Friday, March 31, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

Consequences of being rude to the fake President: While a motorcade scene for The West Wing was being shot in Burbank, California, a resident observed the driver of a Mustang honking his horn and giving the finger to the film crew. The driver was then chased by four real cop cars and about 10 real cops, handcuffed and searched. (Source: Defamer.com)

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Very strange things seen on Grafton Bridge early on Wednesday: A series of repeated messages, in a fancy font on a piece of paper, stuck the length of the bridge. "A warning to all males. Do not give your heart to Tessa Robinson. She will break it." And "Tessa Robinson, heart-breaker." And "Tessa my love, your reputation is on the line." Guerrilla marketing? Or someone's idea of payback?

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As an owner of a Toyota Prius, Jill Cooper of Hillsborough confirms Tony Waring's suspicions. She writes: "The Prius has a nifty little display which tells you what your km/litre is at any one moment so, once you start driving one, the time it takes to get to your destination becomes secondary to your petrol consumption in getting there. In fact, my husband and I can get quite competitive about it. We also compare our consumption with other Prius owners..."

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Now seriously: By now many New Zealanders will have seen the child cancer appeal week "Fight the Monster" television ad. Some have suggested that describing cancer as a monster is not as sugar-coated as they'd like, but it seems to suit the disease, which attacks 150 healthy New Zealand children each year. The animated story stars real cancer patient 4-year-old Connor Hourigan from Carterton. Connor's monster, a Wilms tumour on her kidney, was an ogre everyone thought she had successfully fought off. But during the campaign the family found out that Connor had a shadow on her liver. After a few traumatic weeks during filming of the commercial, and a CT scan and MRI, the growth has proved not to be cancerous but will be monitored closely. The Child Cancer Foundation has supported my own family for nearly three decades. My sister was diagnosed with leukaemia at age 3. Seventy-six lumbar punctures later, she is 31 years old. The ASB Bank responded swiftly to yesterday's snippet about the collectors outside their Titirangi branch, who were shunted along for obscuring their interest rates, with $1000 for the cause. If anyone else would like to pitch in, send cheques made out to The Child Cancer Foundation to Sideswipe, PO Box 32, Wellesley St, and watch for updates. (Maybe the BNZ might crack open a few of those piggy banks)

Editorial: Israel now must talk to Hamas

A change of epoch-making proportion has swept Israeli politics. For the first time, the country has given a centrist party the power to form a government. More important still, that party is ready to call time on the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland throughout the biblical Israel. Such is the impulse for moderation among Israelis after years of conflict that it could not be undone even by militant Hamas' triumph in recent Palestinian elections.

The Kadima Party's victory was the more remarkable in that it has existed for only five months, and had to survive the incapacitation of its founder, Ariel Sharon.

Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister in waiting, overcame not only a lack of charisma but the encumbrance of being a career politician in a state that traditionally draws its leaders from the ranks of the Army or the resistance. That, in itself, spoke volumes of Israelis' desire to move away from extreme politics.

But the voters shied away from giving Kadima anything like a free hand. To form a coalition, it will need the support of the Labour Party and at least one of the array of minority parties. Kadima, which won 28 seats, had set its sights on holding 40-plus in the 120-strong Knesset. Its disappointment probably owed much to a degree of nervousness about the scale of Mr Olmert's plan for achieving a lasting peace with the Palestinians, an agenda he spelt out in terms far blunter than Mr Sharon would ever have contemplated. His proposal, if Hamas continues to refuse to recognise the Jewish state, would see Israel unilaterally set its final national border within four years by removing isolated settlements in the occupied West Bank while expanding the biggest and closest blocs there. This would involve shifting up to 80,000 settlers, a huge step up from the 8500 controversially removed from Gaza.

This go-it-alone approach overtakes the internationally backed peace "roadmap", which envisaged a cessation of violence and mutual steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. To a significant degree, Kadima has seized the moment. The roadmap's struggle to gain traction has hardly been helped by the Palestinians' radical electoral choice. The international community, and particularly the United States, will have nothing to do with Hamas unless it renounces violence and recognises Israel. Mr Olmert, by painting his plan as a step forward that requires a painful compromise by Israel, will seek the Bush Administration's backing with some confidence.

The Palestinians want nothing of this. They see Israel retaining parts of the West Bank, which it seized in the 1967 war, even though all settlements there have been deemed illegal by the World Court. This grab, they say, denies them a viable state.

Already, a gulf is apparent. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' reaction to Kadima's victory was to signal his willingness to implement the roadmap "if the Israeli Government is ready".

It is difficult to envisage that a lasting peace, and a lasting frontier, can be secured by a unilateral approach. At some point, there will have to be meaningful dialogue, and a settlement, with the Palestinians. Something perhaps along the lines proposed by Labour, Mr Olmert's principal coalition ally, which advocates resumed peace talks with Mr Abbas - who would act as an intermediary with Hamas - and greater territorial concessions.

The best hope for progress may lie in some of Labour's policy rubbing off on Kadima. The Israeli people have confirmed their wish for moderation. Their new government appears willing to pursue peace in a spirit of compromise. But the eventual solution will have to be one that satisfies Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Jim Hopkins: Hakaroo key to forthcoming and not coming fourth

Oh, kamate, kamate, oi oi oi." Just relax, folks. There's no need for any alarm or discombobulation. Nothing diabolical has occurred. No sinister transformation hath been wrought.

The poor old tangata whenua haven't been surreptitiously microchipped in the dead of night or anything of that sort.

Unlike our (revered and revised) National Anthem, the haka hasn't been rewritten.

The bilingual version you see above is not official - at least, not yet.

But if that teak-hard ninja, the taxpayer-salaried, all-expenses-paid, limousine-chauffeured, Koru-clubbed Minister of Sport and Recreation, Mr Trevor Mallard, has his way then it, or some similar fusion, could well be our mantra at Beijing.

According to the brine-pickled Mr M, we need a bit of Aussie mongrel if we're to perform better in the all-important medal race at future Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

And there's no doubt that "Kamate, kamate, oi oi oi" does offer an amalgam of multiculturalism and mental toughness that would make us nigh unstoppable.

Adopting a transtasman "hakaroo" should see a host of medals forthcoming - instead of us always coming fourth - and must therefore receive the most serious consideration at the highest level.

Mind you, it must be noted that, stirring as the haka is, a modified version will not, in and of itself, secure the mental transformation that Trevor "The Terminator" so earnestly desires.

Mr Mallard will need to implement a wider range of initiatives (as they say in the bureaucracy) if our athletes are to move up the value chain and become the merciless, foot-on-the-throat, take-no-prisoners, grind 'em down psycho-winners he expects them to be.

One obvious way to turn the wussy Kiwi into a ruthless Ozwi (or Kiwoz, if you prefer) would be to tell the current bunch of post-Lydiard quitters that their new High Performance Coach is David Benson-Pope. Watch their eyes water then, mate.

Not only would the knowledge that "Coach" Dave might turn up anywhere at any time greatly stiffen their resolve, but the fact they'd need to keep pestering for three vexatious months before getting a straight answer to a simple question like "How am I doing?" would undoubtedly help our athletes acquire the synapses of titanium they so desperately need.

As would the simple expedient of making all of them honorary Cabinet ministers - and thus obliged to train regularly for the Resignation Relay - a gruelling event in which competitors are required to drop their bundle rather than their baton.

But there is a simpler means by which the minister might achieve his end. Old Tensile Trev could simply instruct SPARC to, henceforth, bestow its largess only upon those sportspersons brave enough to wear the new Air New Zillun uniform in public.

Assuming the reaction to said attire this week is a reliable guide, this move would quickly separate the wimps from the winners.

You see, if scorn and derision fuel the furnace of character, then Air New Zillun's cabin kit has raised its temperature immensely. People simply don't like it.

Apparently, the colour selected for the ensemble is "schist" although the term most commonly used to describe the overall effect is, while similar, much less complimentary.

Such photographs as have appeared reveal a garment which makes the poor chaps and chapesses who dispense our boiled lollies look alarmingly like refugees from Thunderbirds.

That's certainly been the talkback verdict; and there is merit in the judgment. Claims the costume is bland and unflattering do appear justified.

Even if we accept that one of the most reassuring things about wearing "fashion" is that such branding allows one to look ridiculous with complete confidence, the new uniform still seems to fail several important tests.

To begin with, it may be so bland and grey that, in the unlikely event of an emergency we will not be able to follow the instructions of our crew (who "know what to do") because they've so effectively blended in with the smoke that we can't work out where they are.

We could end up relying on a seat cushion or some similar inanimate object for aid and comfort in our time of need.

The other problem with the uniform is that it doesn't really reflect the motivations that lead people to pursue a career in the skies.

It is, after all, a well-known fact that young women only become cabin attendants to find a husband - indeed, there are those who say the same goes for many young men in the profession - but it's hardly flattering for an alluring sylph to be required to perch what looks like a mutant fez atop her rampant bouffant.

Something a little more diaphanous would certainly have found greater acceptance. Mercifully, what's bad for matrimony is magnificent for medals.

And that's why the Mighty Mallard should oblige our athletes to wear that uniform everywhere they go for the next two and a half years. By that simple expedient, Sir, you will deliver to the Chinese capital a squad of Olympic sportspersons who would make Ricky Ponting look as soft as a Spice Girl.

No need to threaten them with a Heineken bottle, Trev, just stick em in Zambesi and watch their inner Aussie grow!

Te Radar: May God protect us all from religious fanatics

A cockerel in Kyrgyzstan this week was, like some kind of kidnapped Western innocent in an Iraqi terror house, about to have its head unceremoniously hacked off when a small boy realised that it appeared to be crowing, "Allah, Allah."

Ironically, the bird was being dispatched because it was considered too aggressive.

Now, however, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, the sacred squawking of the cockerel, recorded by the family on their mobile phone and broadcast around the world, has ensured the fame, and life, of the bird, and resulted in one lingering question: Where on earth is Kyrgyzstan?

Regardless, it isn't only backwoods Where-is-stans that have a monopoly on religious cranks. In the United States recently, the trial of a vaccine that could prevent the human papilloma virus, a common sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer, was halted after Christian conservatives argued that vaccinating young women against a disease that could mutilate or kill them might lead to promiscuity.

This, it seems, is a worse blight than cancer. Still, this is a nation that reveres such religious relics as a toasted cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary on it.

The 10-year-old sandwich is remarkably free of mould, although this may say more about the amount of preservatives in American food than the quirkiness of a prankster Saviour.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a man who converted from Islam to Christianity was condemned by clerics whose world view extends barely to the end of their potholed street. They called for him to be torn limb from limb for this heinous crime, if the state failed to provide him with a fair trial and sentence him to death.

For once the words of President George W. Bush seemed oddly apt when he described the situation as "deeply troubling".

Also troubling for an Indian man was waking to discover that he had inadvertently muttered "I divorce thee" three times while sleeping, thus unwittingly divorcing his wife according to Islamic tradition.

Local clerics upheld the divorce, demanding that the man and his wife, neither of whom have any wish to separate, must now do so for at least 100 days if they wish to remarry. Unfortunately, the woman must also spend the night with another man, who must then also divorce her.

Odder still was the revelation of a British jihadist on trial for alleged terrorist activity who confessed to planning the most elaborately bizarre terror scheme yet devised.

His plan was to distribute leaflets for a fictional takeaway bar and poison any food that was ordered. One has to admire his enterprise, if not his audacity.

He had already confessed to selling poisoned burgers, and planning to poison beer at football games.

The real question here is how he could tell if his plan was working? After a night at football, with the traditional English intake of beer and bad food, who would notice that they had been poisoned by anyone other than themselves?

Brian Rudman: Only the Government can rescue Auckland's transport plan

While Helen was out on the harbour this week, schmoozing with the Hammer of Iraq, I hope she didn't seek advice on how best to quell the anti-Government rumblings in Auckland transport circles. A smart bomb in the Britomart transport centre is unlikely to resolve anything. Unless, by accident, it excavated the under-city rail tunnel that Finance Minister Michael Cullen doggedly refuses to fund.

This week the Auckland Regional Council adopted a draft long-term plan which included a $1.6 billion investment in public transport over the next 10 years. But the Government's refusal to fully embrace Auckland's dream of a modern electric commuter rail service means that $700 million of "necessaries" have fallen off the shopping list.

Necessaries such as the electrification of the system, new rolling stock, the underground city loop, an upgrade of Britomart, and rail services to Onehunga and the airport.

Coinciding, as it does, with the Government releasing, with all the enthusiasm of a transport minister falling on his sword, a non-committal report on congestion pricing in Auckland, you have to wonder how much anyone in Wellington really cares about Auckland transport woes. Especially now that we Aucklanders have performed our triennial service and returned Labour to power.

Certainly the sweetness and light of last year's pre-election tete-a-tetes about solving our transport woes has disappeared. In recent weeks it's been more a case of dispatches at dawn, as Dear Mike and Dear Prime Minister letters have flowed back and forth between the Beehive and Regional House.

The last one I spotted was a stern "Dear Ministers" note from ARC chairman Mike Lee to the Ministers of Finance and Transport dated March 16 that dropped first names all together, declaring the ARC was "extremely unhappy" at the way the Government had come up with new rail funding arrangements without consulting the ARC or the Auckland Regional Transport Authority.

Mr Lee said: "I am sorry to have to advise you that we do not find the proposed regime" - which he learned about in a letter dated March 15 - "acceptable".

He expressed his concern that the Government had "effectively dismissed electrification without having the opportunity to consider the business plan for the development of the Auckland network".

Mr Lee's anguish is understandable. In his letter, Dr Cullen effectively flushed the dream of electrification into Never Never Land saying it could be "revisited in the longer term" but "the clear implication of this is that electrification will not be in place for, at the very least, the next eight years". He said this should be taken into account when ordering more rolling stock. Fat chance there. The ARC's long-term plan projects that money is so short Auckland will be pushing to find the cash to refurbish 30-year-old British inter-city carriages.

Worse, the funding shortfall means the aim of doubling public transport passenger numbers over the next decade has had to be cut back to a 50 per cent increase, up from 52 million to 78 million.

By now you might have thought even the Treasury boffins would have realised that building more roads is a time-consuming and costly non-solution to getting Aucklanders moving. And while we can heap plenty of blame on past local politicians for our present predicament, at least when they went all car crazy they did have the foresight to bequeath to future generations a network of dedicated, if largely unused, rail corridors. A sort of safety net, just in case the car turned rogue.

Unlocking this invaluable legacy is the problem. Ratepayers have done their bit. In the past five years, ARC transport spending has increased from $36 million to $137 million. Half of our regional rates go on public transport. But rates alone cannot bridge the gap in public transport resulting from years of neglect. Only the Government has pockets deep enough for that.

Dr Cullen is a known Aucklaphobe. But you'd think the Prime Minister, the Minister for Auckland, Judith Tizard, and the other Auckland MPs would be able to bring him round. Or else.

In about the time it's going to take to get the Avondale stretch of State Highway 20 through the Environment Court, my bet is you could have a modern electrified rail system up and running. But instead, Dr Cullen expects us to get excited about tarted- up old British Rail antiques.

Richard Lewis: In defence of Destiny Church

Over recent years Destiny churches have become accustomed to adverse comment from various social, religious, political and media personalities. Claire Harvey's column "Pastors footed the bill but parishioners still paid" was no exception.

Harvey's article describing Destiny members as "impoverished Maori and Pacific Islanders ... the vulnerable and needy" is an unqualified assumption with no factual basis.

Destiny churches number many accomplished business people and career professionals who are highly successful in their own right. Many arrived at the church as such while others have aspired to greater levels of success during their tenure as members.

One example is a business within the church that recently won the Emerging Exporter of the Year Award, a fair achievement considering the challenges facing businesses in the export sector.

Harvey says: "Their [Bishop Brian Tamaki's and his wife Hannah's] wages ... are paid by compulsory donations of some of New Zealand's poorest people". Wrong again. There has never been a compulsory form of giving at Destiny Church. The tithe principle is purely voluntary and practised by many churches.

Unlike taxes, people apply the Biblical principle of tithing because they want to, not because they have to. And like many churches, Destiny's doors are open to everyone and anyone, including those labelled by Harvey as impoverished, vulnerable and needy.

However, these are not limited to Maori and Pacific people. We have a comprehensive social works programme fully resourced by the church and driven by thousands of hours of voluntary service to meet needs and provide a pathway to independence on every level.

Destiny also has a policy of zero unemployment that positively encourages members to fully participate in the workforce for their own well-being and that of their families and our communities.

Destiny members are not "New Zealand's poorest people", and if they come that way, unlike under the current welfare system, they rarely stay that way.

But the greatest affront comes in the form of Harvey's following statement: "Destiny requires parishioners to give the church their money as the price of salvation".

This statement is highly offensive because it implies that Destiny Church is a fraud.

I wonder if this would be the case if Destiny was a predominantly white church. It appears that some are still hung-up about the colour of our T-shirts despite the quality of our pro-family message.

I realise there are those who would prefer our Bishop to travel by pushbike, wait on tables and settle for the role of your traditional religious doormat. That's the picture of religion that has caused a generation to reject the foundation faith of our nation.

How long before a story is written based on the merits of a life changed for the better?

Like our member counselling inmates at a prison he formerly escaped from, the restored family that had disintegrated in pursuit of career success, the family of three generations rescued from a prominent South Auckland gang, or the unsolicited confessions to police from men who want to do things right.

Moreover, to understand that these people can celebrate their faith alongside peers with unblemished track records and without regard to ethnicity or perceived social status, this is the Destiny that I know.

Sure, our church is not for everyone, neither do we expect to be. But the simple reality is that the success of this movement, like any other, is relative to the quality and success of our leadership.

Based on four years of observation I find it interesting that successful people are generally very respectful of our Bishop. Then there are people like Claire Harvey.

* Richard Lewis is manager of Destiny Churches New Zealand.

Peter Griffin: UK where we should be - but it took 22 years

Six years ago when I lived in Britain, the incumbent telephone operator, British Telecom, was perceived much as Telecom New Zealand now is - a nasty, big monopolist.

BT was fighting to retain its fixed-line hegemony and while legislation had opened up its network to competitors, it was frustrating the process all the way, arguing the details of access with rivals and dragging the chain on granting physical access to its telephone exchanges.

I remember Oftel, the regulator of the time, had its hands full dealing with disputes between BT and its competitors - much like our telecommunications commissioner, Douglas Webb, now does.

Returning to Britain today, I find BT a lot less menacing. Competition has taken to the giant operator like a swarm of ants, leading to the shocking news last week, shocking to me anyway, that the regulator (Ofcom) is proposing removing price controls on BT.

Twenty-two years after price controls were first imposed on BT, Britain's telecoms market has finally come to be deemed competitive enough that the prospect of BT upping its prices isn't all that scary.

There's a keen awareness that BT is no longer the only game in town, whether you're talking about phone services or internet packages. The billboards in the tube stations and full-page adverts in the newspapers announce the latest voice and broadband deals from a myriad of competitors.

About 10 million British homes are now provided with fixed-line services by operators other than BT, many of them using the same copper wires BT once kept greedily to itself.

When cable operator NTL completes its acquisition of Telewest, it will have five million clients buying phone, internet and pay TV services.

BT still has the lion's share of fixed-line residential connections - 17.5 million - and 58 per cent of local calls are made on BT lines. But switching provider doesn't take much these days when you can take your phone number with you and consumers are well aware of who has the best deals.

It's for that reason that the proposal to scrap the price controls, which could be acted on by August, has barely created a ripple. A few consumer groups grumbled that the poor and elderly, less likely to switch operators to find the best deals, would bear the brunt of any price rises.

But by and large, no one believes BT would be stupid enough to raise its prices in the face of the current competition. Price controls have been made irrelevant by the downward pressure of the market. Fixed-line phone prices have already fallen 50 per cent in the past decade thanks to increased competition. Broadband prices have also fallen substantially.

In the mobile phone industry, the competition is fierce with heavy subsidisation of handsets. There are now 62.5 million mobile phone subscribers in Britain, more than the population of the country. Seeing what was coming in the mobile sector, BT spun off its mobile arm, BT Cellnet, which is now called O2 and competes with Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and several more operators.

In effect, Britain has arrived in a roundabout way at where we want our telecoms market to be - healthily competitive. Sadly, it looks as if we're in for a similarly long and tortuous route. At least the greater population density and spending power of the Brits encouraged companies to build their own networks there.

But the big thing that Britain did that we have yet to do is unbundle the local loop - open up the incumbent's network to competitors at a fundamental level. Unbundling was a debacle to begin with in Britain, but now, directly and indirectly, it is stimulating competition. The reality is, we should have chosen to unbundle when the issue was considered five years ago and the fact that we didn't will make Britain's 22-year pursuit of a competitive telecoms industry look relatively speedy compared with ours.

Telecom, for its part, is still restricted to monthly rental price increases that are in line with consumer price index rises. In the past few years it has take every opportunity to raise those line rentals, usually trying to sneak out the price rise in the holiday season dead zone.

Its broadband prices are dropping as it tries to keep up with smaller competitors, and a bruising battle with Vodafone in the mobile market has cut prices.

But frankly, it's not enough. A further shake-up of the regulatory regime is needed before Telecom's competitors make the inroads BT's have.

While a shadow of its former self, BT has done what any sensible incumbent with stacks of money but eroding power would do: get innovative.

It was one of the first with a major internet telephony service - BT Broadtalk, which allows consumers to cheaply and easily make calls over the internet, in competition with BT's regular phone business.

BT, in conjunction with Vodafone, also offers a service letting your mobile phone double as your home phone, a service Vodafone is seeking approval to introduce here.

Last week, BT revealed BT Vision, a service that will see it deliver internet television over regular phone lines. It has sewn up deals with the likes of Paramount Pictures, BBC Worldwide and National Geographic to deliver pay TV services in competition with Sky TV.

Less obsessed with fending off competitors than it was just six years ago, BT has begun to respond to competition by becoming more competitive itself through the use of new technology.

Telecom is no technical laggard, it's developing all the things BT is. But without the hot breath of intense competition on its neck, there's little reason for haste on its part. The rest of us sit, wait, pay through the nose and shake our heads in wonder at the good phone and internet deals consumers in other countries take for granted.

Stock takes: Fat Prophets

By Liam Dann

The dollar might be down but it is definitely not out, says Angus Geddes, the Kiwi co-founder of high-profile Aussie investment website Fat Prophets. Geddes - who started investing in 1982 at the age of 12 (he bought stocks in Robert Jones Property) - has been back home this week to deliver a series of seminars.

"What we're seeing now is a bear market rally for the greenback and bull market correction for the kiwi and aussie dollars," he says.

Basically, Geddes is a believer that the economic fundamentals are still in our favour. In fact, he is predicting the kiwi will be up around the US80c mark within five years. He's the first to admit that might sound a little radical right now but he speaks with the confidence of someone who has achieved 30 per cent returns on his portfolio year-on-year since 2000.

Remember the US dollar is still due for a huge downwards correction and world commodity prices are only going to get stronger on the back of growing demand, he says.

So economies such as New Zealand and Australia are particularly well placed. If anything, this dip is giving investors a fantastic window to repatriate some overseas investments.

Naturally enough Geddes remains extremely bullish on commodity stocks - BHP Billiton and Oil Search are a couple he recommends.

He is tipping that oil could hit US$100 a barrel in the next few years and gold could hit US$1000. With gold stocks in mind, he's picking the likes of Lihir Gold and Lion Selection Group in Australia and Oceana Gold down in Otago.


The good oil

New Zealand Refining has had a roller-coaster couple of weeks on the stock exchange. The (ironically) illiquid stock spiked dramatically after moving on to the NZSX-50 last week (as Carter Holt Harvey moved off). It's not surprising that it took a big price hike for the funds to get their required share - it is 80 per cent owned by just a handful of big investors (including Caltex).

But in spite of that, it hit an intraday high of $7.50 last Friday. That's an all-time high.

All that action has had little to do with fundamental economic and corporate considerations - such as the international effects of the price of crude oil, movements in the benchmark Singapore refining margin and so on - but those factors have driven good sustained growth in the stock for the past two or three years.

In the short to medium term, the company may be drawing near the end of a golden run, says one energy analyst. Limited refining capacity around the world mean margins have been extremely good. But these are likely to fall as more capacity comes on.

NZR shares closed steady on $6.78 yesterday.


Go to hell (or maybe just the bach)

Waste Management chief executive Kim Ellis is sounding genuinely bemused and peeved about the negative reaction to the so-called merger with Australian Transpacific Industries.

"If ... the deal falls over, to hell with them, they'll never get an offer like this again and I certainly won't be around to run the company," he told the Herald this week.

That's the kind of straight talking we like. Earlier in the week, he was giving Alan Bollard nightmares with the suggestion that Waste Management shareholders could take the cash and buy a holiday or a bach. Okay, to be fair, he also suggested they reinvest in Transpacific when it dual lists over here. For the sake of the balance of payments, let's hope they do.


Contact sport

Speaking of so-called "mergers", Contact Energy shares continue to rise in defiance of proposed merger plans with parent company Origin. They are now trading at $7.77.

Local fund managers reckon the merger deal gives Contact shares a value of about $7 a share.

Based on that view, they have traded about 30c above that price in anticipation that Origin will have to somehow beef up the deal.

But now - on top of the speculator effect - the prospect of a good old fashioned power shortage has started driving the price. Things aren't about to black out just yet but southern lake levels are low and this is always good news for Contact. The listed energy provider gets enough of its power from thermal sources that such low water levels don't constrain its supply. That leaves it in prime position to cash in on the higher wholesale prices.

It is also going to weigh heavily on the minds of investors who were already rubbing their hands together in anticipation of something to sweeten the deal.


Should I stay or go?

Citigroup has some tough decisions to make after the departure of head of research Mark Benseman for ABN AMRO.

Benseman - now on gardening leave - is the second Citigroup analyst to leave for ABN after Carolyn Holmes joined the brokerage about eight months ago. His departure leaves Citi with a pretty thin research department.

The bank now has to decide what sort of message it sends to the market. Does it spend big money trying to attract a big name or two to signal to institutional clients it is committed to New Zealand?

Citi executives from Australia and Auckland recently met in Wellington to discuss the issue. Odds are the New Zealand contingent did the best to persuade the Aussie head office that they need a heavy hitter or two.

After all, there's quite a bit of money riding on it - institutions want to see a strong research department when they set their fees each year. The local HQ of the US bank did not return calls on the matter yesterday.


Gullivers travails

Goldman Sachs JBWere has just begun coverage of listed travel agent Gullivers Travel giving it an outperform/buy recommendation and valuing it at $2.02. It shares closed up 3c at $1.60 yesterday.

Despite a positive operating performance since listing in December 2004, including two solid results and strategically sound acquisition, the stock price has struggled, the report by analyst Matt Henry says.

That makes the value case pretty compelling.

A 10.8 per cent gross yield at a 65 per cent payout ratio, and a conservative valuation make it a solid defensive stock, he says. But what about long-term growth?

It seems most people now have an overly negative view of travel agents - believing the future lies in do-it-yourself websites. But Henry concludes that negativity is weighing more heavily than it should on the price. While it is easy for Air NZ domestic passengers to book their own flight - getting the best deal on a jaunt through Europe still requires an agent.


Flying fish

You're unlikely to find a clearer example of an export stock booming on the collapse of the dollar than fishing company Sanford.

For some reason, investors were slow to pile in when the dollar first started to teeter but, in the past two weeks, the stock has leapt more than 25 per cent - from $4 to yesterday's close of $5. It could be that the likes of F&P Appliances and Healthcare are just more obvious plays.

But Sanford boss Eric Barrett is on record as saying the company's net profits drop by about $1 million for every 1c change in the dollar. If that formula holds true in reverse, then the outlook is looking a heck of a lot better than a month ago.


Get that hand out

Despite having copped a $25,000 fine, a full-scale investigation by the Securities Commission and facing a criminal prosecution (due back in court on April 11), collapsed broking firm Access has one more thrashing to brace for - a formal telling off by NZX Discipline.

More than 18 months after the collapse of the discount brokerage, NZX Discipline (a separate entity from the exchange) has yet to deliver something called a public censure.

Apparently, the wet bus ticket is pretty much ready to go but exactly who it will be aimed at - now that the company has ceased to exist - is unclear ...

Graham Reid: Quiet refuge in a busy city

The instructions on how to get to her hotel were quite specific: she said they were located directly opposite Cartier. Which was true, but it might have been equally easy to describe it as being just down the street from the enormous Palazzo Strozzi which dominates this block in central Florence -10 minutes' walk from the major attractions: the Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and so on.

The 14th-century Palazzo Strozzi - about five storeys built in massive stone - is what Americans might call a real piece of work.

But then in its own way, so is the family-run Hotel Scoti.

A tiny lift takes you to their second-floor entrance in this 16th-century building, where their foyer opens into an enormous sitting area with floor-to-ceiling frescoes painted in the 1770s by a member of the famous Florentine Gherardini family. They depict the three country properties of the original owners.

The Scoti, which was seven neglected rooms which hadn't been painted for 30 years before its present owners took it over, has a fascinating story to tell. And so does its owner Doreen, who was born in Footscray, Melbourne to Sicilian parents and who, at 20, went with her father to Sicily.

And she never went home again. She met her husband in Sicily and worked 15 years for an American pharmaceutical company while he ran a small tabacchi.

Coincidentally, when her company planned to relocate to Rome he sold his shop and they considered their options. She says they found this place 10 years ago.

"We feel very much at home in the hustle and bustle of a city centre - although this place is quiet - and we were looking for a business to live and work in.

"We'd spent six months in Australia three years before and considered moving there. My son was 19 and daughter 12 so we had to choose something they could slide into as well."

They considered a hotel and had been looking in Milan and Como, but the places they saw didn't feel right. Then they were passing through Florence and bought a local newspaper.

"In winter, the hotels are always changing hands but we'd seen nothing the first time, and then this place came up. The rent was quite high, all the bathrooms were shared, there was a hole in the ceiling of the dining room, and the place was quite eerie because it only had two guests. It had really been let go and would be a lot of work.

"But there we were, both in our 40s and with the spectre of unemployment hanging over us, and this had room for the family. And the fresco was very attractive."

Against the advice of an accountant, who told them they could barely expect to break even, they took over the hotel and began renovating. They refitted the sitting room and large dining area with appropriate decor.

"In winter, we went to markets to get period furniture, we put in plumbing, painted the place, and got phone lines into every room."

And now Hotel Scoti is expanding across the hallway into five apartments on the other side.

"We give people a key so they can come and go as they please and it is just like having guests in our own home. We live and work here and this is the kind of place people who come to Florence seem to want, especially if they have seen A Room With A View," she laughs.

The hotel is a quiet refuge in a busy city, the building a character-filled place, and the fresco a talking point that offers a hint of the elegant past this place must have enjoyed.

"We were probably crazy to do this, and you wouldn't buy a business like this if you just listened to the accountants. But sometimes you have to take a chance. You never know where life will take you." Well, from Footscray to Florence for a start.