Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sideswipe

Valentine's day cards for serious fans of television crime drama Law and Order and Special Victims Unit. (source: www.brandonbird.com)


By Ana Samways

A Grey Lynn reader was pleased to see police outside their school this week, as were the kids. She writes: "Very excited to see our local policeman, our young 5-year-old yells out, 'Hello Constable Dean!', to which our 3-year-old echoes (slightly mishearing ) 'Hello Constable Bean.' "

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Kath Kennedy shares a blond moment: "The other day I drove to the local video shop to get a couple of DVDs, then went back to work. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Later, my boss comes back to the office and asks me where my car is. I tell him it's in the carpark and he says it's not. I go to the window and carefully scan the car park. He's right, my car isn't there. I check the other car park. Still no car. I panic and announce that my car has been stolen from right outside the office. Trying to calm me down, my boss suggests I think back to when I last saw it. I started thinking, then the penny dropped. I'd driven up the road, parked at the video store, got the DVDs, then walked back to work leaving my car there".

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The reputation of Polynesia is on the line here", said Foreign Minister Winston Peters at a meeting in Suva last week about the tensions between the local Army and Government. Well, it would be except Fiji cannot be described as Polynesian because of its Melanesian links. But the minister isn't the only one getting geographically confused about all those islands. A cover line in the latest Metro magazine referring to film director Toa Fraser came up with the nifty phrase "Polywood", though Fraser himself is of Fijian-Pakeha ancestry and his film No. 2 is about a Fijian matriarch and her clan. Though it is set in Mt Roskill, which, of course, is in Polynesia. And talking of No.2, the positive review of the film at the Sundance Film Festival by the US movie industry bible Variety referred to the film's suburban Auckland setting as "Mt Raskil" - the confusion springing from the personalised number plate "Raskil" of one of the characters.

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One reader shares her previous attempts at Valentine's Day romance: "One year I tried to do something special without spending any money. I made a salad and painstakingly cut all the tomatoes into heart shapes. No comment. So I asked my dearest what he thought of my Valentine efforts. His reply: 'I thought you'd cut out the bad bits'."

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Does entomologist and "Bug Man" Ruud Kleinpaste approve of what his mate "Mr Wet and Forget" Rod Jenden is getting up to on the bug extermination front? Bug-lovin' Kleinpaste lends his smiling face to help flog Jenden's "Hitman" organic weedkiller. But what about two of Jenden's newer products? "Bugga Off" - which apparently lays down an impenetrable carpet of death for any insect. Then there's "Miss Muffet's Revenge" a chemical which keeps killing spiders for up to four months - inside and outside the house. Kleinpaste warned in 2001 of the potentially apocalyptic consequences of this approach: "We need insects. They sure don't need us. They've been here a lot longer than we have, and they'll be here when we're gone. And there is not a hope in hell that we can survive on this Earth without them."

John Armstrong: Labour squirms under long arm of the law

If the Labour Party is squirming right now, it is embarrassed because the investigation into its election expenses is not just another bureaucratic inquiry or audit. It is now a police investigation.

The word "police" makes all the difference. In a political culture where politicians routinely outbid one another on law and order, no party is going to feel comfortable while its affairs are under scrutiny by the police, even when the investigation is merely confined to how the Electoral Act should be interpreted.

However, the major plus of the Electoral Commission's referral of Labour's expenses return to the police has been to highlight what is the real issue: Labour's rort on the taxpayer which saw it shamelessly spend some $446,000 of its parliamentary funding on blatant political advertising at the height of last year's election campaign.

Rules covering such spending specifically allow parties to publicise their policies - but not to solicit votes.

Labour made a complete nonsense of those rules.

Getting the taxpayer to bear the cost of producing and distributing its signature pledge card was breathtaking in its audacity.

Labour's mistake was to go a step further and try to exclude that spending from its expenses covering the three months prior to the election. In the commission's view, that took Labour over the limit.

Regardless of what the police determine, pre-election arrogance has boomeranged badly on Labour.

The pledge card - a device designed to increase trust in Labour - has been devalued.

Labour now looks shamefaced. To defuse things, it is deliberately fudging and confusing the separate issues of election overspending and spending of parliamentary funds.

The law is unclear. The law is confusing. The law needs clarifying. We are only doing what we did in previous elections. Other parties do it.

Michael Cullen yesterday pulled out that old standby. If parties were denied parliamentary funding to promote their policies, he warned there would have to be some other form of state funding.

Helen Clark also sought to brush the problem off, noting it was the responsibility of the Parliamentary Services Commission to "engage".

Fair enough. It is the commission's responsibility. But the commission is comprised of representatives of parties in Parliament - most of whom have a liberal interpretation of the rules. Stricter enforcement requires the equivalent of poachers turning gamekeepers.

So far, there is no sign of any mass conversion. The referral of Labour's expenses return to the police has - with one notable exception - been greeted by a deafening silence from other parties.

The exception is National, however, its main gripe is with Labour's alleged overspending of its limit.

The reality is that the parliamentary funding is too valuable for all the parties.

It is in no one's interest to sever the hand that feeds. Even the qualms of the Greens have not stopped them pushing the boundaries, although with nowhere near Labour's inventiveness.

When someone like the Auditor-General points out the taxpayer is not getting a fair go - as he did last year - they run into a rare brick wall of multi-party solidarity.

The question now is whether the combination of last year's critical report by the Auditor-General, Labour's claiming to fall victim to the vagaries of electoral law and public pressure will force a clean-up.

Don't hold your breath. However, Labour's decision to fund its pledge card and main election brochure out of the taxpayers' pockets via the money budgeted for Parliamentary Services has rendered the rules on how that money is spent utterly meaningless.

In short, anything now goes. That is unacceptable - and even the blinkered Parliamentary Services Commission cannot pretend to be indifferent to that.

Editorial: TVNZ's dangerous fit of pique

The Office of the House of Representatives' prescription for people appearing before one of Parliament's select committees is succinct. "When giving evidence, you are expected to be respectful and to tell the truth." A deliberate attempt to mislead a committee could, it warns, ultimately result in a finding of contempt of Parliament. Former Television New Zealand chief executive Ian Fraser heeded that advice in December - much to the delight of those fascinated by the broadcaster's inner workings - when he appeared before a finance and expenditure select committee inquiry. Now, however, he finds himself punished for it. This alarming development must be scotched, urgently and effectively.

Mr Fraser's testimony over the events that led him to quit his job rounded off a horror year for the state broadcaster. He portrayed the TVNZ board as dysfunctional and meddling, and alleged that one director had orchestrated a campaign to undermine him and news head Bill Ralston. The board's reaction was quick - and utterly inappropriate. Without any discussion with Mr Fraser, it wrote to him, saying his comments to the select committee amounted to "serious misconduct".

Mr Fraser was stripped of the duties he was undertaking while serving out six months' notice on about $300,000. The board, it seems, was content to see him paid to do nothing until his contract ends in April. Further, according to Mr Fraser, it threatened to terminate his remaining employment if he made further similar criticisms of TVNZ.

This hamfisted reaction reflects dismally on the broadcaster's board. Its aim was doubtless to protect TVNZ from further damage to its reputation by shutting down Mr Fraser. But the choice of a sledgehammer suggests a fit of pique, and perhaps the aggregate of months of turmoil got the better of it. The upshot is that the board has managed to place itself squarely at odds with a number of important parliamentary principles. Overlooked in the rush to pounce on Mr Fraser were, for example, the fact that evidence given to select committees is protected by parliamentary privilege, and that Standing Orders dictate that intimidation of a witness represents contempt of Parliament.

If calmer counsel does not prevail, the confrontation with Mr Fraser will probably see the board embroiled in personal grievance proceedings. But the ramifications of the case extend far beyond that. Select committees could not function efficiently if people feared punishment for speaking fully, frankly and truthfully when they appeared before them. Civil servants might be tempted to begin tempering their advice. Parliamentarians would find their ability to frame effective legislation or conduct efficient inquiries compromised. Ultimately, the country would suffer from any obstacle to the free flow of information.

That is not a situation Parliament can countenance. The obligation for people to speak the truth when they appear before committees must be inviolate. The finance and expenditure select committee will have to act immediately; the TVNZ board should be left in no doubt about the error of its ways, and the repercussions if it chooses not to alter its policy toward Mr Fraser.

Compromising with the former chief executive will clearly be galling for the TVNZ board. But Mr Fraser must be returned to the duties agreed on after his resignation. As much as the board wants nothing further to undermine the broadcaster's reputation, a far more important principle is at stake. No challenge to it can be tolerated, even from so forlorn a source as TVNZ.

Gwynne Dyer: Greed mars Ugandan rule

I became a good man after I'd been a bad man for 20 years," Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC last year, recalling the days when most people saw him as a dangerous rebel.

"When I was a guerilla fighting the regimes, I was always being called ... all sorts of names, until my usefulness showed up much later. Therefore if I'm being reviled now, this is one of the phases of being misunderstood because the people have not seen what you're trying to do."

Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should stay in power for more than 10 years, is now in his 20th year as president, changing the constitution last year so he could run for election yet again. He faces a serious challenge from Dr Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician, but most people assume that he will win another five-year term on February 23. They also assume that if necessary he will cheat to win.

There is a strong sense of disappointment with Museveni. He took power at the head of a rebel army in 1986, ending 20 years of nightmare rule by two dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin, who had wrecked Uganda's once-thriving economy and murdered hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. Most foreigners had seen him as just another killer on the make during the years when he waged a guerilla struggle in southwestern Uganda, but once in power he convinced them he was much more than that.

He won their respect by running a relatively honest and competent Government. He invited the Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin to return to Uganda and reclaim their property (though few chose to do so). He waged the campaign against HIV/Aids with an openness that few other African leaders have been able to match, and actually managed to bring the rate of infection down.

Bill Clinton held him up as the leading example of a new breed of African leaders, and Britain started giving its foreign aid directly to his Government to spend as he wished, abandoning the usual process of choosing specific projects to support and closely supervising how the money was spent. It seemed that Museveni could do no wrong - and then he began to do wrong.

It started with the genocide in Uganda's southern neighbour, Rwanda. Museveni had given shelter and arms to the Rwanda Liberation Front whose invasion finally ended the killing. The defeated Hutu militia that led the massacres retreated into the eastern Congo, and when it began guerilla attacks from there in 1998, both Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Congo to suppress it. But they stayed to loot the Congo's mineral riches.

The result for the Congo was an all-against-all civil war that killed several million people. For Uganda it was a huge inflow of illicit funds from stolen Congolese mineral resources, and a huge rise in the wealth and power of the military. Museveni's Presidential Guard Brigade grew to over 10,000 soldiers, and many who had been with him from the earliest days acquired major financial interests whose protection required that Museveni stayed in power.

When Kizza Besigye returned from South African exile in November to contest this month's election, he was almost immediately arrested and charged with treason, rape, terrorism and illegal possession of firearms. (There was no room on the charge sheet for the double-parking offences.)

He spent December in jail, but the High Court freed him on bail in early January despite Museveni's best efforts, and he is campaigning vigorously for the presidency.

Opinion polling is in its infancy in Uganda, but it seems clear that Besigye leads among the educated, urban section of the population, while Museveni still commands a stronger following among the poor and the uneducated. There are more of the latter, so maybe he can still win honestly. Either way, he is expected to win, and much of the good he has done will probably be undone before he finally goes. Already half a dozen of Uganda's leading foreign aid donors have suspended direct aid to his Government.

What went wrong, above all, was the war in the Congo. Museveni's senior soldiers, many of them his old companions from the guerilla war days, have grown too rich and powerful, and in a sense he has become their prisoner. It is a sad ending to his story.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Irfan Yusuf: A Valentine for brokenhearted

My Contributions to this paper have tended to be about terrorist attacks, anti-terror laws, cultural clashes and a host of other controversial topics.

But, as it's Valentine's Day, I was hoping to write on the lighter side of love. Then a friend invited me to join her for a movie.

We arrived at the hip Dendy Cinemas in the trendy suburb of Newtown, grabbed our tickets and plonked ourselves in the comfy seats. My friend then apologised.

Sorry, Irf, I should have told you that this is a movie about homosexual cowboys. I hope that's okay.

Kiwi readers shouldn't be surprised by the apology. We are, after all, talking about Australia, a country that still imports most of its cultural icons from across the Tasman.

Sydney's Sun-Herald reported last week that the acclaimed movie Brokeback Mountain is not being shown at cinemas in some Sydney regions.

It seems that even the presence of Australian (although I wouldn't be surprised if he had some Kiwi blood) actor Heath Ledger isn't enough to convince the film's distributors that some parts of Australia are just too unsophisticated to appreciate the movie.

Knowing of my Muslim background and Anglican schooling perhaps led my Hindu friend to apologise. But the movie did keep me thinking for the next few days.

The film tells the story of two male drovers whose single homosexual encounter at Brokeback Mountain changes their lives.

Despite their conventional marriages and having children, the men relive that encounter at various points in their lives. They develop an emotional bond which they both know cannot be shown in public. You needn't be gay to feel the pain of the half-requited and forbidden love that these men recognise, but where circumstances make it impossible for them to honour that love.

The movie reminded me of the story of Van, a close friend who has moved to San Francisco to work as a commercial lawyer. His was also the story of half-requited forbidden love.

Some years back, he ventured into a high-class Melbourne brothel on a stag night.

When a sex worker read the name on his credit card she recognised that Van was of the same ethno-religious background as her mother. They both had Vietnamese-Buddhist heritage, although the girl grew up with her English father who spurned Buddhism and kept his children away from their Vietnamese mother's family.

The sex worker took a liking to Van and handed him her phone number. They spoke on the phone several times and she told Van enough information about herself to enable him to use his lawyering skills to great effect. He traced her background and discovered she had been a journalist before she became a sex worker.

He later expressed how he felt upon discovering all this information, saying: "She's the sort of girl I'd have pursued even before she joined the industry. She's had a life before the industry. I know she will leave sex work. Why shouldn't I take her seriously?"

After many phone conversations and discreet meetings, my friend was becoming fond of this woman. It seemed she was also fond of him.

However, in her mind, he would never be someone she could introduce to her family or friends, none of whom were aware of her sex work. Why?

Perhaps she felt that Van he had too much power over her. They might have an argument and he might spill the beans to her loved ones.

Perhaps he reminded her too much of her mother's heritage, which was too painful a memory to deal with.

Van persisted, trying to reassure her that she could trust him.

And trust him she did. On several occasions he contacted her through friends and family. He also introduced her to some of his friends. A trust seemed to develop between them.

But in the end, the best Van could get out of her was half-requited love.

He told me that she said: "I'm really fond of you, but I'm not fond of this situation. When I leave this industry I want to leave behind everything associated with it. I'd love to take you with me. I just wish I knew in what way. Maybe as a good friend. I just don't know."

The last time Van spoke to the woman, she told him she was feeling suicidal. It was likely she was suffering from severe depression, which may have led her into the industry in the first place. Depressed people often find it impossible to make decisions or commit themselves to a work timetable. Those entering the world's oldest profession get an income without set hours.

Van never found out what happened to his friend. He spent many months blaming himself for her suicidal behaviour.

Eventually, Van almost succumbed to his own depression and found living in Melbourne too difficult. He sought employment overseas. But he still mentions his feelings towards the woman.

I hope that reading about Van doesn't spoil your Valentine's Day.

Most of us find love in more conventional ways. But as Van's story and Brokeback Mountain powerfully illustrate, unconventional love can be just as real, even if the pressures of society and circumstance don't allow it to be fully requited.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.

Paran Balakrishnan: Why Goldilocks is hitting the bubbly

Indian stockbrokers aren't usually big drinkers but last week many were finally reaching for the champagne. After months of "will it, won't it", the Bombay Stock Exchange index, the Sensex, went romping past the 10,000 mark.

The Sensex has been on a roll for more than two years and rose 42 per cent in 2005, making it one of Asia's best-performing markets. It took just 48 days to climb the last 1000 points.

The champagne was still gushing skywards when the Indian Government threw in an extra piece of good news. It said the economy was doing better than expected and growth should touch 8.1 per cent this year, higher than earlier predictions. Manufacturing is expected to surge 9.2 per cent and services 11 per cent.

Even agriculture, the weak spot in the Indian economy in the past decade, had bounded forward from last year.

Corporate salaries, too, are rising faster than anywhere else in Asia. Indian executives probably still earn less than other Asians, but, heck, it always feels good to get a chunky pay hike.

Understandably, euphoria is the order of the day. Some economists are cheerily saying that India - like many other parts of the world - is having its "Goldilocks" moment. For those who don't immediately see the connection between nursery tales and global finance, the Goldilocks moment means that the economy, like the porridge, is not too hot, not too cold but just right.

In these circumstances, the Indian corporate world probably chose the right moment for a spot of hard selling.

In January, delegates to the World Economic Forum at Davos found themselves blitzed by "India Everywhere" marketing led by the Finance Minister and a delegation of India's corporate chieftains. On the menu for visiting delegates were heaps of Indian cuisine, music and reams of statistics about why the country is a great investment destination.

"All the buzz at Davos this year was over China and India ," said Time magazine.

Is the euphoria justified? The answer, as always, is yes and no. Back in the 1980s an Indian economist, Raj Krishna, coined the derogatory term, "The Hindu rate of growth".

He reckoned that a complex raft of socio-religious factors kept India from high growth and condemned it to grow at only between 3 per cent and 5 per cent a year.

"The Hindu rate of growth" is now a thing of the past. If the Government's latest forecast comes true, India will have had an average growth rate of more than 8 per cent for the past three years.

The sharemarket, in turn, has responded by climbing from around 3500 in September 2003 to its present five-figure level.

So, what's going right? For a start, there's India's world-beating software industry which is keeping up its 30 per cent growth rates and inching forward to the front rank to challenge global giants like IBM, Accenture and EDS when it comes to high-tech contracts.

Then there are overall exports - traditionally the weak point of the Indian economy. They've been growing at an average 24 per cent for the last three years. Even with a booming global economy, that's not bad going. In fact, considering that exports were always India's Achilles heel, it's quite an achievement.

At another level, rising salaries have combined with low interest rates to spark a housing boom in most Indian cities.

Simultaneously, the manpower- intensive high-tech companies are also building new office blocks as fast as they can. All this has turned construction into one of the country's fastest-growing sectors and its brick-by-brick growth is expected to touch 12 per cent this year.

The world has, of course, taken note and foreign money is pouring in like never before. Only a few weeks ago, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and AMD all announced hefty investments in the Indian market. The mobile phone companies - Nokia, LG and Samsung - attracted by a telephony market that's moving at the speed of sound, are all pushing ahead with plans to manufacture handsets here.

What's the downside to all this economic euphoria? Can the party last till the dawn of prosperity for one billion people on the sub-continent?

Well, for a start, there's the unavoidable fact that India has now become more like the rest of the world. In other words, it's slowly being integrated into the global economic system.

Why is that a negative? Think back to the 1997 Asian crisis when the fast-moving stars like Thailand and Malaysia were battered by the global downturn. In those days, while the Thais sold their Mercs at bargain basement prices and stopped buying Johnnie Walker by the crate, India was utterly unaffected by the upheavals that traumatised its near neighbours.

More importantly, there's a giant political risk hanging over the country. The ruling Congress Party won only 155 seats in the 543-seat Lower House and it doesn't take much to figure out that its hold on power is tenuous. Crucially, it's also extremely dependent on the communists, who are stalling economic changes.

So the Government has been struggling to open the retail sector to foreign investors like Walmart and French giant Carrefour, which are waiting eagerly for the green light to enter India's new malls.

More recently, efforts to privatise the hopelessly overcrowded airports at Delhi and Mumbai have run into one difficulty after another - including a nationwide strike.

For the time being, however, nobody is worrying about political risks or anything else for that matter. In fact, one leading business commentator noted this week that "India's internal confidence levels are running ahead of reality".

And who cares about Cassandras once the party's under way? In January, retail investors - late as usual - poured money into the sharemarket as it approached the five-figure mark. And, after crossing the 10,000 mark last week, the market didn't even stop for breath and powered forward another 100 points by Friday. The brokers hardly had time to crack a new bottle of bubbly.

* Each week the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in China and India - the world's two emerging economic superpowers. This week, Paran Balakrishnan, associate editor of the Telegraph in Kolkata, reports from India.