Friday, February 24, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

Todd Shepherd is a farmer in Hamilton who thinks he has solved Auckland's transport woes. He has spoken to Land Transport, who've given him figures and he could be on to something. "Twenty per cent of cars are without warrants in Auckland," he says. "That's about 800,000 cars." Todd says getting that number off the congested roads can be done simply by making it illegal to pump fuel into cars without a wof. "This would eliminate many cars from the road ... much like LPG cars have expiry dates on them."

* * *

A reader writes: "To the man on the boat, fishing between Browns Island and Motuihe Island on Saturday morning. If you don't read Sideswipe, I'm sure you've told people you know about me, just as I have told my friends about you. So I am sure you will hear about this in a roundabout way. I am the person who warned you about keeping the undersized fish you were catching. You responded with abuse, which I expected but ignored. I was pleased to see the next undersized fish was returned to the sea. However, every fish you subsequently caught, you held up for my benefit and yelled, 'Is this undersized?' ... over and over, just in case I didn't hear you. My question to you is: Do you really think your behaviour is a good example to the two young people on your boat?"

* * *

Nice work if you can get it: The presidency may have been a trial, what with promiscuous interns and the threat of impeachment, but safely out of the White House former POTUS Bill Clinton can't be unhappy with this current gig. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Bill pockets a US$180,100 ($273,000) a year pension, paid monthly, office space wherever in the US he wants it, a staff allowance of US$96,000 and the American taxpayer digs deep for his travel, phone and postal costs. Plus, he has the right to be treated in military hospitals, gets Secret Service protection for life and a big swanky state funeral. But all this official income is peanuts compared to his other earnings. It would be fair to say Bill is no schmuck when it comes to working the post presidency brand for all it's worth. On top of his US$12 millon advance for book royalties, there is the lucrative speaking circuit. In one month he has earned US$1.45 million by speaking in Florida, Utah, New York, Canada, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. With money like that, you'd think he could shell out for his own security heavies.

* * *

A joke: A man is at the bar, drunk. I pick him up off the floor, and offer to take him home. On the way to my car, he falls down three times. When I get to his house, I help him out of the car, and on the way to the front door, he falls down four more times. I ring the bell, and say, "Here's your husband!" The man's wife says, "Where's his wheelchair?"

Editorial: Origin plan must be thrown out

Contact Energy's minority shareholders have not been meek followers of trends during the company's relatively short but rarely dull existence. They have twice rejected takeover offers that would have seen Contact become yet another New Zealand concern sold to overseas interests at a knockdown price. Contact's subsequent share price performance has vouched for their wisdom. Now, they must vote on what amounts to another takeover proposal. This time, however, their verdict will have as powerful a bearing on this country's future energy framework as their own financial wellbeing.

Australia's Origin Energy, which owns 51 per cent of Contact, is proposing a merger by way of a dual-listed company structure, the first of its kind in this part of the world. The new entity, to be known as ContactOrigin, would be run by a common board and unified senior management team. Control of what is now New Zealand's second-biggest listed company would be exercised from Australia.

It is easy to see the attraction of Contact to Origin, especially in terms of access to strong cashflow. Contact's health was again illustrated on the day the proposed takeover was announced, when it reported a 57 per cent higher $146.6 million net profit for the December half-year.

The stability and strong prospects of a generating and retailing operation offer an attractive counterbalance to Origin's heavy involvement in the fickle business of oil and gas exploration.

It is far more difficult to see the benefit of Origin's proposal, either to Contact's 95,000 minority shareholders or to New Zealand. With considerable justification, Origin has been criticised for planning to take over Contact without paying a premium for control. Its response is that, based on shareholders' past attitude, a cash offer would not succeed. That, of course, might change if a fair offer was placed on the table.

In terms of the national perspective, Origin has sugar-coated its proposal by suggesting it would prompt more exploration in this country. With Maui gas due to expire early next decade, Contact and New Zealand have a huge interest in the sourcing of future power station supplies. Yet this was known by Origin when it took its shareholding in mid-2004. The two companies are already strongly aligned, and there is little to suggest a takeover would heighten Origin's exploration activity.

Indeed, and most worryingly, it is making noises about the new source of supply being imported liquefied natural gas. Foisting that on the country may suit Origin's corporate agenda but it would be hugely unfortunate, not least for consumers. The price of LNG is inextricably linked to the international oil market. New Zealand would become dependent on that market for the generation of domestic electricity, with all the pricing and exchange rate turbulence that involves.

A plumping for LNG could also foreclose investigation of domestic answers to the energy sourcing quandary. Out of the picture would be the likes of South Island coal using modern clean technology, wind power and other sources of renewable energy, and more intensive exploration for gas. These possibilities, individually and as part of a co-ordinated strategy, merit serious consideration before the risks and expense implicit in LNG are embraced.

New Zealanders have long been cosseted by Maui gas. The importance of the replacement strategy can hardly be overstated. It is not one that should be made on the basis of corporate profit. Origin's takeover proposal bodes ill for this country. It also offers nothing to Contact shareholders. It should be rejected.

Peter Griffin: Skype rattling the cage of traditional telecoms

I held the man's business card, studying it closely. There was something unusual about it. It wasn't the lavish felt back to the card or the embossed, crossed tennis rackets that acted as his company's logo that seemed strange.

It was the letters and numbers printed between his landline number and that of his mobile phone. The guy had printed his Skype username on his business card.

Skype, for those of you who have yet to join the revolution, is a free computer-to-computer telephone service that is beginning to scare the hell out of the old-school telecoms operators who rely on fat monthly phone rental and toll call profits to prop up their dying monopolies.

It's one of those great levelling technologies, like the Google search engine, that puts something powerful and free into the hands of the masses.

And Skype's not just for geeks. My dad uses it daily. My uncle in Ireland can't live without it. I don't know what an international toll bill looks like any more. I recently had Skype trawl the couple of hundred contacts in my Outlook Express email address book and was amazed that 60 acquaintances came back as being Skype members.

Now my laptop makes a ringing sound at all hours of the night and day as various Skype contacts in different time zones see my perpetual online status and try to get through to me.

The Skype software is quick, easy and free to download. I have a 256 kilobit a second entry-level broadband connection and Skype runs like a dream over it. I use a $30 headset to talk into and can even plug in my web camera to set up a one- or two-way video link with the caller. I can set up a five-way conference call and the Skype software lets me know who is calling and what calls I've missed.

No wonder the guy from New York with the felt business card is on Skype. It is in many ways a business-grade product.

And here's why. In the world of Skype, your voice is turned into ones and zeros and fed across the internet, treated just like any other data traffic. It doesn't travel across dedicated circuits as it does when you use the regular telephone network, so it is therefore susceptible to the quirks of internet architecture.

But compression technology used by Skype and the growing use of broadband internet connections among its users have combined to boost its quality.

The traditional telecoms model can't work with Skype because the Telecoms and Telstras of this world carry your voice call as plain old internet traffic. They charge you for your internet connection but the meter is well and truly off when it comes to the length of calls.

That in itself is pretty amazing but Skype has already gone much further. If you buy Skype pre-paid credit you can make calls to regular telephones for rates that are in line with most of the cut-price toll call operators. You can also buy a voice mail service.

Last week I did something especially interesting with Skype. I put the software on my mobile phone, which runs on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system. I wasn't expecting much and it took a while to set up, but my maiden Skype mobile call went through perfectly. The Skype client has been shrunk down to fit on your phone but all the same functions are there. I had a conversation with a friend in London on my mobile phone without making a mobile phone call.

Instead, I used the internet connection on my phone. You'll need to be on at least a mid-sized monthly data plan (50 megabyte allowance) to make this affordable and you should always turn off the Skype client and your data connection when you're not using them.

If you feel you're out of your depth on any of this, surf to the website Skype Tips, which covers just about everything you can do with Skype. Not everyone has a phone with Microsoft software on it but the signs are good that mobile network operators, resigned to the inevitable, are going to accommodate Skype.

Third-generation mobile operator Hutchison, which co-owns the 3 network in Australia with Telecom, is trialling Skype over its network.

Hutchison's Swedish arm is also offering a flat-rate data service, mobile data card and Skype bundle for laptop users wanting to make calls on the move. Hutchison is now trying to persuade phone makers to include the Skype software on their handsets.

The future of broadband and mobile is all-you-can-eat data packages designed to support services such as Skype. The sooner our telco operators realise that and kiss their data caps and metered calls goodbye, the better.

Te Radar: And just what do you think's so funny?

What is funny, in any sense, about a cartoon that has a woman's menstrual blood blown into the face of the Pope? asked Prime Minister Helen Clark, on the television news earlier this week.

I watched incredulously as Our Leader remained straight-faced while posing this deeply philosophical question. Her deadpan performance was the most hilarious part of the whole tiresome "Bloody Mary" saga.

Clearly the plethora of journalists and advisers present considered it a rhetorical question, as none of them sought to illuminate Her as to where the humour was to be found.

Perhaps none of them knew, or if they did know, they couldn't find the words to express what exactly it was that some people found humorous.

That's the thing about humour: Sometimes you can't explain why something is funny. People do however persist in trying to define what is comic.

I once had the good fortune to attend a NZ on Air symposium to hear their findings about what it was that New Zealanders collectively found funny. Somewhat surprisingly this information was able to be portrayed on a graph.

There is nothing like a Government agency to narrow the seemingly intangible down to a mathematical formula.

The high point of the day, at least prior to the bar opening, occurred when one of the Government women pointed at a lopsided oblong, located over the center of the graphs axis, and stated to the assembled masses, "You need to be making comedy inside this area here."

It was at this point that her eyes were drawn to one of the attendees, from whose lips had been wrenched an involuntary snort.

This outburst could have been considered either an expression of a dawning realisation, intellectual shock, contemptuous derisiveness, or an amalgam of the three.

However the Mistress of the Ministry and the other assembled attendees interpreted it, I didn't really like the way they were all looking at me.

I endeavoured to stifle any more spontaneous exclamations, while discretely attempting to remove the nasal discharge that was the physical manifestation of my disbelief.

As I did this, all I could think was: But I have been on buses with more than 66 people on board.

Some may wonder why it was that I was struck by this thought, when I should have been trying to figure out where to wipe my hands. There was a valid reason. The survey, which would form the basis of NZ on Air funding decisions relating to comedy for the next few years, had been conducted on a mere 66 people.

According to the graph, what the 66 people wanted was comedy that was adventurous and intellectual, while being entertaining and familiar.

Of the 66 people surveyed, I tremulously queried, how many simply wanted their comedy to be funny?

It transpired that someone had neglected to put that question on the list.

Regrettably none was asked the Prime Minister's question. They may not have known the answer, but at least we may have discovered where the scene fitted on the graph.

Brian Rudman: Transport gurus can't see the rails for the visions

Maybe if the bureaucrats and politicians stopped having so many visions about how to solve the transport crisis and just kick-started a few bulldozers into action, we'd begin to get somewhere.

This week there's lots of wailing about a $1 billion budgetary shortfall in Land Transport New Zealand's 10-year construction vision. Wouldn't it make more sense to celebrate the $21 billion they say is available and start spending it? These budgetary wishlists are always exercises in make-believe anyway - particularly in the realms of civil engineering.

Yesterday I was flicking through my Auckland rail files and came across the following exercise in fantasy. Dated as recently as August 2002, it should have all concerned blushing very brightly.

Entitled, "The Auckland Regional Rail Project", the authors proudly declared: "The region's vision for the rail project is to have modern trains running to modern stations every 10 minutes, by 2006." This exercise in fantasy included 25-30 new trains, double-tracking of the western line, upgraded signalling ... blah de blah.

Nearly three months into 2006 and there's not a new train in sight. Indeed, we're still debating who will pay for them and whether they will be electric or diesel or powered by rubber bands. As for double-tracking, only a small section between Boston Rd and Morningside is finished. Now the line upgrade is stalled, after its takeover by government agency On Track.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves on. Take the Onehunga branch line, which, despite the lack of enthusiasm by the region's rail bureaucrats, both Auckland City and Auckland regional politicians want re-opened. Last year the ARC and ACC included the reopening of the Onehunga line as a goal in their respective annual plans.

A fine vision, but now Auckland City must back it with action. Since September it has been sitting on an application for resource consent to build 203 apartments on the Onehunga Mall property earmarked by rail enthusiasts as the ideal site for a new train station.

Presently occupied by a building supplies merchant, the former railways land was sold off in the great privatisation excesses of the late 1980s-early 1990s. Near the abandoned rail line, alongside the main street and just across the road from a bus terminus, it is the obvious station site. But in all the visioning, no one thought to secure it for this purpose.

The owner wants to build a multi-use development of up to five levels, consisting of five blocks and a two-level carpark. The planners have requested a traffic report from the applicants. Then the politicians will have to decide whether it will be rubber-stamped unnotified or put out for public consultation. We can only hope the politicians, and the planners advising them, are aware of the new statutory requirements placed upon them by the Local Government (Auckland) Amendment Act 2004.

One of the two main purposes of that act is "to require Auckland local authorities ... to integrate the land transport and land use provisions" of policy statements and plans "prepared under the Resource Management Act".

It's a requirement that could have been written to cover the present situation.

An obvious compromise would be an arrangement with the developer to build an integrated development combining the rail station with the apartment project. But what should be obvious is that this crucial transport site cannot be let slide out of public reach while the transport gurus sit around having visions.

The confusing thing is that in all their visioning, the Onehunga branch line has never captured the rail planners' imagination. Perhaps the problem is that it's just too cheap and obvious for them.

But even in recommending no further investigations into the project in a feasibility report to the ARC in April 2004, the boffins had to admit the existing line, Auckland's first rail line, could be brought back to life, with three new stations installed, for a capital cost between $3.5 million and $10.7 million.

They conceded it would be possible to run a two-trains-an-hour service, taking just over 19 minutes to get from Onehunga to the Britomart station downtown. With the gentrifying of Onehunga increasing apace and road congestion growing by the day, re-opening this unused transport corridor seems a no-brainer. It would be a disaster if that penny dropped after the station site got covered by apartments.

Jim Hopkins: 'Legitimate satire' a flimsy leg to stand on

Menstruation
Masturbation
Sodomy galore
Family fun for
Everyone
Tune to Channel 4
There's thuggery
And buggery
And coprophagia too
Tell your mommy
Tell your pop
Get them to watch with you!!!!!
Yes, everyone should switch across
Become an avid viewer
It's Canada's gift to Kiwi kids -
An electronic sewer!!!!!!

Gosh, that naughty old satirist (and extinguished poet laureate) Mr Jam Hipkins ought to wash his mouth out with soap, n'est pas?

Fancy mocking nice, mild, non-aligned people like Canadians. It's downright rude. No one in their right mind would pick on Canadians. They're much too boring. Canadians don't do horrid, war-mongering, aggressive things like those b****y Y***s.

No, they do nice, bland, dreary things like running television channels (in New Zealand, anyway). Or becoming the Chief Censor (in New Zealand, anyway).

And merely because the New Zealand/Canadian Chief Censor has previously banned at least one religious videotape because it insulted, demeaned and ridiculed gays, it would be utterly improper for Mr Hipkins - or others of his irreverent ilk - to argue he should've also banned that episode of South Park on the grounds it did the same to Catholics.

Mr Hipkins must understand that Catholics are fair game. It's not as if they're Muslims or anything. They've got to learn to take a joke.

So it would be irresponsible and gratuitous if Mr Hipkins - or any other alleged wag - were to suggest the only reason the Canadian/New Zealand Chief Censor didn't ban that South Park episode was because it would prevent a Canadian/New Zealand television channel making money by broadcasting it!

That could easily provoke a backlash and could inflame relationships between real people and Canadians. It could cause a generally decent, non-violent minority group much distress.

It's no use Mr Hipkins arguing that any such declaration is "legitimate satire".

He could equally argue that defecating on the carpet of the Canadian Parliament is a "legitimately satiric" way to protest political corruption in that benighted realm, but most people would simply say it was a rude and offensive act that disregarded the feelings of his hosts.

Sure, we're lucky to live in an advanced Banana monarchy where the police are never going to prosecute any current government for tickling the till, but that wouldn't excuse Mr Hipkins - or any other "legitimate satirists", even if they screened their comfort stop on telly!!!

He and his giggling chums need to realise that the only reasonable criticism of the nice Canadian man in charge of the nice Canadian channel is that he, and it, did not go far enough in pursuit of "legitimate satire".

To begin with, they could possibly be satirised for not showing the offending portion of the offending episode on their news programmes. After all, it met all the criteria raised by the Muhammad drawings.

Both were cartoons, after all. In both cases, great issues of free speech were involved, not to mention debate about the propriety of publication. The South Park material was available through other sources - like the internet. And the prospect of its broadcast also caused great offence and threats of economic reprisal - although those were, courageously, nipped in the bud by CanWest's decision to transmit early.

Indeed, in every respect (assuming we can use that word in the Canadian context) this was Allah with a rosary.

Mr Hipkins - and similar sneerful snufflers - might wonder why the emphatic Mr Friesen didn't insist his news bulletins screen the contentious material.

After all, his channel did decide, in the other cartoon case, that broadcasting the images was essential for the public to understand the issues but for some, as yet undisclosed reason, the obligations that apply when the publisher is a Danish newspaper don't extend to Canadian television channels.

Equally, Mr Hipkins - and his mocksome buddies - might rightly complain that Channel 4's "legitimate satire" was actually far too timid.

In this part of the world, at least, satirising the Catholic church is a bit like calling yourself brave because you've beaten up an old guy in the Pak'nSave carpark.

Until it re-invents itself, the Church's influence is almost as minimal as the Anglicans, whose curious silence this week suggests they felt the debate didn't involve a major Christian icon - like the Treaty of Waitangi.

The point is, if C4 were going to be "legitimately satiric" they should've aimed at our real religion. Because we're all e-theists now, devout environment worshippers who prostrate ourselves before this mysterious entity with an awe and guilt that would be the envy of our medieval predecessors.

A few Greenpeace members torturing whales - now that's "legitimate satire"!!!!

Instead, we're left with a distasteful backlash triggered by yobbos like Mr Hipkins who seems perfectly willing to mock Canadians for his own commercial gain by making sport of maple leaves, Mounties, Eskimos and indeed everything this inoffensive group holds dear by provocatively insisting he's entitled to publish outrageous doggerel like this:

In Canada, our quest for cash
Will never ever cease
So we'll happily make a buck or two
By mocking the plinth of peace

Well, for heavens sake! What next? Buddha abusing himself? A Canadian in a condom at Te Papa? Are we now so numb that no article of faith can inspire the exercise of taste? Best ask CanWest.

Tracey Barnett: Cheney's legacy on the line

Behind every quail-hunting joke is a US vice-president everyone is still scared of, even after shooting season is finished. That may be the dubious career-end tribute to Dick Cheney when the lame duck jokes die down.

Renowned for what some would call Darth Vader diplomacy, never before has the US office of vice-president seen the lofty heights of the "Cheney Administration's" unchecked political power. Never before has such a traditionally ineffectual office manipulated that power with such middle finger-gesturing to domestic and international law, many contend.

His secret? Unaccountability - and an astounding talent for quietly working the margins of legality through the back door. The strategic pulse of this presidency beats in the chest of a man with chronic heart disease. Because he isn't running in 2008, Cheney has worn the untouchable "Elder Statesmen / I'm policy not politics" button emblazoned across his chest.

It is the ultimate red herring and has worked, beautifully. Many underestimated his passionate policy agenda hidden behind a dispassionate backseat demeanour.

It began four presidents before Cheney found George W. Bush the perfect foil for his unflinching vision. For more than three decades, Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz and Cheney in various configurations have worked to concentrate unchecked presidential power, subvert an unwieldy CIA they have never trusted, and promote pre-emptive military action.

Each time their vision stalled. Each time their president chose a more centrist path, until now. Today, the non-electable vice-president is the voice defending unwarranted domestic wiretapping and torture policy in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan. The Cheney Administration's specialties have ranged from designing a brilliant attack on John Kerry's Swift boat patriotism to planting Republican operatives in the press corps.

Politics doesn't enjoy context or backstory. But if Cheney and his cabal are making history today, it is because it has been boiling for a political generation.

Ever heard of Michael Maloof or David Wurmser? Unlikely, as these two men worked in a windowless, cipher-locked room tucked away in the Pentagon. They were known as the "Iraqi Intelligence Cell". Their job? Connecting the dots between Iraq and al Qaeda. Maloof was a former journalist and Wurmser a veteran of neo-con think tanks. Neither man had formal training in intelligence analysis. The one thing they did have was the ear of Rumsfeld and the vice-president's office.

It was from their now highly suspect intelligence that these two men told the Cheney Administration what they wanted to hear - justification for war, justification even the CIA wasn't buying.

Murray Waas in the National Journal reports Cheney writing in the margin of a report linking Iraq to al Qaeda, "This is very good indeed, encouraging - not like the crap we are all so used to getting out of CIA".

Now cut to a different administration, a different war, but the same players: Bush snr's pending entanglement in the Gulf War. This time, Secretary of Defence Cheney created "Operation Scorpion", a similar secret intelligence operation set up to develop an alternative war plan behind Colin Powell's back.

In Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, James Mann cites Cheney instructing Wolfowitz, "Set up a team, and don't tell Powell or anybody else". He describes how Cheney took the plan to the President while Powell was out of the country. The elder Bush ultimately rejected it, but Norman Schwarzkopf was enraged at Cheney's actions.

This backdoor knife fight has a precedent, during the Ford Administration. Chief of Staff Rumsfeld brought back his former assistant in the cut-throat Nixon White House, Dick Cheney, to be his right hand on intelligence.

Sidney Blumenthal of Salon reports how, in what is now known as the "Halloween Massacre", Rumsfeld and Cheney orchestrated a cabinet purge that made Rumsfeld secretary of defence and Cheney White House chief of staff. They also brought in like-minded George Bush snr to run the CIA.

From this vantage they set up an alternative intelligence unit outside the CIA to challenge Kissinger's policy of detente with the Soviets. This time they called it "Team B". Sound familiar?
"Team B", "Operation Scorpion" and "The Iraqi Intelligence Cell" each were set up by men who didn't want to hear what the CIA was telling them.

Each time they created a special covert intelligence unit outside the CIA to bolster the political vision of Cheney and his colleagues. Each time they did it under the radar and through the back door.

Many speculate that outing CIA agent Valerie Plame was just another Cheney stab at an unco-operative CIA which wasn't drum-beating Cheney's war message. His vision has been clean, if his methods have not. Dick Cheney now presides over what history may regard as one of the most power-driven US vice-presidencies ever.

Today the vice-president is not just defending his actions in a hunting accident or the pending court case against one of his own, Scooter Libby - or even his war path to Iraq. Cheney is fighting for his political legacy. This is the beginning of the end of his finest hour.

* Tracey Barnett is an American journalist working in Auckland.

Cathy Wright: Pollution solution - it's in the bag

As well as having a love affair with oil as fuel for cars, New Zealanders have a love affair with oil - in the form of plastic shopping bags.

We use 800 million bags each year which works out at around 200 bags per head per year.

Plastic bags are a major and growing environmental concern in New Zealand and around the world.

Plastic bags made of polyethylene take hundreds of years to decompose. They waste oil; litter waterways, beaches and reserves; pose a threat to wildlife, especially marine life; fill landfills unnecessarily; and release toxic gases when burnt.

In Bangladesh, plastic bags blocking drains have caused severe flooding during monsoons. In the once pristine Himalayas, plastic bags flutter over the foothills. Marine animals (especially turtles) and birds are killed by plastic they mistake for jellyfish and squid.

A minke whale washed up on a beach in northern France had 800kg of plastic bags and other packaging in its stomach.

Discarded plastic bags have become so common they have acquired nicknames: in South Africa they are roadside daisies, in China white pollution and in Ireland witches' knickers.

In New Zealand plastic bags litter our coastal, rural and urban environments. They also endanger marine life, including the rare Hector's dolphin.

Plastic-bag pollution also undermines the clean, green image promoted to tourists and the bags contribute to our trade deficit as 90 per cent of them are imported.

In order to reduce these negative impacts it is necessary to address the problem of excessive use. The good news is that, unlike some other environmental problems, the solutions are simple.

Humans are degrading and destroying most of the earth's natural ecosystems, so anything we can do to reduce pressure on the ecological systems that support life has to be a good thing.

Several countries have taken action to tackle plastic-bag pollution. Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2002 and this has reduced their use by more than 90 per cent; the UK is thinking of following suit.

In Canada, most supermarket chains collect bags for recycling. In 2002, Bangladesh banned plastic bags because they were clogging drains and increasing the risk of flooding, and introduced a $15 on-the-spot fine for using a plastic bag. Many other countries are taking steps to reduce plastic-bag use and find alternatives that are cheap and practical.

Some say the answer lies in biodegradable plastic bags - e.g. ones made of natural polymers such as cornstarch, cellulose and calcium carbonate. If there were more restrictions on the use of plastic, it is possible new technology could play a large part in solving the problem.

However, there are problems with some bio-plastics as they don't always decompose properly or quickly enough. Some alternative products break down into flakes which can harm wildlife, and a degradable bag looks as much like a jellyfish to a dolphin as a non-degradable one.

Recycling is another option. Some New Zealand supermarkets collect plastic bags for recycling, but perhaps they need to do more to advertise this and actively encourage recycling.

The Christchurch City Council collects plastic shopping bags as part of its recycling collection and they are turned into plastic planks for pallets and boxing. It would help if more councils collected and recycled plastic bags in this way.

Manufacturers could also be required to have a minimum amount of recycled material in plastic shopping bags.

New technologies and recycling initiatives are, however, no substitute for reducing our over-use of plastic bags in the first place. Once people are aware of the negative environmental impacts of plastic bags, they often look for alternatives.

Consumer education and campaigns can do much to raise awareness of the problems and encourage shoppers to change their habits. In Ireland, for example, the public overwhelmingly supported a levy on plastic bags. After the levy was introduced there was an immediate and dramatic reduction in the use of plastic shopping bags.

In New Zealand, Pak'nSave's 10c charge for each bag has also resulted in shoppers making less use of plastic bags.

Even without a levy, it's possible to achieve dramatic changes in consumer behaviour.

Consumer education by the Golden Bay Bag Ladies - a group of women concerned about plastic bag pollution in their area - has reduced plastic-bag use in Golden Bay by 50 per cent.

Most people know plastic bags are a problem, are concerned about it and just need a little encouragement to reduce their own use. So what are some of the alternatives?

Cloth bags, designed by the Auckland Waste Managers Forum, are available in many supermarkets, and all the councils in Auckland sell these bags through their council offices and libraries. The bags are made out of unbleached cotton.

The Green Bag Foundation also provides an alternative in the form of the Green Bag which is made from recyclable materials. Ten cents from each bag sold goes towards supporting community groups which are involved in waste-minimisation projects.

You can also reduce your use of plastic bags by asking checkout operators to put more items in one bag or refusing bags for items that already have their own wrapping, e.g. nappies and bags of apples.

Shopping can also be loaded from shopping trolleys into a cardboard box or laundry basket and from there unloaded into the kitchen.

Solutions for New Zealand include raising awareness of the issues, introducing a levy on plastic bags supplied by shops, requiring bags to have a minimum amount of recycled material, supporting the development of bio-plastic materials and encouraging use of sustainable alternatives such as paper bags, cotton bags, the Green Bag and boxes.

Most of these positive measures to tackle excessive plastic-bag consumption are possible, practical and cheap. We can all make simple choices that still allow us to meet our own needs without damaging our environment. Start today.

* Cathy Wright is a freelance researcher and writer.

Graham Reid: Noses trained on Bordeaux

All you can hope for is maybe 20 or 30 good vintages - and then you die," said Thibault with a laugh and a Gallic shrug.

It was sunset and we were standing on the patio of La Tour des Cigares, the leathery cigar bar at the top of the hotel, watching the beautiful vineyard before us being embraced by the night.

Thibault was one of a dozen young winemakers from the region who came for dinner and presented some of his wine at the luxurious and impossibly picturesque spa hotel-cum-winery Les Sources de Caudalie, some 15 minutes south of Bordeaux.

Just six years ago the new owners, who bought the place in 1990, opened the spa hotel made from old salvaged timber which made it complement the adjacent chateau built in 1739. Already the place - which has two restaurants and is consistently acclaimed by the likes of Conde Nast Traveller as one of the best spa hotels in the world - looked 100 years old, but of course was luxurious to the point of heavenly.

It was here the young winemakers came for dinner - an extraordinary meal which included superb and barely cooked veal, a gratin of truffles, icecream made from champignon mushrooms - and wines.

Plenty of wines. Bottle after bottle, as the winemakers presented the best of their cellars for the discerning palates.

"There is no money in wine," laughed Thibault, noting that the owners of Les Source de Caudalie probably made more from their spa, hotel and beauty products than they did from the labour-intensive vineyard where grapes were picked and sorted by hand.

"There are too many vineyards here maybe, and the laws in Bordeaux are very strict."

He outlined regulations against irrigation and other such things, then went off to find more wine.

Like everyone, he did the customary nose and palate test, but having satisfied himself as to the wine's characteristics, he happily knocked back glass after glass.

Much beautiful wine was drunk this night, but there was also an agenda: to launch an initiative to counter the prevailing opinion about Bordeaux, that it was all old men lording it over the region.

These winemakers, vineyard owners and managers were mostly in their 30s, and a third of them were women.

They were educated and well-travelled - Thibault had worked in vineyards in California and New Zealand - and they had common problems and a few common complaints: for example, that wine writers were usually in their 50s and 60s, and that all the best sommeliers were in their 30s, if not younger.

The difference between their palates was a big problem, but what to do?

Over dinner and drinks it was apparent that no matter how glamorous it looked, owning a vineyard was hard work and no one was going to get rich, especially in much-maligned Bordeaux, where there was a glut of wines. Death duty and taxes made sure of that, said Thibault.

"But then again, you get to see things grow - and you make something nice for people ... and," he said raising a glass of deep red liquor to his lips, "you get to drink excellent wine and have a good lifestyle."

Stock takes: Making Contact

By Liam Dann

A few days to digest the detail of Origin's grand merger plan with Contact Energy haven't helped local investors warm to the idea.

The merger plan would give Contact shares a value of about $7 but they closed yesterday at $7.30, indicating that a premium exists based on expectations that Origin will have to sweeten the deal.

Local brokers are sounding unusually patriotic about Contact's wonderful New Zealand assets. Values like $10 a share are being talked about - at least half seriously - and there is a strong belief $8 or more is realistic.

Of course, this isn't actually a takeover so Origin and Contact would need to completely restructure the deal to meet those expectations. Otherwise, they could look at improving the bonus share offer or increasing special dividends to make the whole thing more appealing.

Kiwi investors love this company; they saw off a serious takeover bid by Edison Mission in 2001.

At first glance, Contact's ownership structure suggests that mum and dad shareholders will have little sway over the final decision - 75 per cent of the company is held by just 30 big investors.

But that doesn't make it a done deal, says one local fund manager. If small shareholders don't like it, then it will take only a few key funds to hold their ground to throw a real spanner in the works.


RMG rebirth

Further to last week's tip that there might be some small relief on the way for shareholders in listed debt collector RMG, a general meeting has been called for March 22 (in Melbourne). Subject to a shareholder vote, there is a plan to hand control to Perth-based Ascent Capital - a company which specialises in the reconstruction and recapitalisation of existing listed companies.

The idea is to recapitalise the company, get rid of debt and then carry out a restructuring that will allow RMG to look for new acquisitions in the debt management field.

An Eric Watson creation, RMG was an amalgamation of 22 small debt collection agencies. It never took off and ended up in receivership last year.

A reconstructed RMG would have capital of about A$1 million but the share issues needed to make it all happen would leave it with a value of just 0.35c a share.

While it was trading at 2.2c a share when it was suspended from the stock exchange last April, the real value of the shares is nil, the receivers say in the notice of meeting.

If the deal is approved, Ascent will end up with a 94 per cent stake.


Beachfront empire

Waiheke residents report the Hanover Group's Mark Hotchin is looking to expand his already sizeable beachfront stamping ground on the island.

Hotchin - business partner to Eric Watson and co-owner of the Warriors - hit the headlines a few months ago when he paid nearly $14 million for his 4ha property at Boatshed Bay, near Palm Beach.

Residents say Hotchin - whose wealth was estimated at $400 million in the NBR Rich List - has made "blank cheque" offers to his neighbours. One couple decided not to surrender their piece of paradise but the other said "just give me time to pack", or words to that effect.


The broadband debate

It is fair to say Telecom feels it's been getting a hard time from the media lately over the issue of broadband access.

So it must have been relieved to see Business Roundtable head Rob McLeod sticking up for it this week with a column in the Dominion Post.

Too bad the Dom forgot to disclose that McLeod is also on the Telecom board.

The beleaguered telco has another champion of sorts in Christchurch-based anti-globalisation group CAFCA.

The group has once again nominated Telecom as a finalist for "Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand".

It must be heartening for Team Gattung that someone still considers the company to be a "transnational". But surely its inclusion with the likes of British American Tobacco is a little flattering and more than a little over the top.

While they can be pretty frustrating, slow internet speeds have yet to be conclusively linked to death.

Telecom shares closed at $5.37 yesterday, down 7c.


Insurance boom

Nearly two months into the year and one sector has already broken clear of the pack when it comes to share-price growth.

As of yesterday, the top two stocks on the NZSX-50 are dual-listed Australasian insurance companies. Promina and AMP are both up nearly 16 per cent. AXA is also soaring - up 13.5 per cent and fourth on the list. The life insurance sector has been booming in Australia for some time - it grew 10 per cent last year.

But these stocks are also big investment companies and, inevitably, do well on the back of strong market performance, an Australian sector analyst says.

The fact that they are so far ahead of the rest of the market this year is probably due to investors playing catch-up, he says.

With that in mind, potential buyers should be aware that these stock are fully priced.


Looking good on paper

Speculation is growing that Graeme Hart and his Rank Group team are gearing up for a move on the Australian paper and packaging sector - presumably to leverage off the purchase of Carter Holt Harvey.

Hart's likely targets have been tipped as Amcor and PaperlinX - two companies that have been having a tough time in a market that is generally considered to be in dire need of consolidation.

Both reported big drops in half-year profit yesterday.

It looks as if all the stars are in alignment for Hart - a struggling, out-of-favour sector, synergy gains to be grabbed thanks to an already large foothold in the industry and the possibility of more acquisitions and consolidation down the track.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it seems obvious now that Hart must have always been looking at the bigger Australasian picture when he set off on his CHH adventure last year.

Actually, when it comes to Hart's dealings, a lot of things seem obvious in hindsight - guess that's why he's the billionaire.

If the rumours are true, then PaperlinX chief executive Tom Park won't know whether to laugh or cry.

Park was chief executive at Goodman Fielder when Hart's Burns Philp took it over in 2002 - briefly. So he has already been sacked once by the Kiwi billionaire. And why would he laugh? Well, he walked away with A$2.5 million in severance pay.


Slowly roasting

The private sales of local food brands Tegel and Griffins are moving slower than the sellers would like.

The sale of Tegel, in particular, is taking an unusually long time to complete, considering the deal for Pacific Equity Partners to buy it from Heinz was announced in December.

The delay is prompting interested food-sector observers to wonder if something has gone awry.

Danone's sale of biscuit-maker Griffins is still chugging along, albeit at a gentle pace. It is understood that at least one prospective buyer has dropped out of the race, leaving three private equity players crunching the numbers.

However, the shadow of Graeme Hart is hanging over the sale. The harder it is to sell, the more likely it is that Hart will be interested in joining the party.