Saturday, February 18, 2006

John Armstrong: National seizes the moment

It is the $446,000 question which everyone can understand. Will the Labour Party pay the money back? National has struck the jackpot. Its chant of "pay the money back" slices through all the arguments Labour has mounted to justify its using public money to produce and distribute its distinctive pledge card during last year's election campaign.

This is Opposition politics at its simplest and most effective. Other things contributed to National's morale-boosting first week of the new parliamentary session - for example, Michael Cullen's hedging of Labour's promise to raise tax thresholds.

But National's overall victory was down to Labour's floundering over the ethics of the funding of its election advertising. In part that was because of the question National kept asking: will Labour pay the money back?

The beauty of it from National's point of view is that Labour cannot answer it. Labour is skewered.

Labour is most unlikely to have the cash on hand to say yes. It equally cannot afford the public derision from saying no. So it refuses to answer the question - which leaves it looking just as bad.

Reimbursement is the last thing National would want. That would enable Labour to make a belated scramble for the high ground in the tit-for-tat argument over who has flouted the rules covering publicity material funded out of parties' parliamentary budgets.

So far, though, Labour has shown no willingness to be contrite for its flagrant abuse of those rules which bar material which seeks to solicit votes.

Labour may have opted to admit nothing while the police decide if the party has a case to answer in failing to include the spending on the pledge card in its return of election expenses - spending which took it over its legal limit of $2.38 million.

Labour may also be punting that the police - who were called in by the Electoral Commission - may not prosecute. Labour could then argue it was in the right all along.

Legally, yes. But morally, no. The damage has been done. Worse, Labour's lack of remorse has compounded the original sin.

National's game-plan for this year involves painting the Labour-led Government as tired, arrogant and increasingly incompetent, but still power-driven. It is a strategy of attrition copied from Helen Clark's modus operandi between 1996 and 1999 when she hounded Jenny Shipley's struggling minority Government to the grave.

The Prime Minister scoffs at any suggestion her Administration is worn out and failing. But she knows she must work continuously to stop that charge sticking.

Her speech kicking off the new parliamentary year on Tuesday stressed that Labour was not in government just to manage the status quo.

But her message that Labour recognises it must guard against the dangers attendant from being in office so long was vastly at odds with her party's barely disguised snarl at being pinged by the Electoral Commission.

Labour's response has made it look arrogant, cavalier with public money and cynical about the lengths it will go to stay in office.

That is the very impression National seeks to create. But it recognises that denting Labour's standing in the polls is going to be an incremental process - and one which requires hauling back Clark's high personal ratings by undermining her credibility through questioning her integrity.

It was a major plus for National that Clark's face and signature were on the pledge card. It enabled Don Brash to argue that she was personally accountable and should be the one to pay the money back.

It was the first time he has drawn prime ministerial blood. National should have predicted the ferocious response the following day as Clark sought to smash Brash rather than allow him to adopt a more confident persona in the House.

She brandished a National Party pamphlet which, like Labour's pledge card, was funded out of the parliamentary leader's office and distributed during last year's campaign.

However, the National pamphlet had been produced a year earlier and its distribution was far more random than the pledge card which went into letterboxes nationwide.

Labour's attempt to mount the "people in glasshouses" defence was cleverly countered by National's Gerry Brownlee on TVNZ's Close-Up that night.

In one hand, he held up a number of leaflets and cards, both Labour and National, which he said had remained within acceptable boundaries. In the other, he held up Labour's pledge card.

Brownlee's point was that not everything Labour had done was illegal, but the use of parliamentary funds for a major electioneering tool was such a flagrant breach of the rules that it could not be defended.

Labour's mistake has been to try to defend the indefensible. It has been more a case of spinning wheels than spin machine.

Following its initial reaction to the Electoral Commission's announcement, Labour said it would be making no further comment. It has subsequently done nothing but.

The party has grabbed at any passing defence. These have become increasingly bizarre as the previous ones fail to get traction.

Labour is using Pete Hodgson, who has vast knowledge of election rules and practices, to front its case in the media.

But he sometimes tends to come at issues from a tangent and mount elliptical arguments that are not easy to comprehend when a simple sound-bite is what is required.

Crucially, no one in Labour seems to understand that the party dropped a bombshell in admitting the pledge card was also funded by the leader's office in 1999 and 2002. Labour just makes things worse for itself in trying to use this as justification for what it did in 2005.

This stubborn refusal to acknowledge the party is on to a loser is a puzzling departure from its normal method of handling such headaches.

Its usual practice would have seen it accept it was in error, take any punishment, order an immediate review of the electoral law on declaring expenses and promise a radical shake-up of the rules on promotional material emanating from Parliament.

But the departure from the norm may be a consequence of Labour's fixation with retaining the dominance it has enjoyed for six years both inside and outside Parliament and which is now under serious threat.

The last months of last year witnessed a post-election phony war. The new year has seen the outbreak of the real thing. Labour has not been of a mood to concede anything, particularly in the first week of a new parliamentary session.

But that is no excuse for completely losing the plot.

Editorial: Clark's team should ditch their caution

When Parliament assembled this week for a new year it could have hoped for more action from the Prime Minister. The Government last year won a third term in office, it has had a summer holiday and the Cabinet has had a few weeks without parliamentary pressures to think, take stock of what has been done so far, and consider what needs to be done now.

Helen Clark has led a cautious Government so far, seldom pursuing an unpopular policy, quickly backing off any course that becomes controversial, suspending ministers at the first suggestion of misbehaviour, governing by arrangement with parties in the middle of the road.

But continued caution cannot be counted likely to win the Government another term. There is a natural life of any party's lease on power and Labour knows it. Few last longer than three terms and few members of any Government want to endure opposition. If they came into politics to make a difference they need to do it now.

The Prime Minister's statement to the House on Tuesday revived familiar aims, to improve the economy with investments in higher-value products and better productivity and enhance certain health, education and welfare benefits to selected sections of society.

But those are no more or less than would be expected of any Government at any time. This is a moment to be more daring.

Nothing on the scale of the 1980s and early 1990s economic reforms is needed, but within most areas of Government concern there is a difficult, possibly contentious, step that needs to be taken at some time.

Helen Clark mentioned one or two in her statement. We need a breakthrough on the provision of broadband internet services. The regulation of Telecom, a matter of interminable argument and litigation, might at last receive some decisive action from a new and knowledgeable minister, David Cunliffe.

Another new minister, Damien O'Connor, has taken a hard look at our high and costly rate of imprisonment and taken a step towards finding politically acceptable alternatives.

A Green MP, Sue Bradford, is giving anti-smacking legislation another push. Like anti-smoking law, the repeal of the parental defence to assault will be hotly debated until the day it is enacted.

Thereafter it will seem so right and sensible we will forget the issue. No parent will be prosecuted for a normal smack but abusers will lose legal protection.

In almost every minister's portfolio there will be a difficult, more or less shelved, task that almost certainly has to be done sooner or later. The confused state of TVNZ, for example, cannot go on forever. It must either revert to a clearly directed state-owned enterprise or be a pure public service broadcaster. Somebody will make the decision sometime. Why not soon?

The use of hand-held cellphones when driving cars is plainly dangerous. Every driver knows that. The habit will be stopped eventually. Why not now?

Road tolling, too, is necessary to ration road use. Transport officials have been telling successive governments so.

Eventually, when congestion reaches a point that anything seems preferable, a minister will bite the bullet. Why doesn't the present minister make his name? History remembers decision-makers, not ditherers.

Some people go into politics because they enjoy the subject, others because they want to get their hands on the levers of power and advance the country's welfare. After six years in office it is still hard to tell the Clark Government's purpose.

It has brought relief from rapid change but surely it wants to do more. It has little to lose. There are things that need to be done and no better time than this.

John Roughan: Spare us the return of tedious television

Settling into in a country motel with only a TV for company, you are liable to watch whatever you can get. Last Sunday I was fascinated by a woman eating huhu grubs.

A dozen attractive people, divided into male and female teams, were being put through picnic games in tropical isolation somewhere. They were all celebrities I suppose, though I recognised only two, cricketer Simon Doull and jockey Lance O'Sullivan.

Doull was pitching coconuts, or something similar, at a skull on a stake and the woman was competing with him to hit it. The rest watched as though their lives depended on the result.

I was about to turn it off and watch the water boil for coffee instead, when an off-screen voice announced the woman had lost and would have to eat two huhu grubs.

The creatures appeared close-up waiting in a wine glass. One of them squirmed its head towards the camera. I was mesmerised.

The woman quailed and her team issued cries of encouragement. The voice said that if she failed this test the guys would get the right to raid the girls' camp.

Nobody was laughing about any of this. Doull's crew looked seriously hungry for the prize. The woman's team gave her greater shrieks of encouragement.

With her face filling the screen you could see the effort she was making to shut down her mind, freeze her senses and just get through it.

She put the first in her mouth, chomped a few times and swallowed hard. Then she did it again with the second. As soon as it was down she gulped as much water as she could and turned for the hugs of her teammates.

Still nobody cracked a smile.The guys stared hard at the ground with all the bitter frustration of a rugby team that has just lost the club final.

This must be what they call reality television, prime exhibit in this week's indictment of TVNZ by a collection of eminent elder citizens who want the Government to restore the less commercial, more public-spirited television service they remember.

"Governments and advertisers have hijacked and abused our public television for too long," they wrote to Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey. "We hope that you will have the determination to return it to serving its real owners, the people of New Zealand."

It is easy to dismiss their case as elitist and self serving. They want the public to pay for the kind of television they want to watch, a channel for programmes that would not attract enough advertising to pay for themselves because they are not as popular with the audience that advertisers apparently believe TV persuades.

Writing on this page yesterday, the producer of the Saturday Agenda programme on TV One, Richard Harman, said even that channel's target audience, determined by media buyers, is under 54. Well I am 54 as it happens, and I think I know what the worthies are missing.

It is not really the nature of the programmes, it is the nature of the medium now. The programmes they fondly cited - Close to Home, McPhail and Gadsby, Gallery - would look pretty dire on television today.

David McPhail, pointing out to TV3 on Wednesday that the programmes were made for a different era, was probably in mortal terror they would show a clip from his show.

The best indigenous comedy of that era, Fred Dagg, Billy T. James, has inspired the authentic, understated, apparently effortless Kiwi humour of Oscar Kightley, Marc Ellis and their ilk on programmes like Sports Cafe, Game of two Halves or Eating Media Lunch.

Those programmes, like reality television, contain an element of spontaneity that the home-grown comedy and drama of yesteryear lacked entirely. When it comes to "seeing ourselves", "reflecting New Zealand" and those other pieties of public broadcasting, reality television has something going for it.

It is commercial television. In theory a public service channel could produce the same programmes but it simply wouldn't. It wouldn't have the spark. It would be National Radio with pictures.

It would serve up plenty of interview programmes but they would not be nearly as popular as those the worthies remember. Those were blood sport and depended on the peculiar personal menace of Sir Robert Muldoon.

A succession of terrified journalists who made their names by enduring the late Prime Minister's withering facility to cut through the intellectual conceits of liberals who knew less than he did.

The programmes attracted a mass audience not for their informational value, which was pretty limited, if truth be known, but for the excruciating fascination of watching someone bait the bull, usually by repeating the same pointed question several times, and suffer the inevitable result.

It was not so very different from eating grubs, and about as meaningful much of the time.

New Zealanders of my age and older remember the arrival of TV and the powerful social force it quickly became.

We remember when there was just one channel and everybody watched the same programmes. They were British or American sitcoms, westerns, talk shows and crime dramas that became part of our common experience.

Nostalgia still gives them a glow they probably did not deserve; re-runs are not easy to watch for very long.

What we miss, I think, is not the programmes but the common experience of a single national channel. Now that television is as diverse and competitive as radio or magazines, no single channel, whatever its ownership or source of finance, can provide the social glue that it once did.

That may be the reason older baby boomers are not watching any of the broadcast channels much any more, and advertisers know it.

We have subscription channels, computers, DVDs and more books than we have time left to read. We've no right to tax everybody for television that most people would find tedious now.

Fran O'Sullivan: Yearning for the past no good for the future

I can understand why Douglas Myers didn't bother to show up to deliver his latest epistle to New Zealand's big business club. The expat New Zealander, who spends a fair swag of his time in London these days, was a brilliant businessman - in his time. We could do with a few more of his intellectual ilk and clear passion for New Zealand back here right now, once again working to focus minds on the crucial externalities that affect our place in the world.

But the speech Myers asked his fellow tax exile Alan Gibbs to deliver on his behalf at the Roundtable celebration of two decades in business last weekend was not a patch on some of his previous stellar epics.

The problem is that Myers has allowed himself to be portrayed as focused too much on the past.

It would be simple to say that that was what Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr had asked him to do: Think back to how New Zealand was 20 years ago; about the Business Roundtable's role in the changes over this time; and how New Zealand looks from an overseas perspective.

So, inevitably Myers delivered a mutually back-slapping address over Roundtable and Kerr's part in the 1980s reform process. But it wasn't within cooee of what Myers might have delivered if he had been given a more challenging brief.

Okay, I wasn't at the Friday night address - and thus not able to smother a derisive snort at the predictable jibe against the apathetic and often hostile media that had failed to do its bit to promote an economic reform agenda. The speech published in the Herald's Perspectives Page last Thursday was enough.

What did concern me (for Myers) is his tale of a youthful - well, okay, mid-40s - chief executive who was exhilarated by the 1980s economic revolution and thrilled to play his part, alongside the somewhat confused older Roundtable CEOs who were confused by the changes but, in the main, supportive if often silent.

The problem is the revolution Myers barracked for faltered in 1993 when former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger fired Ruth Richardson as finance minister.

In Myers' book nothing of any real worth has happened since. There is plenty of unfinished business. But the Business Roundtable must keep the faith and raise the awkward and difficult issues and keep them before the public, media and politicians.

It's a familiar syndrome and one that, unfortunately, also afflicts some journalists and editors who cut short their own effectiveness by constant references to their heydays - reliving their gladiatorial clashes with former National Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon, or the jokes and the love affair of his successor Labour Prime Minister David Lange - but not moving on to confront the policy issues that affect New Zealand today.

If Myers had spent a bit more time in New Zealand this year he could have touched base with Prime Minister Helen Clark and Finance Minister Michael Cullen before portraying the former as still focused on reform fatigue.

Both politicians are painfully aware that New Zealand will slide further economically if there is not a switch to a regime of continual policy changes at Government level to try to ensure the country becomes more internationally competitive.

They are trying to couch their switch but doing a pretty inadequate job so far in relation to the externalities that affect New Zealand.

Myers pointed to big developments that were positive to New Zealand: Europe being eclipsed after 500 years of hegemony; the imploding of the EU's common agriculture policy and its handsome subsidies, which will clearly benefit our more competitive farmers; and the growth of China.

Coupled with supportive government policies these big developments would propel New Zealand into the top half of the OECD pretty easily. But that was as far as he went on the issues that matter.

I suspect that if Myers put himself back into his earlier revolutionary shoes he would have schemed up an exciting speech which challenged the good and great who gathered to hear him.

Some fulsome encouragement from Myers to Clark/Cullen to make the public switch away from the reform fatigue rhetoric and examine just what part the Government could play in the exciting times of 2006 (not 1986) may have gone a long way to re-establishing the collaborative partnership between big business and government that he laments.

But opportunity was lost. On this score I would take issue with Myers on one point: that the Herald was guilty of lobotomising attempts to portray a rosy state in New Zealand's Eden when much of the evidence (to Myers) was clearly to the contrary.

Lobotomising, as anyone familiar with the psychiatric and neurological trades knows, implies that the (usually) bent individuals carrying out that particular barbaric practice intend that their subjects should emerge as docile, apathetic characters following their operative experience.

Such intended outcomes could hardly be good for building readership, audience numbers or advertising dollars.

But it is true, nevertheless, that a summer pall did descend over the New Zealand body politic (including the nation's news media) in the holiday period.

Unfortunately Myers' last effort does little to remove that pall. It's time to move on.

Brian Gaynor: Bid and bid again in godzone

The ability of a bidder to make a new offer immediately after an earlier one has important implications for New Zealand shareholders.

The response to last week's column on takeover offers indicates a large number of investors do not understand the rules that govern these bids. The most common complaint is that New Zealand shareholders are unfairly treated under the Takeovers Code, particularly when compared with Australia.

Investors want to know why Graeme Hart could offer up to $2.75 for each Carter Holt Harvey share after paying $2.50 to most shareholders. Many believe that in Australia Hart would have had to pay $2.75 to those who accepted his earlier offer.

The situation is more complicated than that. Although British takeover rules have a 12-month stand-down period before a second offer can be made, there are no specific rules in Australia with the exception that the bidder may not offer less than it paid for shares in the previous four months.

Nevertheless, there have not been any quick second offers across the Tasman because of the belief that the Takeovers Panel would disallow them under the "unacceptable circumstances" provisions of the code.

Legal experts believe that if a bidder has stated an offer is closing on a particular day and the offer price will not be increased, then the panel would not allow it to make a new offer at a higher price immediately afterwards.

Bidders in Australia are concerned the panel might require them to pay the higher price to acceptors under a previous offer if they make a new bid immediately after an early one closes. The threat of this has meant that there hasn't been a new higher-priced bid in Australia immediately after an earlier one has closed. It is wrong to claim that Australian investors are treated better in a takeover situation, although there are concerns about the integrity of the process in this country when offerers say they will not be raising their bid but, a few days later, launch a new offer at a higher price.

It is clear that Hart or anyone else would be extremely reluctant to make a second offer at a higher price if they were required to pay this to acceptors under an earlier bid.

Hart owns 85.7 per cent of CHH and the extra 25c will cost him $47 million more than the earlier $2.50 a share offer. If he had to pay the additional 25c to all shareholders, then the new offer would cost him an extra $327 million.

The ability of a bidder to make a new offer immediately after an earlier one has important implications for New Zealand shareholders. The main objective of any purchaser is to pay as little as it can for an acquisition. If a bidder can make a number of simultaneous offers then the objective of the first one is to get to 50 per cent. A higher offer can then be made to flush out more sellers and, if 90 per cent has not been reached, then another offer can be made at a higher price.

This is what happened when Ngai Tahu took over Shotover Jet.

Hart indicated at the early stages of his $2.50 a share offer, which closed on January 27, that he would be happy with just over 50 per cent of CHH. He was probably surprised to reach 85.7 per cent, and a new offer, which was announced on February 3, was a logical step. But, as expected, the panel has rejected the latest bid because the $2.75 would be available for only seven days whereas the code requires an offer be open for 30 days (acceptors would receive $2.70 a share if Hart took more than seven days to reach the 90 per cent compulsory acquisition mark).

The non-compliant offer showed that Hart's lawyers either don't understand the code or they wanted to see what they could put past the panel. The offer also demonstrated that Hart felt he needed to come up with a special incentive to get remaining shareholders over the line.

This is a signal that he is not overconfident of reaching 90 per cent through a straightforward $2.75 a share bid and may have to raise his offer once again to reach this important target. Meanwhile, Stephen Costley and AMP are desperately trying to get a few more Capital Properties shareholders to accept the $1.48 a share offer in their quest to reach 90 per cent and move to compulsory acquisition. AMP must be hoping that there are a few remaining shareholders who still don't understand that they are in a strong position under the code.

The latest development is a letter sent from Nick Williams, an investment adviser at First NZ Capital, to remaining Capital Properties' shareholders. Whereas most letters in this takeover have been addressed either "Dear Investor" or "Dear Capital Properties Shareholder", Williams has addressed shareholders by their first name even if he has never met or talked to them.

The official line at First NZ Capital is that Williams has sent his letter to keep Capital Properties' shareholders informed. The problem with that argument is that his letter doesn't contain any substantive additional information to AMP's letter, dated January 31, and the independent directors' letter, dated February 1.

Capital Properties traded above $1.48 for the first time on a consistent basis after these two letters were written. The firm's share price opened and closed at $1.54 on February 9, the day Williams wrote his letter, yet he made no mention of this. The clear tone of his letter was that shareholders should accept the $1.48 offer. Williams also wrote that AMP "have said they will not lift the offer price" even though the offerers' letter nine days earlier made no mention of this, and Hart announced a new offer for CHH at $2.75 on February 3 when he had earlier stated in big bold print that his "$2.50 offer price will not be increased".

The investment banking division of First NZ Capital is advising AMP on the offer. Williams is an investment adviser and has written to Capital Properties' shareholders even though First NZ Capital is not supposed to provide investment advice to Capital Properties' shareholders on whether to accept AMP's bid.

Have the Chinese walls blown over at First NZ Capital?

The takeover offer for Lyttelton Port should also be extremely interesting. Christchurch City, which already owns 69 per cent of the target company, will offer $2.10 a share to remaining shareholders. The problem as far as Christchurch City is concerned is that a large percentage of shareholders are from Canterbury, as 50 per cent of the shares in the 1996 IPO were reserved for preferential allocation to residents of the region.

Canterbury investors did not accept the first offer for Mike Pero Mortgages, and Cantabrians were behind the strong opposition to the Shotover Jet bid that resulted in minorities receiving a much higher price under the compulsory acquisition provisions of the code.

It would be a surprise if hard-headed Canterbury investors accepted a 20 per cent premium over market for their Lyttelton Port shares when last year's offer for Ports of Auckland was 24 per cent above the market price.

It will be extremely surprising if Christchurch City gains full control of Lyttelton Port at $2.10 a share even if the independent appraisal report endorses this offer price.Disclosure of interest: Brian Gaynor is an investment strategist and analyst at Milford Asset Management.

Paul McIntyre: Even the toughest shed a tear

The late Kerry Packer's final burst of public attention concluded yesterday with a NSW state memorial service at the Opera House, which saw the likes of supreme scientologist Tom Cruise arrive by private jet.

Cruise was there because he's close to James Packer and has been a high-profile conduit for winning Packer Junior over to the religion.

There were glimpses of James Packer's belief system in a predictably glowing but revealing tribute to his father on the Nine Network on Thursday night, in which Russell Crowe was the narrator.

James said he believed that the mind had a great deal to do with the physical health of a person and his father was affected greatly by the allegations arising from the Costigan Royal Commission in 1984, in which Kerry was tagged as the mysterious "Goanna" who ultimately sat behind a major illicit drug distribution syndicate and a series of murders.

Kerry Packer was cleared of the charges in 1992 but it took its toll. "I think it had an impact on his health," James said in the tribute.

"I believe people's health is affected by their mind and it was a dark chapter mentally for Kerry."

Prime Minister John Howard and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke also had their say on the Goanna slurs in Nine's tribute, with Howard saying they were "absurd and offensive" and Hawke declaring them "absolute bullshit".

Hawke was Prime Minister at the time of the Costigan royal commission and after the allegations were leaked in a now-defunct Fairfax newspaper, the National Times, he went out of his way to publicly fraternise with Packer to demonstrate his support.

Packer held then Fairfax chairman James Fairfax singularly responsible for the damage. At a dinner in 1992 to celebrate beating the royal commission, Packer publicly said as much and, according to accounts, he said something unpublishable about James Fairfax which implied he was hoping his rival would face a lingering and excruciating death.

At the start of the "Goanna" allegations, Packer said he called James Fairfax to ask him to stop his journalists writing "hysterical speculation" but the newspaper boss did not act. "He could have fixed it," Packer told the dinner party.

The Nine tribute also covered Kerry's tough upbringing at the hands of Sir Frank Packer, who built a newspaper business before it was handed over to his two sons after he died in the early 1970s. Kerry was dyslexic and scorned as an idiot by his parents. He was sent to boarding school aged 5, literally 100m down the road from the family mansion in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

He was later shipped off to an elite boarding school in Victoria and - as Kerry told it in an interview with British TV host Michael Parkinson - on returning home during a school holiday break he was sent back by his father on a two-day train ride because he had forgotten his tennis racket.

Publicly Kerry always said his father was firm but fair.

But a close mate and larrikin adman John Singleton revealed a different perspective in the tribute: "He told me at least half a dozen times in company and in private that the day his father died was the happiest day of his life."

In his remaining months it appeared Packer was not going to do the same with his own son, who said that Kerry had spoken some "beautiful" words to him.

In his time, Packer had eight heart attacks and a kidney transplant donated by his helicopter pilot.

He famously said after being clinically dead for seven minutes after a heart attack at a Sydney racetrack that he'd been to the other side and there was nothing there.

The good news, he said in a rare TV interview after his brush with death, was that there was no devil. The downside? There was no God either.

Packer survived his near-death experience because ambulance officers were able to use specialist medical equipment.

After Packer discovered that it was only available because of his status, he paid for every ambulance in New South Wales to be fitted with the same resuscitation unit.

Those sorts of stories were repeated throughout Nine's tribute and even the blistering talkback radio jock and former Wallabies coach Alan Jones dropped a few tears recounting his memories of Packer.

James Packer said that although Kerry didn't believe in the afterlife, he was "taking the positive" and hoping his father was looking down on them from above.

Richard Inder: Pessimism carries market price

Lighten up was the simple message from two of New Zealand's most important companies this week - and with good reason.

Fletcher Building chief executive Ralph Waters delivered the first salvo.

The country was in danger of talking itself into a recession, when in reality the picture was a lot better. Underlying demand remained strong, Waters said at his Wednesday half-year earnings presentation. The slowdown was necessary because the economy did not have the capacity to continue at the break-neck pace of the past few years.

"This country has just enjoyed the biggest boom it's ever seen," he said. "We are not staying awake at night."

Waters' views were yesterday echoed by NZX chief executive Mark Weldon. New Zealanders were too quick to get pessimistic.

"The risk premium New Zealanders place on New Zealand listed companies is quite different from the way offshore investors are willing to pay higher prices."

Interest charges, up after the Reserve Bank's increases to the official cash rate, would hurt. But the listed market was underpinned by demand from sectors such as dairying and the expansion in Government spending.

"The government sector charges on impervious to interest rates or exchange rates, and it is a big driver of business for the listed sector. The rural sector still has commodity prices quite high and exchange rates have come back 3 per cent or a little bit further."

It would be easy to dismiss the two executives' views as naked self-interest - talk to lift the shares of Fletcher Building and NZX. However, New Zealand companies are going cheap.

The sharemarket reaction to the Fletcher result illustrates the point.

The downturn in the Australasian residential market and the troubled international steel market knocked by a fifth underlying earnings at Fletcher's core building products division.

Yet the company still delivered a 4 per cent increase in earnings per share. And it upgraded its forecast full-year operating earnings, continuing a record of delivering returns on equity and funds employed that are in the top decile of the industry.

The reaction? Its shares fell 20c and, even before this fall, Fletcher's shares were trading at a sharp discount to its international peers.

Fletcher's earnings have grown strongly during the past few years, so investors may be cautious about what it can deliver sustainably. And New Zealand is at the bottom of the world, off the radar of the really big investors in London, New York and Tokyo.

But it still seems like pessimism upon pessimism.

Many New Zealand companies are in the same boat.

Meanwhile, despite the talk of the downturn, the appetite for takeovers remains strong. Billionaire Graeme Hart is in the last stages of taking control of Carter Holt Harvey, ING Property Trust is bidding for Calan Healthcare Properties, AMP is still bidding for Capital Properties and, if sentiment among corporate layers and investment bankers is any guide, more deals are in the wind.

New Zealand has an interest in a fairly priced market.

A failure to price Fletcher at least in line with its international peers hobbles its ability to compete, limiting its ability to use its shares for acquisitions.

It makes it vulnerable to a takeover or may prompt its emigration to a market such as Australia where its value could be recognised. Waters could easily justify such a move on defensive grounds as well as lifting shareholder returns. Takeovers are not to be welcome if the companies are going for a song, especially in a small market like New Zealand.

Each takeover (and departure) deprives the capital markets of fees that underwrite the necessary infrastructure for capital raising, investment banks, lawyers, accountants, advisers. And yes even financial journalists.

This is Weldon's concern and he is right to ask for a reality check.

Paul Thomas: Downfall of a sex symbol

It was a sight to make male baby boomers' blood run cold. A batty old woman glares out of a news photo. Her hair is lank and greying; her mouth sags as if she has suffered a stroke. Her world view is intolerant and xenophobic, her state of mind unutterably bleak. She much prefers animals to people.

She is Brigitte Bardot at 71.

After Marilyn Monroe took herself out of the picture, Bardot was the world's most potent sex symbol and thus prime fantasy fodder for males who underwent adolescence between 1955 and 1975. She was a Dream Girl with Gallic insouciance, whose flouting of convention made her a figurehead of the cultural revolution.

Like all enduring sex symbols, her appeal transcended her physical appearance - one critic described her as every man's idea of the girl he would like to meet in Paris - and the sway her image held over the male imagination wasn't dependent on talent or achievement.

In fact, her film career was, for the most part, eminently forgettable. Discovered at 15 by the director Roger Vadim, Bardot's early career mainly consisted of coy titillation designed to cash in on the fact that Hollywood was still locked in the puritanical choke-hold of the Hays Office, the legacy of a political hack from the bible belt named Will Hays who in 1922 effectively became chief censor and moral guardian with a brief to make movies safe for American children.

When anglicised with a nod and a wink and a snigger, the titles of her films spoke for themselves: The Girl in the Bikini, Nero's Mistress, Her Bridal Night, Naughty Girl,
Mamselle Striptease.

As well as being the high point of both their careers, Vadim's And God Created Women (1956) propelled Bardot to the forefront of pop culture where she remained for 20 years. There is a certain irony in the fact that a film which played a small but undeniable role in undermining organised religion's censorious influence on popular entertainment should have a title that the most ardent born-again morals crusader would wholeheartedly endorse.

Bardot's subsequent career was mostly dross. It didn't matter: she was BB. She was an icon so it didn't matter how bad her movies were. You didn't watch the movie; you watched her.

After divorcing Vadim, she worked her way through a succession of leading men and scalp-hunting playboys and was the catalyst for St Tropez's transformation from sleepy Mediterranean fishing village to hang-out for the beautiful people.

One of her final movies was that genuine cinematic oddity Shalako, a British-made Western in which she starred opposite Sean Connery. Bardot reportedly assumed Connery would bear some resemblance to his James Bond persona, a sort of male version of Hugh Grant, and was taken aback to discover that in the flesh he was a bald, working-class Scotsman.

In 1973, at the ripe old age of 39, BB announced she was retiring from show business to campaign for animal welfare. She embarked on a curious journey becoming a recluse, albeit with a menagerie, whose rare public pronouncements were tinged with world-weariness bordering on misanthropy - she described her only child as a tumour. They are, needless to say, estranged.

She became a supporter of Jean Marie Le Pen's far right National Front Party and took one of its leading lights as her fourth husband - although these days, it seems, he lags well behind her dogs in her affections. She released a book in which she raged against immigrants, homosexuals and Muslims and called for the return of the guillotine.

In some respects Bardot is the flip side of the coin to Jane Fonda, a woman with whom she has much in common, notably Vadim, who directed and married them both.

Fonda made her political marriage (to Tom Hayden, a student radical turned state politician) earlier rather than later but after years of trying to live down her Hanoi Jane image, she is upsetting people all over again, this time by speaking out against America's involvement in Iraq.

Although an accomplished actor, Fonda had her sex symbol moment courtesy, of course, of Vadim. Barbarella, his 1967 adaptation of an adult comic strip, pretty much boiled down to the leading lady slipping in and out of her skimpy fetish-wear to engage in sex of anything but the meat-and-potatoes variety. One of her trysts is with a character played by Anita Pallenberg, lover of no fewer than three Rolling Stones.

Vadim, who died in 2000, could perhaps be regarded as the thinking man's Hugh Hefner. His body of work is unlikely to gain him a place in the directors' pantheon, but he must be acknowledged as one of the great womanisers of his era.

He was married five times - to four actresses (the others were Annette Stroyberg and Marie-Christine Barrault) and an heiress, which many men might regard as the recipe for a perfect life. He also fathered a child by Catherine Deneuve.

Not one for false modesty, he called his autobiography From One Star to the Next.