Sunday, March 12, 2006

Peter Griffin: Trade Me mega-sale a one-off

The news of Trade Me's staggering $700 million sale to newspaper group Fairfax lingered like a mist as I made by way from bank to barber to post office in central Wellington last week.

Everyone seemed to be talking in bemused tones about the big sell-out. There was lots of talk of new Ferraris and round-the-world trips. But the words were shot through with surprised awe.

Internet companies in New Zealand don't go for that sort of money, people seemed to be thinking. Especially not internet companies run out of scruffy little buildings in Wellington.

From the few conversations I've had with mid-sized internet business owners in the past week, the Trade Me deal has generated a lot of giddy excitement. They've been doing the math, poring over the new figures disclosed in the Fairfax deal, comparing Trade Me's measurables to their own. They're trying to figure out how much their own virtual empire might be worth in light of the deal of the decade.

The reality is that the Trade Me deal is a one-off. No other websites, bar XtraMSN, Stuff and the Herald Online, have nearly the same audience share or revenue-generating potential as Trade Me. It will now take a major strategic blunder by the online auction king to change that.

The Trade Me sale is the epitome of the old saying: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

The media companies would love to have squashed Trade Me on their own terms.

It was Trade Me founder Sam Morgan's certainty that online classified adverts were the future, his demolition of the insipid local arm of eBay and the desire to keep the Trade Me user experience simple, that led Fairfax to his door.

He could always roll off some formidable figures, culled from the Nielsen Netrating figures, to show what a powerful hold Trade Me had on the internet. He viewed would-be competitors with disdain. He's had buy-out offers before, but the numbers were never realistic.

Hopefully Fairfax won't start charging for listings or mess with something that's all but perfect. And while it's always a bit disheartening to see New Zealand companies pass into foreign ownership, I'm less sorry to see Trade Me go than some of the other tech companies put on the block in recent years. The Trade Me sale is sort of like if Stephen Tindall had flicked off his chain of Red Sheds to the Aussies instead of taking The Warehouse public. Trade Me is a national institution, but it's not making the world's smallest GPS chip like Rakon is. It's not putting Kiwi-made software into hospitals around the world like Orion is.

Trade Me took a proven internet concept and made it work in New Zealand - no mean feat. In Morgan's case the whole process took a mere seven years.

It's not with great sadness that I see Trade Me flung into the arms of the media barons. Instead, it's with admiration for the Trade Me shareholders who stuck to their guns and believed in the worth of their venture. They could easily have flicked it off at $100 million or $300 million and our jaws would still have dropped. I think history will show their timing to have been impeccable.

Matt McCarten: Neo-cons forced to admit they were wrong

It's as if Karl Marx came back and published a book entitled I Was Wrong About Communism. This week it was widely reported that the ideological architects of what George Bush called the "New World Order" have admitted their doctrine is wrong.

Of course, the rest of the world has realised this for a while, but the neo-conservatives couldn't fudge it any longer and had to finally come clean.

The neo-conservative world-view goes something like this: after the defeat of the evil communist empire, they had to finish the job and transform the world by removing hostile regimes and giving "freedom and democracy" to the people everywhere. The goal stated in their "Project for the New American Century" was to create "an international order friendly to our security, prosperity and values". This ideology drove the decision to invade Iraq and topple its regime. Once that was done, the theory went, they could move on to all the other countries that needed transforming.

One of the high priests of this new religion, Francis Fukuyama, declared a few years ago in his ground-breaking book, The End of History, that the ideological arguments of right and left were now obsolete: it was inevitable that the whole world would adopt the American way of liberal democracy based on capitalist free-market economies.

It was always simplistic nonsense and the only ones who bought into it were Republicans in the US and the Act Party here. The cynics claimed it was always public relations spin to justify America's hegemony in the world and to create new markets safe for corporate capitalism.

Now Fukuyama has formally admitted it was silly and naive. Some of the hardliners are calling Fukuyama a sell-out, but it seems all the other neo-conservative high priests are jumping ship too. As the New Zealand Herald said on Friday, the big test of this new doctrine of removing hostile regimes was Afghanistan and Iraq. And look what a mess that adventure has turned into.

Andrew Sullivan, Time magazine's resident apologist for the Iraq occupation, says that it was a mistake and it's been a tough lesson for the neo-conservatives to learn. Obviously it is an expensive lesson too for the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed and maimed and the untold thousands yet to be killed to disprove the neo-conservatives' theory.

The irony is that if Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction, he'd still be there. North Korea and Iran, the other two members of the "Axis of Evil", have armed themselves to the teeth with nuclear weapons. It's extraordinary that the neo-conservatives believed that ordinary Afghanis and Iraqis would see them as liberators rather than occupiers. The Americans must now regret their talk about democracy; wherever they have elections, it gets even worse for them.

What's also unravelling for the neo-conservatives is that, as the Americans bog themselves in the Middle East, democratic elections in their own backyard have produced left-wing governments in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia - all of which have for decades been client states of the US. Venezuela also has all the oil to protect itself and its neighbours from US threats. So much for Fukuyama's claims that the left is no more. The neo-conservatives are in disarray.

What most Americans are now starting to realise is that right-wing ideologues have pulled their country into a quagmire that they can't get out of. Even the neo-conservatives are accepting they have - through their arrogance and conceit - squandered the goodwill America had after 9/11. Can you imagine anything more provocative to Muslims thanGeorge Bush calling the invasion a crusade? Do any of his speechwriters read history?

It won't be long before the Bush administration leaves Iraq and Afghanistan to fight civil wars that American adventurism started. It's Vietnam all over again.

The American people and the rest of the world have been conned by this American administration. The ideological arguments for the invasion of Iraq have been admitted by its advocates as a mistake. Helen Clark's government should not be part of this immoral occupation. We need to bring our troops home.

Deborah Coddington: Twenty questions for our MPs

1 Politicians, when interviewed on radio or television, always say, "At the end of the day, I'm concerned about blah blah". Why don't they care about blah blah at the beginning of the day?

2 How long before state airline Air New Zealand (80.2 per cent taxpayer-owned) completes its slide into this country's equivalent of Aeroflot? Do domestic flights run behind schedule so the airport companies can gouge extra car parking fees from passengers? If Air New Zealand has such strict rules about the size and amount of carry-on baggage, why does it allow passengers to trundle aboard with huge suitcases, then delay the boarding of all the obedient, one-bag-only passengers, while said selfish person spends forever trying to stuff their oversize bag into an overhead locker?

3 Six months ago, we had a general election. So who are Chris Auchinvole, Craig Foss, Darien Fenton, Colin King, Anne Tolley, Chris Tremain, Sue Moroney, Paula Bennett, David Bennett (no relation)?

4 And do they go to Wellington just to eat their lunch?

5 If David Benson-Pope's a "pervert" and a "dirty old man" for walking into fourth formers' dormitories and shower blocks and giving them a hurry-along, what does that make every father who's ever opened his teenage daughter's bedroom door and told her to get out of bed and get her lazy butt to school? Will the Hide-Collins double act be accused of making false sexual abuse allegations? Is Judith Collins Act's second MP? (Surely some mistake - Act already has two MPs, Ed.)

6 Has CYFs been merged with the Ministry of Social Development just so David Benson-Pope can be eased aside by Ruth Dyson? It worked with Christine Rankin, didn't it?

7 Was Judith Collins born to wear a corsage? Or was she separated at birth from Judith Tizard?

8 Why has Parliament's bovver boy Trevor Mallard suddenly gone quiet? Has someone finally stuffed a tennis ball in his mouth?

9 Why is new National MP Chris Finlayson known as Shag? Is the acronym for Shadow Attorney General just a tad unkind?

10 Has Michael Cullen no shame? Sam Morgan's $700 million sale of Trade Me to Fairfax was grabbed by the finance minister as a vote of confidence in the New Zealand economy - under his Labour Government, of course. If Cullen really believed his grammatically incorrect press releases, wouldn't he let us have some of our own money back?

11 When Prime Minister Helen Clark launched the Year of the Veteran last week, was she referring to NZ First MP Peter Brown, United Future's Gordon Copeland and Labour's own Dianne Yates?

12 And does that squawking from the Parliamentary Press Gallery mean Barry Soper (aka The Boss of The World) is still alive?

13 Wellingtonian Arts Festival attendees were appalled to see TV3 and TVNZ political reporters brawling in the street like, well, television reporters. So if TV3's spin doctor Roger Beaumont is telling the truth when he says the channel doesn't comment on idle speculation and gossip, why does TV3 bother covering anything from Opposition MPs?

14 What will Georgina Beyer do next? Run for mayor of Wellington a la Carmen? Host her own television talk show a la Oprah Winfrey? Slink back to Carterton with her tail between her legs? All of the above? Not make up her mind?

15 The eternal question debated by philosophical wannabes is if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is listening, does it make a noise? So if retiring Act President Catherine Judd speaks at this month's conference and nobody is in the audience, does she make a sound?

16 At Sir Robert Jones' Summer Party last week, Kham Phomsouvanh, the novelist's live-in lover and mother to two of his children, served fried cicadas collected from Sir Robert's garden to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters. Could this be called a bauble of office?

17 Why does Conservation Minister Chris Carter insist on shopping at Thorndon's New World supermarket in his short shorts? What have we done to deserve this? Memo to Prime Minister: Please get this man to put his clothes back on before someone has a serious accident with a shopping trolley.

18 Why do we need an Environment Court when we have Carter to overturn decisions reached after 14 years and costing more than $1 million? Why not just cut out the middle men and have the justice minister free all murderers and rapists, the employment minister decide how much we all get paid, Keith Locke let every refugee and terrorist into the country and Pete Hodgson reduce waiting lists by performing surgery himself (he was a vet, after all; surely castrations aren't beyond him)?

19 Aren't there more than 20 questions here?

20 Why do columnists resort to desperate measures like 20 questions when starved of inspiration?

Kerre Woodham: Girl's death a warning for farmers

I am very glad Gavin Vanner was found not guilty of manslaughter over the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Molly.

Letting the wee girl ride a 368kg quad bike was stupid, reckless and ended in disaster when the bike rolled, crushing her.

Vanner knows what he did was wrong and he's been punished far more cruelly than any sentence a court could hand down. He will mourn the death of that little girl for the rest of his life and I only hope the family can stay together through this dreadful time.

But what really astounded me was the attitude of the many farmers who supported Vanner, both in court and through the media. They seemed to think that it was perfectly acceptable for a 4-year-old to be allowed to ride a piece of heavy farm machinery and that now the jury had returned a sensible verdict, they could get back to letting preschoolers ride adult-sized farm quads without having sticky beaks from OSH interfering. You can't wrap kids in cotton wool, they expostulated.

They told stories of how they'd driven tractors when they were 3 years old while their dads fed out from the trailers behind and how they'd been riding horses since they were too young to walk and horses are just as dangerous and heavy as quad bikes.

And a number of them had a fatalistic approach, claiming that farming was a dangerous business and always had been.

They knew of kids when they were growing up who'd been killed when tractors rolled, or who'd been mulched in bailers, or who'd been killed by stock - and that was just the way it was.

When children were an integral part of the work unit on the farm, these things happened.

Besides, there weren't fancy-schmancy creches and childcare centres where farmers could dump their kids and go off and drink lattes.

Farmers take their children with them when they work on their farms because they have very few other options and according to these representatives of the rural community, you have to accept that sometimes there'll be accidents.

While I understand that accidents happen, I refuse to accept that it's okay for children to be collateral damage in the farming industry.

When you have the quad manufacturers and OSH saying that children should not be riding adult-sized ATVs until they're 16, when you have Federated Farmers, the umbrella organisation for the farming community, advising against kids riding these things, shouldn't you listen?

According to, around 60 kids a year are admitted to hospital after quad bike accidents. In 70 per cent of cases, the kids were in sole charge of the bike. That might be acceptable odds for some farmers but it sure as hell isn't for me.

And seeing as some people can't be relied upon to use good judgment, maybe it is time to legislate to try to reduce the number of kids ending up dead or injured because their parents don't believe they should be wrapped in cotton wool.

Molly Vanner is not the first child to die because she was riding an ATV and unless farmers take heed of the lessons in this tragic case, she won't be the last.

Kerre Woodham: Dilworth's legacy a century of spectacular success

Happy 100th birthday, Dilworth School! This magnificent Auckland school, the largest all-boarding school in Australasia, turns 100 this year and the school has been celebrating all weekend.

Dilworth has come a long way since it opened on March 12, 1906, comprising a collection of wooden farm buildings, one teacher and eight pupils. These days, the school has a roll of about 600 and a waiting list of thousands.

And no wonder. James Dilworth left a remarkable legacy. He was a believer in education being the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. His vision - to establish an institution affording boys such maintenance, education and training as will enable them to become good and useful members of society - has been spectacularly realised.

Thanks to the Dilworth Trust Board's careful management of the money and prime real estate James Dilworth left behind, thousands of young men have received an education on a par with the best private schools around. They have been clothed, fed, educated, given musical or sporting lessons where they've shown aptitude and have indeed graduated as good and useful members of society.

Sir David Beattie, New Zealand's governor-general for five years and a supreme court justice, Professor Guy Dodson and twin brother Professor Emeritus Maurice Dodson, Dr Michael Bassett, Garth and Peter Tapper - these are just some of Dilworth's alumni.

I had the privilege of visiting Tyrone House for their annual dinner last year and if Tyrone is representative of the school, it's an extraordinary place.

The young men were courteous, confident, articulate and well-groomed - everything a parent could wish for. The future of these young men is assured, as is the future of the school.

It's just a shame that there isn't an equivalent facility for girls. In James Dilworth's day, there was no need for indigent females to be educated, so no provision was made for girls. Setting up a school like Dilworth from scratch today would be prohibitively expensive, unless you're Bill Gates.

So enjoy your celebrations Dilworth. You're one of a kind.