Monday, April 10, 2006

Sideswipe

Not one, not two, but six of these misspelled signs have appeared at Middlemore Hospital.

By Ana Samways

Poor Jules purchased an office desk and chair advertised at The Warehouse, which she was sitting happily on, when one of the legs broke from underneath her. Her call to the red shed went like this:

Warehouse assistant: How much do you weigh?

Jules: Um, 72kg.

WA: Ahh, you're too heavy.

Jules: Pardon?

WA: You're too heavy.

Jules: But lots of people weigh more than me!

WA: It's for students. It said so in the fine print.

Jules: There was no fine print and I am a student!

WA: How long were you sitting on it?

Jules: Um, about two hours.

WA: You can't sit on the chair for more than two hours. It said so on the instructions.

Jules: There weren't any instructions! I'd like to get my money back!

WA: You can't get your money back.

(After speaking to the manager and then the manager of the manager, Jules finally got her money back when she returned the three-legged chair).

* * *

Black woman Mildred Jeter and white man Richard Perry Loving (yes, that is his real name), were residents of Virginia who had been married in June of 1958 in the District of Columbia, having left Virginia to evade a state law banning marriages between persons of different races. When they returned to Virginia, they were charged with violation of the ban, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia. The trial judge in the case, echoing a common sentiment of the time, proclaimed that: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." The couple moved to the District of Columbia, and in 1963 began a series of lawsuits seeking to overcome their conviction on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, ultimately winning in the Supreme Court four years later. (Source: wikipedia.org)

* * *

American celebrities appearing in ads are nothing new, but New Zealand has been spared the spectacle, until now. In a deodorant ad, Hollywood has-been Ben Affleck struts around town with a device to count the number of women who give him the eye (one licks hollandaise off the end of her asparagus) and of course the geek boy in the lift has a higher total cause he's sprayed himself with the product. Do a decent film, you ego-maniac. Then, silver-fox Richard Gere, dressed in colonial attire (white linen head to toe), wanders around the cleanest, sparkliest part of India, zip-zapping a whole lot of doves for a little girl - talk about cultural imperialism. There, I feel better. Go to new site www.worstadsontv.blogspot.com to unload ad hate.

Editorial: Beyond the war on terror

British Prime Minister Tony Blair did his best during his visit to New Zealand to remind us there is much more of global interest going on than the war on terror. There is also the matter of global warming, on which he addressed a conference here, and most urgently, as he agreed in an interview for the Herald, the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round.

The four-year-old round has stuttered from failure to survival several times, failing at its big staged meetings, Seattle at the beginning, Cancun at the mid-point and, nearly, at Hong Kong in December. At Hong Kong the trade ministers went into extra time before the European Union made a concession on the issue of agricultural export subsidies that allowed the round to continue.

Difficult as it was, the Hong Kong conference agreed only on a "framework' for final agreement. The detail was still to be done and the WTO aimed to have it done by now. A meeting of trade ministers in London last month did not make much progress. When he was here last week Mr Blair discussed whether another meeting of government heads might be needed to avert a "disastrous" failure.

"At the moment I think there is a real danger of the world trade talks going down," he told the Herald. The poorest countries in the world were "sitting there waiting for us to deliver on what we promised", he said. "If we turn our backs on that I think the consequences will be serious."

How right he is. This is the first global trade negotiation to involve the Third World to a significant degree. Most of the under-developed world has joined the WTO since the last "Uruguay" Round and they have formed a powerful bloc, mainly around the issue of agricultural trade. Led by Brazil and India, the less developed countries want much more access to wealthy markets and an end to export subsidies by those wealthy countries whose over-production depresses prices for everyone else.

At Hong Kong, the Europeans agreed to a date (2013) for the phase-out of export subsidies. In return, the less developed countries are being asked to lower their protective barriers to industrial products, which they are reluctant to do. The Third World, encouraged by aid agencies and sympathisers in the West, is demanding a one-sided Doha deal in which the poorest are given tariff-free access to rich markets while preserving the right to protect their own industries for the time being.

That sort of deal is fool's gold. An economy improves when its resources flow to activities in which it is competitive. Whatever benefit the poor gained from greater access to rich markets would be negated by the continued protection of resources devoted to activities that could not survive exposure to world markets. Unfortunately, rich countries are not in a position to make that point strongly when they insist on protecting their own farmers so generously.

But most of those countries are so rich they can afford agricultural inefficiencies. They do not pretend there is an economic value in protecting and subsidising their farmers, their citizens accept sentimental and environmental reasons for the expense they bear. Third World countries do not have that luxury. If they want a greater share of the world's wealth, they need to restructure their economies along more competitive lines.

Developing countries should be careful what they wish for from the Doha Round, for they might get what they want. The industrial world has little to gain from easier access to poor markets. It is more important that this round leaves the poor with a sense of inclusion and hope - even if the protection they are allowed to keep is self-destructive. The round needs to make progress by the end of this month. It needs another prod.

Brian Rudman: Tank farm - Pleasure park or official cash cow?

So much for the official vision of how the Wynyard Point tank farm should be redeveloped. Aucklanders have overwhelmingly rejected the city council's proposals and given clear directions on what they think should happen.

The clearest demand from the 1465 people who responded to Auckland City's request for comment is for more open space. A resounding 76 per cent said there is not enough in the city's blueprint.

Echoing this is the overwhelming roar of opposition to the amount of commercial development proposed, with just 7 per cent "supporting" the plans and another 9 per cent "somewhat supporting" them. Lined up on the other side are 60 per cent who "oppose" and 15 per cent who "somewhat oppose."

In particular, there's widespread objection to the proposed height of up to 16 storeys for both residential and commercial development, with only 17 per cent offering full or partial support, compared to 66 per cent who opposed or somewhat opposed it.

Respondents did like the idea of retaining the marine industry flavour, with around 63 per cent saying the proposed mix was "about right".

Around 18 per cent feel too much area has being set aside for marine- related use, but this is counter-balanced by the 19 per cent who said there should be more. In addition, plans for a marine events precinct scored 81 per cent support.

There was also mass support for it being a car free zone, with just 5 per cent recording opposition to the idea of it being "a pedestrian and cycling environment."

If these results aren't a clear enough signal of the public desire, then the politicians and officials are also on notice that a powerful and well-funded lobby group is waiting in the wings, about to launch a campaign to ensure this publicly owned land becomes one big park, highlighted by a landmark public building.

The survey results coincided with the Committee for Auckland lobby reiterating, on Thursday, their demand for an independent governance structure for the whole waterfront development project.

I've canvassed the committee's desire for such a stand-alone structure before, so won't repeat myself, but their delegation to the city council did warn that no other city in the world had embarked on such a waterfront renewal project without setting up a special-purpose body to see it through.

The results of Auckland City's public consultation process highlight the major disconnect between how the public wants the city's front door to be developed, and what Auckland City, Auckland Regional Council and Ports of Auckland have in mind.

The public's vision leans towards the pleasure garden end of the scale, seeing it as a once-only chance to reclaim this reclaimed land in the middle of the expanding metropolis, and develop it as a fabulous destination, for locals and tourists.

Officialdom has its own vision, seemingly dominated by flashbacks of Scrooge McDuck wallowing in his swimming pool of golden coins.

Our masters pay lip service to the public desire for parkland, but are entrapped by other political pressures, such as the need to milk the site for as much as they can to help feed the region's appetite for more public transport and stormwater drains.

I don't envy them their predicament, stuck, as they are, between the proverbial rock and hard place. But I do suggest an independent waterfront renewal authority as a perfect escape hatch.

Go to the Government with evidence from around the world of successful waterfront renewal programmes. Illustrate it with examples of the major national economic benefits that have resulted in the countries concerned.

Persuade the Government to enact the requisite legislation, then embark on a renewal programme that focuses first and foremost on the site itself, and on what that development can do for Auckland as a whole.

Taking control out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats who spend every waking hour, and much of their sleep, I suspect, trying to conjure up new funding sources for electrifying rail and the like, will be a blessing for both the Tank Farm and the would-be ARC alchemists. The Tank Farm will get the makeover it deserves.

As for the ACC and ARC functionaries, they'll be able to escape the odium they risk by following their present course. They might also ponder the corpses of Mayor Les Mills, who ignored the public over Britomart, and Mayor Banks, who did likewise over the unwanted Eastern Highway.

James Russell: Team building - so what?

You organise one of those team-building days where employees take a bus out to the wilderness, spend some time navigating small streams and wire fences on an orienteering exercise, extricating themselves from the snarled bird's nest of a ropes course and generally have a good laugh. Next day, everyone goes back to work. But what's changed, and how do you know whether it was a worthwhile exercise or an expensive waste of time?

Results from a recent survey published in the New Zealand Management magazine demonstrated that less than 20 per cent of New Zealand organisations measure any tangible business impact from human resources (HR) programmes.

Derek Good, director of Rapid Results, a company specialising in the measurement of return on investment of HR intiatives, believes that this illustrates why so many companies cut HR spending when an economy downturn is expected. "This is exactly the opposite of what should take place. When there is less business for an organisation to go after, that's when the staff need to be more skilled and at the top of their game to compete and secure that business."

According to Good, the secret to obtaining management signoff for a proposed HR programme lies in the justification of the expense; namely, to set goals for the training, predict return on investment and then measure the results. If training can be shown to be worth it, then there is a far better chance of management agreeing to future initiatives.

"We can separate the measurable return into hard and soft measures. Hard measures can be accurately determined in such areas as increased productivity, increases in sales and reductions in staff turnover. In addition, predictions can be provided in these areas which enable companies to engage in HR spending or campaigns. Soft measures can include areas such as morale, improved teamwork, increased customer satisfaction and better communications between departments."

Good says it is these soft measures that are often difficult to put a monetary value or return on. "However, there are ways to measure it. For example, a staff member who is highly motivated in their work will be less likely to take a day off work sick when they are feeling 50/50. Conversely, a person lacking in morale at work will not need much of an excuse at all not to show up. You can begin to count the benefit of reducing the amount of sick days ordinarily taken by your staff by improving morale," says Good.

Good is frequently amazed at how little HR departments know about the returns gained from the training programmes carried out, as well as the lack of tangible goals for planned initiatives.

"We go to some people and ask them what do they want to achieve and they turn around and say 'I don't know - we just want some training'. We always like to ask the question 'so what?' We keep asking 'so what?' meaning what does the client hope to achieve, and we keep going until we get something that is tangible, such as a measureable increase in productivity."

Good believes that a system to constantly measure the returns is, in itself, a good investment. "In order to determine the success of any investment, you have to measure the output - even if part of the cost of the investment is in the measures. In addition to understanding that concept, the ability to measure along the way - right from the start - is essential. Measures at the end of a programme may be too late as the money is already spent."

So can the concept of achieving return on investment be applied to individual employees?

"Absolutely. I've run a company where we had a production foreman who was just not a people person and although he was extremely effective in knowing a lot about the factory processes, we had a very high staff turnover. We had to make a decision to sack him. That cost us some money to get rid of him but our staff turnover went right down and for us that was a direct return on that investment because we saved a hell of a lot of money in training new people."

Good believes that an exit interview is a valuable 'investment' for companies to make. "Companies can start measuring things like this; if they've had 50 people leave in the last year and those people are asked 'what would have kept you here?' or 'why are you moving on?' and the same thing keeps cropping up, there's an indicator there. The problem is many exit interviews aren't conducted, and if they are, then not in the right manner so that people don't give that information away. There then might be a return on investment on training on how to conduct good exit interviews."

Ask the questions

What are the goals for your HR program?
What tangible expectations are there?
What intangible goals do you have?
How best can they be measured?
How will they be measured?
What will define the success of the programme?
What return on investment is predicted?

Claire Harvey: Generosity should be made public to spur on others

Begging pilgrims who arrived on the doorstep of media tycoon Kerry Packer with a sob story rarely left empty-handed, but they always got a gruff warning: don't you dare tell anyone where this came from.

Packer, who until his death last Christmas was Australasia's richest man, left a personal fortune estimated at A$6.9 billion ($8.25 billion), but during his life he quietly donated up to A$150 million to charities, hospitals and other causes.

If an employee died or became ill, Packer would immediately step in to support widows and families. He would pay off their mortgages, fund the children's school fees, buy medical equipment or medication or operations or whatever they needed.

Some of these gifts became public. In 1990, after Packer had a heart attack on a polo field and was clinically dead for six minutes ("I've been to the other side, and let me tell you, son, there's [expletive] nothing there") he was revived by an ambulance crew using a portable heart-starting defibrillator. From his hospital bed, Packer rang NSW Premier Nick Greiner and said "I'll go you 50/50" on the cost of putting defibrillators in all NSW ambulances".

He often challenged governments to match the sums he was donating to hospitals and other institutions, and when Packer thought a cause merited publicity as well as money, he would reluctantly appear on television to talk about it - such as when he created an organ-donation foundation in the memory of cricketer David Hookes in 2004.

But Packer, whose grumpiness could be as vast as his generosity, found it easier to keep things quiet.

His friend Alan Jones, a radio broadcaster and former Wallaby coach, said after the magnate's death the reason Packer was so reticent was that he knew his many knockers would use it as ammunition.

"Kerry argued that if he gave $10 million, they'd say, 'Rich bastard should have given $20 [million]'," Jones said.

"They" might have said that, or they might have come knocking on his door in even greater numbers, as New Zealand economist Gareth Morgan discovered. .

Morgan, who finds his new wealth "a bit of a hassle" because he'd rather be off fishing or motorcycling, is giving away all of his $47 million Trade Me windfall to charities and worthy projects, at home and in developing countries.

He is appalled at the greed and selfishness of some of the "thousands of thousands of letters" he has received asking for some of his dough. Only one in 10 is genuinely needy and the rest just want him to pay off their home loans, Morgan claims.

"I wonder if New Zealanders should look at themselves hard; it's no wonder the Government has such a job sorting out benefits and has to employ armies to sort out the genuine cases from the freeloaders."

Morgan is learning a depressing lesson about the nature of greed - even though sudden wealth has not changed him, it has changed the way people treat him. He has been given a window into the minds of people who want a handout. That, sadly, is the risk Morgan took when he told this newspaper's Michele Hewitson he would give the money to charity.

It is a risk worth taking. Philanthropy is surely better for society when it is public, when people around the world can hear of actions like Morgan's.

Perhaps the news of his decision will inspire some other squillionaire to be a bit more generous, or prompt a few ordinary workers to think a bit harder about letting the moths out of the wallets next time the Red Cross comes calling, or the Salvation Army appeals for winter blankets, or they pass a beggar on the train platform.

Kerry Packer's silence might have served as protection from some of the grasping hands of avarice, and given him some respite from the ringing doorbell, but we as a society are richer for the exemplary public generosity of people such as Gareth Morgan, Bill and Melinda Gates and philanthropist George Soros.

Sure, some might say the rich bastards should give more, and the rich bastards might get a few campers on the front lawn rattling tins and clawing at rich and bastardly trouser-legs, but it's all for the greater good, Gareth.

A bit of hassling is small price to pay for a society which celebrates generosity.

* In news that will delight fans of Brian Tamaki, supporters of the war in Iraq and others who have been kind enough to offer constructive criticism, this is my last column - I'm off to become deputy editor and writer at canvas, the Herald's Saturday magazine. Thanks for reading.

Gwynne Dyer: Democracy drifts towards danger

We should return to the rule of law after the election," declared Thailand's national police chief, General Kowit Watana, as the polls closed in a parliamentary election called three years early by embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in response to swelling street protests in Bangkok. "The police have been very lenient for a long time."

But the protest leaders vowed they would continue until Thaksin went. He has now said he is going, but he's not going far.

After meeting Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej last week, Thaksin announced he would step down as prime minister - but almost every seat will be held by his Thai Rak Thai Party, and he's planning to stay as party leader.

Some other person will take over as puppet prime minister, but Thaksin will pull the strings, so the crisis is not over.

"If he ... continues to dominate the next government through proxies, the People's Alliance for Democracy will regroup and resume a major protest," said protest leader Sondhi Lomthongkul.

It was a bizarre election. The three opposition parties boycotted the election, so two-thirds of the seats were effectively uncontested, and Thaksin's populist Thai Rak Thai Party won them automatically.

But in Bangkok and the south, where his support is thin, 38 seats remain unfilled because unopposed candidates must get at least 20 per cent of the eligible votes in their constituency to win.

Parliament cannot legally meet until all 400 seats are filled, and even the two rounds of by-elections planned for the next month may not fill them all. If and when it does meet, it will contain almost exclusively Thai Rak Thai members.

Thaksin will stay in charge behind the scenes, and the street protests in Bangkok will not stop. Thailand's democracy, founded in the blood of non-violent protesters who ended six decades of military rule in 1992, is drifting into dangerous waters.

So are the Philippines, home to the original non-violent democratic revolution in 1986, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in February in response to what she said was a coup plot. It ended after only a week and the 16 alleged plot leaders, a curious grab-bag of junior military officers, opposition politicians, and a Communist rebel leader, face capital charges.

But the crisis that began over allegations she rigged the 2004 election continues. Street protests in Manila are almost daily, and some Filipinos fear the country is sliding towards de facto martial law.

The director of the National Police, General Arturo Lomibao, warned the Filipino media they face legal prosecution if they violate a new regulation that bans "actions that hurt the Philippine state by obstructing governance, including hindering the growth of the economy and sabotaging the people's confidence in government and their faith in the future of this country".

It is not too different from Prime Minister Thaksin's strategy for curbing press freedom in Thailand, which includes huge lawsuits against individual journalists who criticise the government. (Thaksin is a billionaire; most journalists aren't.) In both cases, the goal is to encourage self-censorship.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made media magnate of ethnic Chinese background from the poor north of Thailand, is a far cry from Gloria Arroyo, the daughter of a traditional Filipino elite family which has played the political game for generations to protect its wealth.

But they operate in similar political contexts, though they come at the problem from opposite sides. Thailand and the Philippines are beneficiaries of the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that has swept across the world in the past 20 years, and both are discovering how hard it is for relatively poor countries to make democracy work over the long term.

Thaksin, for all his failings, appeals strongly to the poor rural majority in Thailand because he has spent a lot of taxpayers' money on free heath care and ambitious rural development schemes.

He is loathed by the Bangkok middle class because their tax money is diverted to the poor, and by the traditional financial elite because he is "new money" with strong connections to international capital.

Arroyo was elected to a second term in a flawed but basically free election in 2004, but she came to power in 2000 in a non-violent revolution that ousted a legally elected president, Joseph Estrada.

He was a drunk and a crook, but he appealed to the same set of poor, mostly rural voters as Thaksin, because as a movie star he was famous for playing the gallant underdog.

Estrada was overthrown for corruption and because he challenged the existing order. The people who overthrew him were the Manila middle class - much the same sort of people who gather each day to demonstrate against Thaksin.

The poorer the country, the harder it is to make democracy work. The gulf between the prosperous and the poor drives politics towards undemocratic extremes.

Despite Thaksin's latest manoeuvre, Thailand stands a better chance of weathering its crisis without grave damage to its democracy, simply because Thailand has a lot more money than the Philippines. Durable political compromises are always expensive.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Christopher Niesche: Reinventing the wheel never works

The attempt to find a magic bullet to cool the housing market without raising interest rates was a charade and a lost opportunity.

Last week, the Reserve Bank and Treasury reported back to Finance Minister Michael Cullen that they had been unable to find a new tool to curb inflation in the housing market without damaging the export sector in the way that high interest rates do.

The Reserve Bank and the Government were concerned that New Zealanders' preference for fixed-rate home loans meant that the official cash rate was less effective than before.

After the report last Thursday, the official cash rate will remain not just the primary tool - but also the only tool - for cooling inflation.

It is hardly surprising that the attempt to reinvent the wheel (or indeed to invent a new wheel) didn't work.

Even the Reserve Bank and Treasury had little confidence that they'd be able to deliver much. It should come as no surprise that there were no simple, or readily implemented options, that would provide large pay-offs, they said in their joint report to Cullen.

If everyone knew the project was doomed to fail from the outset, then why start it in the first place?

It's hard not to conclude that the inquiry was little more than an attempt by the Government to look as if it was doing something for the export sector.

When, back in November, the Government announced the inquiry, the kiwi dollar was a little below US70c and exporters were screaming for some relief. The inquiry gave the Government something to point to when people asked what it was doing.

Now that the kiwi is back nearer US60c, exporters are relieved and the housing market looks as if it is finally cooling, so it doesn't matter any more.

So we can all forget about it until the housing market booms and the currency soars again at the top of the next economic cycle some years away.

This is a pity. The booming housing market, the resulting high interest rates and accompanying exporters' pain provided a chance to put a capital gains tax on investment properties on the agenda.

Although it's practically sacrilegious to suggest it, a capital gains tax on housing (but excluding the family home) would have several benefits.

First, it would encourage Kiwis to consider investing in assets that might create jobs and export income for New Zealand, such as businesses and shares. Buying and selling houses lets real estate agents buy flash European cars but creates few jobs and adds little to the economy.

Second, if speculators knew they couldn't just buy a house and flick it on in a year or two for a large tax-free profit, they'd think more carefully about the sort of investments they were making and hold on to them for longer. We'd still have housing booms but their worst excesses would be curbed and the Reserve Bank wouldn't again have to ratchet interest rates up so high.

In their report, Treasury and the Reserve Bank suggested something close to a capital gains tax on investment property.

Presently, gains on investment properties can be taxed if the investor bought the property with the intention of reselling it. The report had the novel idea of the Inland Revenue Department paying more attention to enforcing that law at the top of economic cycles, when the housing market needs cooling.

But this idea is impractical. It is the Reserve Bank's job to gauge the state of the economy and adjust policy accordingly, not the IRD's. Cullen was quick to quash the idea.

To be fair, Treasury and the Reserve Bank were forbidden in the inquiry's terms of reference from suggesting a capital gains tax on investment property.

That was a lost opportunity. Taxing investment property has many advantages.

The Government should have been brave enough to at least evaluate them.

* Christopher Niesche is the business editor of the New Zealand Herald.

Stephen Jacobi: Turning those good ideas into serious money

In case you didn't know it, the world is flat. That's the title of a new book on globalisation by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Friedman says the forces of globalisation are flattening out differences between countries, giving rise to new players in global commerce, new business ideas and new generators of wealth.

That is very relevant to New Zealand, far from its export markets. We are a country of innovators, no question. Our challenge is to turn good ideas into serious money. That's something they know a thing or two about in the United States.

Some Kiwis criticise aspects of American life but, ultimately, we share a can-do attitude.

The big difference is that there are 300 million of them. As Friedman notes, graduates from just one institution - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - are estimated to have founded 4000 companies, creating at least 1.1 million jobs worldwide and generating sales of US$232 billion ($380 billion).

He says people forget what an open, say-anything, do-anything, start-anything, go-bankrupt and start-anything-again society the US is.

Kevin Roberts, Kiwi head of Saatchi and Saatchi, is not daunted by the disparity in size and wealth between this country and the US.

He has a vision of the New Zealand Edge meeting the American Dream. It's a romantic image but one that pays dividends. Look no further than Peter Jackson to see what can happen when Kiwi creativity meets American commercial power.

There are plenty of examples of Kiwi business making inroads into the US. Fisher & Paykel is manufacturing high-end appliances there. From Ellerslie, Trends Publishing produces and distributes design books for the US market. Fonterra manages a significant proportion of US dairy exports. And Tenon, formerly Fletcher Challenge Forests, has moved its head office to the US to better control its distribution network.

The kind of synergy that comes from combining Kiwi ingenuity with viable commerce is critical if New Zealand is to transform itself into a value-added economy.

How do we make more of this opportunity? While a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US would be great, and appropriate given our long association, New Zealand can't afford to just sit and wait.

That's why the NZ-US Council, with our counterpart in Washington, has organised a Partnership Forum taking place in Washington DC later this month. It's a business rather than Government initiative, though there will be senior Government participation on both sides.

The New Zealand delegation, led by former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Mike Moore, comprises board members or CEOs of some of this country's largest exporters including Air New Zealand, ANZCO, Fonterra, NZ Post, PPCS, Meat and Wool New Zealand, Solid Energy and Trends Publishing.

We will be met in Washington by a similar group including senior Bush Administration officials and representatives of US corporates with interests in New Zealand like Boeing, Caterpillar, EDS and Weyerhaeuser.

The focus will be on building relationships and co-operative business opportunities for New Zealand and US firms elsewhere in the world.

We have been told many times the barriers to achieving an FTA are more economic than political. We represent only a small market for US exporters - the 43rd largest in fact.

Our key challenge is to demonstrate that New Zealand's relevance is not limited to the size of our domestic market. There are much greater opportunities for both countries globally and in the Asia-Pacific region if we work together.

As Roberts is fond of saying, pound for pound, New Zealand's contribution to global creativity and trade liberalisation is top of the world.

The similarities between New Zealand and the US are woven by our shared history, love of freedom and opportunity, and our design and creative capability.

Ask Friedman if the US already has all the creativity and innovative ideas it needs and the answer is: "No. Never."

In a flattened world, businesses in the US and New Zealand need all the friends and partners they can get.

* Stephen Jacobi is executive director of the NZ-US Council.

Allan Barber: Suspicion rife as farmers go to market

In commodity markets the relationship between supplier and buyer is tense, with one party always thinking evil thoughts about the other.

Normally, it's the producer who's unhappy with the price received from the buyer, whether at auction or by negotiation.

Nowhere is this state of affairs more evident than in the meat industry. There are so many variables - seasonal factors, climate, exchange rates and market demand for all the different components of the livestock - it's a miracle the laws of supply and demand work as well as they do.

Naturally, farmers and processors want to buy and sell at the best price and this is where it gets difficult.

The buying decision for cattle between three and 24 months of age often happens more than once, with the price paid reflecting the slaughter price at the time, which may well have changed for the worse.

Last spring, the lamb price was roaring ahead, farmers were receiving high prices for overweight lambs and market forecasts were firm. Then the market hit a bit of a brick wall and decisions made in September didn't look all that good. Suddenly unhappy suppliers are earning up to $20 a lamb less than they did last year; but, even worse in the South Island, they can't get lambs killed when they want.

Stories abound of blackmail tactics from processors, like: "We'll only take your deer, if you send us your lambs. This is the price - take it or leave it."

At times like this, farmers always think the processors are screwing them, paying less than their stock is worth. But the schedule over a two-year period shows the price paid to suppliers is higher than the market indicator in both islands for three months at least and, in the case of two major species in the North Island, for 11 months.

If this is accurate, this means processors almost always pay their suppliers more than they can afford to, simply to secure throughput.

The logical result of this apparently irrational behaviour is a repeat of the Weddel and Fortex disasters of the 1990s. So no wonder meat companies view a drought as a chance to gain some margins by paying farmers less than the market says they deserve.

This season has become a game of two halves, with all meat processors signalling to the market the first half has been an unmitigated disaster, with better things expected from the second six months. And then the rains came.

Farmers have shut the gates while stock gained weight and are now trying to apply leverage to get the price up.

However, this means the season will be later and the works will be packed to bursting in May and June, so expect the meat companies to ram the price down hard.

PPCS has forecast a $7.4 million loss to the end of February, Affco has flagged an interim result well down on last year and there are at least three meat companies up for sale in the North Island.

Oamaru-based Abco is in receivership. Alliance has just reached a two-year pay agreement with its workers that will flow through to PPCS and the others who have just started negotiations. The impact of four weeks' holiday will hit the industry hard.

There's no winner in these circumstances. The falling dollar will help returns, but farmers shouldn't expect to see too much benefit until next season.

If they get too smart, they may find they can't get their stock processed, or worse, there could be another company collapse. Both parties need the other.

* Allan Barber is a freelance writer, business consultant and former chief operating officer at Affco.

Claire Breen: When home truths hurt

It is all too easy to dismiss the work of the United Nations, particularly in the field of human rights protection, as irrelevant and biased, the product of a body that is referred to in terms of its failures rather than any modicum of success that it might have achieved the past 60 years.

That the world community has come together to produce a body of human rights law is a matter of discussion less worthy of consideration than the actions of states and individuals who are now regarded as violators of that body of law.

From the perspective of the UN Human Rights Commission, New Zealand is a violator of the human rights of its indigenous people. This must make uncomfortable reading for the Government of a nation whose Foreign Affairs website states, "We take pride in our reputation as a good international citizen".

Better then to go on the offensive and dismiss the report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Indigenous Issues as the product of a now-defunct body. Yes, the Human Rights Commission has been disestablished, largely in response to its highly publicised failures to prevent massive human rights atrocities.

But the commission and the UN do not exist in a vacuum. They are made up of states, like New Zealand, which espouse human rights ideals on the one hand but fail to support such ideals with concrete actions.

It was the self-interested, political machinations of states that stymied the work of the commission and which continues to stymie the work of the UN. Again, it is all too easy to criticise a faceless behemoth than take responsibilities for our failures and inadequacies as states and individuals.

The Deputy Prime Minister's dismissal of the Special Rapporteur's report and his failure to mention that the visit on which the report was based came at the invitation of the Labour Government in 2001 is a prime example of such political machinations.

The faceless behemoth that is the UN has taken such criticisms on board and has recognised the need for reform of its human rights protection mechanisms. The disestablished Human Rights Commission will be replaced by a the Human Rights Council in the next few months. This new organ hopes to avoid the pitfalls that dogged the commission and undermined the effectiveness of human rights protection at the UN.

The Deputy Prime Minister also failed to mention that the role of the Special Rapporteur has been preserved and is being transferred to the Human Rights Council, suggesting this aspect of the UN's work is regarded as valuable enough to form part of what is hoped to be a reinvigorated system of human rights protection at the UN.

But again, the council will be composed of states whose political self-interests will undoubtedly survive the evolution from commission to council.

The Deputy Prime Minister was not the only New Zealander to have a somewhat blinkered go at the UN last week. Jane Norton's criticisms on these pages of the UN General Assembly's seeming bias against Israel was apparently triggered by the passing of a resolution condemning Israeli treatment of Palestinian women.

Evidence of such bias was based on the failure to condemn equally Palestinian treatment of their women, as well as the disproportionate number of UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Israeli actions and, finally, the mathematical, if not political, equation that is the domination of one Jewish State by 60 Muslim States. It appears it is easier to simply condemn rather than analyse the broader picture.

With regard to imbalances, no mention is made in her piece of the fact that Israel has systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians for decades and has systematically flouted other aspects of international law. It is disingenuous to focus on the General Assembly's record of resolutions without mentioning that the Assembly is just one of a number of human rights bodies within the UN.

A perusal of the wealth of documentation on the interaction between states, such as China and Saudi Arabia, and those UN bodies dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights will reveal the UN's deep concern with these states' human rights records.

The UN system of human rights protection is far from perfect and, sadly, human rights tend to be defined more in terms of violation than protection. It is perhaps because the UN has been charged with the impossible task of ending human rights violations that it is such an easy target.

It is easier to throw stones at the behemoth than to examine critically our role in the promotion and protection of human rights, whether at home or abroad.

* Dr Claire Breen is a Senior Lecturer at the Law School, University of Waikato.