Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sideswipe

Literal advertising - A Chinese print ad for women's designer handbags

By Ana Samways

First the mighty Auckland, now private girls' school Diocesan has been lampooned on Uncyclopedia, a parody of online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. The writer says the school is known for "producing book-smart show-ponies and trophy wives who are destined to inhabit the suburban traffic nightmare of Remuera, where they are produced and reared". Ouch. But the knife really comes out when describing a typical Dio mini-break ... "Surplus to this, several weekends to the wee bach in Omaha or Pauanui are endured as well as the one in which the Dio girl and her girlfriends spend a few days and nights of drinking margaritas (sic), sunbathing in skimpy Sass and Bide bikinis and bonking with the favourite group of boys from the brother private boys' school." Harsh!

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How to create your own Google News story: Tom Vendetta, a 16-year-old student from New Jersey, wrote a tongue-in-cheek press release claiming Google had employed its youngest intern ever (ie, him). The release was picked up by the Google news service itself and, according to his blog posting, when he saw the press release appear he regretted it. Vendetta describes himself as the "biggest Google fanboy ever" and wanted to ingratiate himself with the company. Instead, he received almost 400 emails in the first few hours after the story went public and his parents are changing their phone number. And, although he did become temporarily famous, Google will remember him only as the teen who told the world that Google News' automated system does not verify press releases before publishing them.

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When Sian Tiong Lim, 32, was jailed for four months in England for orchid-smuggling, orchid expert Eric Hansen told United Press International, "There is a lunatic fringe to the orchid world, and a fine line between the average grower and the horticulturally insane." (Source: News of the Weird)

Editorial: Politics for risk-takers not saints

Yesterday in this column we praised David Parker as a new Transport Minister who had already gone a tentative step further than any previous incumbent towards a politically courageous solution to urban traffic congestion. Today he is gone, lost to the Labour Cabinet, lost to the country. He was the Government's brightest newcomer, an "exceptionally able" person, the Prime Minister said, one of precious few ministers with business experience.

He has been forced from office by a revelation that when in business he wrongly answered a routine question on a Companies Office form. He had indicated that a decision not to appoint an auditor for the accounts of a collapsed company had been duly made by the shareholders unanimously. Now one of the three shareholders says he was never consulted about the decision, and the return was therefore false. How serious is this really?

It is too easy to take the political line that in public life everything is serious. The slightest infraction can be intolerable if we decide so. But in that case we need to be clear of the consequences for the calibre of people we can attract into politics.

Mr Parker admitted he "cut a corner" and immediately resigned from the position of Attorney-General, a post incompatible with the cutting of legal corners. Inevitably that pound of flesh was not sufficient for the Shylocks. They demanded nothing less than that Mr Parker be stripped of all his portfolios and, with the Opposition sharpening their knives, the Prime Minister accepted his complete resignation yesterday.

There is no doubt she gave him little choice. Early in the morning he was telling radio stations he saw no reason to give up his transport and energy portfolios and would "tough out" the afternoon in Parliament. But he was gone by lunchtime. Just before 11am, Helen Clark said she had accepted Mr Parker's resignation from all his portfolios. She said she would have insisted on his resignation if he had not offered it.

How many people, observing this sort of thing, shudder and quell any thoughts they have of offering themselves for election. David Parker has done no more than many people have probably done when filling out the various requirements of commercial life. They may not have cut the same corner he did but they probably cannot in confidence say they have never filled out a form with less than scrupulous care. They probably do not even know what seemingly trivial corners they have cut.

In politics it takes strong leadership to keep a sense of perspective. Through most of her premiership Helen Clark has been too ready to cast ministers to the wolves, often before any offence was established. She was beginning to display more strength, perhaps unwisely, in her refusal to sack David Benson-Pope over a misleading statement to Parliament. Mr Parker appears to have paid the price for the pressure she has felt from the Benson-Pope business and the prima facie case of election mis-spending, which the police have decided not to prosecute.

The Prime Minister has made the the wrong decision in both the Benson-Pope and Parker decisions. One minister deserved to go, the other did not. Mr Parker's resignation as Attorney-General was the suitable and sufficient penalty for his misdemeanour. As a young and "exceptionally able" person, the Government could not afford to lose him. Probity in public life is important but we need to recognise it sometimes in people who make a forgiveable slip. People who have never put a foot wrong are probably people who have never taken a risk. We will all be poorer if politics becomes safe only for saints.

John Armstrong: Swift resignation big favour to Labour

In willingly walking the plank, David Parker has done himself a big favour. But he has done his party an even bigger one.

Whether he voluntarily resigned his remaining portfolios of transport, energy and climate change or was pushed out of the Cabinet is somewhat academic.

His willingness to go means the Prime Minister has got what she wanted without a fight - a sacrifice to atone for Labour's perceived sins, notably its raiding of parliamentary funds for election advertising and the failure to punish David Benson-Pope.

Monday's article in Investigate magazine claiming Mr Parker had filed false declarations to the Companies Office was a fork in the road for Labour.

Its first inclination was to go down the wrong track and tough it out. Then the Labour hierarchy came to its senses. Mr Parker was in the exact same political predicament as David Benson-Pope - a prima facie case of wrongdoing hanging albatross-like around his neck and consequently the Government's.

He had to go. A potentially-outstanding ministerial career lies in tatters - for now. But Mr Parker has given himself the option of a way back.

As long as he is not found guilty of an offence carrying two or more years in jail - thereby forcing him to leave Parliament - he has a good chance of making it back into Cabinet. His punishment may end up being on a par with those of Lianne Dalziel or Ruth Dyson, who were out for 18 and eight months respectively.

Mr Benson-Pope remains in the Cabinet - but as damaged goods. A place on Labour's front bench is now permanently out of his reach.

Not so for Mr Parker.

Those close to him insist he had made the decision on his own to go to the Prime Minister's office yesterday morning to voluntarily offer his resignation from the Cabinet.

However, the Prime Minister had decided to accept it before he arrived. For Helen Clark, Monday's headache had become Tuesday's hangover.

After Mr Parker confirmed the accuracy of the allegations in the Investigate story on Monday afternoon, he was relieved of his portfolio of Attorney-General, a role incompatible with breaking the law, however minor the offence.

The punishment was sold by the Beehive as befitting the crime. It was the bare minimum.

Sometime on Monday evening, Labour's anger at yet another personal attack on a Cabinet minister gave way to more detached analysis.

The Prime Minister and senior colleagues dispassionately assessed what might happen next if Mr Parker remained a minister. He faced a possible prosecution. He could end up being banished from Parliament.

Unlike Mr Benson-Pope's alleged indiscretions, Mr Parker's offences were recent - making it more difficult to defend hanging on to him. Above all, the Opposition would hound him non-stop until he went.

However, in politics, nothing happens in isolation.

No-one is going to admit it, but Mr Parker is also the fall guy for Mr Benson-Pope's mistakes and Labour's blushes over election spending.

After Mr Parker spoke in Parliament during yesterday's snap debate forced by the Opposition on his resignation, Labour MPs gave him a standing ovation as he marked his return to the obscurity of the backbenches after just 5 months in the Cabinet limelight.

It was the least they could do.

Brian Rudman: Road charges no panacea for boosting business profits

In all the hoopla surrounding the launch last week of various road tolling proposals for Auckland's roads, one little detail failed to hit the headlines. None of the proposed congestion-busting measures is likely to help the local economy - or local business productivity - one iota.

And that's not me speaking, it's the boffins at the Ministry of Transport.

"Businesses in Auckland view traffic congestion as a problem," says the report. "Our analysis suggests there are positive and negative effects [from each of the proposed solutions] which largely seem to offset each other. The impacts on the economy overall appear to be relatively neutral.

"One reason for this may be that marginal costs of road pricing to businesses is generally small due to the fact that transportation costs generally are not a significant driver of business costs.

"Equally, it would not appear that the direct and tangible benefits to be gained by businesses from reductions to congestion are particularly large."

Say that again!

For years the business-owner unions have been bleating about how congestion is crippling Auckland's economy. The first stab at estimating the cost came in a 1997 Ernst & Young study which said the economic cost of congestion to manufacturing and distribution in the Auckland region was about $185 million a year and the total cost of congestion to the region was $755 million.

Pro-roaders from the business lobbies and the National Party quickly rounded this up to $1 billion and were soon claiming the full $1 billion as the cost to business. By September 2003, John Hynds, chair of something called Roads Before Rail Trust, had doubled this to $2 billion. Not to be outdone, Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) chief executive Alasdair Thompson topped this with a figure of $4 billion.

Last week's Ministry of Transport report, based on an economic impact assessment report prepared by Market Economics Ltd, noted earlier attempts to quantify the cost of road congestion to Auckland society, but limited its comments to the more modest end of the scale, noting estimates ranging from $730 million to $900 million. It said three points were worth noting.

First, these figures estimate the total value of time lost to congestion through the entire year, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

Second, the 184,000 business trips in Auckland between 6am and 10am (when the proposed congestion fees will be levied) represent less than 15 per cent of all trips in that period and less than 25 per cent of all vehicle trips.

"Therefore, most of the value of time lost due to congestion accrues to private individuals, with more modest impacts on the wider economy ... "

Third, while the key aim of road user charging is to reduce congestion, the best that can be hoped for from the schemes proposed is "to reduce the percentage of kilometres travelled in congested conditions during the morning peak period from around 20 per cent to around 12 per cent."

However, as the report points out, nothing comes without a cost. Not only will businesses have to pay the new tolls, but modelling revealed that "a small negative effect" on the economy would be the $25 million to $89 million of consumer spending that went on paying tolls rather than into Auckland businesses. This is not offset by the time saved, because these savings, it says, are spread widely and thinly and can't be accumulated for later use. Nor are they in the form of cash.

Only if the money collected in tolls was all poured back into the Auckland economy on roads and public transport "and there were some compensation for the cost of collection" would the effect on the economy be "neutral."

The study admits "it is very difficult to determine the actual impact of time spent travelling on economic productivity, particularly in relation to private car travel". It says that even allowing for travel time costs, it appears that commercial vehicle transport costs represent only 1 to 2 per cent of total business expenditure.

Now I've never been a fan of "road pricing", regarding it as an inefficient, inequitable and costly attempt to halt the tide of more and more cars flooding our roads. The latest report and its various appendices only reinforce that view. Better still, it blows some fatal holes in the arguments of those who see it as some sort of panacea.

Tapu Misa: No one can take our haka away from us

There are times when you just have to feel sorry for the Australians. Admittedly, sympathy isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you watch the Lucky Country's athletes over-achieving with monotonous regularity at yet another Commonwealth Games, hauling in the gold medals as if it was their God-given birthright.

Nevertheless, sympathy ought to be extended, for it has become clear, at least to me, that some Australians are suffering from haka-envy.

Yes, all that glistering gold can't obscure the fact that the Australians not only don't have a haka, poor things, but are working on ways to claim ownership of our national expression of, well, just about everything.

How else to take The Australian's Wayne Smith, an avowed fan of the haka, first complaining in his column that Kiwis are cheapening the haka with overkill, and then claiming that the haka isn't really ours, to do with as we will?

"Maybe the Kiwis don't appreciate this but the haka does not just belong to them any more," writes Smith. "They have taken it to the world and the world has embraced it."

Hang on a minute, sport. Not to be too unsharing, but the world can embrace all it wants - the haka belongs here in Aotearoa.

(And while we're at it, is it our fault the Australians haven't paid enough attention to the original inhabitants of their own country to have developed their own distinctive, indigenous signature wave? I don't think so.)

Still, as I said, I have some sympathy for Smith.

He writes that the mere sound of "kamate, kamate" is enough to send chills down his spine, "and the sight of the All Blacks lining up in formation for their challenge to the Wallabies is easily one of the most stirring sights in rugby."

He allows that the haka performed in Moss Burmester's honour, after he won the gold for the 200m butterfly, was "spine-tingling", that it even inspired the South African swimmers to beat the Australians in the men's 4x100m relay.

But then, he complains, the Kiwis were "at it again" after the women's 4x200m freestyle relay - "not to hail the new Commonwealth champions but the bronze medallists".

Yes, yes, we all know the Aussies can afford to be blase about bronze medals.

But Smith even had a problem with our victorious, gold medal-winning sevens team, performing the haka a mere "half a dozen times" on their victory lap around the Telstra Dome.

He says he doesn't want to see our women's gymnastics team doing the haka (can't imagine why not).

And he seemed to feel that it was somehow wrong that support staff should join in the haka, rather than just "the trim, toned, muscular swimmers".

One of Smith's colleagues, Louise Evans, chimed in with this: "When the All Blacks do the haka before a rugby match, it's thrilling, even terrifying.

"But when a bunch of bare-chested all-whites from the New Zealand swim team do the haka at the pool when they win bronze, they look like they're auditioning for Brokeback Mountain II."

Oh, come on.

It's the very fact that a bunch of bare-chested, white New Zealanders feel the moment enough to launch into an impassioned haka that makes it for me.

But I guess you have to be a Kiwi to understand that.

Are we overdoing it?

It depends on whether you think such cultural expressions should be kept in a glory box and trotted out only for special occasions, or whether you accept that it's become a part of the national psyche, a part of our everyday persona.

If it's overkill, too bad.

In a week of wall-to-wall sports, it's all overkill.

I confess to having some overkill thoughts of my own at the weekend, as I sat for three hours watching Tahiti's national treasure, Gabilou, a 60-ish man who looks more French than Tahitian, and his troupe of virtuoso tamure dancers shaking their tushies in the time-honoured Tahitian way.

I'd been dragged along in the interests of having my mood lifted.

Well, it was either that or stay home to watch the Blues-Brumbies encounter, and risk feeling terminally blue again (sorry, boys - and thanks for proving me wrong).

We took a visitor from Hawaii, who told us that it was virtually impossible to get radio stations in Hawaii to play any kind of Pacific music.

Not the case here, where Gabilou and his legendary string band, the Barefoot Boys, are well-known enough - thanks largely to years of air-play on Auckland's Radio 531pi and CD sales at the Otara Market - to fill the TelstraClear Pacific Centre at Manukau.

It helps that Gabilou and his dancing girls are subsidised by the Tahitian Government to take their culture to the world, which must be why Tahiti's president, Oscar Temaru, was there.

But while I'd definitely had my fill after three hours, there was no denying the mainly brown capacity audience couldn't get enough.

Lord knows how often we'd seen these dances, or heard the songs.

Afterwards I realised that it wasn't just the exotic appeal of those good-looking - and yes, trim and toned - Tahitians that held the audience, but their familiarity.

The dancing girls were a variation of ourselves, a reflection of us.

This is why we're loving No 2 and Sione's Wedding, why we loved bro'Town, however flawed they might be.

They're about us, just as the haka, in all its variations, is about us.

Fran O'Sullivan: The rot needs to be stopped - and quickly

One by one, Labour's bright shining hopes - the MPs carefully selected to put a business-friendly face on a party long seen as dominated by teachers and unionists - are crashing.

Yesterday, David Parker, who just last week was being praised by Labour Party president Mike Williams as "one for the future", a person he had personally hand-picked for his impeccable business credentials, resigned his remaining Cabinet portfolios.

Williams had put Parker on a pedestal and will feel his downfall as a body blow, coming so soon after the controversy surrounding David Benson-Pope.

Former minister John Tamihere, who lost his Cabinet role after he was verbally incontinent about his colleagues to Investigate magazine, survived a Serious Fraud Office investigation into his own dealings with the Waipareira Trust.

Parker and Tamihere - like Shane Jones, who chairs Parliament's influential finance and expenditure committee - were seen as politicians who would, in time, front the major commercial portfolios in the Clark regime.

Now David Cunliffe is the sole "new generation" Labour MP left in the Cabinet who comes with a strong business pedigree.

It's the old stagers - such as Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton, whom Clark tried but failed to drive from her Cabinet - who survive to keep the business links going.

There is a prima facie case against Parker under section 377 of the Companies Act for filing false company returns into 2005, three years after he first entered Parliament.

The Companies Office is reportedly "reviewing the files" and checking its insolvency records following Investigate magazine's exposure of Parker's decision to "unanimously" sign off returns from property development company Queen Park Mews despite not having obtained agreement from another shareholder, Russell Hyslop.

The investigation will try to pinpoint whether Parker simply committed a "technical oversight" or whether there is a serious issue to answer.

Parker faces a double jeopardy, as he was also a successful lawyer before entering Parliament and perhaps could be expected to have a higher standard of commercial behaviour than the mums and dads who frequently cut corners to avoid compliance costs.

But even before its investigation got under way, the Companies Office was down-playing the affair. Spokesman Adam Feeley suggested that prosecutions by the office, including those for filing matters, were rare. But his statements are singularly inappropriate.

They underline the growing suspicions that when allegations of potentially criminal behaviour are raised against a senior Labour Party person, a Government investigating body will not be far behind with its whitewash brush.

Last week, the police failed spectacularly to lay charges against the Labour Party over alleged election campaign law breaches despite their finding that a prima facie case "technically" existed.

Acting Deputy Commissioner Roger Carson said there was not enough evidence to take the case to court as the police had been unable to pin down individual responsibility.

With all due respect to Carson - who is among a number of senior police officials whose position in the department's hierarchy will be settled when the Government gets around to announcing a replacement for former commissioner Rob Robinson - such technical niceties have not particularly worried prosecuting bodies in the past who have laid charges against ordinary mortals in less-than-perfect circumstances.

Have a look at the Serious Fraud Office with its failed helicopter trust case and the huge cast of candidates arraigned (some successfully) in the Equiticorp fraud case.

How long will it be before any business person - who does get the book thrown at him - tries to argue in court that the Crown's prosecutors are acting unfairly by laying charges against him that they would not dare lay against a member of Clark's Government for similar transgressions?

Carson passed the buck in Labour's case by saying the police were also not taking action against National over claims that it, too, had broken the electoral spending limits.

But surely the Electoral Commission would not have referred these issues to the police if it had believed the investigators could not get to the bottom of the decision-making trail over what Labour's opponents felt to be potentially corrupt practice?

Surely it's not up to police to apply a political cancel-out factor, which would be denied to ordinary mortals being investigated for such practices.

National Party leader Don Brash is right to question whether Labour's power is now so great that it has acquired a political protection blanket (my words) where its own players are involved.

Certainly, the police have not shied away from laying charges against National MPs over what seems in comparison to be relatively minor transgressions.

Parker is well-known on the Dunedin business scene as a member of that southern city's shining biotech community. He did not enjoy star status like the late Howard Paterson. But his company, BLIS Technologies, was a successful start-up. He remains a director and indirect shareholder of Fund Managers Holdings.

There are warning signs from this affair that Labour would do well to heed.

Take Jones, who is seen by some as a future Maori Prime Minister.

He faced down a political furore late last year when National raised concerns over his intention to stay on as chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana (the former Maori Fisheries Commission) after entering Parliament as a high-flying list MP.

Clark sent Jones an oblique message saying she was not happy that Maoridom's new political star could double-dip by holding on to his $70,000-a-year fisheries chairman job at the same time as he picked up an MP's salary.

It was ultimately agreed that Jones would stay on for an undefined transition period to ensure assets were bedded down appropriately.

Last month, Jones signalled that period would be stretched out until next February when he would step down as the Government-appointed chairman at the organisation's AGM.

Yesterday, chief executive Peter Douglas said there was basically no one else at board level to help him manage the transition. This is nonsense.

"The small fish from Ranganunu [might] swim in his own current," as Jones advertises on Te Ohu Kaimoana's website.

But as chairman of Parliament's most powerful committee, how can he tackle others over their alleged conflicts of interest when he ignores his own.

Instead of going on a "boondoggle" to the Cook Islands this month to teach that Government about governance and probity, he would have been better advised to spend time lining up his successor fast.

Just as with Tamihere before him, and now Parker, the Prime Minister needs to send clear signals over where the boundaries lie.

Otherwise, this Government's growing reputation for political sleaze will worsen.

* Fran O'Sullivan's trade policy column will run next week.

Greg Ansley: Medal tally highlights wealth gap

Majeti Fetrie, thighs bulging like totara trunks, became a national hero this week. Pumping a total 309kg in his weightlifting class, Fetrie won Ghana's first gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

After the glamour and adulation in Melbourne, Fetrie will return to the real world when he flies back to his wife in Ghana's capital of Accra. The west African nation is among the world's poorest, with a population five times the size of New Zealand's sharing an economy roughly 50 times smaller.

The north of Fetrie's homeland is regularly and brutally scorched by drought, the land is overgrazed and has been stripped of forest. Wildlife is being devastated by poaching and the loss of habitat, and pollution means there is not enough clean water for Ghana's 21 million people.

A third of the population lives below the poverty line, their life expectancy shortened to about 58 years by endemic hepatitis, typhoid and diarrhoea, and the modern plague of HIV/Aids: 350,000 adults live with a disease that killed 30,000 in 2003.

This is the reality that lay behind the parade of athletes at last Wednesday's opening ceremony - a Commonwealth and a sporting tournament dominated by the economies of a handful of wealthy nations and a medal tally that underlines disparity and disadvantage.

The richest nations of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with a total population of 121.6 million and a combined gross domestic product of more than US$3.5 trillion, fielded more than 1700 athletes, about 43 per cent of competitors. The developing Commonwealth, with about 1.8 billion people and a combined economy of US$4.8 trillion (dominated by the vast Indian GDP of US$3.6 trillion) sent 2200 athletes to Melbourne.

At the 2002 Manchester Games, the rich nations, mainly Australia and the United Kingdom, won two-thirds of all medals and a similar share of gold. The medal table from these Games will look much the same. At the start of the week Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore had won 251 medals, 80 of them gold. The rest of the Commonwealth had gathered 81 medals, with 32 golds.

Nobody pretends it can be otherwise. The Commonwealth embraces almost a third of the world's population, from the 11,000 inhabitants of tiny Tuvalu to India's 1 billion, most of them living in the poorest parts of the globe.

The Commonwealth does not hide its problems. South Africa could not compete in the Games for almost 40 years because of apartheid. Nigeria was suspended from the organisation for two years. Zimbabwe has withdrawn because of Commonwealth action against the excesses of Robert Mugabe's regime.

The latest issue of the Commonwealth Press Union's new magazine, CPQ, reports on repression, sometimes brutal, of media freedom in Uganda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, the Maldives, Zambia and The Gambia, where journalists have been forced into exile, presses destroyed and outspoken editor Deyda Hydara shot dead in a still unsolved murder.

Only a tiny tip of this has broken through the surface at Melbourne, reflected in the appointment of the charity Plan to boost awareness of issues facing the developing Commonwealth, and especially those confronting children. Games organisers want to use sports to help raise funds for community development projects and to encourage Australians to either sponsor a child or support a project in the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon's Games message pushed the concept of sports as a means of changing lives: "Sport empowers people, particularly young people. It provides them with role models. It gives them the confidence that they can change their own lives and make a difference in the lives of others."

And there has been movement. Few women were able to compete in the early Games. In Melbourne males still dominate - 62 per cent of athletes are men - but there have been significant, if still slow, advances for females.

Throughout Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific, two-thirds or more of the national teams are men. Brunei, Falkland Islands, St Helena, Dominica, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, The Gambia and Tuvalu have no women competitors.

But the proportion of male team members falls to about 58 per cent for Canada and the UK, 52 per cent for Australia and New Zealand, and to equal numbers for Malta and St Kitts and Nevis. The teams from Singapore, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Malawi, Mozambique and Nigeria have more women than men.

Yet last week's parade of athletes underlined the vast loss of human potential to poverty. New Zealand's 246-member squad was larger than those of massive India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and two to 18 times bigger than all African teams except South Africa.

The reason lies in the numbers. New Zealand's GDP, in US dollar purchasing power parity terms, is larger than that of every African Commonwealth nation except Nigeria and South Africa, and our per-capita GDP of US$24,100 outstrips all Commonwealth countries except the UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore, the offshore tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman and British Virgin islands, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, whose tiny economy has rocketed since the 1983 war through military bases, the sale of fishing licences and potential oil reserves of 500,000 barrels a day.

Across the Commonwealth, the disparities are enormous. Per-capita GDP of US$32,800 in Canada, US$32,000 in Australia, US$30,900 in the UK and US$29,700 in Singapore compare with average figures of US$9975 in Asian member states, US$11,971 in the Caribbean, US$4116 in Africa and an appalling US$3041 in the Pacific.

Within this, four Asian countries, three in the Americas, eight in the Caribbean - where averages are weighted heavily by the tax havens - 14 of the 18 African member nations, and all of the Pacific states have per-capita GDPs of less than US$10,000.

Extreme poverty afflicts Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia and Kiribati, where per-capita GDP slumps below US$1000. Life expectancy in these countries is less than 45 years.

And a new, severe, curse is draining human potential even further. HIV/Aids is fast impacting not only on a rapidly rising number of victims, but on economic growth and national stability. In Nigeria, 3.6 million people live with a disease that killed 310,000 people in 2003; in Sierra Leone 7 per cent of adults are infected; in Tanzania 160,000 people died of Aids in 2003; in Zambia, where 920,000 people are living with it, Aids has hauled life expectancy down to 37 years.

The British charity Save The Children this week reported that 9 million African children had lost their mothers to the disease.

And violence continues to simmer within the family: India and Pakistan are speaking again, but Kashmir continues as a potential powder keg; Sri Lanka has yet to fully reconcile Sinhalese and Tamils, whose 20-year war killed tens of thousands; and Sierra Leone is again teetering on the brink after its brutal decade-long civil war; trouble in neighbouring countries could spill thousands of refugees into northern Ghana.

For now, though, the sun is shining on the Commonwealth in Melbourne.

Gwynne Dyer: Taiwan independence movement all about make-believe

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's basic problem is that he came to power about 40 years too late. If his Democratic Progressive Party had won power in 1960, not 2000, he could probably have got away with his project for an independent Taiwan, at least for a while.

But back then Taiwan was ruled with an iron hand by the Kuomintang (KMT), refugees from a lost civil war who dreamed of reconquering the mainland and rejected any thought of a separate Taiwan. Now it's too late.

Last Saturday Chen's supporters marched through Taipei 100,000-strong to mark the 10th anniversary of the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis of 1996, when China "test-fired" missiles into the waters off Taiwan to warn voters not to back the pro-independence party in the island's first free election, and the first anniversary of Beijing's Anti-Secession Law, which threatens to use "non-peaceful means" to block Taiwan's independence.

The marchers carried banners declaring "Anti-annexation" and "Terminate the National Unification Council," the latter referring to Chen's decision last month to do just that.

Chen declared that "Taiwan is a sovereign nation" and led the crowd in a chant of "Protect Taiwan, no to annexation," as if China planned to annex Taiwan against the democratic will of the Taiwanese people.

But not one in 10 of the crowd was naive enough to believe that that was really the issue. The status quo for most of the time since the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 has been no annexation, but no independence for Taiwan either.

Both sides agreed that there was only one China; they disagreed about who should be running it, but they weren't going to have another war about it.

This was the deal formalised in 1972, when President Richard Nixon shifted US diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and it was ratified by the two Chinese sides themselves in negotiations in Hong Kong in 1992.

What has changed since then is not Beijing's position; it is Taipei's.

Taiwan's aboriginal inhabitants are related to ethnic groups in the northern Philippines, but by 400 years ago Chinese settlers were already a majority. They were maverick Chinese, however, refugees from the stifling hierarchy and conformity of imperial China - and their heirs have spent less than half of the time between then and now under direct Chinese rule.

The arrival of millions of defeated KMT officials, troops and their families in 1949, and the subsequent four decades of brutally authoritarian KMT rule, did not make them fonder of the "mainlanders".

Once the KMT ended martial law in 1987 and began the transition to democracy, therefore, identity issues began to play a big role in Taiwan's politics.

Many people who saw themselves as historically Taiwanese (though ethnically Chinese) wanted a decisive break with the mainland. There was potential voter support for a policy of outright independence, and since the DPP won the presidency in 2000, Chen Shui-bian has been unremitting in his assertions of Taiwan's right to choose its own course.

Yet there has always been an element of make-believe about the independence movement. The basic fact is that there are only 23 million people in Taiwan, while there are 1330 million people in China - and they almost all believe that there must be only one China. It's practically in the genes by now.

China is an empire that became a nation some 2000 years ago, but even now only 70 per cent of the country's citizens speak Mandarin as their first language. They can all read the same language, thanks to ideographs - which is probably why Chinese ideographs survived in a world where most other cultures adopted alphabets millennia ago - but they still see China's unity as fragile and at risk.

It's as if the Roman Empire had survived into the present, speaking highly evolved local dialects of Latin - Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian - but still united by a common knowledge of the classical language.

In such a case, you would expect modern Romans to be hypersensitive about national unity questions. Modern Chinese certainly are, and they will never let Taiwan secede.

Most Taiwanese understand this, so the independence movement is largely a charade. Chen himself came close to admitting that when he pointed out on March 14 that there was no need to panic over his demands for a new name, a new constitution, and ultimately formal independence for Taiwan, since the Opposition controls the legislature and will block all his demands.

"So everybody can relax," he concluded, smiling. Exactly.

And in another two years the DPP will almost certainly lose the presidency, too, for the Taiwanese economy has suffered grievously because of the uncertainties of the past six years and the deliberate roadblocks that the DPP has placed in the way of easier relations with China.

All travellers and goods from Taiwan destined for China, for example, must first pass through Hong Kong, in most cases a 1600km detour. Taiwan's per capita income has flatlined since 2000, and the flow of jobs and capital to the mainland has become a flood.

DPP support is now below 20 per cent of the electorate, and the 2008 election is likely to restore the "pan-blue" coalition centred on the KMT to power.

Unless there is some cross-strait crisis first, of course, but nobody would deliberately seek that.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

Emily Starrett-Wright: Why youth rates are unfair

Interest in the campaign to increase minimum pay to $12 an hour and abolish youth rates has been high, not just among voters and politicians, but also among members of that most politically apathetic of generations.

Currently in our teens, we are seemingly concerned only with iPods and the opposite sex, and have the attention span of a music video.

We may have a sketchy notion of US foreign policy, but couldn't care less about our own. And yet many of us have attended an organised protest for the first time in our lives.

It is likely many of the young people who turned out were thinking only of the extra cash that fair pay would give them, a political awakening sparked by and concerned only with self-interest.

It may not be much of an awakening, but it has created dissatisfaction with our current pay rate, which is pitifully low.

It may be fitting that self-interest is the only force powerful enough to get the youth of today politically active, but before we are judged for our selfish motives, consider the conditions we want to change.

Youth rates are a system designed to legally pay some of the most vulnerable members of the workforce only 80 per cent of the pay their adult colleagues receive.

This in no way reflects the amount of work youth do. I worked in a supermarket for a year and never once was I told to relax for the 20 per cent of the time I did not get paid because I was under 18.

In fact, under 18-year-olds probably work harder and do grottier jobs than their adult counterparts, because they are inexperienced at sticking up for themselves, and there are always other school kids for whom $7.60 an hour seems a fortune.

That's before tax. After tax, this works out closer to $6 an hour.

It doesn't seem a fortune for long, when you realise you may end up working a ratio of a minute-and-a-half of stacking shelves for a minute of movie time. Or five minutes' work for one minute of CD music.

To make things even harder to afford, many companies start charging adult prices from the age of around 14, although adult wages won't be paid for another four years. At the age of 14, it is up to the employer how much you get paid. This is, quite simply, unfair. Wage discrimination based on age is a breach of human rights.

While it is true that many teens are financially supported by their parents, it is also true that for many others working is a necessity.

A school friend pays for half the cost of her school uniform, her clothes and school camps, all on youth rates. Many teens support themselves because of family circumstances they can't control, and it seems fair they should be paid a wage substantial enough to do so.

Those who work just for extra money for themselves are no less deserving of a fair wage. Teens motivated enough to get themselves a job and save for that car or trip overseas (or the ridiculously hedonistic goal of going to university) should not be slaving away for a pittance.

Teens, as the group with the highest disposable income, are targeted in advertising constantly and cleverly, and often the pressure to spend exceeds the amount one earns.

The companies that target teens - and that's most of them, including the sellers of alcohol - should be supporting the abolition of youth rates, if only in their own self-interest.

Equal work for equal pay (and pay that makes working worthwhile) is a basic right that we should be taking for granted, not fighting for.

New Zealand is one of the few countries that pays youth rates. To preserve our reputation as a fair country, teenage workers should immediately be given the "fair deal" that we like to believe is one of our central values. And if that happens, maybe today's teenagers will realise it can be possible - and even cool - to change things.

* Emily Starrett-Wright is aged 17.