Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sideswipe

Being the first booze shop in the phone book may not be the best thought-out strategy for this Mt Albert Rd retailer

By Ana Samways

A letter to the Waitomo News last week suggests the armed offenders squad needs to be more focused on public safety: "5am ... I am woken to, 'Come out with your hands on your head! We have a search warrant to search these premises'," writes "Appalled of Piopio". The woman saw police and the armed offenders squad on her neighbours' front lawn. "I went to wake my eldest girl ... She peeked out her curtain and said , 'Ooh, Mum, there's a man out my window having a pee'," reads the letter. A few minutes later, the peeing man was gone but his gun was unmanned and leaning up against her hedge. "He was at the back of my section 23 metres from his rifle where he had left it unattended for 20 minutes ... I could have run out to the gun. I was closer to it than he was." Waikato police operations manager Inspector John Kelly told the Waitomo News the need to urinate does occur when staff work for long periods in cordon positions and apologises if it was done indiscreetly. Regarding the unmanned rifle, Kelly suggested the writer might have seen "another item leaning against the hedge".

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Shopping at Albany Pak'n Save, Helena Smith was surprised to see real chicken feather dusters hanging up for sale. "All feathers make me wonder these days, so I read the label. Made in China. From vaccinated hens? Or are they sterilised at Customs by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry? If so, do I still need to take all the precautions against avian flu, or is New Zealand way ahead on the case? Think I'll skip the housework for a bit, anyway."

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Time on their side? The Rolling Stones are heading our way. Here's what the Herald said about the concert by the English "pop singers" who played Auckland's Civic on this day in 1966:

"Scores of police and security men were on hand after the English pop singers had been mauled during their act in Wellington on Monday night but they were hardly needed.

"The Rolling Stones performed in the Civic Theatre where the audience was excluded from the ground floor and restricted to the two galleries ...

"As the group's blasting, quaking sound throbbed to a crescendo several girls had to be pulled down as they tried to perch on a balcony rail high above the floor ...

"As the Rolling Stones left quietly by a side door after their show one of them was humming faint snatches of a song ... was it, perhaps, Thank Heaven for Little Girls?"

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Another offensive episode of South Park? New Zealand's own Wing, who has recorded nine albums such as Dancing Queen By Wing and Wing Sings Elvis, appears in the cartoon tonight.

John Armstrong: Labour hangs tough, for the moment

His face yesterday bore the furrowed weariness of someone defeated by the pressure, but David Benson-Pope survives. Labour is going to tough this one out.

It is hanging tough because public pressure for the Social Development Minister to be dumped has not reached anything like a critical mass.

To forestall that happening, Labour's damage control machine yesterday lumbered into action. Mr Benson-Pope offered an apology of sorts and an explanation of sorts. His colleagues variously sought to further confuse and defuse things in order to shore up the minister's fast-evaporating credibility.

They deliberately raised irrelevant side-issues to further complicate things and sow doubt in people's minds so that they suspend judgment.

The minister's single-page personal statement begged more questions than it answered, however.

It also revealed a significant shift in his position through a subtle change of language.

All along, he has insisted he was not aware of a letter from a parent complaining about his behaviour at a school camp in 1997 when he was teaching at Dunedin's Bayfield High School.

He says he was therefore being honest when last weekend he dismissed new allegations that he burst into female dormitories and a shower block as "a nonsense".

However, it stretches credulity that he had no knowledge of the school investigating a parent's complaint against him - an investigation which resulted in a tightening up of procedures for supervising male and female pupils at school camps.

To compound things, Mr Benson-Pope has now admitted that "issues" around camp policies and procedures were discussed by himself, the then principal Bruce Leadbetter and others, and changes were made.

What were these "issues"? The minister's office declined to elaborate.

But they must have related to a "male presence in [the] girls' area" - as Mr Leadbetter delicately put it in his draft reply to the parent.

The public is now expected to believe Mr Benson-Pope took part in a discussion without knowing or asking what had prompted it.

The minister's personal explanation has another gaping hole. He is no longer adamant about being unaware of any complaint of any kind.

He now has "no recollection" of ever having seen the letter of complaint - a far safer stance to take.

To defuse things further, he also apologised for any "upset" he had caused to former students.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has stood four-square behind him - at least in her public statements.

She does not believe a male teacher merely giving a hurry-up to some female pupils at a school camp warrants a ministerial sacking. Neither is she going to give National that pleasure.

But Mr Benson-Pope is on notice. It is understood she is demanding he be upfront from hereon about his past.

In backing him rather than sacking him, however, Helen Clark and the wider Labour Party are having to absorb the collateral damage.

There is a limit to how much can be sustained. Labour will be mindful that further allegations may yet emerge. Mr Benson-Pope is not out of the woods yet.

Editorial: Forgetful minister must go

Public life demands high standards of honesty. When politicians come to grief it can be less for what they have done than for what they have denied. The complaints that dog the Dunedin MP David Benson-Pope from his days as a school teacher may not be serious in themselves, though the latest, alleging he entered girls' changing areas at a school camp, cannot be easily dismissed.

Whatever gave rise to the girls' complaints, there can be little doubt that there was a complaint to the school, Dunedin's Bayfield High. The principal has confirmed it.

Which left Mr Benson-Pope to explain yesterday why he told Parliament last year, in response to the tennis ball incident, that he was unaware of "any complaint of any kind" brought against him during his 24 years as a teacher.

He says he has no recollection of seeing the letter of complaint from a parent, though he confirms that "issues around camp policy and procedures were discussed between the principal, myself and others, and changes were made to camp policy".

Even if he was not shown the actual letter of complaint from a parent over his actions at a school camp, he was obviously aware of the concern about his actions, which he insists were in line with school policy for camps up to that point. It is simply not credible that a school teacher would forget the kind of complaint that the principal, Bruce Leadbetter, said he received and believes he discussed with Mr Benson-Pope. It is hard to believe he would not discuss it with the teacher concerned, and even harder to believe the teacher would not recall it.

When Mr Benson-Pope denied to the House last year that he had ever been the subject of a "complaint", he must have been using that word in the narrowest, technical meaning he could give it. He has gone to some trouble to discover that the school has "no file copy of any communication with parents to indicate that the complaint was progressed", and two members of the school board at that time have told him they have no recollection of any complaint about him coming before the board.

Thus he justifies his statement to the House on May 12 last year when he denied the tennis ball incident. The denial was expressed in extravagant terms, that turned out to be incredible when the police investigation reported its findings. Whatever the truth of the incidents at the school camp, the best Mr Benson-Pope can say for himself is that there was no school policy to forbid what he did, though the policy was changed after he did it. That is hardly a good testimonial to his judgment.

The principal said the girls were given a "hurry up" while showering, shouted to from a door. There was no suggestion anyone had entered the showers. In his letter to a parent who complained, he said, "The girls would know that anyone would have to navigate a screen wall and enter the cubicles themselves before there was any question of compromise of privacy."

But this happened in 1997. No teacher at that time needed a policy to tell him not to go where female pupils might not be dressed. Mr Benson-Pope sought to give a fuller explanation to the House yesterday but was denied the opportunity by National MPs who wanted to grill him. In the course of his answers he said, "I remain convinced that my conduct as a teacher was not inappropriate. I do accept, however, that the concerns of some former students were genuinely held and to them I offer an apology for any upset."

The Prime Minister was standing by him in a way she has not done for other ministers in similar circumstances. It is hard to see why this forgetful Minister of Social Development warrants her protection. The longer he remains the more demeaned and defensive her Government appears. All things considered, he ought to go.

Fran O'Sullivan: Transit's drive lacks coherent direction

If Transit New Zealand was a public company its shareholders would be up in arms by now.

Its 10-year strategic plan to develop the nation's roading network has proven not to be worth the very paper it was written on less than 12 months ago.

If Transit's 10-year plan was a prospectus - instead of simply a "programme" with all its extraordinarily loose accountabilities - its promoters (the Government) would be facing an uproar.

The New Zealand and foreign entities which have signed off plans to invest significant sums domestically to expand their businesses on the back of a governmental commitment to finally do something about the nation's appalling roading infrastructure would be screaming.

But we are being asked to believe Transit's predicament is the fault of two unforeseen problems: First, the oil price rise which it is claimed has had a kick-on effect leading to a potential shortfall of $685 million in the amount that Land Transport NZ can now steer Transit's way.

Second, there is the extra $300 million or so that Transit itself believes it may have to find because of increased construction costs including materials and labour.

In all there is about $1 billion at stake - which is not a huge amount when factored over some $12.4 billion of projects that Transit wants to carry out over the next 10 years.

Why get exercised, you might ask, when the Government has basically said the shortfall will somehow be made up?

Well, the problem is Transit has already shined up its figures by simply deferring a raft of highway projects until after 2016 - the end of its 10-year timeframe. Some $1.48 billion worth of projects are involved, according to Road Transport Forum estimates. The forum has also helpfully pointed out that Transit's $12.4 billion figure is to some extent illusory as just $4.7 billion is set aside for new roads - the rest goes to maintenance and upgrades.

Then there is the collusive side-deal the promoter has done with its new partner New Zealand First - to fully-fund a second Tauranga harbour bridge at a cost of $240 million instead of the original plan to part-finance it by tolls. In the days when the new partner was a crusading Opposition MP this would have been called "pork barrelling, Mr Speaker, of the highest order".

Unlike other projects - which are now subject to major deferrals - this is subject to a mere one-year slide and will be well under way by the time the promoter and its partner need the voters to tick them off for a further three years in power.

Then there is the promoter's conflict of interest. The Government, like its predecessors, makes a bundle out of excise taxes on fuels. Finance Minister Michael Cullen could simply hike the petrol excise tax and bump it across for exclusive use to fund roads instead of bumping up his own coffers.

Or Cullen could simply borrow on the Government's account to complete the projects in double quick time.

This avenue was suggested to Cullen and Transport Minister David Parker in a letter from Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett two days before Transit unveiled the so-called "shortfall".

Barnett, with other members of the Auckland Business Forum - which includes EMA Northern, Ports of Auckland, ASB Bank and Auckland International Airport - have been on the Government's case for years claiming the region misses out on $1 billion in annual economic benefits because the roading system is still not complete.

Barnett's letter reveals that Cullen and other Cabinet ministers told key Auckland players on May 31 last year that they had instructed Transit to pursue a borrowing option to ensure the original timeline was met. But "this had not been actioned and is not being offered by Transit now".

There was more of the same with the business community over-whelmingly concurring with a report on February 15 (the same day the Prime Minister made her pro-business opening statement to Parliament) that any cutback to Transit's Auckland projects was "not acceptable".

"We agree with you that the 'duty' to address the shortfall comes back to Government," Barnett said.

"I strongly suggest that a very appropriate 'answer' is that Government announce without delay (this week) that it will provide a borrowing programme to ensure that there is no cutback to the programme to complete agreed motorway construction projects in Auckland by 2015, or earlier.

"Based on your earlier requests to Transit, this option has already been publicly approved in principle by Government. The problem is that it has not been actioned."

There is a long litany of issues between the Auckland Business Forum and Transit.

Deadlines for Transit to produce its accelerated work programme were missed, and a "ghant chart" for timelines and funding for the strategic projects to complete the State Highway 20 Western Ring Route and State Highway 1 projects was not actioned despite "subsequent confirmation to the Forum that Transit had been requested to provide such a work programme early in 2006".

It goes on: Credible reporting process: Not actioned.

The request to encourage the Auckland Regional Transport Network (which looks after public transport) and Transit to better co-ordinate the interface between the strategic state highway programme and local roads (and rail) infrastructure requirements: This has been partially actioned, through an informal project getting under way to develop an Auckland transport plan showing how ARTA and Transit will implement the Auckland Regional Land Transport Strategy 2005.

But Barnett points out that the request to have these initiatives reported to ministers and ready for announcement by 30 June was not actioned.

Brian Rudman: Even jailers want disgraceful prison cleared out

Six years ago, then Corrections Minister Matt Robson was predicting that barbaric Mt Eden Prison would be closed by 2003.

Three years past this use-by date, the 19th century relic is still bulging at the seams despite a secret warning in 2004 from the Corrections Department that "there is a high likelihood of service failure, the consequences of which would be catastrophic".

By that, the department means "potential injury or loss of life", litigation by inmates' families and 381 prisoners needing alternative accommodation "for an indeterminate length of time".

The one light in all this murk is the musings of Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor, just back from a fact-finding tour of European prisons, to declare that New Zealand may be better served if up to 30 per cent - about 2250 - of our prison population were given community-based sentences instead. If that was to happen, Mt Eden's 420 beds could become redundant overnight.

But I suspect Mr O'Connor's common sense, like that of Mr Robson before him, will get lost in a Cabinet more beholden to the clattering tin drums of the law and order backwoodsmen than to the evidence gathered from trips to more liberal societies such as Finland and the Netherlands.

Which takes us back to Mt Eden and how best to empty it as quickly as possible. The damning Corrections Department report, flushed out of the system by National MP Simon Power, reveals that the department has been pushing for closure or "extensive refurbishment" of Mt Eden since at least 1995 and that successive Governments - both Labour and National - have deferred decisions "pending further review and analysis".

The documents released to Mr Power said there were five options for Mt Eden, all of which have been blanked out in order "to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expressions of opinions by or between or to ministers ... and employees".

This censorship is rather dim-witted, given that the department's preferred option is revealed for all to see in its briefing paper to new minister Mr O'Connor after last September's general election.

This states that the department's recommended option was "to replace Mt Eden Prison with a new 420-bed facility nearby, on the same site as the Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP)" and that in December 2004, "Cabinet approved design funding of $6 million".

It added that "two work streams are under way. The first is designing the ACRP extension of 420 beds to replace the existing Mt Eden facility. The second is exploring the 'heritage' options for the use of the existing Mt Eden Prison".

A report to the Cabinet in November was to provide detailed implementation, costings and build options for it to consider. It seems that this Government, like many before it, has kicked again for touch.

Over the past year or so, Corrections has had on-going discussions with interested parties such as neighbouring Auckland Grammar, Auckland City and the Historic Places Trust over its plans.

The latter two are involved because the Scottish baronial folly that is the prison is a Category A listed building with the city council and has a B classification with the trust.

With neighbourhood protest likely to delay or stymie a new prison anywhere else in the city, the preference is to build a four or five storey prison within the boundaries of the present site, alongside the 381-bed remand prison opened in July 2000.

My inquiries suggest the existing prison will then be gentrified and re-used, possibly as an administration centre for the department.

But first things first. Clearing prisoners from this national disgrace is a priority. That even the jailers are clamouring for it underlines the urgency of the task.

The sensible, pragmatic and cheap way would be to follow the lead of more civilised countries and stop incarcerating so many minor offenders, if for no other reason than it doesn't work.

But if Labour is too scared to get off side with the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" lobby, it should at least connect with its humanitarian instincts and imprison people in civilised conditions.

Mt Eden Prison is far from that. The Corrections Department admits it is "substandard and unsafe in many respects", leaving the department "at risk of prosecution" for "serious non-compliance with building codes and standards, fire safety standards and health and safety requirements".

That successive governments have known of this and continue to do nothing is a scandal.

Peter Spoonley: Standing up for who we are

Gerry Brownlee is right. To be given a response category such as "New Zealand European" in the 2006 Census does not make any more sense to me than it does to Mr Brownlee. My ancestors might have originated from Europe and I am proud of that heritage. But my ethnic identity is a product of being born and raised in New Zealand.

Others who have migrated from Europe might want to use the label "European", although even here, I would have thought that the term is meaningless given the cultural and national diversity that exists there.

My concern is that Statistics New Zealand do not allow the option of using a response category such as "Pakeha".

In fact, they no longer use the term in any of their documents despite its growing public use and the fact that in the last census, more than 8000 ignored the "New Zealand European" label and wrote Pakeha. Others would not identify in this way and that is fine.

But Mr Brownlee is wrong to think that "New Zealander" is the most appropriate alternative. Most of us are New Zealanders because we have been born here or have taken out citizenship, and we identify with this country. It is our nationality, and one that we should rightly claim.

The issue is to establish how many of us claim an ethnicity, that is, do we see ourselves as members of a particular cultural tradition and community.

To insist that we should be only New Zealanders is to deny Jewish, Samoan, Dutch or Maori New Zealanders - and others - an identity that is important to them.

The census is one opportunity to indicate that they remain proud members of such communities. But that, in my experience, is not at the expense of also being proud New Zealanders.

Is giving people an opportunity to identify as New Zealanders of a particular ethnicity divisive? Why not turn the question around?

If they are not recognised, in the census and elsewhere, then what does it say about New Zealand as a country with a significant Tangata Whenua population and a growing ethnic diversity from immigration?

The liberal democracies that are successfully encouraging social cohesion are those that balance ethnic community interests with individual and civil rights. That is the challenge rather than to privilege one over the other.

Mr Brownlee's timing is poor. Statistics New Zealand has gone through a long and involved process, including inviting public submissions, on ethnic statistics and how they should be collected. It is great that he has expressed an opinion, but just now?

Perhaps we should agree that the debate is important and that we should provide a chance for it to occur. In the meantime, a lot hinges on an accurate census of our population, in all its diversity.

* Professor Paul Spoonley is Regional Director of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University's Albany campus.