Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sideswipe

See, pregnancy is glamorous: No, it's not The Stepford Wives and definitely not the village virgins. These women are members of the fitness group Preggi Bellies, strolling near Albert Park in Auckland.

By Ana Samways

Dear Sideswipe,

I was most disturbed by an incident that happened on my patch last week. Some talented Elam post-graduate art students approached me to ask if they could provide some shelter for the forthcoming winter by building a piece of public art to protect me in the cool evenings. I quickly agreed, aiming to attract some hens with their magnificent Cape Cod style home, which was put in place at the crack of dawn last Wednesday morning. On Thursday morning, after undertaking my various nefarious duties, I found it had gone. Could the officious motorway minder, or thieving Auckland dad, please return my personal artwork.

Thank you,

Russell the Rooster

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Poverty and general tragedy don't get a look in for the new season of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In an email the programme's casting agent details a creepy wishlist of afflictions the programme-makers are on the lookout for, including:

A family who are victims of hate crime

A family who has lost a child to drunk-driving

A family who has multiple children with Downs Syndrome

A child with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. "This is where kids cannot feel any physical pain," the casting agent notes. But the hunt for a young victim - who will likely die before 30 - will not be easy. "There are 17 known cases in the US," she writes, before chirpily adding, "let me know if one is in your town!" (Source: www.thesmokinggun.com)

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Tony Waring of Titirangi has driven behind a Toyota Prius, the terribly economical and green petrol/electric car and believes there is another reason why they are economical. He writes: "The Prius drivers move along at very conservative speeds, and I started to wonder if this is because they want to bore their colleagues and friends about how many kilometres they get to the litre. Yesterday my suspicion was fuelled further when I was driving (slowly) behind another Prius, this one with its wing mirrors folded in, presumably to reduce wind resistance and further increase fuel economy. Is this the start of POP culture - Pious Owners of a Prius?"

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Among the places of business particularly affected by Americans' cell-phone rudeness was the Green Oaks Family Dentistry clinic in Arlington, Texas, according to USA Today. Office manager Lisa Teague said patients were carrying on phone conversations while hygienists worked in their mouths. "It was very disruptive," she said. (Source: News of the Weird)

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Strolling Bones tickets gather moss: The response from Ticketmaster many of you will have received: "Due to an error with the ticket run, the tickets for the Rolling Stones have just started to be sent out, therefore if you have not received them by next Friday please call us on (09) 970- 9700 and we will action a courier trace for you." For the still ticketless, maybe it's time to take up the offer of a trace.

Editorial: Forget this nonsense, for all dogs

A rural rebellion against microchip registration of dogs failed at the Cabinet table this week. Jim Anderton, Minister of Agriculture, put the case for farm dogs to be exempt from the law, which will require all newly registered dogs to have an identifying microchip embedded between their shoulder blades, but he was defeated. As the Prime Minister put it, no doubt with relish, there must be "one law for all".

That rhetorical device rather neatly immobilises the National Party on an issue that is generating some heat in the heartland. Farmers, who have a healthy resistance to petty regulation, are asking what purpose a microchip register of dogs will serve for them? Many an urban dog owner has asked the same question. If the National Party wants to take up the cry from its rural constituency it will need to argue not for a farm exemption but for a reconsideration of this law for all.

It is not too late to do so. Microchip registration was a proposal lying in wait for an opportune political moment. The moment came after a series of urban dog incidents, especially the mauling of Carolina Anderson, aged 7, in an Auckland park in 2003. The Government, under pressure to do something about unsafe dogs, decided to have a national register of dogs whose owners could be easily identified by an electronic scanner.

It has never been clear quite how that would avert dog attacks, stop them when they start, or solve any other problem. They would not be as good as a visible tag when it comes to spotting whether a dog has a current registration, and they would be no better than a collar tag when owners need to be identified. Those who do not register their ownership now will be no more likely to do so by microchip. And those who do register their dogs already come forward fairly readily if the dog gets into trouble.

The only advantage a microchip appears to offer is making more information available to officials with scanners. It might save them having to note a number on a tag and find the owners' name on file, which they will do mainly to enforce registration and the revenue their councils receive from it. For that small convenience all newly registered pups are to have a bean inserted in their bodies.

Farmers are possibly the last people who would be expected to object to that small indignity to an animal, accustomed as they are to tagging the ears of stock and branding them in ways much more painful than a tiny insertion in a dog's thick skin. But farmers are in a better position to resist needless rules. They defeated the "fart tax" on animal methane emissions long before the Government was forced to backtrack on its hopes of taxing carbon emissions as well. They are in the best position to challenge the pretext for microchipping because farm dogs are strictly trained not to savage animals, let alone people. Any farm dog that forgets that training is unlikely to live very long.

City dogs lead a more pampered life, and their problems lie with owners who don't ensure they are sufficiently trained or kept under adequate control. The Kennel Club, which says microchips will do nothing to improve dog control, intends to call for licensing of dog owners rather than dogs. It would be no bad thing if people had to do a course in dog behaviour and care before they gained the right to own one - in cities anyway. Farms already contain all the incentive owners need to ensure their dogs are not feral.

But the difficulty in exempting farms, as the Kennel Club points out, is that distinction between rural and urban life is blurred these days. Many a pet on a fringe farmlet may be a much loved hazard and left to stray. There probably has to be one law for all dog owners, provided it is really needed. Microchips appear to be no more than a bureaucratic toy.

John Armstrong: Dog of a day for Anderton

If there is going to be one law for all dogs - as Labour keeps insisting - then there must surely be one law for all Cabinet ministers.

So Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton had no option but to front up in Parliament yesterday to be mauled by an Opposition revelling in his failure to get the Cabinet to change its mind and exempt farm dogs from microchipping.

With outraged farmers yapping in one ear and National MPs yelping in the other, Mr Anderton looked like someone about to be microchipped such was his grimace.

His squirming was understandable. The convention of collective Cabinet responsibility obliged him to defend the Cabinet's decision even though he had fought behind the scenes to have it reversed.

The Opposition drew the obvious conclusion: Mr Anderton no longer wielded much influence as the sole Progressive MP in the Cabinet.

He did his best to argue otherwise even though these days he is more pooch than pit-bull. He told the House the matter had been given "full" and "careful" consideration, but the Cabinet had decided "on balance" that successful enforcement of the policy required a "consistent approach" across the country.

In other words, he had been rolled.

But Mr Anderton persisted in trying to extract minor victory from total defeat.

As Opposition MPs howled with laughter, he declared that Federated Farmers knew they had a minister who did not duck the issues. He had managed to get the Cabinet to review the original decision even though it had not been required to do so.

National then pulled out some newspaper clippings which had Mr Anderton boasting about his influence as a senior minister. How then did he explain to National being rolled by one of the most junior - Associate Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the author of the clever "one law for all dogs"?

Mr Anderton replied that there were some members of Cabinet that "one accepts being rolled by" - a statement which immediately had ministers around him wondering who was not in that category.

By now, Mr Anderton was trying to make a constitutional virtue of his predicament.

As the minority coalition partner, Mr Anderton could have invoked the "agree to disagree" clause in the Cabinet manual and distanced himself from the Cabinet's decision.

That would have been the easy option. But the Government currently needs solidarity. Mr Anderton accordingly stressed he was bound by Cabinet collective responsibility. He accepted the Cabinet's view "unreservedly".

But he was flummoxed by the next question from Rural Affairs Minister, Damien O'Connor.

Could Mr Anderton confirm that every single apple exported from New Zealand had to be identified by a sticker?

Fortunately Mr Anderton did not have to find an answer to this riddle as the Speaker Margaret Wilson ruled the question out of order.

However, the mention of apples had Winston Peters asking an even more convoluted question about the pip-fruit industry, prompting the Speaker to remind him the House was currently "on dogs and microchipping".

Quick as a flash, National's resident St Bernard, Gerry Brownlee, was on his feet suggesting, as the House was dealing with dogs, it should hear a question from the "poodle" - a reference to Mr Peters' propping-up of the Labour-led Government.

Even Mr Peters could see the funny side. Briefly. He was soon snarling dobermann-like about repaying the compliment with interest. In the dog-eat-dog world of Parliament, there are some canines you would not even dare to try to microchip.

Tapu Misa: Adaptive mums juggle both work and family demands

I had an acquaintance once who used to visit me when I was at home with my children, and go on, ad nauseam, about how hard it was being a working mum - a paid one, that is.

It didn't help that she was doing it solo, on account of having become pregnant to a wastrel who was physically pleasing but emotionally stunted. She was smart enough to have figured this out before she reached that biological point of no-return, but somehow didn't. That left her a little bitter, despite her rather beautiful child.

I sympathised, even as I envied her salary and her flash car and expensive wardrobe. But I stopped feeling sorry for her when she turned her ire on stay-at-home mums, a sub-set that I happened to belong to at the time.

We had it too easy, she said. She, who dropped her baby off at daycare every morning and picked her up when it was dark, couldn't see why some women chose to stay home with their children. How lazy and lacking in ambition was that?

I was resentful, given that staying at home was no picnic - financial dependence and being mired in domestic drudgery and poverty not being all it was cracked up to be.

It never occurred to this woman that some of us were motivated more by what we believed was good for our children than our addiction to daytime soaps and talk shows (although I admit to a brief dalliance with Oprah and Dr Phil).

We didn't want our babies' critical first years to be shaped by paid strangers with whom they were bound to spend more of their waking hours.

Privately, and righteously, I felt she was a Bad Mother who hadn't thought twice about sacrificing her child on the altar of her career. I felt sure her child would turn out Bad, unlike my own little angels.

Some years later, I met her again. Her little girl seemed like a nice child, a little self-centred and over-confident, but what only child wasn't?

That was in back in the last century. I'm now a working mother, albeit an "adaptive" one, a phrase coined by British sociologist Catherine Hakim, to explain the mothers whom policy analysts have yet to acknowledge. Those who adapt their working lives to their children's needs.

But little seems to have changed. There's still tension between the stay-at-homes and the working mums. And most women still seem unprepared for the realities of motherhood in the 21st century. As a reader confirmed when she emailed to say how shocked her 30-year-old pregnant friend was to discover that "the freedom of choice and the status that she's enjoyed up to now has suddenly evaporated as she comes to be seen as a mother who wants to stay at home to raise her child.

"As a person who now has to give primacy to her female body/function, she has become worthless according to the values of our society and culture."

As Catherine Hakim has said, men have always recognised that you have to make choices. Women have just deluded themselves into thinking that they didn't have to.

This is despite our biological reality check. Do we breed or stay childless, as an increasing number of women are doing? Delay too long and the decision is taken out of our hands, according to Fertility NZ, which warned women last week that infertility rates almost double after 26.

And if we choose children, should we stay at home, at least for those first three critical years that psychologists say is crucial to healthy child development, or do we put them in daycare and hope for the best?

Most women will be driven by necessity. But some may well be driven by public policy.

According to Hakim, women have three distinct work labour force choices. About a third, are work-centred; another third are home-centred; and the majority are in the middle - the adaptives, who want the best of both worlds. They want to combine family and work, which means, says Hakim, that they're never going to give priority to paid employment.

Unfortunately, public policy hasn't got round to recognising women who aren't work-centred - as our own PM proved when she called on more women to work for the good of the economy.

Neil Gilbert, Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California, writing last year in The Public Interest, argued that so-called family-friendly policies, designed to harmonise work and family life, are "implicitly oriented towards helping mothers work while raising children. It is informed by male work patterns which basically involves a seamless transition from school to the paid labour force along with a drive to rise as high as possible in a given line of work".

The full thrust of these policies, Gilbert wrote, was to actually reinforce "the abdication of motherhood". We should rethink "family-friendly" policies, he maintained, "to give equal consideration to the diverse values that influence how women respond to the conflicting demands of work and family life".

There is, say Gilbert and Hakim, a more sequential approach to balancing work and family, one which includes not only my erstwhile acquaintance, who wanted to combine work and family life at the same time, but women like me, who took a decade out to concentrate on child-rearing.

Brian Rudman: It's time to retaliate against the blight of tagging

Parliamentarians are in town next week to hear submissions on the proposed anti-graffiti bylaw being promoted by Manukau City.

It provides for, among other things, a $1500 fine for any retailer within Manukau City who sells spray paint to anyone under 18 years and requires spray cans for sale be displayed in a locked cabinet. It also proposes a fine of up to $1500 for convicted taggers.

The fatal flaw is that as long it remains a law for Manukau City alone, it's doomed to fail. All it will deliver is a bonanza in sales for paint retailers just outside the city boundaries in Auckland City and Papakura.

It's not that I'm against the proposed new law. I just hope the MPs have the sense to make it nationwide.

Now no one could ever accuse me of belonging to the law and order brigade. Claim a deprived upbringing, and I'm queuing with the tissues. But there is something insidious about the tagging that blights the exposed walls of Auckland that makes me go all Garth George-ish. It makes me cheer for the taxi driver who, on catching one tagger in action, grabbed the offending can and emptied it down the inside of the offender's trousers.

The utter selfishness of the activity is what gets to me most of all. The way a few non-entities can slink about, trashing the face of a neighbourhood in the dead of night.

A 2004 Manukau City report into controlling graffiti sums up the resulting sense of community helplessness. It notes that a 2003 survey of Quality of Life in New Zealand's eight largest cities ranked Manukau bottom, with only 51 per cent of citizens agreeing they had a sense of pride in the look and feel of their city.

One of main reasons for the lack of pride was the graffiti plague. It's so bad, the city has a Beautification Trust with 30 staff endlessly painting over and otherwise removing, 30,000 tags a month.

Not only is it depressing to look at, it's ruinously expensive to deal with, costing Auckland local government at least $5 million a year in cleanup costs.

Manukau City claims the highest bill at $1.5 million, but the other cities are not far behind.

It's not just a local problem. Just over a year ago, Scotland banned children under 16 buying spray paint. In Australia and the United States, cities and state governments have tried similar legislation.

Chicago even banned the sale of spray paint to anyone. But graffiti continued, presumably fuelled by cans brought in by sly-groggers from outside the city limits.

But even if we go the Scottish way and impose a nationwide age limit on spray can sales, there's still the problem of enforcement. With plenty of taggers apparently over the age of consent, one suspects the age limit will be more of an inconvenience than anything.

Still, an age limit is a start. But I'd be tempted to go further and put paint sprays in the same category as flick knives and replica guns. Harmless enough in law-abiding hands, but too proven a risk to society to be legal.

The alternative is to pin the full costs of the offending product on to the producer - or the user. In Philadelphia a few years back, the paint manufacturers headed off the city's plans to limit spray-paint sales, by offering to supply free paint for graffiti eradication.

I say let's recover the full cost of remedy from the manufacturer, not just the raw material. It wouldn't be hard. All it would need would be for each city to report how much graffiti clean-up cost the community, then the Government could slap a levy on each can to cover it. Either that, or levy the suppliers at source.

Such targeted taxing is hardly new. We do it with cars and dogs and tobacco and alcohol to help cover their costs to the community. And we're toying with a carbon tax to deduct the full cost of burning fossil fuel on the environment.

So why not a similar levy on the taggers' weapon of choice - spray paint. It is equally toxic to our environment. And it destroys it today, not in 50 or 100 or 500 years down the track.

Fran O'Sullivan: Blair could be ally in trade negotiations

It's a fair bet that one of the key items on Helen Clark and Tony Blair's agenda today will be the potential stalemate on world trade talks.

With next month's deadline for setting new World Trade Organisation tariff rates looming, the British Prime Minister used his speech to the Australian Parliament this week to renew his appeal to major trading nations to make the concessions needed to clinch the "development" round.

Blair - who is a major actor at this stage of the WTO's lengthy game - argued that "if we can't put a decent trade round in place, this will be a failure with multiple consequences, all of them adverse".

The issue was "open or closed" as far as the world's markets were concerned.

But Clark's officials - who still argue that a successful WTO round provides the best opportunities for New Zealand's exporters - have already covered their bets in event of failure. They have quietly elevated a Plan B option, to quickly deepen our bilateral trade relationships, to share frontline status with the multilateral initiative.

Japan and South Korea have been targeted as the new objects of our ardent trading affections.

What's at stake is not the big bang notions of old: The full-on free-trade agreements, or, "closer economic partnerships" as Clark's more ideological colleagues prefer to call them. They were comprehensive deals which covered trade in agriculture, industrial goods and services, and also moved towards liberalising investment rules.

Instead, the new terminology talks about these prospective agreements with big North Asian powers as being "deeper vehicles for greater economic co-operation". It's a pragmatic "get what you can now and try again later" approach, which one trade official likened to our initial Closer Economic Relations talks with Australia.

There's a soft logic to the Government's agenda, even if it does worry major agricultural exporters who fear we will lose our nerve at the WTO just when it's needed most.

Fonterra, in particular, is concerned that dairy exporters' demands will be set to one side as officials move to score "down and dirty" deals with the more protectionist Asian countries.

Others worry that China's Ministry of Agriculture will push New Zealand into accepting a free-trade deal that is "agriculture lite" - that is, a deal that ring-fences big chunks of so-called "sensitive products", such as dairy, from fast-track liberalisation.

But other countries are also courting these big Asian partners. If we don't follow suit some of our less powerful sectoral exporters could quickly find themselves "Tailend Charlies" if Japan and South Korea seal deals that create preferential access for our competitors and Australia gets ahead of us with China.

The US has made it clear that New Zealand will not get a place on its free-trade queue. And the European Union, which is a huge market for New Zealand, is not yet on our prospecting list.

But Clark would be passing up a golden opportunity if she failed to at least pop the "How about it?" question to Blair, asking him to use his influence with Brussels and longtime political ally Peter Mandelson - now the EU trade czar - to talk about opening bilateral negotiations to expand our access.

Kiwis tend to view the EU as the Great Satan of global trade. But Europe has made great strides towards reducing its protectionist system, which basically paid French farmers, in particular, as pets. The Common Agriculture Policy is being progressively deconstructed - at the WTO's recent Hong Kong ministerial jamboree Mandelson agreed to an expiry date for EU export subsidies.

Blair made the point while in Australia that EU agriculture protection was a "policy born of another age and it's time to end it".

He also called on the US, Japan, Brazil and India to take the lead.

The underlying issue for both these Labour Prime Ministers is the implications for the global economy, particularly the poorer nations, if the WTO cannot forge a deal.

Blair talks about the tide of protectionist sentiment that is flowing. The commitment to relieving world poverty is now at stake, but so is the idea of of multilateral action to achieve common goals.

Senior diplomats at the WTO's Geneva headquarters, where the mood is seen to be uniformly negative, argue that little substantive has emerged.

In Hong Kong, negotiators set a target of the end of April for what are known in WTO jargon as "full modalities" - formulas and other guidelines for reducing trade barriers, which would eventually form part of a formal treaty at the end of the round.

But Crawford Falconer, the New Zealander who chairs the agriculture committee, said little material had emerged.

WTO director-general Pascal Lamy was expected to make an assessment of the state of the current talks overnight, which will be available to the two prime ministers when they meet today.

Blair has also suggested a major international summit to push things along. But he was not vocal on the issue while in Australia.

This is again another area where Clark could usefully chivvy her Labour colleague to take action and invite New Zealand along for the ride.

Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton, who still sits in Cabinet, pointed out that New Zealand was now being omitted from the meetings of some very influential recent WTO member country officials.

He is not so impolitic as to suggest that New Zealand's absence is because Clark took the senior part of the portfolio off him and gave it to Phil Goff. But it may well be an issue.

What is clear is that right now we do lack a senior voice within top WTO circles and Goff has too much on his plate here to spend endless time on lobbying his peers.

If Clark and Blair can get use this visit to ginger up local energy to help push the WTO round to a successful conclusion it will be in our exporters' interests. And Plan B should stay just that.


Unions fear cheap Indian labour

Trade union boss Ross Wilson and Wellington diplomat-turned-business lobbyist Charles Finney are scrapping over a World Trade Organisation initiative that unionists fear might open the way for Indian workers to undercut New Zealanders for work done here.

At issue is India's desire for negotiations under what is known as Mode 4 - the movement of peoples.

Finney, CEO of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, has described India's participation in the limited discussions on this score as positive.

But Wilson says India's request to remove the "wage parity condition" when its workers go overseas to support specified service industries suggests "business groups are supporting the use of cheap labour to undercut local pay and conditions".

Not much has been said publicly about the services negotiations. But New Zealand is actively participating in discussions over freeing up trade in a number of areas ranging from private education to logistical services.

Jim Eagles: Lending a hand on holiday

Most travellers will tell you that their best experiences in foreign lands have come not so much from visiting tourist attractions but from interacting with locals and getting a taste of their culture and way of life.

For me, the highlight of an otherwise slightly disappointing trip to Trinidad was being invited by a tour driver to his home, where I met his family, drank a great deal of rum punch and was entertained by his very musical children.

The best part of a terrific trip to Vanuatu was getting friendly with the son of the chief of a small village, visiting his garden up in the hills and enjoying a feast with his family.

The most vivid memory from a recent visit to Singapore was being taken by a couple of locals to a basement outlet for Ya Kun Kaya Toast to enjoy a breakfast of coconut-egg jam spread between two slices of toast and eaten with a mix of two softboiled eggs, black soy sauce and a little pepper, accompanied by strong coffee with condensed milk.

And the most exciting part of a yacht trip to Fiji was getting to know the people of an island village well enough to be invited to share a real kava night, which lasted until dawn.

Such occasions can be even more rewarding if you're able to give something back to the community that has made you welcome by doing something such as - in the case of the Fijian visit - providing books for the school and clothes for the children.

Indeed, Christopher Hill, the founder of a new travel company, believes such experiences can be not just memorable but hugely significant personally.

His favourite memories from a great deal of travelling, particularly in developing countries, all involve interacting with the locals in this way.

As examples he lists "going to Guatemala for a month to learn Spanish, living with a family and helping them learn English, or going up into the north of Vietnam doing some hiking, where I ended up being invited to a wedding in one of the villages and became the official photographer.

"In South Africa I've done some housebuilding and in Thailand on the Lao border I've been involved with some English-teaching camps.

"I've got many memorable experiences from travelling but the occasions when I've been able to give something back have been the most fulfilling, even life-changing, of all."

Hill says in South Africa, especially, he found himself "challenged, personally, by working alongside people who had nothing yet seemed much happier than myself and my peers.

"I got to think that there must be something to this and made a conscious decision to live more contentedly and simply. I feel I'm a much better and more contended person because of that."

But for him the impact of those experiences has gone even further. Dissatisfied with working in the corporate finance rat race in Britain, he started looking for business opportunities which would be more fulfilling.

Chatting about all this with a friend while sitting round the campfire on a trip to Africa three-and-a-half years ago, he came up with the idea of starting a travel firm which would provide the opportunity for similar encounters to others.

"I saw there was this gap between, on the one hand, the pure volunteer organisations, and at the other end the pure sightseeing organisations, but nothing blending the two, so I decided to set up a business which aimed to fill that niche."

The result, launched a few weeks ago, is Hands Up Holidays.

It offers holiday packages which are a mix of sightseeing, meeting people and doing volunteer work in 23 countries around the world.

"What's different about these trips," he says, "is that while they're still primarily a holiday, and people will still get to see the sights, they will spend a third of the time doing community development work so they get a taste of what it is like."

Some of the holidays on offer include:

* Teaching English in Laos or Uganda.

* House-building in Guatemala or Fiji.

* Repairing buildings in Tibet or Indonesia.

* Environmental work in Turkey or China.

* Helping with IT in Ukraine or Vanuatu.

The cost of each package includes not only the travel but also providing materials for the project and - essential with unskilled volunteers - "arranging overseers who make sure the job is done properly".

The new company has a small staff who believe in its aims to the extent that for now they are working for equity in the business.

Hands Up Holidays has also developed a relationship with House of Travel, which is helping to market its packages.

The response since the launch has been encouraging, says Hill, with a few firm bookings and numerous expressions of interest and support. But he acknowledges it will be a long haul to turn his idea into a business success.

In the meantime he's getting by through "living very frugally" and "boarding with my parents who've been incredibly supportive".

But he is buoyed by the belief that his idea of holidays where you get to work alongside people much poorer than yourself and give them a helping hand is not just viable commercially but extremely worthwhile in a broader sense.

"The aim is for this sort of holiday to do for others what I believe they've done for me. Once I got a taste of what it's like interacting in a positive way with people in these countries I was committed.

"What I'm hoping is, if we give people a taste and get them hooked, when they come back they'll become advocates for volunteer work in their home towns, or perhaps on a longer term basis abroad."

So does he want these to be life-changing holidays? "Absolutely. It was for me."

* Hands Up Holidays can be contacted on www.handsupholidays.com or freephone 0800 426 3787.

Anthony Elliott: Quick fix brings long-term legacy

Face too wrinkled? Breasts too small? Thinking of cosmetic surgery to turn back the years that have taken their toll?

If you have considered going under the surgeon's knife to be nipped, tucked and stitched up, you're one of the many who see surgery as the fastest way to transform their lives.

Several recent academic studies reveal a dramatic rise in cosmetic surgery throughout the United States and Europe (particularly France, Spain, Germany and Turkey), and Australia and New Zealand are fast following suit.

The middle classes are rushing to embrace the culture of nip and tuck.

Cosmetic surgery is fast becoming a lifestyle choice. This social trend is nowhere more powerfully reinforced than through today's fad for television makeover shows.

Programmes such as American ABC network's Extreme Makeover, which uses plastic surgery to "redesign" women, as well as various cable offerings including Cosmetic Surgery Live, The Swan and MTV's I Want a Famous Face, are creating a new emotional climate of personal vulnerability.

To what extent, as a society, should we be worried? Do advances in cosmetic surgery promote consumer choice, as argued by surgeons and their professional associations, or are we witnessing the emergence of a dangerous addiction?

Growing evidence suggests that the rush to undergo the knife is often at the cost of knowing about the long-term consequences of wounds and the healing process. Some studies indicate that the emotional costs of quick-fix cosmetic surgery can ruin lives, and indeed are sometimes lethal. These negative outcomes can be destructive: loss of personal identity, confusion, depression, breakdown and even suicide.

To what extent is reality TV to blame for the growth of cosmetic surgery? Many patients acknowledge that makeover programmes have persuaded them to go under the knife.

Others see the fault in celebrity obsession. The shape, size, diet, addictions and surgical enhancements of celebrity bodies are now topics of public obsession. However, today's reinvention craze - centred on cosmetic surgery - is symptomatic of something much larger than the influence of commercial media or celebrity culture.

One key factor in the rise of surgical culture is "want-now" consumerism.

In our quick-fix society, people want change and, increasingly, they want it instantly. Cosmetic surgery offers the promise of instant transformation.

More and more, cosmetic procedures - from Botox and collagen fillers to liposuction and breast augmentation - are reduced to a purchase mentality. There's an emerging generation of young people - whom I term the "Plastic Generation" - that treat cosmetic surgery as on a par with shopping: consumed fast and with immediate results.

Today's surgical culture promotes a fantasy of the body's infinite plasticity.

The message from the makeover industry is that there's nothing to stop you reinventing yourself however you choose; but your surgically-enhanced body is unlikely to make you happy for long, for today's surgical enhancements of the body are only fashioned with the short-term in mind. They are until "the next procedure".

But there's also a deeper set of social forces at work in this branding of cosmetic surgery as a consumer choice. The root of the problem is driven by globalisation - which is creating profound personal vulnerabilities.

Globalisation, and the speeding up of the world, brings with it major changes.

The economic facts of globalisation, where employment is more fluid and everything moves incredibly fast, has increased personal pressures to the point where people need to be seen to try to "transform" and "reinvent" themselves.

Driven by the fear of not measuring up to such cultural ideals, people desperately attempt to "refashion" themselves as more efficient, faster, leaner, and inventive than they were previously.

Society in the era of surgical culture is fundamentally shaped by this fear of disposability.

Not all that long ago, anyone who wanted cosmetic surgery would have been recommended therapy in the first instance. Today, by contrast, there is a widespread acceptance that surgical culture is beneficial and even desirable.

This cultural shift has not been heralded by advances in psychological understanding. But the flipside of today's reinvention craze is fear of personal disposability.

For those seduced by the promises of the makeover industry, the danger of cosmetic surgery is a form of change so rapid and so complete that identity becomes disposable. The wider social costs mean we are all debased by this soulless surgical culture.

* Anthony Elliott is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK. His book The New Individualism, published by Routledge, is written with Charles Lemert.

Irfan Yusuf: Clear violation of Koran

A 41-year-old Afghan father lives overseas for 15 years. He has a custody battle with his wife who lives in Afghanistan. He returns to Kabul to fight a custody battle. A relative with a personal vendetta claims the father has converted to Christianity and dobs him into the authorities.

The father is charged with the ancient crime of apostasy. For poor Abdul Rahman, his apparent choice of religion is being used as a secondary means to deny him custody of children. It's amazing what people are prepared to do to pursue personal vendettas.

But for a small group of radical Afghan mullahs, this case has become the latest rallying cry for religious chauvinism and defiance of the West. Some mullahs haven't quite figured out that the Taleban lost the war.

Islamic legal tradition (or sharia) cops plenty of flack in the press and from politicians. Australian Government ministers, keen to deflect attention from the Saddam kickback scandals, tell us people supporting sharia should be deported.

But what people don't mention is that the alleged law of apostasy doesn't exist in sharia. And if it does, there is little consensus on its application among Muslim legal experts.

Paranoid commentators claim the Koran teaches Muslims to kill anyone abandoning Islam. In fact, the cardinal principle in the Koran is expressed in a verse which, translated into English, says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion."

In other words, the Koran teaches that religion is a matter of choice. You can't force someone to believe in a certain religion, let alone kill them for abandoning it.

In the early days of Islam, Muslims were a small group living under siege in a small city-state, surrounded by enemies always ready to drive them out of existence. In such dangerous circumstances, a person's Muslim identity was closely linked to their loyalty to the state.

If a person abandoned Islam and wished to remain in the city-state, they were effectively committing treason.

A person who left Islam could leave the city-state or might face trial for treason. If convicted, they could face a death sentence which wasn't mandatory and could be replaced with a lighter punishment. Today, even in the most civilised Western countries, treason is punished by a mandatory death penalty.

From some isolated historical incidents, a minority of medieval Muslim scholars concluded that leaving the Islamic faith (or apostasy) is punished by mandatory death sentence. Most Muslim legal scholars dispute this view. It isn't the practice of the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries to kill people who leave Islam.

One Australian Muslim scholar, Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne, recently co-authored a book on the law of apostasy. He states that the original intention of the law was to punish treason, not to forbid peaceful conversion.

A Swiss Muslim scholar, Professor Tariq Ramadan who teaches at Oxford University, goes further. He argues all forms of capital punishment should be stopped in Muslim countries. He says that corrupt police and judges mean that enforcing capital punishments will make sharia an instrument of injustice.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, the government recognises six official religions. People switch faiths all the time especially after they get married.

During a recent visit to Indonesia, I met a woman whose Muslim mother married a Dutch Protestant man. The woman was brought up as a Muslim but converted to Catholicism after marrying a French Catholic. Her sister married an Australian Protestant Christian and converted to Anglicanism. Neither sister has spent any time in an Indonesian prison, nor have they been put on trial.

So why can people convert so easily from Islam in most Muslim countries but not in Afghanistan?

One factor is that ordinary people in Afghanistan aren't known for their high literacy rates or their general knowledge of Islamic law. Only 14 per cent of women in Afghanistan can read and write.

Muslim minorities in Western countries often claim discrimination and prejudice. Yet what they experience pales into insignificance compared to the plight of Abdul Rahman. Muslims have no reason to support those calling for Rahman's execution, an act which would represent a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Koran.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University.