Saturday, April 08, 2006

John Armstrong: Labour's little helpers

The Auditor-General is probably not Labour's favourite person right now. When it is finished, Kevin Brady's inquiry into political parties' use of parliamentary money to pay for election advertising is unlikely to make for pretty reading in Labour's case.

However, the financial watchdog did Labour a favour this week even though he would not have set out to do so.

In a separate inquiry, the Auditor-General ruled it acceptable for Labour to use Government funds to pay for three special advisers to work out of the Greens' parliamentary office.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was quick to seize on the ruling as giving the constitutional thumbs-up to her unconventional co-operation agreement with the Greens.

That arrangement designates two Green MPs, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford, as "Government spokespersons" in a couple of minor policy areas - part of the deal which, in return, has the Greens abstaining on confidence motions.

Fitzsimons now speaks on behalf of the Government on energy efficiency and conservation, while Bradford is working up a Government-sponsored "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign. Small beer. However, National sees a fundamental constitutional principle at stake. Fitzsimons and Bradford are spending public money. The Opposition should be able to question them in Parliament to ensure accountability.

They will not have to front because Labour argues that the two MPs report to Labour ministers who retain overall responsibility to Parliament for the work Fitzsimons and Bradford do for the Government.

National sees it all as a further blurring of the lines of accountability on top of the separate arrangements covering Labour's other support partners, NZ First and United Future.

Those agreements allow Winston Peters and Peter Dunne to criticise Government policy even though they are ministers and would normally have to bite their tongues.

It is not the role of the Auditor-General to sort out constitutional arguments. His job is to check that money voted by Parliament for a specific purpose is spent accordingly.

National asked him to determine whether money voted to provide Labour ministers with sufficient staff should have gone to the Greens.

Brady had misgivings about some of the things the special advisers were doing. But he accepted they had a policy function.

That was enough for Clark. The Auditor-General had agreed that "appropriate steps" were in place to ensure stable government. He hadn't gone that far. However, he did not question Labour's wider arrangement with the Greens. Thus does constitutional innovation quickly become the constitutional norm.

Brady had made it harder for National to unpick the innovation. However, if such innovation is to permanently rewrite the unwritten constitution, then it has to do the job that was expected of it - enhancing Government stability.

As the Government nears the six-month mark, the verdict is: so far, so good.

Clark's third-term administration began life as a Heath Robinson-looking contraption which had NZ First, United Future and the Greens joined to a Labour-Progressives core in clip-on arrangements. It was considered inherently unstable. The all-too-pervasive question was, "How long will it last?"

No longer. Lingering fears about the Government's stability are of Labour's own making - not its support partners. It is true that their voting against Labour in Parliament has meant Labour has at times lost control of the House and thus made it look weak.

On the other hand, the looser agreements those parties now have with Labour may actually make the overall governing arrangement more robust. Minor parties no longer feel they are being treated as doormats.

In the previous Parliament, Labour could turn to the Greens to pass legislation when United Future did not support it. Dunne now admits that hurt more than he let on at the time.

Now Labour has to get both his and Peters' backing for bills or turn to the Greens and the Maori Party.

Although Labour still twists arms to get its way, it has necessarily become more accommodating to its support partners, giving them more space to brandish their policy victories.

Dunne also believes the atmospherics have been helped by support parties no longer feeling they undermine the Government every time they vote against Labour.

Another factor aiding cohesiveness is that Peters and Dunne are ministers. But although they are ministers outside the Cabinet - a contrivance to enable them to claim they are not part of the Government - they have more influence than they would if they sat outside the Government.

It is understood that Clark frequently seeks the advice of two MPs who have been in Parliament almost as long as she has been. By doing so, she is drawing them into the Government's embrace.

One unexpected development has been improved relations between NZ First and United Future. Both need one another's backing to get the items in their support agreements through Parliament and it is in their interest to talk to one another so they are not played off against one another by Labour.

That has reduced the temptation to trip one another one up - thereby not tripping up the Government as a whole.

The big question is how Peters and Dunne use their freedom to criticise Labour. While they must echo Labour's line in their own portfolios they are otherwise free to contradict Labour policy.

This should not be damaging if disagreement simply reflects ideological differences and is not motivated by a desire to make headlines at Labour's expense.

Both Peters and Dunne know that too much criticism and Labour won't help them get what they want policy-wise. That applies to the Greens as well.

When United Future has been critical of Labour, the criticism has often come from one of United Future's other MPs, rather than Dunne.

And it was Ron Mark who made a speech in Parliament this week emphasising how much NZ First was squeezing out of its deal with Labour.

Peters, who sat through it smiling broadly, is the unknown factor. So far he has been a stabilising force, bending over backwards to help Labour. This may reflect his desire to punish National rather than any love for Labour.

At this early stage of the electoral cycle, he has no need to distance his party from Labour.

Labour MPs revelling in Peters' flaying of National should remember that not so long ago Peters was describing them as "gender-bending control freaks". He may have become Labour's little helper, but is capable just as swiftly of becoming Labour's big headache.

Editorial: Hitching our wagon to the Dragon

The Chinese Premier has used his visit here to offer New Zealand the near certainty of concluding China's first free trade agreement with a developed country. China will have its own reasons for taking that step, just as we have self-interested reasons for matching it.

China is vast. Its economy has been growing fast for nearly three decades and it still has a long way to go before it would call itself a developed country.

If its expansion continues at recent rates, it could displace the world's largest economy, the United States, by the middle of this century.

Already its manufacturing capacity is feared in the US, which questions its adherence to rules of patent and intellectual property.

New Zealand in its enthusiasm for a free trade agreement must uphold the need for China to observe all international rules and conventions of investment, property rights, market access and cross-border competition.

New Zealand was the first Western nation to endorse China's application to join the World Trade Organisation. In fact it was the first, 34 years ago, to establish diplomatic relations with Communist China at the time the US under President Nixon was contemplating a thaw in the Cold War.

Premier Wen Jiabao recalled these "firsts" in an interview with the Herald this week, noting also that New Zealand was the first developed nation to start negotiating a free trade agreement with his Government.

Six negotiating sessions have been held so far. Premier Wen says he and Helen Clark have agreed to step up the effort and aim to reach an agreement in the next year or two. It will be done, he insists.

The evident excitement in Wellington is not premature. When a figure of Premier Wen's status in China gives this sort of undertaking, almost certainly it will be done.

But we must see that the diplomatic kudos does not overwhelm New Zealand's trading interests. Unhindered, tariff-free access for farm and forest products is an essential element of any agreement this country should enter. The interests of our engineering and other development services should not rank far behind.

There is little protection left here to give away in return. Helen Clark's task at home is to raise the sights of New Zealanders who see the likes of Fisher and Paykel moving manufacturing to China to take advantage of its cheaper labour and proximity to bigger markets.

A fearful proportion of the world's goods is now produced in the Pearl River Delta and one or two other coastal regions of China.

As wealth accrues and wages rise in those places, manufacturing will move inland. China is destined to be the world's factory for as far ahead as anyone can see, and the best that other countries can do is to take advantage of China's low costs and look to more distinctive products, higher skills and services for national welfare.

Hitching our wagon to China, we cannot afford to forget that we do more of our trade with the US, Australia and Japan, and it would be idle to deny the sensitivity of two of those countries to the rising economic power of China.

The first free trade agreement with a Western developed economy, even a tiny one, will be regarded by China as a foot in the door for bilateral dealing with others.

New Zealand must not make concessions that others would resist.

It must always be remembered that bilateral agreements are a poor substitute for multilateral trade liberalisation and should try to live up to WTO principles. If a tiny economy can keep those principles in mind as it negotiates with a mammoth, the first deal could be exemplary.

Fran O'Sullivan: Nanny state may lose out in education battle

Michael Cullen's new tertiary education initiatives look more like the response of a Finance Minister with some major economic issues to resolve - than an education minister's traditional platform.

Cullen is attempting to paint his proposed changes as "evolutionary" rather than "revolutionary". But that won't wash.

What is under way is a major shift away from a demand driven tertiary education system - where the numbers of "bums on seats" dictates the amount of funds universities and polytechnics get from Government - to a "nanny state" approach.

Cullen - Finance Minister's hat clearly to the fore - wants to ensure the tertiary education system delivers enough trained graduates to drive forward the economic and social transformation of New Zealand.

The desires of prospective students will be pushed to one side as the Government begins a consultative process which will ultimately determine how many places it will fund, in which courses, and where.

The theme has been in the background since the Tertiary Education Commission was set up by this Government in July 2002.

Former TEC head Andy West set some University Vice-Chancellors into paroxysms of rage when he disclosed that he wanted to determine that major companies - like Fonterra - had a pool of the right graduates to draw from when filling their employment gaps. West thought there was unnecessary duplication in the sector and railed against some rather low-rent courses masquerading as serious education, and polytechs masquerading as universities.

Inevitably, universities saw his proposed top-down approach as an intrusion on their sovereignty and an attack on their right - and that of their students - to take a more purist approach to academic endeavour.

The rhetoric became rather hyperbolic with some key players muttering the commission - in effect the Government - was displaying Nazi tendencies.
The Government's centrist tendencies stayed relatively subterranean while Steve Maharey had responsibility for the tertiary education portfolio and hardcore players like Auckland University's John Hood were on the scene.

The commission did impose conditions on universities and polytechs requiring them to draw up charters and "profiles" of themselves to try to ensure there was no excessive duplication in the sector. But an outright power grab was essentially stifled.

Maharey's - at one-step removed - reign over the tertiary sector was marred when polytechs and the wananga became bogged down in controversy when it was revealed a substantial wad of the taxpayers' cash was being used to fund Maori "singalongs", twilight golf courses, Cool-IT programmes and even dog-grooming.

Cullen is made of sterner stuff. He clearly wants to clean up the show for political and possibly even electoral reasons.

But he has been careful not to throw mud in Maharey's face as he moves to exert more control over the Education budget.

Maharey's reputation is already damaged from the ill-judged attempt to require Television New Zealand to operate as both a commercial entity and public service broadcaster.

But while TVNZ appears to be moving back more strongly to being a commercial player with the appointment of Rick Ellis as its new CEO, on the education side free-market tendencies are being curbed.

Back in are the old nostrums of "national interest" and "outcomes rather than inputs" - the typical lexicon of state planners.

Free-market purists will be concerned - but the Finance Minister will have a ready response. Cullen has had the private sector on his back for months crying about major skills shortages which are hampering its ability to grow.

It is instructive that Business New Zealand was among the first to welcome the Government's commitment to "getting more value for money" and relevance from the tertiary sector.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly notes that the decision to focus on outputs rather than inputs will be better aligned with the way "most businesses" work.

Already the Forest Industry Contractors Association is adding a welcoming note saying the proposed changes will enable regional polytechs to once again "offer courses in the national interest", such as forestry.

It said forestry education courses had been driven out of polytechs as they strived to offer more profitable courses - thus adding to the overall skills shortage.

O'Reilly also cautioned against the need to avoid central planning and more bureaucracy. But these changes will not work without a top-down approach.

The great irony is that Cullen is basically operating in shareholder mode - rather like any corporate topdog with a faltering business to sort out.

The talk in Wellington is about treating education as a major investment by the Government in New Zealand's economic future.

And the major shareholder wants to ensure he gets a return for Government's education dollar.

The key question facing Cullen and his bureaucrats is will the changes work, will they deliver the required bums on seats within our companies and institutions, or will the top-down approach stifle a student-led response to where the gaps will be in the economy some years out?

There is another side to the equation. Education funding is not a one-way street. There is no such thing as a free tertiary education any more.

Students will need to use their own market power to ensure they also get value for money for their hefty course fees.

If tertiary students are shuffled into new directions at the state education funders' behest - do they then come running if the jobs aren't there when they complete their degrees or course?

Cullen is unlikely to be around as either Finance Minister or Tertiary Education Minister to judge whether this new economic experiment did in fact produce the manpower to lead a transformation to a knowledge economy.

My belief is that the smart money - and smart students - will continue to make their own choices. If they can't get the education they want here - they'll go elsewhere.

Then nanny state will be the real loser.

John Roughan: Chernobyl was not that bad after all

It is 20 years this month since Chernobyl and I'm still waiting for the haze to clear. I was there just two years after the accident, in the course of an exchange visit the Herald used to do with the Soviet Union's Novosti news agency. While in Ukraine I asked to see something of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

My guide happily complied. This was the period of perestroika, when Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to put honesty into communism by encouraging open criticism of shoddy work. The Soviet media, scarcely believing its sudden freedom, was feasting on revelations and condemnations of minor functionaries.

The mistakes made at Chernobyl, in design and management of the power station and in the panic when a reactor caught fire that April day, were already well publicised. My intention was to provide a visitor's ground-level view of the consequences.

After all, nuclear radiation was a universal nightmare. By the late 1980s we had been inundated with books and movies warning of the global scale of the catastrophe we could expect, not only from a nuclear weapon but from anything that went wrong in those ghostly domes that contained atomic explosions in unsuspecting countrysides.

We were told Chernobyl was still a no-go zone but we could enter the evacuated area 30km around the site.

We drove to the town of Pripyat just 3km from ground zero. It was deserted. Homes were closed up, lawns were long and grass grew through the cracks in concrete paths.

I was warming to my story and asked the guide how many had died here.

"I don't think anybody died here," he said.

Right. What was the death toll all told?

About 30, he thought.

He didn't mean 30,000? No, 30.

Why hadn't I known this, considering everything that had been published about Chernobyl to that point? I suppressed an alarm bell in my head and wrote the descriptive piece I had envisaged.

But ever since, I have read reports about Chernobyl with particular care. An anniversary feature from the Observer appeared in this paper last weekend.

It, too, began with a visit to Pripyat, "the most radioactive town on Earth". It described the explosions in the early hours of April 26, the fire that would burn for 10 days and the radioactive drift that was recorded as far away as Sweden.

"There were 176 operational staff on duty at the Chernobyl plant that night and the subsequent efforts to contain the disaster would eventually involve more than half a million men and women," the article said.

"Many of them were subjected to enormous doses of radiation. Some were killed instantly. Others died agonising deaths afterwards ... " Notice it doesn't say how many.

It continued, "The doses received by hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists - 'liquidators' - who decontaminated the poisoned landscape of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus were either classified or never officially recorded." How then did he know the doses were "enormous"?

In almost everything that has been written about Chernobyl for popular consumption is an absence of solid figures to support the determined story of disaster. This was the world's worst nuclear power accident, but either the fall-out was inexplicably low or radiation is not as devastating as we have been led to think.

Twenty years on, the death toll stands at 59. That includes nine deaths from thyroid cancer, an effect of radiation that can be countered by quickly distributing iodine tablets, which evidently was not done.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reported Chernobyl's consequences to the General Assembly, saying, "Apart from the substantial increase in thyroid cancer after childhood exposure observed in Belarus, in the Russian Federation and in Ukraine, there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to ionizing radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident.

"No increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality that could be associated with radiation exposure have been observed. For some cancers no increase would have been anticipated as yet, given the latency period of around 10 years for solid tumours.

"The risk of leukaemia, one of the most sensitive indicators of radiation exposure, has not been found to be elevated even in the accident recovery operation workers or in children. There is no scientific proof of an increase in other non-malignant disorders related to ionizing radiation."

One of the main ill effects found in "survivors" was anxiety, which suggests emotionally charged reporting has done as much harm as residual radioactivity.

Twenty years on, farmland in Belarus and Ukraine is still being treated for contamination and the 30km exclusion zone around the now decommissioned power station remains in force.

But those are precautions, not human damage. It is easy to beat up a calamity story by treating the precautions as proof.

On Wednesday the Independent in Britain published a piece by Andrew Osborn who had gone into the exclusion zone and found it is now an unplanned nature reserve. He reported that animals have returned of their own accord, including 7000 wild boar and a similar number of elk.

It is home to 280 species of birds, many of them rare and endangered. Even the cooling ponds of the power station were teeming with fish. He quoted Maria Shaparenko, a former inhabitant who has returned. She said: "It's very nice here in summer, everything blooms. In fact nothing is wrong here, it's just that people have been scared off by the radiation."

Undoubtedly there will be more Chernobyl retrospectives before the month is out. Read them carefully and you may conclude that mankind's worst nuclear accident was not the holocaust we've been so long led to expect.

The truth may be - and it is a headline I still hope to see - Chernobyl was not that bad.

Brian Gaynor: Stay home and build up a track record

Two visiting London Stock Exchange executives were given an enthusiastic welcome in Auckland this week. They were in New Zealand to convince up-and-coming domestic companies to list on London's AIM rather than the NZX.

AIM, the LSE's alternative investment market, is specifically tailored to growing businesses. Its light-handed regulatory regime has attracted more than 1400 listings, including 220 overseas companies. In 2005, AIM had a phenomenal 519 new listings, including 120 international companies.

In the same period, the ASX had 233 new listings while the NZX attracted only five new domestic equity issuers: Allied Work Force, Avon Investments, Jasons Travel Media, NZ Windfarms and Vector.

In 2005, the NZX lost 11 listings: Finmedia, Independent Newspapers, NGC, Nuhaka Farm Forestry, Owens, Ports of Auckland, URBUS Properties, Vertex, Westpac (NZ), Williams & Kettle and Wrightson.

Although most New Zealand companies are reluctant to list on any sharemarket, there were more than 60 at the LSE Northern Club breakfast on Wednesday. That was more than twice the number that attended a similar LSE function in Melbourne.

Many of the breakfast attendees took the view that AIM was a better listing option than the NZX.

The LSE presentation identified two New Zealand companies, Endace and Neptune Minerals, listed on AIM.

Companies Office records have no information on Neptune Minerals although it has a number of fully-owned New Zealand subsidiaries all starting with the name Neptune Resources.

According to Neptune Minerals IPO prospectus, dated October 4, 2005, the company is incorporated in England and Wales. Its head office is in London, it has no New Zealand directors but has licences to explore and mine SMS deposits in an offshore area north of the Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay.

SMS deposits are high-grade hydrothermal deposits rich in copper, zinc and lead with a high gold and silver content.

Neptune Minerals' shares were issued at 25p six months ago but are now trading at 15.9p. This gives the company a market capitalisation of £9.17 million ($26.2 million).

Endace, which is based in Manukau City, was listed on AIM in June 22, 2005, after the issue of shares at £1.62 each. The company, which had March 2005 year net earnings of US$0.4 million ($0.7 million) on sales of US$6.5 million, offers security systems for computer networks.

The share price reached a high of £1.97 on August 18 and again on September 23 but fell dramatically after a profit warning on February 22.

Endace shares are now at £1.02 giving the company a market capitalisation of £14.97 million.

The big question is whether Endace has made a good decision to list on AIM instead of the NZX. This can be assessed in terms of cost, share-trading volume and share-price performance.

According to its interim report for the six months to September 30, 2005, Endace raised US$14.09 million at a cost of US$2.3 million. This is a staggering cost to funds raised ratio of 16.5 per cent.

AIM's listing fees are low but all AIM companies are required to have a nominated adviser and a stockbroker. These can cost up to £500,000 with the nominated adviser charging up to £250,000 and the broker 2 to 3 per cent of the amount raised.

Capital-raising costs are much lower in New Zealand.

Delegat's Group estimates that it will cost $3.5 million, or 7.8 per cent, to raise $45 million in its IPO.

In 2004, Just Water International raised $8.25 million at a total cost of $459,900, or 5.6 per cent, and last year Allied Work Force raised $11.4 million for an estimated cost of $771,000, or 6.7 per cent (70 per cent was paid by the company and 30 per cent by the controlling shareholder Simon Hull).

There is little evidence that Endace obtained any more for its LSE listing dollars than new companies listed on the NZX (Endace might argue that it received more value for its shares on the LSE than it would have in New Zealand).

Endace and Just Water are fairly similar in size yet the NZX-listed company has experienced far more share trading than Endace on AIM.

In its first seven weeks, there were 647 Just Water trades with a total value of $4.3 million on the NZX whereas in its first seven weeks on AIM Endace experienced just 68 trades worth $1.8 million.

Just Water traded on all 34 days whereas Endace dealt on only 20 out of 34 days. Even Allied Work Force, which is relatively lightly traded, dealt on 30 of its first 34 days on the NZX.

Endace would also have been far less savagely treated on the NZX for its February 22 profit downgrade. This is a subjective judgment but AIM has more than 1400 companies and, if they fail to meet profit expectations, they can completely disappear off the radar screen, particularly if they come from the other side of the world.

If Endace were listed on the NZX, it would continue to receive media and broker attention. Its share price would also have benefited from the decline in the dollar as most of its revenue is generated overseas.

Although there don't seem to be many logical reasons for New Zealand companies to list on AIM, at least before they have a track record at home, there are some characteristics of the London market that could be adopted here.

One of the unique features of AIM is the nominated adviser, called "nomad".

The nomad's role is to determine the suitability of a company for listing, then take it through the listing process and advise it after flotation.

Every AIM company has to have a nomad and if a nomad resigns, and is not replaced by another nomad within three months, then the AIM company is automatically delisted.

One of the biggest problems with the NZX is that most of the new IPOs are extensively marketed before their capital raising but are virtually abandoned by their broker and adviser after the process is completed. Many companies flounder after listing whereas one of the key roles of the nomad in London is to ensure that companies are assisted in this post-listing phase.

In the past few years, three good companies - Allied Work Force, Gullivers Travel and Methven - have had particularly poor post listing experiences. Allied Work Force shares were issued at $1.50 and fell to a low of $1.16, Gullivers Travel listed at $1.60 and dropped to $1.16 and Methven fell from its IPO price of $1.43 to $1.19.

Allied Work Force and Methven have virtually fallen off the investment radar whereas Gullivers Travel has made a sustained effort to promote itself to the investment community and this is beginning to pay off.

New Zealand companies are looking to AIM and other overseas markets because of the negative experience of Allied Work Force, Methven and, to a lesser extent, Gullivers Travel and other newly listed NZX companies.

They would be better off to stay home and find a broker or adviser that will stick with them after the IPO fund raising has been completed.

* Disclosure of interest: Brian Gaynor is an investment strategist and analyst at Milford Asset Management.

Paul Thomas: Reality is wackier than the best pulp fiction

From time to time the book world debates whether genre fiction - crime, romance, sci-fi and so on - can achieve the status of literature. Essentially this is the old art versus entertainment argument. The traditional view is that never the twain shall meet because one tries merely to make us laugh or intrigue us momentarily or spill meaningless tears while the other seeks to reveal truths while engaging our intellect and emotions at a deep and meaningful level.

This distinction bugs some genre writers enormously. They argue that they do character, atmosphere, setting and psychological insight as well if not better than many supposedly literary writers and, what's more, they tell proper stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Why, should their work be treated as something separate from and inferior to literature?

Much of this debate swirls around labels that are either meaningless or irrelevant to the general reader.

Some of it is driven by intellectual snobbery and envy reflecting that both sides have what the other would rather like: writers of entertainment fiction have a potentially huge market so dizzying commercial success is always a possibility. Literary writers often have to measure their success in critical pats on the back.

Most of us aren't averse to being lavishly rewarded for our endeavours or to having those endeavours taken seriously. In the writing game, however, not many get to have it both ways.

The main reason genre fiction isn't taken seriously is that it focuses on such a marginal area of human experience - so marginal, in fact, that most humans never experience it.

For instance, most contemporary crime novels have an activist hero or heroine, are located in or on the fringes of the criminal milieu, portray graphic violence including multiple killings, and contain little in the way of everyday domestic life.

When you season these ingredients with plot contrivances such as coincidence, selective disclosure of information and calculated use of suspense, the result is a fictional world almost as removed from our experience as Middle Earth or Gotham City. That's not to say it's unreal. For most of us, though, it's a sort of hypothetical reality: it could happen; it probably does happen now and again; but hopefully it'll never happen in our kempt and quiet little corner of suburbia.

But whenever we are tempted to dismiss the excesses of pulp fiction as make believe, something comes along to shore up this hypothetical reality and remind us that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

If any crime writer had dared to invent the Peter Plumley Walker saga, they would have been accused of over-taxing the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. It had a protagonist who seemed to have wandered off the set of a Carry On film - a masochistic ex-RAF man turned cricket umpire with an extravagantly silly moustache and a name to match, a teenage dominatrix, bondage and discipline sessions, and a one-way trip over the Huka Falls. (It also gave rise to one of the great quotes of our time. When it emerged that Plumley Walker had pegged out during a gruelling session with the dominatrix and then been trussed like a turkey and sent belatedly on the ride of his life, a spokesman for the Auckland Cricket Umpires' Association wailed, "We can't go on losing umpires like this".)

In a similar vein were Brisbane's teenage lesbian vampire killers, a couple of kids who murdered a tramp to drink his blood.

And now from the quiet seaside town of Fish Hoek, not far from the Cape of Good Hope, comes the tale of the Grandmother, the Hitman, the Bridge Teacher and his Wife.

Two years ago, a great white shark helped himself to a pensioner having her morning swim but apart from that, tranquillity reigned until 73-year-old granny Sophia de Villiers decided to get homicidal.

The Times says she stands accused of paying an unemployed man about $550 to kill the wife of her bridge teacher. Police say Mrs de Villiers, a mother of six, drove the man to the scene of the crime, hung around while he stabbed Nicky Wilson, 57, repeatedly but not fatally, then drove him away.

While the facts are lurid, it's the details that have you wondering whether you're reading a news report or a far-fetched yarn cranked out by a hack whose imagination stretches to believe-it-or-not scenarios but not the characters who people them.

Thus we learn that the Wilsons had a "turbulent" marriage and that Mrs Wilson was a "difficult" woman. Her Brian O'Driscollesque description of her ordeal - "I could have died" - suggests she still hasn't got the point. Mrs de Villiers was a timid soul, scared of her own shadow.

The moral of the story? Well, according a member of the bridge club, "You just don't know the human mind, do you?"

And there is a twist in the tail. Mrs de Villiers is now in a private hospital where she's understood to be having treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Paul McIntyre: Telco 'a shocker' of an investment

He's sitting on more than A$23 billion ($27.4 billion) in Telstra shares and very unhappy about it.

Federal Treasurer Peter Costello lashed out at the giant telco on Wednesday, saying the Government was still keen to flog its majority stake in the company but that the investment had been a shocker since its last sell-down in 1999 and it would not be offloaded in a fire sale.

This week's punch was just one in a series of blows which have been traded between Telstra and the Government as the telco's top North American brass continue to blame the Government's regulatory regime as the major barrier to current and future growth.

Telstra's share price is seriously languishing, hovering under $3.70 this week, which is about half the value of the stock when the current Government offloaded its second parcel of shares, codenamed T2, in 1999 to mostly mums and dads.

On Wednesday Costello lamented that Australian taxpayers had lost out "billions and billions" that should have been spent on hospitals and schools because Labor and the minority parties in the Senate had blocked the full sale of Telstra seven years ago.

The Government essentially has control of the Senate - save for a couple of renegade National Party backbenchers who have threatened to vote against Telstra's full sale if adequate telecommunications protections are not legislated for the bush - but is unwilling to push through a full sale at present because of Telstra's dwindling value. Finance Minister Nick Minchin has attacked Labor and minority parties in the past for blocking the full sale of Telstra in 1999, which, had it gone through, would have seen Government coffers A$54 billion better off today based on a share price at the time of A$7.40.

"We do not believe there is any reason why the Government should hold on to [its Telstra stake] and as it turns out it has been a shocking investment," Costello told ABC Radio. "Now, we believe that we can offer that remaining 51 per cent but we will not do it in a fire sale, we will only do it at a time when we can get reasonable value for the taxpayer.

"So you test the market, and if there is a market for it, if you think there is a good return for the taxpayer, we will do it. If there is not a good return for the taxpayer we will not. We will hold."

And when the Treasurer was asked how long the Government could retain its Telstra stock, Costello said: "Until such time as there is a good return for the taxpayer."

Telstra's falling price renewed speculation that the Government will pull back its "T3" public offer to late this year or early 2007 and transfer as many shares as possible into the Future Fund, an entity which would allow more flexibility for offloading Telstra shares in the future.

In the face of Government criticism of Telstra's performance this week, the company's senior management was not prepared to serve as a whipping boy for a political agenda.

Chief financial officer John Stanhope claimed the Treasurer had not taken into account huge dividend payouts when assessing Telstra stock.

And Telstra's group managing director, regulatory, policy and communications, Phil Burgess, blamed the woeful trend in Telstra's share price on Government regulation. It had "destroyed" the company's value, he said.

"If politicians align themselves with a bad policy then they will get some of the shrapnel," he told an industry conference on Wednesday.

"We want [shareholders] to be concerned about regulation. Our share value is being destroyed by intrusive and onerous regulation and we want them to be focused on something different than they would normally be focused on."

But those comments and a few others from Telstra this week were enough for Paul O'Sullivan, the chief executive of Telstra's biggest rival, Optus, to come out fighting too, claiming Telstra's push against the competition regulator and the Government was "sinister", "damaging" and "misleading".
"It's very unfortunate that the present management team of Telstra seems to think that a key role and objective of their organisation is to try to turn the clock back to the days of Telstra having monopoly power over key elements of infrastructure," he said. Optus, according to O'Sullivan, had offered to co-invest in a A$3 billion high-speed broadband network proposed by Telstra but had been rebuffed.

* Paul McIntyre is a Sydney journalist

Richard Inder: Time to wave the flag and stop transtasman flight

A disclosure - I really don't give a toss about Super 14 rugby.

I find the endless prognostication over the success of this franchise or the next boring in the extreme. I shudder as I watch One News weekend presenters Bernadine Oliver-Kerby (or does she now have a new name?) and Tony Veitch spar mindlessly over whether the "Canes" will do it again in the week ahead.

And, more to the point, I despair at most New Zealanders' enthusiasm for the competition. The very fact that Oliver-Kerby and Veitch can abbreviate the name of one of the leading franchises on national television is testimony only to the nation's gullibility and the brilliance of the series' creator, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

The way I feel for each and every team is the same as most feel for a packet of cornflakes, wine biscuits or a can of Coke.

The NPC and the All Blacks test matches are, however, another matter.

They (generally) pit our boys against theirs. I have stood up and joined the roar at Jade Stadium/Lancaster Park when Canterbury score because I identify with the region. I am a Mainlander and a New Zealander. I grew up breathing the same air as the players. They are my kin.

Still, New Zealanders' passion for the Super 14 franchise may have a silver lining. Even though most believe they are cheering the players, they are in fact largely cheering a board, a chief executive and a management team.

It is therefore, perhaps, not an empty hope that these sentiments can be harnessed for other New Zealand businesses.

Fletcher Building's signal this week that it is looking to shift its headquarters to Australia illustrates just how great the need is.

At the risk of repeating a well-traversed argument, $4.1 billion Fletcher Building is the country's third-largest listed company. The building products giant underwrites a substantial portion of the infrastructure necessary for a healthy and robust capital market.

Its move would be likely to drive the bulk of trading in its shares offshore, adding to the damage wrought on the capital market by losses and takeovers such as Ports of Auckland, NGC, Powerco and Carter Holt Harvey.

The planned takeovers (and let's not beat around the bush, these are takeovers) of Contact Energy and Waste Management by Australia's Origin Energy and Transpacific Industries respectively continue a disturbing trend.

The simple facts of the matter are these: New Zealand companies are vulnerable because their Aussie rivals enjoy much lower financing costs. This is because financial markets across the ditch are awash with capital, thanks to the country's compulsory superannuation scheme.

The offer of a wodge of cash is hard to resist. Indeed, Fletcher Building chief executive Ralph Waters' soft-pedalling of his potential move this week should not invite complacency.

Unless we reverse our savings record, the pressure on Fletcher Building and others will only mount. If local markets do not have the capital to fund growth or give companies like Fletcher Building the sharemarket rating they deserve, then they will have to look further afield.

There is little in the short term at least that will correct the deficit. So, the time has come to run up the flag, to pipe God Defend New Zealand through our workplaces, to invoke Gallipoli, the lovely Sarah Ulmer, Ernest Rutherford, Kiri Te Kanawa and Ed Hillary.

As NZX boss Mark Weldon notes today, ownership matters. We should strive - as much as we can afford - to hold on to our New Zealand-owned and listed companies until a stonking great offer beyond all doubt is put on the table.

Transpacific may be offering a good price for Waste Management. To tell the truth, I do not really know, but I know it is at the least debatable.

Waste Management is a New Zealand success story. During the past five years, its shares have more than doubled. As Transpacific boss Terry Peabody noted this week, it may have a bright future as part of a large Australasian waste disposal company. But I am yet to be convinced it does not have a robust future as an independent entity.

Contact Energy is a much less difficult choice. Even though its shares are trading at around the $8.05 to $8.20 implied by Origin's takeover proposal, professional investor distaste for the plan should be enough to derail it.

Although both have plans to retain an NZX listing, the bulk of their share trading will be done overseas. Key strategic decisions will be made from an Australian perspective.

The NZX and the country need these companies to remain predominantly New Zealand-owned and listed. If they go, we are further along the road to the state deftly described by Brook Asset Management principal Paul Glass - an economy where innovative companies struggle to raise capital and our children have to go abroad to get the challenging jobs and opportunities we now enjoy.

Even if the profits are not as good, they will still be our profits.

And they, with the rest of the companies listed here, may be enough to carry us while we make the structural changes needed to put our savings and investment regime back on track - the introduction of a more sensible tax regime, the ditching of barmy redistribution schemes such as Working for Families and, yes, the introduction of a compulsory savings scheme.

Oscar Kightley: Why I love the Stones

It's not just rock critics who love the Stones from way back - Sione's Wedding and bro'Town star and writer Oscar Kightley has been Stones-obsessed since he was a youngster in the 80s. We asked him to tell us why ...

Oscar Kightley became a believer when he read a book about The Stones. Picture / Greg Bowker

The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world and I became a firm believer in this before I'd even heard their music. As a young lad growing up in Te Atatu North, I listened to whatever my big brothers and sisters and parents played - thus I became a firm fan of reggae, ol' skool r'n'b, soul, and Samoan music.

Te Atatu being the pearl of west Auckland, it wasn't long before I added Led Zep to the mix.

The Rolling Stones joined the list after I read Phillip Norman's excellent biography from 1984, Symphony For The Devil; The Rolling Stones Story.

It is the definitive book on the Stones and covers their beginnings from their first gig at the Marquee in July 1962 to the release of their 1981 album Tattoo You.

I love how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first met at primary.

I love how they named themselves after a song by Muddy Waters.

I love how they got into music through their love of the blues and their desire to share this music form with kids in England. They even regularly performed with their blues heroes later on.

I love how at the time when every other band was aping the good-boy images of the Beatles, these guys wore different clothes and just kept it real.

I love the story of how their first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, tired of them performing covers and locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the basement until they finished writing an original.

I love reading about tortured genius Brian Jones, who was so wasted by the end of his time with them that they had to turn him down. This was years before the Sex Pistols did that to Sid Vicious. Then they had to fire him and he died in mysterious circumstances, years before other rock stars died in mysterious circumstances.

I love reading about the controversy that swirled around them in the 60s, how the establishment attacked and blamed them for whatever young people were doing at the time.

I love how they were the first group to go on tax exile, during which they recorded Exile on Main St, one of the greatest rock records of all time.

I love how Keith Richards was rumoured to have had an affair with the wife of the then Canadian Prime Minister and how they were kicked out of the country. I even once got a skull ring exactly like Keith's.

I love the stories of how they worked hard and played even harder - except for their taciturn drummer Charlie Watts, who listened to jazz, collected antiques and who on tour never took his clothes out of his suitcase so he could pretend he was going home the next day.

The Rolling Stones were basically a group of mates from the same 'hood who came together through a love of blues music and who then managed to change the game they were in. That's a mark of greatness.

Later, rock groups liked to diss them, but these same artists were only able to enjoy aspects of the industry like huge stadium tours basically because the Rolling Stones broke new ground for them.

After I read the book I then went out and discovered their music and became a fan for life. Aftermath, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed from the 60s; Sticky Fingers, Black and Blue, Some Girls from the 70s. Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. I loved them all and everything since then.

Lots of groups who began in the 60s stopped making new music and still tour peddling their old stuff.

The Rolling Stones continue to make new music and express themselves through the music - last year's Bigger Bang is a choice example.

The fact that they're still doing it in their 60s isn't a joke. It's testament to how great they are. They're only emulating their blues heroes, who also played on into their autumn years not because they were desperate to stay in the limelight but because they still had music to make and songs to sing.

When U2 toured here with B.B. King in the late 80s, I was a cadet reporter for the Auckland Star and remember going to the press conference and asking him if U2 were the greatest rock band in the world. He said yes - but then again he had to because Bono was sitting next to him.

I then said: "What about the Rolling Stones?" I think his answer was something like, "They were".

Whatever, BB King, U2 wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for a group of long-haired louts who dared to be themselves and wear their own clothes, thus thrusting rock'n'roll into another phase of evolution.

Elton John once said they were the perfect rock'n'roll group because they didn't give a ****. And they still don't give a ****, especially when the haters of the world say they should have stopped a long time ago.

They wouldn't be the Stones if they started listening to people. Like original Stones genius Brian Jones once said: "We piss anywhere, man." That's so rock'n'roll.