturbed at the mean-spirited, penny-pinching attitude underlying the recent questioning of Hunt's expenditure (perfectly within his allocated budgets, by the way) on wine and functions.

What is it about the London post that generates this meanness of spirit, harking back to the mid-80s when short-sighted Treasury officials floated the notion of selling New Zealand House?

Why is it only London that ever comes into question? Never Paris, Rome, Washington, Canberra, Ottawa, or the other capitals of influence.

Is it because New Zealand House in London is the only diplomatic property asset under the control of the Treasury (all the others are overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade)?

One of the unfortunate downsides of Treasury control was that, in the late 80s, a rent review was so severe that important New Zealand entities such as Air New Zealand, the Dairy Board and the Meat Board, not to mention the legendary Martini Terrace on the 16th floor, were priced out of continued occupation.

Even worse, the elegant and roomy ground floor ballroom, which would be so convenient for events such as our wine tastings, was leased to a Canadian brewery as a sports bar.

The sale of New Zealand House seems now firmly off the agenda, and the sooner the anomaly of its control by the Treasury is corrected by transfer to the ministry, the better.

Now 40 years old, the tall glass-clad building that dominates the corner of Haymarket and Pall Mall, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square, is undergoing refurbishment.

Ever since it opened in 1965, the design of New Zealand House has been the subject of controversy. It's certainly different from what surrounds it, and from other Commonwealth properties, such as Canada House in Trafalgar Square and Australia House in The Strand, both of which merge into their neighbourhoods.

But like it or lump it, you can't miss New Zealand House: tall, commanding, confident, different, saying something about New Zealanders.

Whatever we do, in London or elsewhere, let's not sell our country short by mean-spirited penny-pinching.

Let's spend whatever it takes to ensure that we reflect an image of a confident, unique, First World nation.

It need not cost an arm or a leg, and should help to bring us more tourists and high-quality immigrants - and help us in marketing the riches of our clean, green land.

* Terry Dunleavy was inaugural CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand (1976-91) and is editor of New Zealand WineGrower magazine.