Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

Wanting to stir up some froth against raising the drinking age, Act on Campus approached National MP Richard Worth to debate Rodney "twinkle-toes" Hide on the subject of booze. One of Worth's henchmen turned down the request unless drugs were on the agenda, so to speak. Given Worth's not-so-secret strategy of trying to paint the teetotaller Hide as some sort of radical marijuana campaigner, they said no deal. At the event a 40-something male appeared in the crowd, desperately trying to steer the debate towards drugs. How strange. Whoever you were, FYI: Students don't actually wear John Lennon glasses, Nike running caps and naff 80s Rip Curl T-shirts, let alone a backpack with the straps adjusted for a small child. Perhaps sensing his cover might be blown, the allegedly planted questioner scarpered as soon as his drug question was addressed.

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Wondering how to spend your Working for Families "hand-up"? Well, if your kids already have iPods and your $500,000 bungalow has nearly paid itself off, you can probably afford to take the tribe to the Royal Easter Show. You'll be paying $6 for your 2-year-old and 12-year-old, but your 13-year-old will be charged the full adult price of $16 - unless he or she supplies a high school or tertiary student photo ID, when it's $11. Strangely superannuitants aren't required to provide any ID for their concession price of $11. Add to that the carnival rides, which vary between $3 to $7 a ride, and the total cost is looking fairly steep. A spokeswoman for the Royal Easter Show pointed out that entry prices were for a whole day's entertainment and included all the shows, for example, a Madagascar live show, the Farmworld petting area, dance competition Boogie Fever and a circus. Whatever you do, pack a lunch and your ID. (Kelly Tarlton's and the Auckland Zoo are free for under 4-year-olds and adults are those who are 15 years and over. Student discounts also apply.)

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Another instalment from the prophetic billboards hanging from the TVNZ building (remember the NZ Idol "Who's Next" when Judy Bailey was canned and the time when Ian Fraser got the hump and quit, with the Insider's Guide to Love banner reading "Not everyone survives the fall"). On Monday, as TVNZ trolleyed out its new but old chief executive Rick Ellis for the media, the billboard was for Jamie Oliver's new show, The Great Italian Escape. It read: "Can he cut the mustardo?"


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How about those xenophobic undertones following the appointment of Anand Satyanand to the job of Governor-General? Cringe-making radio talkback hosts purposely stumbled over the pronunciation of his name (said it wasn't very "New Zealand"), grumbled about the fact that he wasn't a famous sportsman and fuelled middle New Zealand's conspiracy theories, including that one that Labour would get too much flak for putting another feminist in a top job, so they went for the next best thing, an ethnic minority. Sheesh. The governor-general shouldn't be a celebrity, he or she should be an amiable but obedient Poindexter, and someone who represents a more ethnically diverse New Zealand is a reasonable decision. And some radio bosses wonder why the Auckland radio market is such "a challenge"?

Editorial: Finding a way to pick courses

Ever since this Government came to office it has been talking about changing the way it finances universities and polytechs of various kinds. It wants to stop funding courses simply by the number of students who choose to take them, and start selecting the courses that it considers will most benefit the economy and society. It has had this aim for more than six years now and seems not much further ahead.

Finance Minister Michael Cullen, who took over tertiary education from Steve Maharey last year, made his first announcement on the subject yesterday and was as vague as the previous minister about how the Government will decide what to fund. Tertiary institutions learned only that yet another unspecified change is in the wind and that they will be consulted about it by no less than three Government agencies, the Ministry of Education, the Qualifications Authority and the Tertiary Education Commission, all of whom have fingers in the tertiary pie.

The commission, set up by Mr Maharey, requires universities and polytechs to draw up charters and "profiles" of themselves to help ensure that they were not duplicating courses and competing unduly for students. Dr Cullen said existing charters and profiles would be used to guide the Government's investment, though "at the heart of each profile", he said, "there must be evidence that organisations have consulted with industry, researchers and the local community, and that their plans are aligned with the Government's economic strategies".

In other words, the Government will be guided by what the institutions want to do, so long as the institutions are guided by what the Government wants to do. In truth, nobody involved in this project knows quite what to do. Precisely which subjects does the Government think will contribute most to the improvement of the economy? It has not said. More tellingly, which subjects does it not favour? It dare not say, particularly if the subjects are being taken up by more students than the Government wants to fund.

That will be the rub. This Government thinks it knows better than prospective students when it comes to deciding what qualifications they should seek. As Dr Cullen said in his address to "stakeholders" yesterday, "the current system relied too much on the short-term decisions of individual students, and is not helping us develop the kind of strategically focused tertiary education system that we need".

When a project such as this turns out to be making so little progress, the reason is usually that it is built on a fallacy. The fallacy in this one is that an economy is somehow separate from the people who comprise it. An economy is built entirely on the inclinations, energies and aptitudes of the people participating in it. People follow their interests and talents when they decide what to study, with an eye also on the opportunities and rewards available.

At present tertiary education is funded on the principle that everyone deserves substantial state support to reach their potential. This Government believes everyone would be better off if it directs state support to what it regards as the greater good. At this rate, it will spend the rest of its time in office trying to arrive at a fair and rational formula for fixing the economic and social value of different subjects of study. It is a fool's errand.

"The architecture of the new funding system remains at this point very open," said Dr Cullen yesterday. We do not know what he means; we suspect he does not know either. At least while confusion reigns in policy-making, the basic funding system still in force allows students to continue making decisions for themselves.

John Armstrong: Brownlee the loser as Labour rebuke backfires

Is the unconventional arrangement which allows the Greens to speak on behalf of the Government while claiming they are not part of the Government both politically farcical and constitutionally dangerous?

National's Gerry Brownlee has been arguing that for months. He claims the post-election agreement between Labour and the Greens, which designates Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford as "Government spokespersons" in two policy areas, weakens the convention of ministerial responsibility.

Mr Brownlee can claim some vindication from yesterday's report from the Auditor-General, Kevin Brady, into the hiring of three advisers who have been helping the two Green MPs write Government policy on energy efficiency and develop a "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign respectively.

However, while Mr Brady is highly critical of the advisers for being far too cosy with the Greens - criticisms which have been addressed by Government officials - his report is also a big setback for Mr Brownlee.

National's deputy leader claims the fundamental principle which requires Cabinet ministers to be accountable to Parliament for the public money they spend has been seriously undermined by the Opposition being unable to put questions to the Green MPs who are effectively functioning as de facto ministers.

Such constitutional niceties were not part of Mr Brady's brief. That was confined to whether the funding of the advisers was lawful.

He has deemed it was. However, Labour will interpret that as giving the constitutional blessing to its post-election deal with the Greens.

That co-operation agreement has the Greens abstaining on confidence motions in exchange for Labour consulting them on some policy matters dear to Green hearts.

The highest level of co-operation sees the Greens effectively in charge of energy efficiency and the "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign, a passion of the late Rod Donald.

While a Labour minister has overall control, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford have access to official advice and may be invited to Cabinet committee meetings.

According to Mr Brownlee, it is now unclear where ministerial responsibility begins and ends.

It was Mr Brownlee's concerns about the Department of Internal Affairs' funding of the three advisers which prompted the Auditor-General to investigate.

Mr Brady's report is critical that the advisers' job descriptions had gone beyond writing policy to providing wider assistance to the Greens to smooth relations with Labour - political activity which should have been funded out of Parliament's budget, not Internal Affairs'.

The risk of a "blurring" of the lines had been heightened by one of the advisers working part-time for the Greens in another capacity.

Mr Brady also questioned why the advisers were based in the Greens' parliamentary offices when they were supposedly attached to the Prime Minister's office.

However - much to Mr Brownlee's disappointment - Mr Brady has effectively ruled that it is acceptable to use Government money to hire advisers to assist the Green MPs to write policy as long as such advisers fall within the category of support staff for the minister and are employed by Internal Affairs.

National still sees them as nothing more than political flunkeys - and a taxpayer-funded donation to the Greens to compensate for that party's loss of support staff resulting from the cut in its parliamentary funding after last year's election.

However, the upshot of Mr Brownlee's complaints is the Auditor-General may have given carte blanche for Labour and the Greens to hire even more of them.

Brian Rudman: Crunchy-centred Albert Park may decide gallery's future

It seems, volcanically speaking, that Albert Park is something of a chocolate peanut. A crunchy centre of ancient sandstone, covered by a thick coating of volcanic tuff. Whether that's enough to qualify it for the protection that volcanic cones and slopes qualify for under the 1915 Act guarding Auckland's volcanic heritage, is up for debate.

Geologist Bruce Hayward says it doesn't. To him, soft centres don't qualify. However the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society is not so sure and is digging into it further. Normally it wouldn't really matter. But with the art gallery redevelopment digging into the sides of Albert Park, the fate of the project could rest on who is judged correct.

Dr Hayward's report reveals "Albert Park Volcano" is something of a misnomer. It turns out the eruption site is not where you'd expect it to be on top of the hill where Queen Victoria sits, but down the city side of the park, centred on the Metropolis tower block.

It was a baby by Auckland standards, only spewing scoria as far as present-day Victoria St, a city block back from the art gallery.

When it blew its stack 60,000 years ago, it put on a good show. Albert Park and the art gallery site were "blanketed in a veneer (up to 8m thick) of volcanic ash." The soft sandstone centre was exposed when tunnels were dug under Albert Park at the outbreak of World War II.

But if Albert Park isn't a volcano, then neither is volcanic ash anything like the stuff that ends up in your fireplace ash pan after a cold winter's evening. Wayne Birchall, group construction manager, Kitchener Group, can testify to that.

His team struck ash recently when putting down the foundations for the Precinct apartment buildings, which stretch from Kitchener St to Lorne St, not far from the art gallery. The ash was "extremely solid, like scoria" and on the Lorne St frontage, 50m thick.

Dr Hayward's opinion is that the bulk of Albert Park "and certainly the art gallery site ... never was part of the Albert Park volcanic cone" and therefore "could not be considered to be the slopes of volcanic cones or craters."

Meanwhile, two big guns emerged yesterday in support of building a new iconic art museum as the destination attraction of the waterfront Tank Farm redevelopment.

A longtime supporter of the waterfront art museum idea, Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee has kept his his head down until now for fear of getting it knocked off by Auckland City rivals.

But he thinks it's such "an absolutely marvellous" solution to the quest for a landmark centrepiece for the redevelopment, that he had to speak out.

"We don't need an opera house, and a convention centre for fat guys with ID tags doesn't really do it for Aucklanders. But a really wonderful new art gallery, why not? We have a strong graphic art tradition in this country." He sees an inspirational building, surrounded by open space with a grand, marae style forecourt for formal civic ceremonies.

"We use the vision word so much, but where is it when you need it?"

With leases running out by 2016, he says that's only 10 years away, "which is nothing." The $90 million planned for renovating and expanding the existing gallery, would be "a handsome start."

Former art gallery director Christopher Johnstone did not want to criticise the development work of his successor, Chris Saines.

He said he "started to think, was it worth the candle," when he heard of the extent of the earthquake proofing needed on the old building.

If, on top of the earthquake proofing, obstacles like the 1915 Act cause more "impediments" to the redevelopment project then he believes "a spectacular new building on the waterfront would be the way to go." It's something he has argued in private for two years and so far lost.

He says that, "generally speaking, from a professional point of view, a new building is going to be far more cost effective than a remodelled old building." It's also likely to attract more public and private patronage.

As for the existing heritage gallery building, he suggests stripping it back to its original structure and creating a Museum of Auckland - MOA - with changing displays from all of Auckland's galleries and museums.

Let the debate continue.

Fran O'Sullivan: Free-trade deal slows to a crawl

Everything's different but nothing has changed.

That paradox best sums up the state of negotiations on New Zealand's proposed China free-trade deal today compared with the starting point some 18 months ago.

The China FTA will be the centre piece of discussions between one of the world's most powerful men, visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and Prime Minister Helen Clark when they meet at the Beehive tomorrow morning.

Negotiations are taking far longer to conclude than most officials anticipated when they were kicked off by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Clark at the Santiago Apec meeting in November 2004.

Initial expectations were that the deal would have been clinched by now, ready for implementation next year, enabling New Zealand to increase its exports to China by between $260 million and $400 million a year, and China to New Zealand by $55 million to $100 million a year over a 20-year period.

It hasn't been clinched in that time frame and it won't be. There is not even a deadline for concluding the deal anywhere near the negotiating table.

But expect that to change tomorrow if Clark and Wen emerge from their talks with an agreement to get some major breakthroughs in place by an unnamed date so that the deal can be finalised.

This would be following the format established in Canberra this week where agreement was reached that the China-Australian FTA would be a comprehensive agreement reached as a single undertaking concluded within two years.

Wen and Clark will be expected to restate their ambitions for a "win-win" agreement pretty much mirroring the template established between Wen and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. This recourse to "leadership diplomacy" to once again raise ambitions for the FTA is urgently necessary.

Helen Clark sometimes faces criticism from her political opponents and less frequently her own MPs for the amount of time she spends on New Zealand's international agenda. But with bilateral talks still hampered by longstanding fishhooks, officials are waiting on Wen and Clark to "give a lead" by setting their official imprimatur on future expectations.

There are "sensitivities" on each side: China's concerns over its agriculture sector; New Zealand's concerns over its manufacturing base. But those sensitivities were recognised in the FTA joint scoping study released in Santiago.

Right from day one, there has been recognition that sensitivities should be addressed by phasing in the tariff reductions for dairy and meat products (China) and textiles, clothing and footwear (New Zealand). No changes there, so what's the problem?

The problem is that in the nearly 18 months which have elapsed since talks began there has been a fundamental shift of emphasis by Beijing's leadership to its rural economy.

Just last month, Wen presided over the National People's Congress - China's version of our Parliament - as it debated its 11th five-year plan. The upshot of some rather depressing debate over some rather depressing statistics - which show average urban incomes outstrip average rural incomes by three to one - is the Beijing leadership's intention to create a "new socialist countryside".

China's rural areas still house about 700 million of the country's 1.3 billion people. Infrastructure is failing; water is polluted, environments are becoming degraded. Unofficial figures suggest there were about 87,000 mass incidents or uprisings last year by rebellious peasants.

On top of this, China failed to reach its target for land under cultivation set out in its previous five-year plan and the World Bank estimates that a big swag of China's rural households took a pounding because of the tariff reduction commitments China made in order to join the World Trade Organisation.

China has scrapped its centuries-old agriculture taxes and bumped up rural funding by 14 per cent to US$41.9 billion this year through subsidies.

Wen has pledged to narrow the widening income gap between China's urban and rural populations.

This fundamental shift is being heralded as a major historical mission and shift of "epoch-making proportions".

But it does not necessarily make the best bed-rock for a free-trade deal with an efficient agriculture-exporting nation like ours.

The negotiating ground has also shifted subtly here where the high (until recently) New Zealand dollar has put huge competitive pressure on this country's manufacturing base which has long decried the effects of increased competition from the world's factory.

Just last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a Herald interview warned against the resurgence of economic patriotism as the WTO's Doha development agenda talks remain stalled.

China's low cost imports combined with its demand for our products have basically underpinned our economic growth.

While New Zealand is pushing an "agriculture heavy" result, our service providers sectors such as tourism, aviation, films and so forth can also expect to profit from a successful deal.

We can't afford to lose sight of that despite any transitory difficulties created by China's move to create a "new socialist countryside" or the present downturn in local manufacturing fortunes.

Wen and Clark - who will be flanked by their top ministers - will lead discussions.

China is fielding Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Ma Kai, China's development planning chief. The New Zealand side is: Finance Minister Michael Cullen, Trade Minister Phil Goff, Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton, Education Minister Steve Maharey, Economic Development Minister Trevor Mallard and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters.

It is important that Clark - and her ministers - continue to press the point that China has nothing to fear from New Zealand's agriculture. We are still a small country compared with China and have much to offer through transferring know-how to assist it lift its peasantry out of poverty.

What hasn't and mustn't change is China's fundamentally strong political relationship with New Zealand. Like Australia, we are moving to become China's hotel and farm, catering for its tourists and providing food for its people. But unlike Australia, we are not also China's quarry.

Clark will not unveil a major deal like Australia's agreement to supply China with uranium to fuel nuclear energy plants.

Instead, there will be four memorandums of understanding dealing with issues ranging from cultural, consular, legal facilitation and deer-product exports.

These are small beer but form building stones in the bilateral relationship. However, Green MPs and possibly even some from Labour's side will want to be assured that China does not misuse the legal facilitation agreement to hunt offshore dissenters.

There will inevitably be the usual game of Chinese chequers as China's skilful Wellington-based diplomats try to keep their Beijing leaders shielded from protesters. Falun Gong, in particular, has said it will try and file proceedings against Bo for alleged human-rights abuses against the banned group dating back to his period as a provincial governor.

But this whirlwind visit will be considered a success if Wen and Clark can reset ambitions for a strong FTA and chart a path which enables New Zealand to beat Australia to the finishing post.

Tapu Misa: Young offenders accorded a false level of maturity

She is taller than me, and wears bigger shoes. So, of course, she considers herself an adult now. Last year, the school librarian wouldn't let her take out "senior fiction", deeming books like Once Were Warriors, which she'd read at intermediate, too mature for her tender sensibilities. This year, she considered herself old enough to see Brokeback Mountain without the benefit of my parental guidance.

The grown-ups in the household are still coming to terms with this coming of age. It's not as if we've had a formal ceremony marking her passage from childhood to adulthood - and given the fact that she still sulks like a teenager, we're not sure the time has arrived.

How old is old enough? When exactly does she cease to be a child? The manual is a little murky on this point.

At 14, she was old enough to babysit and watch TV past 8.30pm, which is when adults-only programming starts on free-to-air television. At 15, she's now old enough to get her learner's licence. She can be excluded from school if she's naughty, but she can't be expelled until she's 16, when she'll also be old enough to consent to sex, although not if I have anything to do with it. At 18, she'll be old enough to buy liquor, vote, marry and join the Army without my permission.

The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 defines a child as a boy or girl under the age of 14, but the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory, defines a child as any person under the age of 18.

But a child can be prosecuted for murder and manslaughter at 10, for all other offences at 14, and, at 17, is considered old enough to face the full force of an adult court.

It is inconsistent and confusing to say the least. We are keen as a society to protect vulnerable children from adult predators, but we aren't quite as understanding when it comes to crimes and misdemeanours committed by children.

If anything, we are becoming much less tolerant, according to a senior British police officer who heads youth crime for the Metropolitan Police, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick. He thinks society is much less willing to put up with "exuberant" youthful behaviour than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

This is perfectly illustrated by the creation of Asbo -Anti-Social Behaviour Orders - civil orders which can result in criminal punishment if breached. Last year, the British Independent newspaper reported that children, some as young as 10, had become the prime target of the more than 7000 orders issued since Asbo was introduced in April 1999.

Children's advocates complain that instead of protecting communities from crime, Asbo had made it "a crime to be irritating", and was criminalising children for being children.

Asbo's fans appear to have little understanding of the difference between children and adults, and neither, it seems, does New Zealand First MP Ron Mark, whose Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill is going through to select committee stage.

Mark's bill proposes tougher penalties for what he calls "youth offenders" - actually, children, by most definitions. He wants the age of prosecution to be lowered from 14 to 12 for serious offences - but his proposal will mean that more children will find themselves in adult courts for lesser offences, those punishable by imprisonment of three months or more, or a fine of $2000-plus.

Mark says the principle behind his bill is " 'adult punishment' for 'adult crimes' " - which is exactly what is wrong with it. Children and young people aren't adults, no matter how they look, or how sophisticated they might appear.

They're not even " 'small adults' to whom a cut-down version of the adult court may be applied," argues the Principal Youth Court judge, Andrew Becroft, but "young people at varying states of emotional, intellectual and cognitive immaturity".

Studies in the United States by the National Institute of Health and UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, suggest what most parents have known all along: that teenagers' brains are wired differently, leading them to take more risks and seek higher levels of stimulation.

The studies suggest the region of the brain that inhibits risky behaviour is not fully formed until the age of 25 in men, and one or two years earlier in women. Which explains a lot.

Politicians in some US states have already used brain development research to back up law changes for drivers under the age of 18, banning cellphone use and restricting the number of passengers they can carry.

Brain development studies were also cited in a case before the US Supreme Court last year, which resulted in a decision that effectively bans the death penalty for offenders under 18. In the US at the time, nearly 10,000 offenders were serving life imprisonment for crimes committed before they were old enough to vote.

A majority of the court acknowledged that young people are immature and irresponsible, and were more susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure.

"Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is not evidence of irretrievably depraved character," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In a speech to the Commonwealth Law Conference in London last year, Andrew Becroft called for a principled approach to youth justice, which had become a "political hot potato in many jurisdictions".

Research shows that most children and young people who offend were likely to become law-abiding citizens if kept away from the criminal justice system. "Shocking youth crimes lead to calls for the legal system to get tough on young offenders and knee-jerk responses are inevitable.

"But there is no magic bullet for this complex problem and responses to it must be principled and based on sound psychological research if the rights of children and young people are to be safeguarded."

* Tapu Misa is taking a break and will return in July.

Jim Eagles: Holidays from hell

An aircraft that took several attempts to go fast enough to take off. A shopping trip interrupted by teargas. A family holiday with non-stop sickness. An accident-prone tour bus. Those are some of the holiday experiences provided by readers for our disastrous holiday competition.

Christine Whitta wrote of a 1982 trip from London to Athens with the Magic Bus Company:

It cost only £25 so I guess we should have expected a few hiccups, but the journey, which was supposed to take three days, ended up being a nightmare for five days.

To start with the bus was two-and-a-half hours late leaving London so we missed our connecting boat trip at Dover and had to spend five hours in the terminal.

The next day we had only been on the road for a matter of hours when the windscreen of the bus was shattered by a stone.

This was just the start of a series of delays which included one of the drivers hitting the side of a tunnel in Switzerland and a tyre blowout which meant that we were stranded in a Yugoslavian bus station for a day while the driver and the owners argued over fixing it.

Throughout the whole trip the emergency exit was boarded up with Greek contraband and naturally food and sleeping were ongoing problems.

Kate Lawless described a shopping trip to Bogota, Colombia, to buy an emerald:

My hotel had no running water but I didn't mind. I was only there for 24 hours and I had a mission.

After doing the rounds of the various jewellery shops I bought a 2.3 carat stone and arranged for it to be set in a ring. All I had to do was return before noon the next day, collect it and catch my bus out.

I spent the following morning in the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, unbeknown to me, a rally was being held by teachers demanding better pay and the riot police were out in force to keep them in line.

As I made my way through a park to the shop I could hear gunshots and screaming. Suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of people running in the opposite direction to me. They were panicked and shouting, "Vamos, vamos".

A wise person at this point would've turned around and joined the fleeing hordes. But I am a blonde and I was focused on collecting my emerald, so I carried on.

About the time I finally saw the hotel the effects of the teargas hit me. There were people of all ages sprawled and choking on the ground. I could understand why. The gas was making my eyes and nose stream, but worse than that was the searing, burning pain in my nose, throat and chest. It was almost impossible to breathe. I thought I would collapse right there but instead made a desperate dash to the entrance of the hotel.

I was nearly barred from entering by guards brandishing machineguns. Fortunately they let me in and, after a quick detour to the restroom to rinse my eyes and drink some water, I hotfooted it to the shop to collect my emerald ring. It wasn't ready, and wouldn't be until the following day.

I was leaving Bogota in an hour so the whole experience had been for nothing. But at least I got my money back.

Briar O'Connor was on her OE in Europe in the early 80s when she and a group of friends took a ski package to Bulgaria:

On boarding our Balkan Air plane we noticed odd-looking round cylinders with facemasks sitting on top of them. We worked out these were oxygen cylinders. However, there were only half a dozen of them.

My seat did not latch into an upright position. We told the steward, who then wandered into the cockpit. The captain came out and handed me a screwdriver.

Our first and only message from the captain on takeoff was, "Hello. The temperature in Sofia is 70 degrees and the flight will take 20 minutes."

When we arrived four hours later the temperature was 5C.

The Hotel Moussala at the resort was fine, if you like heating in your room so hot that it burns up all available oxygen. We slept with windows open, which meant in the mornings when it had snowed overnight we woke up covered in snow.

There was no snow at the top of the mountain. Luckily, some of us were on the absolute beginners' slope at the bottom of the mountain, the only place the snowmaker worked.

Each lunchtime we went to a local restaurant. It took about two visits to work out that no matter what you ordered, everyone received the same meal - even though you paid for the choice you'd ordered. By day three we all knew to order the cheapest offering.

When the time came for our return flight to London we noticed with some trepidation the broken and crashed helicopters and abandoned planes along each side of the runway.

The plane didn't want to reach the required speed for takeoff. We would crank up, nearly get to speed, but then have to slow down, turn around, and repeat the process back the other way. It took several attempts to get into the air.

The people in front of us were seated next to one of the emergency exits and water started coming in from the top of the door frame. Understandably, they asked for help but were told, "Don't worry, it does that all the time". We all kept our seatbelts on.

The Hotel Moussala burned down around 1986. Turns out it had inadequate fire extinguishers.

Sue Bartholomew took a family holiday to Fiji to celebrate turning 40:

The night before we left my dear daughter started to vomit and this continued all night, all through the trip to the airport, on the plane ... you get the drift.

We get to Fiji and are waiting to board the boat to the island and my son starts to cry with earache. On the bright side, daughter has stopped being sick. Instead son gets horribly seasick.

Finally we are on the island and there is a nurse who gives us hope, and drops for son's ear. Ah, that's more like it.

Trouble is, daughter has started to vomit again and, you guessed it, son starts to join in. Beam me up, Scotty.

Day four, no one is being sick, let's go have some fun. Daughter stands on something and her foot is sore. This turns septic and we are back at the nurse's station. All I can think of is Lana Coc-Kroft and get us off this island.

Nicky Molloy's disastrous experience was a day-long stopover at Nadi Airport, en route to Vancouver, several years ago:

As it was hot I decided to stop at a hotel to have a shower before continuing. I hopped in a taxi and asked to go to the nearest hotel.

The taxi driver enthusiastically said, "Oh don't pay for a hotel. I'll take you to a beautiful waterfall and you can shower for free." I was only 19, alone and a bit green, so agreed.

He drove to a waterfall, then threw off all his clothes and ran in naked yelling, "Come on in, the water's fine."

He was a rather large bloke with a huge afro. I started to panic as I needed to get back on the plane. I stayed in the taxi and begged him to take me back to the airport.

Finally he did, but only if I would let him take me for a tour of the city. He drove like a maniac all over the road, beeping and waving at anyone he saw.

When I stopped to cash a traveller's cheque to pay him he stole a couple while I wasn't looking, but I didn't notice until I got to Vancouver.

Andrew Stevenson found an excursion to New York City in 2001 a bit more than he had bargained for.

First we had to endure a 25-hour marathon from Orlando, courtesy of Amtrak, and were lucky enough to share a carriage with a person who insisted on showing off the pistol he was carrying, something you don't get taking the Devonport ferry.

On arrival, we stayed in a hostel in Harlem and seemed to be the only white people within a 20km radius. I don't want to sound racist, but for a then-20-year-old Shore boy, brought up on a diet of gangster rap and Hollywood stereotypes, it certainly seemed dodgy.

For some reason, everyone in Harlem seemed nuts. Not just different, but downright mentally unstable. They would talk aloud to themselves in elevators and follow you around outside. And there can't be too many supermarkets in the world that play Niggaz With Attitude, unedited, over the PA system.

When we did get out of Harlem, the outdoor observation deck on the World Trade Tower was closed because of high winds (now I'll never get to see the view) and the area around the bottom of the towers was also closed - apparently, had an icicle dropped from 110 storeys it could do some serious damage to a person. But all in all it wasn't that bad, We didn't get mugged, murdered or shot and even the dodgiest part of NYC in the middle of the winter is better than being at work.

* These bold travellers will each receive copies of The Idler Book of Crap Holidays edited by Dan Kieran (Bantam Books, $34.95).

Claire Austin: Tax alone can't cover health

New Zealand, in common with most of the world's developed countries, has an ageing population. It is predicted that 22 per cent of the population will be aged 65 and over by 2020. By 2050, it is expected to be more than 25 per cent.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. But mindful of demographic pressures, there has been a consolidated push for building the sustainability of the public pension as well as personal savings and investment.

However, the Government is not taking the same approach with health. How do we ensure we have a sustainable health system? What can New Zealanders expect from the health system, now and in the future?

The evidence about future increases in life expectancy is mixed. Some evidence indicates that people are living longer with fewer disabilities, and that health needs are more compressed in the last few years of life. However, the reality is that older people are high users of health and disability services. In 2000, the Department of Statistics said: "The main concerns are the sustainability of taxpayer-funded superannuation, and the increased health services for older people."

For an ageing population, the recent focus upon investing in primary care and public health services makes sense. The determinants of health and well-being are well documented. Treat sick people earlier, seek to improve lifestyles and prevent chronic disease. For healthcare to be effective - even more so in older age - it must be timely. Sadly, there is a growing public question about the capacity of the public health system to respond to need in a timely and effective way.

Despite the commitment of individuals and organisations in the health sector, the system is constrained by a complexity of bureaucracy, compliance, capacity and viability issues.

Elective surgery patients are being "managed" in a system that in reality doesn't guarantee treatment. Waiting times are amorphous - waiting lists to get on waiting lists. People are left until their conditions become grave before they are treated. Others discover they have been "discharged", yet haven't been treated at all. Rather than trying to conceal the flaws in the health system, we should take a good hard look at all of it. Private and public sectors need to improve their information and data systems.

It is imperative that we openly examine what's working, what's not, how the public and private health sector interface, and ways in which we could work together more effectively.

The private health sector is not just a cosmetic service that operates on the margins of the public health system, offering nominal improvements to health or independence. It provides necessary care that can have a substantial impact.

The public and private sectors are intertwined in primary, secondary, tertiary and aged care. It is an interdependent system where the private sector provides care through pharmacies, general practice, physiotherapy, resthomes and hospitals. Considerable parts of the public health system are already underpinned by private investment.

It is therefore unrealistic to ideologically separate the two. In 2003, the Oxford Policy Institute noted that countries with the highest income per capita have the greatest diversity in health financing - and the size of the government's financial role is limited by the size of its economy, its growth prospects, fiscal policy and policy preferences for health expenditure. This makes sense.

Although countries may have strong policy preferences for one particular system, the reality of economic and demographic pressures may require a rethink to achieve sustainable financing of health.

Whatever your political preferred model of financing, the question still has to be asked: can New Zealand afford or achieve a fully publicly financed health system?

Similar questions are being raised globally. A BBC bulletin commented: "The Government has staked its reputation on delivering better public health services but it is also aware that there is a limit on how far taxes can be raised."

There is a growing international trend among countries traditionally committed to universalist, public health systems - such as Sweden, Germany, Canada and Britain - to turn to their private-sector partners.

New Zealand also needs to look at how it can work towards a sustainable health financing model, just as it has with superannuation. We have a health system that is straining at the seams and is consuming ever more funding, from both the government and private purse, yet not delivering the results New Zealanders expect or deserve.

Common sense requires that ideological bias be put aside and we examine the situation pragmatically:

* What can we reasonably expect from our health system?

* What resources do we have and how can we ensure their most effective use?

* What can be financed by the public system, what by the private?

* What incentives do we need to get the right mix?

* What are the opportunities for better collaboration? Minister of Finance Michael Cullen has regularly raised concerns about demographic pressures on health spending.

In 2003 he said: "There is little to be gained from staking out positions. We need to work out principles, address the hard issues of how to manage limited resources, and find ways forward."

Maybe it's time to just get on with it.

* Claire Austin is executive director of the Health Funds Association, the body representing health insurers.