Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sideswipe

Water campaigners at Parliament were more than happy to give Tim Barnett a slurp


Parched climbing the stairs to Parliament yesterday, a reader from Wellington rejoiced to see the NZ Kidney Foundation's Drink Water Week stall, overflowing with cases of bottled water. Our withered reader reached the oasis, offered to buy a bottle of water and was told, "No. We're using it for a promotion." Apparently the Kidney Foundation was presenting the water to MPs and couldn't spare any of its precious kidney hydration system for a thirsty member of the public.

* * *

A single female reader suggests New Zealand's man drought needs to be taken seriously and suggests it's time for government intervention. She writes: "The 33,000 women (a conservative estimate according to the Sydney Morning Herald) who aren't partnered up because of a deficit of men in the 20-49 age group will also not be having the average 2.1 children, therefore reducing the next generation of tax paying New Zealanders by around 69,000 in 20-25 years. Extrapolate this by the forecasted average salary of $55,000 per person (adjusted for inflation) in 2030 and the government will be missing out on $2,286,900,000 in income tax alone. Factor in GST and the other draconian taxes we are subjected to and that could equate to over $3 billion in lost tax revenue. I wouldn't be lacking in national pride if I didn't point this out to the current administration and demand reforms on its immigration policy on behalf of all my single female friends. Therefore, as a matter of economic viability hot, healthy, single men, between the ages of 20-45 should be granted residency as a matter of priority. (sources include the KPMG survey 2005, the Inside NZ documentary on family pecking orders, some dodgy guy in a bar.)"

* * *

A Professor at the Norwegian School of Management has written on why students should study maths: "Choose math because you will lose less money. When hordes of idiots throw their money at pyramid schemes, it is partially because they don't know enough math. Specifically, if you know a little bit about statistics and interest calculations, you can look through economic lies and wishful thinking. With some knowledge of hard sciences you will probably feel better, too, because you will avoid spending your money and your hopes on alternative medicine, crystals, magnets and other swindles - simply because you know they don't work." (Source: boingboing.net)

John Armstrong: Samuels' hat dance enrages Opposition

It now seems that Dover Samuels wears his ministerial hat much like his trademark Australian bush hat - when he feels like it.

The Labour MP yesterday came up with a novel way of ducking questions concerning ministerial responsibility - one that left the Opposition unimpressed and complaining the Government was deliberately weakening Parliament's role in holding ministers accountable for their actions and statements.

For Labour, however, the need to avoid further embarrassment was more pressing than constitutional probity. The last thing it needed yesterday was one minister laying into another.

But just a day after David Parker's resignation from the Cabinet, Labour awoke to Mr Samuels, who is an Associate Minister of Development, being quoted in The Independent criticising Conservation Minister Chris Carter for stalling the Whangamata marina project.

When Parliament sat in the afternoon, National MPs were rubbing their hands in expectation, but they ended the afternoon exasperated with Mr Samuels and Speaker Margaret Wilson, who was described as "a disgrace to this Parliament" by Nick Smith as she ejected him from the chamber.

During question-time, National had zeroed in on Mr Samuels, asking if he stood by his statements to the business weekly.

He replied that the statements were made "from his experience" as a former Far North District councillor and member of its planning committee.

National's Nick Smith asked Mr Samuels if he was expecting Parliament to believe the remarks had been made in his capacity as a local body councillor, rather than as a member of the Government.

"Absolutely," Mr Samuels replied.

But Act's Rodney Hide wanted to know how Mr Samuels could be quoted as a minister, but drop that responsibility when the matter came up in Parliament.

"He is a minister of the Crown 24/7, 365 days of the year.

"He cannot make a whole lot of comments he now wishes he hadn't and then turn up in the House and not be held to account for them."

As the Opposition's frustration grew, Mr Smith tried again to pin Mr Samuels down. Did Dover Samuels, the Associate Minister for Economic Development, agree with Dover Samuels, Far North District councillor?

After a succession of points of order, the Speaker ruled the comparison out of order. This was too much for Mr Smith who described the ruling as a "farce", prompting the Speaker to order him from the chamber.

National's Gerry Brownlee pressed on, complaining that the Speaker's ruling meant Mr Samuels could not be questioned as a minister because he had chosen to designate himself as being in a different role.

"That does make this process utterly farcical."

His leader, Don Brash, then opted for the weapon of last resort - sarcasm.

Did Mr Samuels - "wearing whichever hat happens to suit" - accept the "sincere and wholehearted congratulations" of every member of the Opposition on his "very perceptive" comments relating to Mr Carter's decision.

Mr Samuels replied that he wore only one hat. As to which one, no-one was the wiser.

Editorial: Merits of split-age drink law

Probably the most disconcerting development since the passage of the Sale of Liquor Amendment Act in 1999 has been the increased prevalence of binge drinking.

Worst of all, this harmful pattern extends to those well below the legal drinking age of 18. There has, for example, been a jump in alcohol-related admissions to hospital for children aged as young as 10 to 14. This has led to renewed calls for the drinking age to return to 20. More cogently, it has also prompted a suggestion that any lift in that age should be limited to the buying of liquor to take away.

The merit of this split-age option lies in its recognition of the origin of binge drinking by the young. This is not behaviour that is cultivated in pubs and clubs. Bar management, staff and licensees face substantial fines or suspended licences if an intoxicated person is served, or if they allow a person to become intoxicated. Additionally, many young club-goers are unlikely to have the money to indulge in such behaviour. Binge drinkers prefer, instead, to buy liquor from an off-licence outlet and consume it in cars, at parks, or at their home.

Logically, it is far easier to check a person's age in the relative calm of a bottle store than in a crowded bar. Therefore, banning liquor sales from that source to those under 20, backed up by serious enforcement, should be a practical, if not foolproof, way of restricting supply. It is not unreasonable and irrational, as Bruce Robertson, the chief executive of the Hospitality Association, asserts. It is, in fact, a reasonable response to a worrying outcome of the 1999 legislation.

Just how reasonable is indicated by Mr Robertson's concession that some of his members would probably support the split. Such supporters are not only acknowledging some of the consequences of binge drinking by the young - teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, road accidents and violence - and the fact that binge, risky and problem drinking has become a particular hazard for women aged 16 to 24. They are also recognising that if present trends continue the pressure to return the legal age to 20 will become overwhelming, and their bottom lines will suffer.

The split-age option is a commendable piece of lateral thinking that stops short of trying to put the genie of the lower drinking age back into the bottle. It has arisen at Parliament's law and order select committee because of proposed legislation, originally introduced by former MP Matt Robson, to lift the age. The bill's supporters contend the 1999 act is a failed experiment that has harmed teenagers. But that is not a view wholly endorsed by the chairman of the Liquor Licensing Authority, Judge Edward Unwin. His belief is that any concerns about liquor abuse should relate mainly to the point of purchase.

Judge Unwin, the authority chairman for the past five years, is adamant that very few licensees willingly sell to minors. It seems apparent, however, that the main tenets of the 1999 legislation have not been supported to the same extent by other liquor suppliers. This has proved a serious flaw. Lifting the age for purchases from bottle stores would be one step towards ensuring that liquor is not sold to those too young to handle it sensibly. More rigorous enforcement of the age limit would be another.

New Zealand would not be breaking new ground here. Australia exercises the split-age option. It has recognised that a distinction should be made between points of purchase. If this country wishes to rid itself of the unpalatable spectacle of binge drinking by its youth, it must follow suit.

Garth George: The law goes strangely soft on Labour's lame excuses

It is often said that the law is an ass, and it seems that it is becoming a bigger and bigger ass.

Although, on reflection, it isn't so much the law that is the ass, but the people who dream up and draft the law. Plus, these days, the people charged with administering it.

Such as the plod with scrambled egg on his hat who justified the decision of the police not to prosecute the Labour Party for breaches of the Electoral Act relating to pledge cards and pamphlets and overspending; and the judge who awarded a paedophile $25,000 because the poor chap's privacy had been ruled to have been invaded.

The explanation from Acting Deputy Commissioner Roger Carson of the Labour Party decision on pledge cards and pamphlets had me choking with laughter.

He said the party was given a warning rather than prosecuted - in spite of police having established a prima facie case - because a number of other parties had also used similar tactics and it would have been unfair to single Labour out.

So next time I get stopped for speeding I'm going to insist on being given a warning, on the grounds that a lot of other people are speeding and it would be unfair to single me out.

Mr Carson also said the offending resulted from a general misunderstanding of the electoral rules. Surely that's a new departure because I have all my life been led to believe that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.

So if I ever get stopped for speeding on a road outside a school, perhaps I can claim that I misunderstood what I had heard and read of the new speed limit and thought it applied only on the school grounds.

On the matter of Labour's alleged overspending, the police found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute because there was no evidence it had been intentional.

Which gives me another string to my bow when dealing with the policeman who stops me for speeding. I will insist that there is insufficient evidence to write me a ticket because my being over the speed limit was not intentional.

And if the policeman cavils at my excuses, then all I have to do is suggest to him that he contact Acting Deputy Commissioner Carson, who will set him straight on this new policy on dealing with offenders who are just one among many who misunderstand the rules and whose offending is not intentional.

It doesn't help, of course, that this is the third time the police have declined to prosecute after establishing prima facie cases involving the Labour Party.

Now I don't give a damn whether Helen Clark signed a painting she didn't do, or whether David Benson-Pope shoved a tennis ball in the gob of some loud-mouthed lout, but what I do care about is that if prima facie cases are established, the courts are the place for these matters to be decided, not police headquarters.

There was a time when politics and the police force were clearly and carefully kept separate; somehow I doubt that is the case today. And if it isn't, then one has to ponder the historical fact that one of the hallmarks of a police state is that ruling politicians control the police and are above the law.

Not that the courts are all that much chop these days, particularly the District Court.

The judge who awarded the paedophile $25,000 after finding that his privacy had been invaded when police alerted people in his neighbourhood to his presence is just the latest to lower the esteem in which the court system is held.

The decision goes so far beyond the bounds of common sense and decency that it is almost impossible to understand. Yet that is happening more and more often of late, to the extent that the public's confidence in the courts is at an all-time low.

Which is a far cry from my days as a court reporter when magistrates were regarded with a respect verging on that given to the royal family; and Supreme Court justices accorded a respect just one step down from that given to God.

In general, they deserved it - and that included the often rude and invariably irascible Supreme Court justice who was based in Dunedin and who sat from time to time in Invercargill, arriving in his own exclusive carriage attached to the Dunedin-Invercargill express because he refused to have anything to do with those new-fangled flying machines. His name escapes me after all these years.

It is ironic, isn't it, that when the police do take a protective stance for the public good, they are shot down in flames by the court?

This paedophile, with not just one but a string of convictions, had been allowed to live near schools, playgrounds, a playcentre and reasonably dense bush. It goes without saying that that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

As the policeman responsible, Inspector Peter Cowan, said: "I was very concerned that his location was totally inappropriate, and I could not understand why he had been put there."

Well, Mr Cowan is certainly not alone in that - and there is no doubt in my mind that he did the right thing, irrespective of what some judge might think. I just hope the police appeal.

The paedophile's lawyer told reporters: "The aftermath of the leaflet drop resulted in great hardship to him both physically and mentally. To this day he is recognised and abused on the streets by strangers."

Sorry, but I just can't raise any sympathy.

Carroll Du Chateau: Rickards takes the stand, impervious as a wax model

Yesterday, 20 years after his alleged rapes of Louise Nicholas, and 11 years after the first investigation into them, Assistant Commissioner of Police (suspended) Clinton Rickards finally took the stand in the High Court.

And he denied almost everything.

One of the top policemen in the country, he knows what to do in the witness box. He sits there, shaven head gleaming, mouth grim, massive jaw thrust out, as impervious and expressionless as a wax model.

His answers are clipped and minimal. The only time the trace of a smile lightens his face is when he is asked to look at a photo of himself, his then-partner and baby daughter.

As Rickards tells it, the two times he and colleague Brad Shipton had sex with 18-year-old Louise Nicholas were happy, jovial occasions. Rickards can't remember why his friend Brad Shipton picked him up and took him to their colleague Bob Schollum's place in Rutland St one night after dark. What he can remember is that Nicholas was there, welcomed them in and almost immediately sat on his lap. "It was a jovial occasion, laughing, giggling, talking away. It was a very happy occasion."

"Did you ever force yourself on her?"

"No, I did not. Louise Nicholas is lying."

And later, when asked, "What do you think was in it for Mrs Nicholas?"

"I don't know. You'd have to ask Louise Nicholas that."

Although Rickards admits to feeling embarrassed to be here in court explaining how he and Shipton took turns to have sex with Nicholas while the other watched, it does not show on his mask-like face.

Throughout his evidence and cross-examination he does not deviate from the evidence he gave back in 1994 when the case surfaced. A transcript of his evidence sits there on the computer monitor in the witness box. As he says, "I am happy to answer questions about it but I won't deviate from the evidence I said before."

And so, with excruciating slowness, shreds of extra information are prised from Rickards as though from a tightly clamped oyster. The fact that he watched Shipton having sex with Nicholas after he had finished; the reason he had oral sex with Nicholas on the second occasion he admits to meeting her (after he claimed she called and invited them round) was because she had her period or some infection.

That time Rickards went on to have sex with Nicholas' flatmate - then promptly forgot her name.

Throughout the cross-examination Rickards' memory falters.

He cannot remember people's names or why and when he went places. Several witnesses brought up during the trial are described as being "a nobody to me".

He seems more comfortable when speaking directly to judge Tony Randerson, rather than his lawyer, John Haigh, QC, or Crown Prosecutor Brent Stanaway.

"The [rape] allegations were lies. I had consensual sex with the victim. Now I find myself in a box having to explain myself again."

And later, when asked about Nicholas' allegation that he and Shipton used a baton on her, causing bleeding and injury: "I didn't believe it. Louise Nicholas is lying."

"Were you ever told by Schollum and Shipton about the use of a police baton?"

"No, I was never."

At every opportunity he stresses that "Louise Nicholas is lying" and that he, himself, tells the truth.

At the time of the alleged rapes and indecent assaults, Rickards was 24 or 25, a detective in Rotorua, with two small children, a mortgage and a partner.

He is 45 now, that partnership is over and his present partner of 13 or 14 years sits at the back of the court in a brave pink jacket.

Alongside are the wives of Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum and a crowd of 70-odd citizens all eager to witness Rickards' day in court.

Although he looks over as they file out, Rickards does not permit himself a smile.

Tim Hazledine: Inflation fixation out of step

There is a saying to the effect that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them. However, in economic policy it doesn't work quite like that. The fact is that history in the modern world is largely made by economics, and the catch is that it is made differently each time, because the economic problems are different each time.

Indeed, over the past 100 years, each great new economic problem has actually been the by-product of our successful attempt at solving the previous difficulty.

This is the true lesson of economic history - that there are no simple lessons or principles that can be reliably applied over and over again. And that the real danger is from those people in power who do not realise this; who carry on fighting yesterday's battles with yesterday's weapons when the conflict has moved elsewhere.

And, unfortunately, that is where we are in New Zealand right now, as manifested in the 30 per cent income gap that has opened up with Australia in just two decades, and of which one notable symptom is the quiet flood of Kiwis emigrating across the Tasman, as documented in the special series in the Herald this week.

How did this happen? I suggest that the culprit is inappropriate economic policies: specifically two sets of policies which may have made some sense as responses to the problems of the day when they were introduced, but which have been dogmatically persisted with (here but not in Australia) long past their use-by date, to the point where they have become actively harmful in the quite different economic environment of the 21st century.

To set the scene, let us go back to the first of what have been (so far) three great shocks to the economic system of the modern world: namely the Great Depression of the 1930s. Sure, there had been slumps and depressions before, but none as deep, widespread, and prolonged as this, and the reason was that the 1930s Depression was the by-product, the unintended consequence, of a highly successful economic programme which itself had been unprecedented.

Such was the spread of the doctrines of economic liberalism, which had enabled the Western World to take advantage of the late 19th-century innovations in transport and communications to "globalise" itself for the first time.

The problem was that, although the world's economies had thereby become interconnected to an unprecedented extent, the world's economic policies were not. Thus, when events like the 1929 Wall Street Crash sent shockwaves through the system there was nothing to stop the shocks spreading, literally, around the world.

So, new problem, new solution needed. Brainwave, please. It came from the great economist Maynard Keynes, whose new-fangled stabilisation policies, when widely implemented after the War, were largely responsible for a quarter-century "golden age" of economic growth and prosperity.

And what became the unintended consequence? It was, of course, inflation. Emboldened by the years, then unprecedented decades with no Depression or slumps, unions and firms started off on a spiral of wage and price increases that took us all into the hitherto uncharted territory of sustained double-digit inflation.

Enter monetarism and its handmaiden free trade. Stiff monetarist medicine would knock-out inflationary expectations, and opening markets to international competition would ensure that prices didn't rise up again. And it worked, too - spectacularly well.

Inflation subsided with remarkable speed to the low single digits and has stayed low ever since, even though unemployment has eased down to levels which in the 1970s would be almost guaranteed to incite price and wage increases.

New Zealand adopted monetarism and free trade with more fervour than anyone else, and has held on to these policies more rigidly than anyone, in particular more so than the Australians.

This is why we are suffering more than them from the third and latest "new" economic problem, namely stagnant incomes with increasing wealth disparities.

Our single-minded monetary policy, with its single dogmatic goal of CPI inflationstability, may have been good at knocking inflation on the head in 1989, but since then has been responsible for three bouts of overvalued exchange rates and too-high interest rates which have simply kicked the stuffing out of a wide tranche of our productive industries.

The approach of Australia and other more successful economies is now that monetary policy in the post-inflation environment is more of an art than a science, and certainly not a religion, as it remains in New Zealand.

As for free trade, here history makes painful reading. We led the world in unilaterally opening up our capital markets and exposing our farmers and manufacturers to "free" competition, and the world did not follow, not even to invest here, apart from scooping up the spoils of our fire-sale privatisations in the 1980s.

The new learning now is that each country must actively work to promote and support its productive sectors or they will fall off the pace set by global competition. Ironically, many Australians actually don't believe they are doing very well at this, but surely they still have a thing or two they could teach us here.

* Tim Hazledine is a Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland

Michael Lee and Judith Bassett: Public's view crucial in waterfront plan

Like just about everyone else in Auckland, the ARC and ARH (the ARC Group) views the proposed waterfront development as an enormously important opportunity to achieve something of lasting value for Auckland.

It is also a chance to avoid architectural and planning mistakes such as the disappointing Quay Park development and the visually prominent "rabbit hutch" apartment buildings throughout the CBD.

All too often the built environment of this city, located as it is between two harbours of outstanding natural beauty, has failed to live up to its potential.

This is why the pending development of Wynyard Point and land to the west of the Viaduct Harbour is so important and why the Herald's campaign to raise public awareness is welcome.

If managed properly, such a development has the real potential to become an international attraction of long-term economic and cultural importance to the city, the region, and indeed for New Zealand, while enriching Aucklanders' quality of life.

It's important to understand who is responsible for what at Wynyard Point (the tank farm).

Ports of Auckland owns 18ha of the 35ha. A smaller piece of land is owned by America's Cup Village Ltd.

Both these companies are 100 per cent owned by Auckland Regional Holdings, which is in turn owned by the Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Auckland City Council is the town planning regulator.

The ARC also has some regulatory responsibilities relating to the coastal marine area, transport, stormwater and contaminated-site management.

In 2004, to begin the process, Ports of Auckland as landowner commissioned a team of architects and planners. Led by the internationally renowned Peter Walker, they have carried out a considerable amount of concept design and planning work.

But despite some of the more extravagant comments published, the ARC Group (with our colleagues in Auckland City) has made a considerable effort to work with stakeholders and with the public of Auckland to build a broad consensus of what we want for our waterfront.

As part of that process, early in 2005 we called for public submissions - and in response received 850. We then arranged workshops for all the interested parties - getting everyone together in one room to hammer out a broad consensus.

The outcome of this public input was the ARC/Auckland City Vision document, which was launched in December. Its emphasis on a carefully balanced and mixed development was widely agreed to be a sensible starting point.

After considering the public input, the ARC identified a number of key outcomes it wants from any redevelopment. They include:

* Generous public open spaces should be provided to ensure easy access to the waterfront and Waitemata Harbour to ensure full public enjoyment of those areas.

* Wynyard Point at the northern end of the western reclamation, is considered a regionally important site. Adequate open space should be provided here and it is an ideal site for a future iconic building.

The council remains strongly committed to these principles.

From the viewpoint of the ARC Group, the challenge we face is ensuring that the development is designed in a way that enhances the waterfront, offers places and spaces for people to live, work and play, encourages visitors, enhances the harbour edge environment, and at the same time does not burden long-suffering ratepayers - now and in the future - with high levels of debt.

We therefore continue to support a mixed-use design with provision for entertainment, residential, marine industrial and fishing, all carefully planned to work together in a functional and aesthetically coherent way.

As for parkland, as a regional parks agency we certainly appreciate the worth of coastal parkland - the ARC has acquired 1268ha of prime coastal land in the past six months at a cost of about $25 million.

The size and configuration of parkland is something that will need to be planned.

The next stage of the waterfront development process - soon to get under way with Auckland City's plan change - will enable a more detailed picture to emerge about what Aucklanders want, but meanwhile we want to make three things clear:

* First, development cannot happen overnight. It will take place over 20 to 25 years with, for instance, the very attractive outer Wynyard Point not becoming available until about 2016. The land at the base of the peninsula around Jellicoe St will become available in 2008. Focusing on urban renewal in this area and development of its east-west axis and linking it to the eastern Viaduct and Quay St will be the first task.

* Second, we are confident the process of planning and designing the details of development will continue to be as open and inclusive of the public as possible and there will be time to get things right. But we can reassure the public we will not support high-rise apartment buildings at the edge of Wynyard Point.

* Third, when the ARC Group obtained 100 per cent ownership of Ports of Auckland, a primary aim was comprehensive and integrated development of the waterfront - and that is what we intend to achieve.

* Michael Lee is chairman of the Auckland Regional Council. Judith Bassett is an ARC councillor and chairwoman of the Auckland Regional Holdings board.

Brian Fallow: When the debt man cometh

We will hear this morning how much deeper into the red New Zealand sank last year in its dealings with the rest of the world.

The median pick among forecasters is that the current account deficit hit $13.6 billion for the year or nearly 9 per cent of GDP.

That would be an unsustainable number, a recoil-in-horror ugly number, the prospect of which is one reason the exchange rate is, at last, dropping.

The current account balance is the difference between what New Zealand earns from the rest of the world through trade in goods and services and in returns on investment overseas on the one hand, and what the rest of the world earns from us on the other.

Economists can also show through some fancy algebra that it equates to the difference between domestic investment and domestic savings or, in other words, the extent to which we rely on other people's savings to fund investment here.

The shortfall has to be laid at the door of the household sector, not business or the Government.

The Reserve Bank estimates that households collectively are spending $1.14 for every $1 of income.

The savings rate, or in our case dis-savings rate, cannot be measured with any great precision.

Any errors in estimating households' incomes and outgoings accumulate in the difference between them.

But we can be pretty confident the figure is negative and that the trend has deteriorated markedly during the past few years.

It is an apparent paradox that while households have been living beyond their means, they have also been getting richer.

In fact, the latter is the reason for the former. Homeowners, seeing the market value of their housing equity rise, have been ready to borrow and spend some of that increase.

Spicers Household Savings Indicators, released this week, showed that the net worth of the average New Zealand household increased $10,000 during the December quarter to reach $326,000, up 13 per cent from the end of 2004.

The increase in household assets was driven by a 17.7 per cent rise in the value of the housing stock.

Not all of that is house price inflation, of course. There was some physical increase as well. But, in the latest quarter, higher house prices accounted for 3.8 of the 4.3 per cent overall increase.

By contrast, households' financial assets increased only 0.7 per cent in the quarter and 5.2 per cent over the year.

Household debt increased 15 per cent but at $137 billion, the vast majority of it mortgages, it equates to only 27 per cent of the value of housing assets and 21 per cent of all household assets.

The aggregate household balance sheet then is not heavily geared.

But averages are misleading. If Sam Morgan walks into a bar the average net worth of its patrons jumps but it does not make the rest of them any better off.

Only about a third of households are owner-occupied with a mortgage and some of them are much more indebted than the average.

Data from the Household Economic Survey indicates that the average housing costs (interest, principal repayments and local body rates) for owner-occupiers with a mortgage are around 25 to 30 per cent of their disposable income.

But one in 10 devote more than half of their disposable (after-tax) income to home loan payments.

They could be seen as lying fairly low in the water and at risk of being swamped should some wave come along like the loss of a job or the forced sale of a home in a marriage break-up.

Arcus Investment Management chief economist Rozanna Wozniak says the rise in house prices has given people a false sense of security, particularly as so much of their wealth is tied up in owner-occupied housing which cannot easily be freed up in retirement.

Excluding owner-occupied housing from the net worth calculation almost halves it - $117,000 instead of $326,000 - and the latest year's increase is then only $7800 not $37,000, Wozniak says.

And the evidence is mounting that the long-heralded housing slowdown is finally at hand.

Real estate turnover over the past three months was well down on the same time a year ago.

Then there is the you-can-run-but-you-can't-hide effect in fixed rate mortgages. More than 40 per cent of them have less than a year to run and those borrowers will face higher interest rates when they are renewed, the delayed effect of nine rises in the Reserve Bank's official cash rate since early 2004.

Fewer new jobs are created as the economy slows.

And the net inflow of migrants, while up last month, is still well down from the peak three years ago.

The net gain in the year ended February was 8270, the weakest for five years. It was down from 11,130 the year before and 41,560 three years ago.

Australia remains the most popular destination for Kiwi emigrants, attracting 34,500 over the past 12 months, which was nearly half the total outflow of 71,100. It supplied 13,400 people in return.

Wozniak points to New Zealand's inferior showing on a number of economic statistics to explain the exodus.

Australia's per capita GDP is 25 per higher than New Zealand's in purchasing power parity terms.

That reflects the fact that their labour productivity has grown more than twice as fast as ours over the past 15 years.

Average full-time weekly earnings (before tax and with no overtime) is $1150 a week across the Tasman, $370 a week higher than in New Zealand.

But even after Australia's own housing boom, the median house price is only 18 per cent higher at NZ$354,000, versus $300,000 here.

The mounting cost of servicing debt is not just an issue for households but for the country as a whole.

This morning's current account number will be as bad as it is not only because of a trade deficit but because of the ongoing cost of servicing the country's net foreign debt, which at the end of September stood at $134 billion.

In the year ended September that cost $10.2 billion or 6.7 per cent of GDP.

You might say it takes three and a half weeks' worth of output from the entire economy each year to pay the rent.

Jim Eagles: Let's heed call of the wild

Antarctica is an amazing place which exercises a huge fascination for New Zealanders, but it seems there are still a lot of question marks about going there.

People wonder: Is it safe? Will it be too rough getting there? Would we be better off going on a big boat or a small one? Is it better to go to the Ross Sea or the Antarctic Peninsula? How do we keep warm? And, ultimately: Is it environmentally responsible to go?

To answer the last question first, I'm a great believer in the positive power of travel to open minds, increase understanding, expose iniquity, grow appreciation of what a wonderful world we live in ... and spread a bit of wealth around.

I don't agree with boycotts of places like Myanmar. As far as I'm concerned, we do a lot more for the people suffering under the appalling military junta by witnessing it for ourselves, talking to locals and buying their services, than is ever achieved by staying away.

I don't agree, either, with the suggestion of some scientists and environmentalists that Antarctica is such a unique, fragile and unspoiled place that people should be shut out.

For one thing, if there is to be international support for continuing to preserve the Antarctic from exploitation - and that will inevitably become an issue - it will best be created by allowing people to see for themselves how special the place is.

For another thing, it was only when tourists started going there and seeing the environmental damage being caused by the various national bases that countries started cleaning up their acts.

But the question of how many tourists the Antarctic can sustain will have to be faced at some point, because numbers are expanding rapidly. United Nations Environmental Programme figures show that in the summer of 1995-96 only 9212 tourists went there.

By last season that had trebled to 27,324 and the number is expected to easily top 30,000 when the present season ends about now.

That growth will continue. In Ushuaia, at the bottom of South America, from where most Antarctic voyages begin, I was told 25 boats were going down there this season but that was expected to increase to 32 by next summer. And a few tourists get there by yacht and even by plane.

Still, for the moment the numbers are relatively small, cover only limited areas, are restricted to the short summer, and the operators have agreed among themselves not to overload any sites. The only time we saw another cruise ship its leader apologised for the intrusion and it turned tail and left. Judging by the trip I went on, the impact on the environment is minimal.

If you follow the rules for visitors laid down in the Antarctic Treaty protocol - which are basically common sense - I believe you can go with a clear conscience.

As to whether it is safe, nowhere is absolutely safe, but if you exercise normal prudence an Antarctic cruise is not particularly risky. The trickiest aspect is probably getting in and out of the Zodiacs that take you to shore, but even in relatively calm weather you'll have a couple of burly sailors to help.

On land it is a matter of being sensible where you walk, avoiding slippery or unstable slopes, and not getting too close to the likes of fur seals or skua nests, something the protocol requires anyway.

The trip down can be rough - although ours wasn't - but it's wonderful what seasick pills can achieve, and you can always lie on your bunk for the duration.

However, susceptibility to seasickness could be a determining factor in which trip you opt for.

I think a small ship like the one I went on, with just 50 passengers, is the best bet because you go ashore two or three times a day for two to three hours a time and can wander pretty freely.

A cruise on one of the bigger ships with 600 to 800 passengers may offer a lot less shore time but it will be a quicker and gentler ride and you will enjoy much greater luxury.

You can reduce your time at sea by leaving from Ushuaia because the voyage from there to the Antarctic Peninsula is much shorter than from, say, Hobart or Bluff to the Ross Sea.

I haven't been to the Ross Sea area but from talking to people who have, it does sound as though there's a much greater variety of wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Cold wasn't as big an issue as I had expected. The ships are comfortably warm so you can soon warm up if you do get chilled.

Obviously it can get cold outside, though while I was there it never really went much below zero, but the chill wind that blew much of the time certainly left my fingers and toes painfully cold a couple of times.

As all the operators will tell you the trick is to wear layers of clothing rather than one or two really thick items. Not only is that a more effective way of insulating yourself, it makes it easier to take clothes off if you warm up.

What I did take were a couple of Macpac Interwool tops, which were fantastic. Not only did they keep me amazingly warm they were also extremely light, comfortable and dressy enough to be worn at dinner.

Following the advice of World Expeditions' New Zealand manager Karen Phillips, my wife and I took a couple of pairs of rubber gloves to wear over our woollen gloves on zodiac trips and that proved a great idea.

We had to put up with jokes from other passengers about doing the dishes but we got the last laugh when our hands stayed warm and dry while their gloves got soaked.

We also bought a couple of Buffs - tubes of cloth you can wear round your neck and pull up into a balaclava when necessary - and they proved a good investment.

Add a polar fleece, parka, waterproof trousers, and so on, and the Antarctic cold - in summer - is nothing to get too worried about.

In any case, the ice, snow, cold weather and turbulent seas are all part of what make a trip to the Antarctic so exciting. Add in fascinating history, stunning scenery and wonderful wildlife and you have one of the most special travel destinations the world has to offer.

Sure, it's not cheap to go. But if you can scrape the money together it's a place not to be missed.

Don't leave it too long. Growth in tourist numbers, international bureaucracy, global warming and resource exploitation mean it may not stay so special for much longer.

Frances Grant: And it's gold for... prattling

The art of "stadium theatre" is a treat that normally comes along only once every few years. But lately, like some rare planetary alignment, we've enjoyed serial sightings of one of the human race's weirder rites: the opening and closing ceremonies for those international sporting events known as the "Games".

No sooner did the Winter Olympics fade than it was all on for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The Italians might have style but nobody can take an opening ceremony to the bonkers heights achieved by the Aussies. Indeed there were few things that touched the ground in an opening extravaganza obviously aimed at putting rival city Sydney's Olympics opener of tap-dancing lawn-mowers in the shade.

Strange objects such as a flying tram, a "thong", a toy duck and koalas with detachable heads were flying round the stadium in a dizzying whirlwind of loopiness and incomprehensibility. There was more levitation than a whole series of Harry Potter movies; more surreality than the Salvador Dali museum.

Only the Queen's ride into the MCG stayed disappointingly earthbound. Her Maj, always a stickler for propriety even in the face of all that mad Aussie exuberance, would probably have loosened up had her big shiny Roller been allowed into orbit.

Like most "stadium theatre", as our host Geoff Bryan described it, you probably had to be there. But our cheery commentators were determined to help viewers make the most of the confusion.

Bryan set the tone: The athletes, we learned, would be drawing us together with the spectacle of their struggles for success and the unscripted drama of their competition. I'm glad he made the spontaneous nature of the event clear. Just in case you might mistake lawn bowls or clay target shooting, for instance, for some kind of high octane fiction like, say, 24.

Jane Kiely remembered her glory days as an athlete representing her country, when she was "so proud, I just about burst!" And why not, you had to say. In a stadium full of people whizzing round on Rollerblades and going off like catherine wheels, an exploding athlete could hardly be cause for alarm.

Anyone familiar with Australian newspaper cartoonist Michael Leunig's work would know he is obsessed with ducks as symbols of whimsy and innocence. But it's highly likely that for most of the billion-strong telly audience, the long item about the boy and the duck was a tad obscure.

Our commentators tried their best with helpful pointers such as, "the fantasies are being encompassed by the music".

One chaotic bit posed a particularly difficult interpretive challenge: "The theme is don't call on Koala Rescue if you are in trouble," guessed our host, a piece of wisdom we can all apply next time we're stuck up a gum tree. The gold medal in the word power event, however, went to Keith Quinn on the motorcycle ballet: "Futuristic, esoteric, balletic!"

Let's hope there are enough unique and splendid adjectives left to cover the games , the major attraction of which is seeing New Zealand look like a sporting giant beside Kiribati and the Isle of Man.

And if the sporting finest from Tuvalu and Jersey don't float your boat, there's always the closing ceremony to look forward to. Perhaps we'll learn more about why you should never fly with a duck-woman in urban areas.

Perhaps our commentators could take a lead from Melbourne's most famous suburban nightmares, Kath & Kim, if the proceedings get too complex and just describe events as "unusual, different, 'noice'."

Talkback: Two words that matter: Target market

Talkback: Two words that matter: Target market

By Rachel Piggott

Last week's Talk Back writer, Mike Edgar, complained of having no idea what was being promoted during TV ad breaks. [He was confused about sack racers and singing car drivers bursting out of the goggle box].

Although I've never met Mike, I can picture him sitting in front of his TV, caught like a rabbit in headlights and unable to move as a rabble of skinny teenagers come rattling towards him falling left, right and centre out of giant hessian bags wearing odd T-shirts and with a hippy singing in the background.

Mike, to help you survive this scary ordeal, I have two little words for you: Target market.

Of course, these advertisements mean nothing to you. When was the last time you popped into Glassons (the sack race people) for a size 12 designer breast cancer T-shirt or splashed out on a new Mitsubishi (the singing drivers)?

If I've understood the nub of Mike's argument, it's that there's a lot of tripe out there masquerading as TV advertising and, on that point, I agree.

If I have to watch one more dire price and product-led replacement tyre advert, I will be driven to rip my TV off the wall and toss it out the window.

But I disagree with Mike's granny's comment that TV is purely a visual medium. If it was, why did they ever put sound on it?

I am proud to say that I played a role in taking New Zealand to the world as a "must see" destination via the 100% Pure New Zealand campaign.

How important was the soundtrack? Critical.

Our goal was to halt millions of Brits, Aussies and Yanks in their tracks as they fled their front rooms to put the kettle on. As soon as they heard Don't Dream it's Over, Neil Finn had won them over. Power surges were temporarily delayed as they rushed back into the parlour to lose themselves in the sumptuous visual feast of landscape that complemented Neil's spine-tingling lyrics. Visitation to New Zealand skyrocketed. Which leads me nicely on to those naughty little Aussies across the ditch.

How clever they are and how short our memories appear to be. It wasn't that long ago there was all that hullabaloo surrounding the "bugger" ads. Is "bugger" worst than "bloody"? Who cares - anyway you can always find a perfectly viable argument for using both of them in context.

The point is that a TV advertisement needs neither good visuals nor a recognisable soundtrack if it causes controversy and gets tongues wagging.

"Where the Bloody Hell Are You?" has achieved worldwide status without winning one advertising award.

A job bloody well done in the overcrowded, noisy and confusing media circus commonly known as life.

To Mike, I say there is a place for products but we live in a world where, logo or no logo, brand is everything.

Why? All products are fundamentally the same, albeit for the odd bell and whistle, but in today's crazy, competitive world it's the name and pre-defined associations that we buy into first that ultimately determine the product we choose.

Old school is fine, Mike, if you're "too cool for skool" - Vespas and Adidas trainers - but I can't imagine you wearing or riding either.

I say thank goodness for the Glassons and Mitsubishis of this world and their advertising agencies raising the bar of TV advertising in New Zealand. It gives me hope.

It might be time to go back to school and understand what the new kids are really doing. Millions of generation Y consumers can't be wrong.

* Rachel Piggott is a communications specialist and can be contacted at her website