Monday, April 03, 2006

Sideswipe

Inappropriate fundraising synergies. (Source: www.b3ta.com)

By Ana Samways

While Sky crumbled last week, those discerning viewers who were forced into the path of train wreck television that is ALT TV (a low-rent music channel with appalling sound) would have had the disquieting experience of seeing Nicky Watson presenting the heavy metal show flailing her arms about, lolling over the couch, thrusting her trademark homie hand gesture at the camera and talking about her boobs [again]. Before you could say "psych assessment" Watson managed a coherent sentence - admitting she'd had too much booze at the CAANZ Media Awards.

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Christian Meteorologists Declare War on Rainbows: A group of conservative Christian meteorologists has announced plans to eliminate rainbows from the Earth's atmosphere. At a press conference following a White House luncheon with President Bush, lead scientist Bret Banger told reporters that his organisation, Climatologists For Christ, had declared open season on the multi-coloured spectrums of light as part of their commitment to eradicating the homosexual lifestyle and all weather patterns that reflect it. (Source: fakegaynews.com, because real gay news is too depressing).

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At Titirangi Golf Course last Thursday a reader stumbled upon an open day for cricketers organised by Cricket NZ. Most of the NZ Cricket team were there, but the dominant sponsor was Qantas - complete with three damsels in blonde wigs handing out free grog. Aren't the Aussies our biggest rivals?

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A good way to cuddle up to the Ponsonby inner sanctum in the hope that slack will be cut for a mall development would be sponsoring the local fringe festival. Yes, property developers the Soho Group, who want to turn the old DYC vinegar factory into a mall (they say it'd be more Chancery than Botany Downs) are "gold" sponsors of the Ponsonby Fringe Festival this week, alongside the art and fashion brigade who energetically opposed the development. A few drinks at the launch and maybe the idea of a 717-seat cinema, and more than 30 shops, cafes and bars, and a five-level underground carpark won't sound so bad.

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That Michael Cullen is a bit of a worry, says David from Kohimarama. "Asked on National Radio to name his favourite song, he chose Gershwin's I've Got Plenty of Nothin! Is that why the kiwi dollar is going downhill?"

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Err, what's your name? Who is the mysterious Helen Lewis that the Number 10 Downing Street website says UK PM Tony Blair met for talks while in New Zealand.

Editorial: Making our courts more open

Much is made of the principle of open justice and its central importance in the democratic system. And yet in important ways the openness of the system is sometimes limited; most people are familiar with the practice of suppressing names and evidence in court cases.

But openness of the system is also constrained at a much more basic level which is, perhaps, not so readily recognised. It is often difficult and sometimes very expensive to gain access to information held by the courts. This is an obvious concern for news organisations as well as to ordinary members of the public.

Every news organisation can attest, for example, to the difficulties of getting access to documents filed with the courts. There is no consistent rule to guide registrars and clerks when such documents are sought. They operate by instinct, which too often says it is safer to err on the side of secrecy.

The Law Commission has just issued an important report which proposes to change the institutional instinct. "The present rules are not always easy to locate or consistent or clear. Nor are they comprehensive ... A new approach is overdue," says the report. The commission's answer is to aim to bring the judicial branch of Government into line with the rest of the public service which has operated since the passage of the Official Information Act 1982 on the presumption that information it acquires is available to the public unless it is covered by one of some specified reasons for confidentiality.

The presumption is important. Previously public servants assumed their material was not to be disclosed unless the law said it could be. Now they know they cannot withhold it unless they can cite a valid reason. The regime in operation is not perfect but it is vastly better than before. The Law Commission's proposed Court Information Act might struggle to match it in practice.

It suggests very broad exemptions from the principle of open information. Court registrars and officials would be able to deny access to documents where the information would disclose a trade secret or prejudice a commercial position, or where it is thought necessary to protect someone's privacy, or to uphold an obligation of confidence, or if access was considered "contrary to court order".

The information often sought by news media for its public interest is in the form of filed statements of claim and defence, affidavits, depositions, transcripts of evidence and the like. This is material that will very likely be subjected to rigorous examination in court and it might take more than a worthy legislative principle to convince clerks, or perhaps even judges, that it does not fall automatically under the stated exemptions to open information before the case has a court hearing.

The commission proposes that disputes over access to court information should be decided, like other official information issues, by appeals to an Ombudsman. That could put an Ombudsman in the position of overruling the decision of a judge, which would be an interesting clash of authority. Judges are normally master of all procedural matters on cases before them. But the commission reserves the right for information to be withheld also on grounds of "judicial independence", which might cover a multitude of arbitrary rulings.

As always, the proof of the commission's pudding will be in the tasting. It has left ample room for the courts to continue treating documents on their files as inconsistently as ever. But a principle of open government enshrined in law with sufficient heraldry can have a profound effect. The commission has made a promising proposal. It should tighten some of the details and press it into law.

* This editorial did not make clear that the Law Commission report on access to court records is a draft which may be changed as a result of consultation. The report may be seen at www.lawcom.govt.nz (link below). To clarify a point raised in the editorial: the Ombudsman would be involved only in disputes over non-case records and would not be put in the position of overruling a judge.

Fran O'Sullivan: Scarred Blair isn't finished yet

Watch out world - British Prime Minister Tony Blair's got a big new foreign policy agenda and he's not afraid to pump it.

Blair is still carrying political scars from the Iraq invasion - which may yet prove fatal - but he is adamant the intervention was justified and he is not finished yet.

He now wants to intervene in more failing countries, reform the multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, "empower the moderates" of the Muslim world and create new partnerships with countries such as New Zealand to assure democracy prevails.

"There just has to be a greater willingness to use its [the UN's] collective strength and diplomatic reach to put pressure on countries to move in a democratic way."

Blair's new rhetoric will clearly raise concerns he has an Iraq Mark 2-type agenda in mind where big Western powers will just override a nation's sovereignty whenever they choose.

Says Blair: "I should say right away I am not suggesting we should go and create conflict in all these countries.

"But I do believe it is important that we stand up for democratic values everywhere . . . For example Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea where people are living in the most terrible conditions because of bad governance. The fact is, proper democracy with the rule of the law is the way people want to live.

"Whenever people get the right to choose they choose democracy - no-one's chosen dictatorship."

Blair spent 24 hours in New Zealand last week - one of only three British PMs to have visited in the past century.

He was obviously jetlagged - and rather surprisingly scruffy - when he arrived at the Auckland Town Hall on Tuesday night for a cocktail reception hosted by Helen Clark.

But his characteristic passion shone through when he spoke, without using notes, of the gallantry of New Zealand troops in two world wars.

Blair's decision to unreservedly back President George Bush's Iraq invasion inevitably dominated news media questioning here. He's loathed by MPs in his own party and faces allegations of sleaze in that Labour sold peerages for loans to finance the last election.

Despite that, the consummate professional presents an upbeat mood when he is ushered in for the last of three quick interviews at the Langham Hotel.

If New Zealanders have doubts about the Iraq invasion, that's fine. He points out British and New Zealand troops are working together in Afghanistan.

"So I think you can exaggerate this."

His big concern now is about the US "pulling up the drawbridge and disengaging" from the world.

"There are very strong and powerful isolationist and protectionist voices in the United States," he warns, "and it would obviously be very serious for the world if those voices prevail.

"There is increasingly a distinction in the world between countries that are open or closed. Do they open up to globalisation, which means for example opening their markets to trade, getting our business and industry very competitive - not being very afraid of migration - or do they close down.

"And the same is true in foreign policy - are you engaged in the world and are constantly trying to go out and resolve problems, or do you withdraw?

He's working on a major speech which he intends to deliver in the United States promoting changes he believes will make for more effective multilateralism.

"The trouble is that too often people are faced with a choice between multilateralism that appears to be of the lowest common denominator and can be weak therefore and unilateralism - that may not be the right way to put it- but a sort of ad hoc coalition which is the alternative which can have the strength but not the support."

He singles out the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as candidates for reform.

"I think that in each case we have to ask are they operating with the effectiveness we want at the moment."

In Blair's mind it's simple: the politics of globalisation lag behind economics.

"In exactly the same way that economies, communication and culture are coming right across the frontiers, the same is true of politics - yet we are not geared up to that.

"And so the economics of globalisation is driving through the societies and industries and economies of nations but the politics is kind of 30, 40, 50 years out of date."

"And we've got to change that. Otherwise what we will find is that these issues will keep coming up - and world trade is very obvious now -when it will be an utter failure of multilateralism."

Blair in full flight (if only for a truncated interview) also presents a persuasive case for thinking in new ways about terrorism. "One of the myths that the terrorists perpetrate [and their fellow travellers] that we are in danger of buying is that democracy is a Western concept. You know, religious tolerance is something that the Christians feel but Muslims don't. But this is not true.

"We were continually told that it was absurd to think the Afghans would want democracy. What we discovered was give them a chance to vote and they were desperate to go and do it.

"I'm a great believer that most people want the same things.

"They want a decent living and the freedom to bring up their families in some sort of society of mutual respect - I don't believe the Muslims are any different from Christians in that regard.

"But the question is how do we deal with it. In part through things like interfaith understanding but also by empowering moderate voices in the Arab and Muslim world that want the same type of values that we want."

The enormity of the challenges Blair lays out is mind-bogglingly large - as he concedes.

"The fact is that Britain can't handle them on its own. Neither can New Zealand and, interestingly I think, increasingly neither can the United States."

Blair and Helen Clark unveiled plans for an annual security dialogue which has been painted internally as a move for New Zealand to be Britain's eyes and ears in the Pacific.

Blair praises "Helen" as "being obviously so much more on top of this than I am on the Pacific".

He says Britons can trust New Zealanders and like them.

It takes a throwaway line from Blair to reveal motivation for why British diplomats proposed the initiative.

This week Premier Wen Jiabao will be the seventh member of the ruling Chinese politburo to visit New Zealand recently as this country is increasingly drawn into China's orbit.

British foreign affairs and security officials - like their US counterparts - are concerned China's spreading wings will upset the regional power balance.

Says Blair: "That's why we've got to make sure you're still along on our side.

"By using your connection. By being relevant. By being clear in the end your choices will be with the Western Alliance in the event of conflict there."

Blair's attempts to shift the foreign policy debate have so far fallen on stony ground as speculation mounts that he will not be prime minister for long enough to deliver on his call for a new global agenda.

His officials are vague about just when (or if) he will go to the United States to make the case for a shakeup of the multilateral institutions.

The fact is no matter how far he flies he cannot escape domestic politics.

Even his Canberra speech - praised by the Australian's influential Paul Kelly as "the best in the national Parliament since Bill Clinton", one which offered "eloquence, vision and guts that has no match in Australian politics" - basically bombed.

His blueprint for a "global alliance for global values" was immediately overshadowed when he dropped his guard by telling an interviewer it may have been a mistake to rule out a fourth term as Prime Minister.

The travelling British press corps - alert to every nuance - read his "admission of error" as a signal he will try to tough it out in the hope that someone other than Gordon Brown - his long-term Chancellor of the Exchequer and leadership rival - will emerge.

The furore followed him across the Tasman to New Zealand.

But he dismisses British media calls for his resignation. "They always do bay for my blood - I kind of get resistant to it really."

But the strain was showing.

Asked if he was himself now paying the price for his own "courage", Blair replied, "I'll tell you what I think. I think doing the job is a privilege - and you get, you know, a lot of brickbats, but so what. It beats working for a living."

But he ducked for cover when asked whether Gordon Brown will be his successor. "Well you know, Fran, I've taken a self-denying ordinance on all this. No. I've gone through all that."

If Blair has taken a "self-denying ordinance" to put the public good above personal ambition, it's clear that neither man's supporters have followed suit as Labour's internal hostilities come close to outright civil war.

But his Downing Street press officer Joanna Middleton is quick to try to cut off useful clarifications by saying, "I'm afraid we'll have to bring this to a close."

Blair again refuses to give a direct answer when then asked if he will "pass the baton" to Brown or whether there will need to be a leadership contest.

All he's had to say on this subject (not much, actually) can be found on the internet on various websites.

"I'll refer you to it . . . I just don't want any more of it."

Blair visibly blanches - then bursts into loud laughter - when told the tradition here is for Prime Ministers who have been in power for a while to be greeted on their return from abroad by previously loyal henchmen and be told, "Sorry, we don't have the numbers."

He makes it clear he is under "absolutely strict" orders from his press attaches not to further fuel resignation speculation by making media comments.

"Otherwise it goes onto soap operas - rather than policy."

Unfortunately for Blair - who is now into the legacy phase of his prime ministership - the fat lady is clearly warming up to sing.

Time is running out for him to ensure that history records his achievements through a softer and more admiring lens than those worn by his increasingly ungrateful countrymen.

He wants to start swapping policy ideas between Downing Street and the Beehive on the ways to "recast your policies and welfare state - away from the post-world war settlement to the 21st century".

Blair says the idea is to get away from "big monolithic public services and welfare systems to something that is more personalised and individualised and so on".

"The thing that people often miss in politics is that the policy agenda - the mix - is often held in common.

"How you implement it is very different: Progressives versus conservatives."

This is big-picture domestic stuff but Blair's heart's not really in it.

He says, somewhat wistfully, that one of the most difficult things in modern politics is to explain to your domestic audience why international engagement is important to domestic politics.

Nothing could be truer for him.

Brian Rudman: Art Gallery expansion plans about to blow up

Finding the $90 million to pay for the proposed Auckland Art gallery expansions could be the least of director Chris Saines' problems. First he has to get past the guardians of Auckland's volcanic cones.

John Street, chairman of the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society, is anxious that Rangipuke, the volcanic cone upon which Albert Park and the adjacent art gallery sit, is not further damaged. He's dug out the obscure 1915 Act of Parliament that proved a last-minute saviour for Mt Roskill against Transit New Zealand's road-building bulldozers a couple of years back and says it's time to give it another outing.

He objects to the proposed outdoor amphitheatre and series of terraces cut into the surrounding parkland - part of the gallery expansion plans - plus any other cuts and excavations into the mountain. "The society will insist that the 1915 act be recognised and allowed for. We've got to be consistent." He finds it annoying that the council is well aware of its obligations "but they conveniently ignore them with a strategy of, 'Oh well, we'll get around this in some way'." Either that, or "perhaps they've forgotten Albert Park was a volcano".

It's not so much the council's forgotten it's a volcano, it's more that they've decided to deny it is one - well the small corner of Albert Park that the art gallery wants to redesign anyway.

The art gallery commissioned Bruce Hayward of Geomarine Research to report on the implications of the 1915 act. The full report is still to be released, but a triumphant two-sentence summary by gallery consultants to be made public today declares "the report effectively concludes that that part of Albert Park in which the work will take place is not a volcanic cone or slope and is thus not subject to that legislation. Instead, the area subject of the development was covered by volcanic ash. Accordingly, it is considered that there will be no adverse effects on volcanic cones or slopes in the Auckland Volcanic Field."

I look forward to reading the respected geologist's full report, but examining the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences map of the geology of urban Auckland, this could end up as a case similar to Shylock being permitted to take a pound of flesh, but not shed a drop of blood.

The map shows the existing Art Gallery building apparently straddling the southern edge of the "Albert Park Volcano". I can see geologists, and lawyers now, debating the finer points of where a volcano begins and ends.

There's also the Albert Park Management Plan to consider. Not only does it note that Rangipuke is a volcanic cone landform which forms part of a north-south ridge which runs down to the former Point Britomart headland, it also notes that to further the "stated vision" of Auckland as "the outstanding city of the South Pacific," council will, amongst other things, "protect, develop and promote Auckland's special and distinctive features such as the volcanic cones and larger parks".

Further, "original features of the park are instrinsically valuable and conservation of these should aim to intervene as little as possible, and then only as required for their physical preservation or protection."

The 1915 act didn't define "volcano". Prime Minister Sir William Massey introduced it into Parliament with the warning that "the volcanic hills in and around the city of Auckland are being destroyed ... and the legislation has been framed with a view to preventing their destruction". It was aimed at the miners of roading materials, but the Mt Roskill victory shows it's power is much wider.

Laying my cards on the table, I've already suggested leaving the grand old French-style gallery building alone and building a new art museum elsewhere - possibly as the iconic new structure being sought for the Tank Farm. And that was before the new plans emerged last week and revealed how much nibbling into the surrounding mountain was involved.

Now, wearing my friend of volcanoes' hat, I'm supposed to rest easy again on that score, because the nibbling is into volcanic ash and not the actual volcano. That's if they've got boundary line correct.

In the year when the council, for the first time, has levied a special rate to pay for protecting and maintaining our volcanic heritage, it is hardly a debate you'd expect the council to be leading.

Kevin Armstrong: Markets' behaviour is impossible to call

Investing is not an exact science, there are no absolute or perfect answers or explanations.

A recent Financial Times article by behavioural economics professor Paul de Grauwe neatly illustrated the shortcomings of traditional economic thinking when applied to currency markets. His comments, and particularly the illustration he employed, are instructive in understanding and appreciating the movements of any investment market from a behavioural perspective.

Behavioural finance and behavioural economics is a growing field of research among academics and active investors as the pure rationality of markets is brought increasingly into question. At its core, behavioural economics explores what happens in markets when participants display human limitations and complications and, in so doing, behave in ways other than that forecast by standard economic modelling.

One of the areas where this behaviour is most apparent in individuals is their limited ability to build complex and complete models of the world on which to base behaviour. Participants build relatively simple rules that they adhere to, at least while that rule or model works. The value of whatever rule is being employed is constantly being assessed and may be superseded if another better simple explanation starts to work better.

De Grauwe's primary interest is in currency movements. In published research, he has been highly critical of the reliance in exchange-rate modelling on the "rational expectations efficient market paradigm". This argues that an exchange rate can only change if there is news on the underlying fundamentals, similar to the now deeply questioned "efficient market hypothesis" in sharemarkets.

Exchange rates are far too volatile and deviate far too far from expected value for this to be a reasonable assumption. Additionally, the professor goes on to describe it as "extraordinary" and "unreasonable" to "assume that an individual brain is large enough and complex enough to master the full complexity of the outside world". If the model worked perhaps these assumptions would be reasonable, but the lengthy history of vast deviations clearly undermine such a view. As mentioned above, given our own inability to perfectly process the hugely complex world, we cling to something that appears to make sense and works for a while.

This behaviour was illustrated by De Grauwe in the Financial Times article. He described an experiment at a Belgian food fair. On the first day, boxes of Belgian chocolates were on sale for €9 and sales were satisfactory. On the second day, the price was increased to €15 and traditional economic thinking would conclude that sales should plunge, however they more than doubled. On the third day, the price was slashed to €2 and demand collapsed.

Just as it's difficult to calculate what the correct price for a currency is at any time, it is hard for consumers to know the right price for chocolates. In the absence of any other clues then, consumers only have the price to tell them anything about the chocolates. It seems that consumers in this experiment assumed that a high price implied high quality and, similarly, a low price implied poor quality. The apparent attractiveness of the chocolates was driven by the only information available.

A similar pattern has been seen in currency markets. At the beginning of 2005, the US dollar had been falling for more than three years and it was broadly accepted this trend should continue. The reason generally given was the United States' huge current account deficit. This became the crutch upon which market participants relied.

What actually happened was that the US dollar strengthened against most currencies, even though the current account deficit did nothing but get worse. Just as with chocolates in Belgium, the only thing market participants had to go on was price. A new explanation or rationalisation was sought.

In the second half of last year, the crutch for the US dollar's strength became interest rates and the current account deficit apparently became a far less important element in its value. Interest rates and the current account deficits undoubtedly play a part in the complex world of currency pricing, and they may have been the reason markets moved the way they did last year, but it is more likely they merely became the simple explanation for what was happening.

It has been interesting to watch what has been happening to the kiwi dollar. A year ago, it was expected to fall but it didn't. Towards the end of the year, a seemingly sensible view as to why the kiwi would stay stretched emerged and that was the vast issuance of foreign retail bonds: the so-called uridashis and euro kiwis. This issuance has continued but now the kiwi is falling and looks set to fall further with explanations for this ranging from the still stretched valuations, interest rates that will start falling later this year, maturities of previously issued foreign retail bonds and the growing current account deficit.

To paraphrase De Grauwe, the honest story of why currencies move is we do not know, but we don't like to admit this as our psyches abhor ignorance. That's why analysts' services continue to be demanded - they fulfil a psychological need to understand. No matter how much we think we may understand what is happening in any market it is likely that all we've done is arrived at an explanation, but probably nothing like the real story.

Successful investing is far from an exact science, there are no absolute truths, and success and victories are only ever fleeting. Investing is an art.

* Kevin Armstrong is chief investment officer of ANZ National Bank.

Michael Richardson: Exercise in stemming spread of mass destruction weapons

Fighter jets will roar into action in the skies around Darwin, in northern Australia, this week as countries worried about the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hold their latest training exercise to disrupt the illegal trade in materials and technology used to make nightmare arms.

Australia will host the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) operation that starts today. Other countries taking part include Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States.

All are concerned at the growing international trade in goods destined for Iran, North Korea and elsewhere, allegedly to make chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear bombs and the means to deliver them, including ballistic missiles. The ultimate fear is that terrorist groups will get and use mass casualty weapons.

The Darwin-based activity will culminate on Thursday when Australian fighter jets force an aircraft suspected of carrying a WMD cargo to land in Darwin. In this case, the suspect plane will be a New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757.

The exercise will involve customs, police and specialised response personnel from various countries. It will test inter-agency and international procedures for detecting and intercepting an illicit shipment of a WMD-related cargo by air.

The last PSI operation in Southeast Asia, in waters off Singapore in August, involved tracking, boarding and searching a ship suspected of carrying chemicals that could be used to make weapons.

Since then, law enforcement agencies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have launched numerous raids, searches and prosecutions to stop and punish attempts by individuals and companies to bypass national export control laws and sell materials and technology to Iran, North Korea and other countries for their WMD and missile programmes.

In Japan, for example, police searched the offices of two trading companies in February on suspicion they had illegally exported equipment to North Korea that could be used to produce biological weapons.

The PSI, unveiled by US President George Bush in May 2003, is intended to act as a safety net when export controls and other counter-proliferation laws and mechanisms fail.

Leading participants say that PSI co-operation takes place within existing national and international law. It means that an air interception of the kind being practised over northern Australia this week could only happen with the agreement of the state in whose airspace the operation is to take place. This, of course, limits the areas in which PSI interdictions can legally occur.

But more than 70 of the 191 member states of the United Nations have reportedly said they support the PSI in principle and are prepared to take part in legitimate seizures.

The supporters of the arrangement say that participating countries control enough sea, land and airspace to "catch" most international shipments - if they can be detected and enough information is passed in time to the Government with the authority to make the seizure.

The 20 full partners in the PSI include some of the world's leading military and economic powers. Among them are Russia, Germany, France, the US and Japan.

Yet China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and some other Asian countries that say they oppose proliferation remain reluctant to be openly associated with a US-sponsored programme like the PSI.

They fear it may override national sovereignty and freedom of navigation, or they do not want to be tagged a follower of the US.

As convenor of the six-party talks on Korea, China is wary of joining the PSI because this would be taken by North Korea as a partisan and provocative move. South Korea shares China's concern.

However, a senior US official said in August that China fully understood the legal basis of the PSI and was becoming increasingly co-operative in responding to proliferation challenges..

It is significant that as more Governments have come to understand and see how the PSI works in practice, the number of states endorsing its voluntary principles has grown.

This could be hastened in the Asia-Pacific region if PSI members like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore intensified efforts to explain to countries that have not joined the coalition why it was formed, its aims and the way it works.

This would help reduce the impression that the PSI is a US-centred and dominated operation.

They should also be encouraged to send observers to PSI training exercises.

It would also help if assistance was offered to countries that need it so they can improve their capabilities to support PSI actions. The assistance could be training, equipment or grants and cover law enforcement, intelligence and military co-operation.

The US and Australia already give this kind of support to enable some countries to achieve the standards needed to participate in the Container Security Initiative, introduced by the Bush Administration after al Qaeda attacked the US in September 2001.

The CSI is designed to prevent terrorists from planting WMD in cargo containers that carry much of the world's trade.

* Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

Claire Harvey: Young girls embrace lipstick and miniskirt mantra

Excessive eyeliner, lipstick, big blow-dried hair and teeny shorts that expose the point where buttock meets leg are all a bit much on a Saturday afternoon. Especially all on one person, and most of all when that person is a 12-year-old girl.

Multiply by approximately 10,000, and you have Girls' Day Out, an expo held last weekend at the Auckland Showgrounds.

It was a bit like a secular Easter Show, but with Barbie being resurrected instead of Jesus; a giant opportunity for retailers and recruiters to tell women about their new, exciting and exclusive wares.

Acres and acres of stalls and stands displayed cuticle creams, eyelash curlers, straightening irons, curling wands, bottled water, fitness programmes, acrylic fingernails, commercial hand-dryers for bathrooms (I wondered about that one, too), muesli bars and more, so much more, all under the hot glow of a thousand light bulbs.

Authors were on stage being interviewed about their new books, but only a handful of women were listening, and most of these seemed more interested in sitting down for a second to ease their tired feet.

Each year promoters stage dozens of these shows in the hope of luring bored Aucklanders to spend a weekend learning about all the previously unimagined ways in which they could be spending their money; the Home Show, the Wedding Expo, the Mind Body Spirit Show, and next month (although this one may involve less squealing and hairspray) EMEX - the Engineering, Machinery and Electronics Exhibition.

Girls' Day Out, which attracted 29,000 people last year, promotes itself as "a girl thing: for women of all ages ... one of the largest concentrated sales opportunities of the year. No other sales promotional/sales opportunity delivers the full-body experience using all five senses to attract its audience," boasted the website. "Consumers will be able to touch, taste, smell, hear, see and then buy the best of the best for women."

This piece is not a criticism of the organisers or audience of the Girls' Day Out. The former are exploiting a ready market, and the latter are having plenty of fun being that market.

That is the point - somehow, we women have turned commerce from a necessity into a hobby, and it is disturbing to see it being embraced by such young girls, wearing so little clothing.

The cliche would have it that retail is therapy. But in reality, shopping is something much more everyday; recreation, simply what we do on the weekend, even if we're not intending to buy or have no need for anything new.

"I'm not allowed near the shops," my friend Stephanie, who is saving for a house deposit, said the other week. "It's turned into a habit just to walk through the shops and I always end up buying something."

She's right, it's a bad habit that most of us share, and that's why Girls' Day Out was so intriguing.

It was an illustration in vivid colour (flattering autumn/winter shades, ladies!) of where the habit comes from - our joyful embrace of spending-as-entertainment from the earliest age.

The throngs on Saturday afternoon had all paid $15 to get in and were stampeding between the gleaming marquees, rushing from eyeshadow smorgasbord to fruit juice giveaway, show bags flying.

Some were accompanied by their mums, but in the main they were clustered in those "ohmygodkateyouhave-GOTtoseethis" gaggles in which young women move.

They didn't seem to be paying much attention to the sex toy stand, upon which condoms and lubricants and alarmingly shaped vibrators throbbed.

Not really appropriate for most of the crowd, who did not yet have breasts or leg-hair, but to be fair, 63 per cent of those at last year's Girls' Day Out were over 18, according to the show's website.

Anyway, any child who lives near a television set has, by the age of 12, probably seen not only simulated sex but a full-colour sex change operation, so the odd enormous dildo is probably not going to cause too much lasting trauma.

But the overall effect of the girls on their day out was more underage drag queen than blossoming woman. They were children wearing cosmetics and sexy clothing without any sense of play. This was not dress-ups - clomping around in mum's shoes and satin dressing gown in the living room - it was just natural.

As if to reinforce this, at one point in the afternoon a middle-aged fellow came wandering through the expo, show bags in hand, dressed in frock, heels and bright pink lipstick.

Middle-aged fellows, even shapely ones, do look quite startling in mascara and bangles, but the sight of this fellow was oddly reassuring.

He had conquered stiletto-walking as completely as Sarah Jessica Parker, and he was confident enough in New Zealand's open-mindedness to wear what he liked with his head high - but more importantly, he was old enough to know what he was buying into.