Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sideswipe

Lookalikes: America's Next Top Model's Jay Manuel and The Little Mermaid's Ursula the Sea Witch. (Source: www.Worldofwonder.net)

By Ana Samways

A reader wants to warn her Issey Miyake-loving sistahs: She was in Farmers St Lukes at the weekend, buying a refill for her purse-sized L'eau d'Isse. Horrors! She discovers she is partaking in the rip-off of the century. The 7ml refill (yes, less than two teaspoons) is $70. That is $10 per ml. Surely more than hashish. On the other hand, if she had a larger container (50ml), she would be paying $132 for the refill, which is $2.64 per ml, for the very same smelly stuff.

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An Auckland University campus cafe is under new management, with an interesting take on coffee culture: A reader writes ... "I ordered a trim latte and fancied a chocolate-coated biscotti to go with it. I sat down and began reading one of the rather old, limp magazines which now grace the place. In the distance, I could see one of the assistants waving the biscotti (wrapped in a cellophane bag) at me. I gestured affirmative. Shortly after I was presented with a latte in a takeaway cup and no biscotti. 'I ordered a biscotti, too,' I said. The young Asian girl pointed at the cup. I lifted the lid and, sure enough, there was my biscotti floating inside."

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A reader writes of unpredictable consequences of increased petrol prices: "My grandson has decided he cannot afford girlfriends from suburbs which are too far away. He has had a T-shirt made up with 'Eastern suburb girls only!"'

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What happens when someone walks into a police department or sheriff's office in south Florida and asks for a form to file a complaint against an officer? Well, a local TV station's hidden camera found many officers were polite and professional but many others denied the forms existed and even threatened and taunted the people asking for them. What happens when a TV station runs that footage? One officer caught on tape cursing and screaming at the person asking for the form files for an injunction to stop the footage from being broadcast. And the name, address and driver's licence number of the reporter who did the story somehow winds up on the website of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association as a BOLO or "be on the lookout". After the station's lawyer sent a letter to the PBA, the reporter's personal information was removed, but his photo remains on the site. (Source: Reason.com)

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Police were investigating the Hell's Angels chapter in Stockholm, Sweden, in February after 70 members claimed government benefits for being "depressed". Police said the gang had largely abandoned its reliance on shootouts and bomb attacks and moved into crimes such as tax fraud. (Source: Reuters)

Editorial: New tax treatment falls short

In most countries, a pool of local savings provides the lifeblood for economic growth. Such, unfortunately, is not the case in New Zealand. The lack of a savings culture, allied with an obsession with residential property, has created major headaches. Not the least of these is the manner in which local companies are being taken over, often by capital-rich Australian corporates, and the way in which the Stock Exchange now has a hollowed-out appearance. Any attempt to reverse this trend by encouraging saving should, in principle, be welcomed.

But that greeting can be sustained only if that endeavour achieves its purpose. And that is where the Government's much-anticipated overhaul of the tax treatment of investment comes unstuck. However well-intentioned the package, its effect may be not only distortionary but, to some degree, counterproductive.

The changes are obviously positive for people on lower incomes who invest in managed funds. They will no longer see the income from their savings taxed at a higher rate than their other income. And, if the managed funds hold shares in companies listed on the New Zealand or Australian stock exchanges, they will no longer face a capital gains tax if they sell those shares for a profit.

Read in conjunction with the new Kiwisaver scheme, this suggests a major fillip for local savings and a significant rebalancing of this country's allocation of capital. Certainly, the glee of the managed funds industry suggests a major encumbrance has been removed. But there must be a question-mark on how much of the funds' money will find its way to the New Zealand market. Given that Australia will be treated equally - reflecting the push for a single investment market between the two countries - will most of it end up across the Tasman? The size of the Australian market and the frail nature of its local counterpart support that conclusion.

The trade-off for the Government's largesse towards managed funds is tougher treatment of those with substantial direct shareholdings in overseas markets other than Australia. People who have invested more than $50,000 in equities in the likes of Britain, the United States and Japan will face a tax on 85 per cent of the average capital gain on those investments when they are cashed up and repatriated.

The intention is to strengthen the savings pool by encouraging people to quit their international investments and shift them to New Zealand or Australia. But again there may be unintended consequences. Why would investors be captured by the new treatment unless they had a strong need to repatriate the money? Would they rather not retain their investment in Britain or the US as a pool that they or their family could use in those jurisdictions? If so, that money will remain estranged from this country.

The Finance Minister made little attempt to disguise the politics of envy that underpin this package. Lower-income savers will be the beneficiaries and the wealthy the ones to suffer, even if not to the degree proposed in the Government's original plan. An approach based on this foundation has no place in any cogent tax system. Nor does the idea that the creation of harsh tax rules for some countries is a judicious means of encouraging investment in this one. The quality of the investment and the strength of the economy should always be the appropriate yardsticks.

The outcome of this package is likely to be disappointing. The Government has, to its credit, begun to tackle New Zealanders' saving deficiencies. But in this instance it has wandered down an unprofitable side road.

Audrey Young: France, New Zealand kiss and make up

During the fanfare last week over the visit of China's Premier Wen Jiabao, the visit of a swotty-looking young French minister went largely unnoticed.

Francois Baroin checked out of the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington the same day Premier Wen checked in, fresh from a Pacific summit he had hosted in Fiji.

Virtually no one would have recognised Mr Baroin - apart from those who may have thought the schoolboy wizard Harry Potter (to whom the French press liken him) had come to town.

But a few diplomats and Pacific-watchers would have registered the significance of the Frenchman's presence. It was the first visit of a minister for "overseas France" since the post was established about 25 years ago.

That, said Mr Baroin, had to change, he told the Herald.

"The less we meet, the more we move apart," he said through an interpreter. "And the more we meet, the more we come together."

Without using the word nuclear, or Rainbow Warrior, he acknowledged precisely what had lay behind the mutual dereliction of Pacific co-operation of the regional powers.

"I really believe that these difficulties that we have had in the past and which were painful are really behind us."

Mr Baroin is a familiar face in France in the conservative ruling UMP party (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) as the "teenager" of the Cabinet. He was first elected as a deputy (MP) to the National Assembly at the age of 24 and now, at the age of 41, he is also France's youngest minister, positioned at No 17 out of 32.

But in France he is controversially known as the man former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin picked to head a commission on "laicite" - the separation of religion and state - which led to the ban in scarf-wearing by Muslim girls in schools.

Mr Baroin, among the half a dozen ministers said to be closest to President Jacques Chirac, was given his first ministerial posting in June last year, when he was made Minister for Overseas Territories.

The goodwill towards him by those he met in Wellington represented more than a thaw from the resentment that existed until France's nuclear testing in French Polynesia ended 11 years ago.

France is now, figuratively speaking, welcomed to the Pacific by New Zealand with a kiss on both cheeks, then one more with affection.

Helen Clark met the minister, as did Phil Goff as Trade and Defence Minister and Pacific Affairs Minister; and Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

Mr Peters, it was observed, struck up a special rapport with the French minister through the international passport to instant camaraderie, cigarette smoking.

At a working dinner at Zibibo restaurant on Tuesday night, the pair disappeared to the footpath outside between each course and according to French ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud it "was clearly an element in their good relations".

The tangible nature of closer co-operation in the Pacific was evident the next day.

Mr Peters and Mr Baroin signed a new FRANZ surveillance agreement - as the threesome is known - that commits France, Australia, and New Zealand to co-ordinate their military patrols in the exclusive economic zones of Pacific countries for illegal fishing.

And the surveillance agreement builds on an existing FRANZ arrangement to co-operate during Pacific disaster relief.

Mr Peters also signed an agreement with France to jointly fund a new government administration for Niue to replace the one destroyed in cyclone Heta in 2004. France will give $1 million and New Zealand $2 million.

The significant mood shift towards France from New Zealand's viewpoint is not just because the nuclear aggravation has gone but because of France's own changes towards its territories - New Caledonia and French Polynesia, now led by independence advocate Oscar Temaru - in allowing them to take a place a Pacific Affairs.

The way Helen Clark put it this week was: "What I have observed in the last six and a quarter years [since becoming Prime Minister] particularly since the election of Oscar Temaru, is the development of a regional personality by the territories, which France is not blocking and, on the contrary, seems to be positive about."

The praise of France contrasts with the former opprobrium in which France held not only for its nuclear testing but for smothering the local nationhood aspirations which that resistance naturally fostered.

Written into the organic law is the right for both French Polynesia and New Caledonia to have a referendum for self-determination. That is not to say the relationship with the mothership is all smooth going.

Mr Baroin pointedly noted that the largest contribution among all its overseas territories went to French Polynesia - $2.25 billion a year with an increase of 5 per cent a year.

He had been talking about his visit to the territory before arriving in New Zealand.

Mr Temaru baited him by beating the independence drums loudly before the minister arrived. Reflecting on his encounter with Mr Temaru, Mr Baroin said pithily that within the Republic of France "freedom is the rule but there is no freedom without rules".

"And I reminded him with the necessary firmness [of] the framework within these rules, ie, the French constitution, within which nowadays French Polynesia is anchored."

He continued: "I believe France has found an amazing balance to ensure that we can progress jointly. I have also reminded everybody that one may be an individual and still be together."

The trade relationship between New Zealand and the French territories ($120 million exports to New Caledonia and $167 million to French Polynesia) is one of the drivers in the improving relations.

But the change in attitude by New Zealand and Australia towards France must also be seen in terms of the relative movement of other big powers. Britain has scaled down its representation in the Pacific states to Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

The United States has other priorities. China is moving in. France has stayed.

The various powers now compete for the attentions of Pacific leaders with top level summits: Premier Wen's inaugural one in Fiji, Japan's every two years, President Bush held one in Hawaii last term and President Chirac is hosting a second one this year, in Paris in June - coinciding with the opening of a new museum of indigenous art (Musee du Quai Branly.)

Helen Clark rejected a suggestion that France might be engaging more in the neighbourhood as a response to the growing influence of China in the region.

"I don't think it's about that. It's about France, having got that issue which caused so much aggravation in the region off the agenda, nuclear testing, it was in a position rebuild better relations and I think it has done that."

But she acknowledged that France's more active engagement with other parts of the region could be seen in the context of its historic power which, for example, had afforded it a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"There's no doubt that France will work very hard to retain that 'great power' status, very hard. And it is a relatively independent voice in that respect.

"France, as a great power traditionally, now works on a much more crowded playing field with India, China, Brazil others also growing in presence, if you like, in the international community. It's an interesting time."

Mr Baroin said there was need for France's presence in the region.

"And there is a need for a presence from the EU in order to guarantee this political stability and also to guarantee harmonious economic development."

That was also the message he had also received from the Australian Government. He described the rising presence of China in the Pacific as "a matter of fact".

"It is a very important matter of fact."

But he said France shared New Zealand's view that it wanted players in the region to be able to benefit from China's dramatic growth.

France engages in the Pacific at three levels: at a bilateral level and in 2005 it gave $55 million in aid to island states; as a strong player in the European Union - the third highest aid donor in the Pacific - and within its own territories. For the small Pacific nations, now is an important time to have France's advocacy when the "it" place for donor Euros is Africa.

The EU at present is undertaking a review of its commitments in the Pacific and in mid-year is expected to release a new long-term development budget.

"Having a powerful EU country which is an advocate for the Pacific is a great advantage," Helen Clark said.

Peter Griffin: Teenagers cyber-socialising in a substitute world

It was a cold and rainy day in London, and I was catching up with an old workmate who wanted to show off her pride and joy - her 14-year-old daughter.

But the girl was nowhere to be seen. She was upstairs, tapping away on her computer.

"Faceparty," my friend said distastefully. "She spends half her life on it."

It turns out Faceparty.com is a social networking website. I'd never heard of it so I logged on myself to have a look.

The front page told me: "Faceparty is the most advanced online community in the world. We're more than a website - to thousands we're a way of life."

Faceparty has six million members, most of them British teenagers. It's a social networking site, like Myspace.com, the most successful of the breed with more than 70 million members, which was bought last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for a whopping US$580 million.

On Faceparty, people with similar interests meet and chat, swap photos and gradually build a network of friends. Sounds innocuous enough.

But that last bit - "to thousands we're a way of life" - also sounded a bit creepy to me.

Don't kids spend enough time on the internet doing homework and playing games without undertaking much of their socialising on it as well?

And as a gathering point for youth, you might be concerned that it's also a trawling ground for perverts and paedophiles.

Many readers will be oblivious to the popularity of Myspace among teenagers as it's an American and European phenomenon. A mere 3000 Myspace members are listed as being from New Zealand and just 400 for Faceparty. Both sites are free to join.

But the profiles of those Kiwis who do belong to the social networking hubs are no different from those of youths on the other side of the world.

They're forthright, open accounts of life. It seems that the barrier of keyboard and computer screen gives people the confidence to really open up.

The postings are littered with personal information, some members going well beyond the pale to post numerous photos of themselves, list email addresses and even the names of bars and nightclubs they drink at.

The personalised sites, which are designed with templates provided by the likes of Myspace and Faceparty, let other people know what sort of person you are, and therefore whether they want to electronically socialise with you. You're invited to list your favourite movies - Donnie Darko and The Princess Bride seem to be favourites among female Myspace members. Favourite bands, hobbies, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, smoking and drug-taking habits can also be listed.

Myspace will host a blog for users to keep a running diary, which their network of friends can read. Notes are often written in that terrible sort of shorthand that makes up mobile phone text messages.

After a few hours in the world of Faceparty and Myspace, I came away staggered at the scale of the websites and impressed at the attention some people pay to maintaining their online personalities.

But there are enough horror stories in the United States already about some of the content that's been posted to Myspace - from naked photos to defamatory statements about teachers.

Experiencing such fast-paced growth, Myspace has become the Wild West of the web, a place where literally anything goes. Its owners have clearly struggled to police the masses of postings.

To its credit, Myspace is now trying to clean up its act, seemingly spurred on by the Murdoch takeover. It recently appointed former US federal prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as its chief security officer.

The site is also running adverts on American TV stations warning children and adults of the danger lying in wait on the internet. Policies are being tightened and there will be more zealous policing of the content posted.

For News Corp, Myspace offers a direct channel to the youth market. Advertising revenue figures haven't been revealed but are believed to be in the tens of millions. There is money in social networking.

When Trade Me was scooped up by newspaper publisher Fairfax for $700 million last month, the buyers picked up a thriving online community of traders who discuss everything and anything on the site's message boards as well as the Oldfriends site, which has 750,000 members.

The social networks attract eyeballs like nothing else on the internet and that alone will ensure they're here to stay. They can be expected to assume more of a presence locally.

It seems the human desire to be understood and to fit in as part of a group, for many people, can be well satisfied through the internet. That's what social networking is all about. By and large, it's a very progressive movement. But if you're penning a Myspace profile, just be careful about revealing the real intimate details. You never know who is watching.

Irfan Yusuf: Let's not repeat others' errors

A tiny minority of young Australian-born Muslims are increasingly being seen as a security threat.

Australian police recently arrested three young Muslim men, joining 15 or so co-religionists, the bulk of them born and brought up in Australia.

The most recent annual report by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) identifies a strategic change in the approach of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, a change which happened in 2002.

Dr Paul Buchanan's response on these pages supports the assessment of Australian security expert Clive Williams of the Australian National University. Williams argues that Australian involvement in Iraq and other overseas conflicts has put Australia on the terrorists' radar.

But in fighting terrorism, authorities must understand that Islamic teachings aren't the problem, nor are most Muslims.

Even critics will agree with the SIS's assessment that extremist groups have focused on recruiting "individuals inspired rather than directed who were citizens or permanent residents of the countries in question, and who were not previously regarded as of major security concern".

New Zealand's media have shown sensitivity to the religious sentiments of minorities, and Muslim communities need to take some responsibility. One cannot expect any religious denomination to act as an intelligence or law enforcement agency, but community leaders can limit the attraction of extremism by helping young Muslims get maximum exposure to the broad spectrum of Islamic theology and culture.

Sadly, some migrant Muslim communities treat Islam as a cultural relic. The needs of young people and converts are ignored, giving extremists more recruitment opportunities.

UK Muslim institutions are dominated by first-generation, largely sub-Continental migrants employing non-English speaking imams more interested in sectarian and cultural feuds of little relevance to British Muslims.

Those believed to be responsible for the London attacks were young emotional and ideological refugees from Muslim mosques and institutions uninterested in assisting young people caught swinging between spiritual and cultural poles.

The migration experience is traumatic. Sadly, the greater trauma of children growing up between multiple cultural and religious values and expectations is often ignored.

Many young Muslims feel alien, whether at home or outside, unsure of their identity and more prone to depression and anxiety than their peers who don't experience such cultural confusion. Those at the helm of Muslim institutions must understand that any failure to assist young Muslims manage identity-related crises could pose a security threat for the broader community.

Australia's leading Muslim organisations have not provided a good example. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has no youth representatives on its board and is composed almost exclusively of middle-aged men born outside Australia. Its adviser on youth affairs is an imam in his 60s with no English.

Subsequent generations of Australian Muslims find mainstream mosques irrelevant and instead are attracted to youth centres managed by more radical imams who speak fluent English and who gained their ideas studying in Saudi Arabia.

New Zealand's Muslim community doesn't have some of the negative features found in Australia. However, mosque management committees are often controlled by first-generation migrants, with no strategy for inter-generational transfer.

Muslim institutions must ensure Islam doesn't become a piece of cultural baggage left at the airport. If young people and converts are not catered for, most will eventually leave Islam altogether. But some may fall under the spell of extremist theology.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim bodies and independent schools.

Brian Fallow: Own-goal risk with new tax plan

There was a whiff of political tribalism in the air on Tuesday when the Government unveiled its long-awaited overhaul of the investment taxation regime.

The upshot is liable to be an economic own-goal: turning what you might call expatriate Kiwi capital into the permanently exiled variety.

As always in such an exercise there would be winners and losers, said Finance Minister Michael Cullen.

"The winners will be thousands of ordinary, hard-working New Zealanders the Government is helping achieve long-term financial security," he said.

"The losers will tend to be sophisticated direct-investors who have enjoyed considerable tax advantages under the old regime and who have the ability to easily adjust their investment arrangements."

The Government deserves some credit for trying to tidy up an area of the tax laws that has long been riddled with anomalies.

The tax rules are different depending on whether investment is direct or through an intermediary vehicle, active or passive, in New Zealand or offshore, and if offshore in a "grey list" country or somewhere else.

Addressing the long-standing absurdity of taxing the return on savings of people in the low-to-middle income bracket at 33c in the dollar, when their other income is taxed at 19.5c, has become urgent with the advent of the KiwiSaver workplace superannuation scheme next April.

It would be hard to encourage people to save through vehicles that are taxed harder than the savers' other income.

And it makes sense to address the equally long-standing complaint of the managed funds industry that capital gains they make on their investors' behalf from local shares are taxed while the same profits the same investors would make if they held the shares directly or through a passive fund are not.

There is even a case in the spirit of CER for exempting investment into Australia from the rules applying to more remote and distant investment destinations.

But it is hard to discern any principled reason for setting a de minimis threshold of $50,000 as the cut-off point between gentle and harsh tax treatment of equity investment elsewhere in the world.

It is a political number. It is a number which says: "Who cares about the 10,000 to 20,000 people on the wrong side of that line; they don't vote for us anyway."

It is hard to justify these days the arbitrary division of the rest of the world into grey list and non-grey list countries.

The grey list consists of Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Spain and the United States. They are exempted from the tough foreign investment fund (FIF) regime which was adopted in the wake of Winebox-like rorts involving tax havens.

The assumption was that the countries on the list taxed businesses at a similar rate to New Zealand and it was, therefore, reasonable to treat investors putting money into those countries roughly the same as those investing at home.

The arbitrary line left most of Asia and Europe out.

The task of levelling that playing field, without leaving the door wide open to wholesale tax avoidance, would be daunting indeed.

But what the Government has come up with, even after taking aboard a lot of the points made in the hailstorm of criticism its original proposal engendered, still amounts to a capital gains tax on investment into countries that did not formerly attract it.

True, the impact is mitigated in a timing sense by the 5 per cent cap and rollover provisions.

A particularly good year for the Dow or the Footsie, or a big fall in the kiwi dollar like that now under way, could easily push the value of an investors' offshore equity holdings up by much more than the annual cap of 5 per cent of the value at the start of the year.

The rollover provisions allow a degree of smoothing through periods of relative market strength and weakness and the gyrations of the exchange rate cycle.

But the bottom line is that if an investor wants to sell up and bring the money home he or she may well be deterred from doing so by the prospect of a hefty tax bill.

Capital gains taxes are commonly criticised for locking investors into an asset they might otherwise want to quit. Such rigidities are not economically efficient.

This case would be less one of locking in than locking out. The new rules give investors an incentive to keep capital out of the country, turning expatriate dollars into exiled ones.

The investors involved are likely to have less reason than the rest of us to bring their money home and perhaps more opportunity in the way of overseas travel, children on their OE and so on, to use the funds offshore.

Death also puts the money out of the taxman's reach.

The temptation for outright evasion - what the taxman doesn't know won't hurt him - will be increased if the tax is seen as an excessive new impost.

At the very least, it will be an enforcement challenge for Inland Revenue and tend to undermine the voluntary compliance which is the foundation of the present approach to tax administration.

The flipside of the locking-out effect is a ghettoising effect, with the tax regime encouraging investors to keep their money in New Zealand or Australia.

More likely Australia, because the New Zealand equities market has already been pretty comprehensively hollowed out.

The stock exchange has long resembled nothing so much as a rather low-rent motel on the road from state ownership to foreign ownership.

Removing a couple of disincentives to invest by way of managed funds in New Zealand listed companies may at the margin increase the uptake of KiwiSaver schemes and thereby the pool of capital available locally.

But that effect will be offset by less chance of attracting back capital which has already left the country.

The same sort of mindset was evident in last month's announcement that new immigrants are to be exempt from New Zealand tax on most foreign income for four years, but returning expatriates will need to have been away for 10 years to qualify for the same relief.

Why not four years, to match the period of the (limited) tax holiday?

Whether it is a matter of attracting back expatriate talent and enterprise, or expatriate capital, we cannot afford to be as cavalier as this.

Michele Hewitson: Let the battle begin

I was beeping well going to write about Holmes' new talk show but, beep it, I'm going to put it off for as long as beeping possible.

And the best way to do this seems to be to talk about that box thing that is now sitting in what seems to me to be an ever-increasing line-up of boxes that do arcane things and live in the living room. They take up a lot of space and I don't really know how to work any of them. At least I didn't, until recently.

I put off learning how to work MySky for as long as possible because it looked complicated and came with yet another remote to add to the line-up of remotes, none of which I know how to use. This has long suited the bloke.

Not so long ago, the expression "so easy a child could use it" had another meaning. Now "so easy a child could use it" means that an adult (or me) is going to have the greatest of difficulty using something with lots of complicated buttons and arrows and funny symbols. At least they look funny to me.

"You must be the only person in the world who doesn't know what a pause symbol is," said the bloke while giving me lessons on how to do MySky. He was about to bugger off for a week and I needed to record things, hence the long-put-off lesson.

Ha! Bet he regrets that little jaunt away now because I am, if I say so myself, beeping excellent at doing tricky things with MySky.

Why, I can even record things like Holmes' new talk show. Oh, beep it. I'm not ready yet. How I wish the bloke had, as I rashly accused, deleted it with one wee push of a tiny button. MySky is pretty good but even it can't do wonders for your eyesight.

Anyway, when I thought he HAD deleted the beeping thing, I pretended to be utterly outraged and started writing a column about how, while MySky may be near miraculous in it's idiot proof-ness, it does nothing for domestic harmony.

On our planner programme, which tells you what you've recorded, there are listed The Dogs of War, 2x Battle of Britain, Saving Private Ryan, 4x I Claudius and three yet-to-be-watched episodes of the excellent America's Next Top Model.

I am not allowed to watch ANTM because it is beeping vacuous rubbish, apparently. That is rather the point of it, actually.

It's all very well being able to record and store this stuff at the touch of a button but I really think MySky should include a facility which allows for equal His and Hers storage rights.

And a system which allows for Her to be able to watch one episode of ANTM for every viewing of Battle of Britain.

That would do away with much beeping.

Right, so did you see Holmes and Lucy Lawless beeping at each other? Beep, that was funny. Did you see Holmes ask Theresa Gattung - in the segue of the year, given that his other studio guest was a singer - "did you want to be a pop star at all?"

And did you see him ask Lawless "who are you?" Is there a song in that?

Beeping amazing. That's all I want to say about it. But thank you very much MySky for making it so easy to record those truly unforgettable television moments of our time.

Jim Eagles: We're East enders

Asian countries like China, India and Vietnam were the growth destinations for New Zealand tourists last year.

The numbers going to such places are still relatively small - especially compared with the throngs heading to Australia or Fiji - but they are climbing fast.

In the past 10 years, for instance, the number of Kiwis going to China has rocketed from 4775 to 50,406 a year.

Last year alone, according to the latest Statistics New Zealand figures, the number of us heading to the Middle Kingdom rose by more than 30 per cent compared with 2004.

In recent years China has recorded by far the biggest increase of any destination thanks to a combination of easier access, the booming Chinese economy and closer links between the two countries.

There have also been impressive increases for Vietnam (up from a mere 1080 10 years ago to 6051 last year) and India (up from 3862 to 20,869).

In that period the number of New Zealanders making overseas trips each year has more than doubled from 823,834 to 1.87 million.

But the trend towards those Asian destinations is equally impressive as a proportion of the number of trips made.

Ten years ago only 0.6 per cent of people heading overseas said China would be their main destination; last year that quadrupled to 2.7 per cent.

Similarly, India's share of the market has doubled from 0.5 to 1 per cent and Vietnam's has trebled from 0.1 to 0.3 per cent.

The increases are all the more noteworthy because these days travellers are spreading their wings more widely and many popular destinations are losing market share as a result.

The only other significant destinations recorded as having increased their share of Kiwi holidaymakers over the past 10 years are Thailand and South Korea, Australia, the Cook Islands, South Africa, Ireland, France and Italy.

Australia remains the overwhelming choice - half of the Kiwis who went overseas last year said that was their main destination - though obviously not all of those were on holiday.

But China has already overtaken places like the Cook Islands, Thailand and Samoa to become our fifth most popular destination and the way it is growing in popularity it's easy to imagine it moving past the United Kingdom and the United States - both have been losing market share in recent years - to move into third place.

Part of the growth is a result of other Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia losing popularity. But local travel operators say it is also because New Zealanders are showing increased interest in Asia generally.

Charlotte Porter, marketing manager of Holiday Shoppe, says their figures show travel to Asia is up by 20 per cent this year.

Flight Centre's Asia product manager Liz Johnston reckons the arrival of Asian airlines and increased opportunities for stopovers en route to more traditional destinations like Europe have been a big factor in growing interest in Asia.

"After spending time in Hong Kong or Bangkok it's hard not to want to go back and see a little more."

But, she adds, having become familiar with countries like Thailand, Kiwi travellers are starting to go further afield to gain new experiences.

"Vietnam and China were closed off for so long, but now New Zealanders are jumping at the chance to check these countries out."

When you add in the fact that it is still cheap to travel round most Asian countries "the region offers a package that's pretty hard to beat".

House of Travel Asia product manager Geoff Grogan says the growth in travel to Asia last year was significant given the problems created by the Boxing Day tsunami.

"But for that it would have been even higher."

So long as there aren't any more bird flu scares, that trend is likely to strengthen over the next few years.

As the Kiwi dollar weakens, cheaper destinations like China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are likely to seem increasingly attractive compared with the high-cost countries of Europe and North America - and in my opinion they're every bit as interesting.

Garth George: You have to admire those bit-players in the gospels

It was Mark Twain who said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." And when I reread for the hundredth, or perhaps thousandth, time the ageless, exciting, terrifying and engrossing story of the events of the first Easter, I am persuaded he knew what he was talking about.

Every time I read the record left for us in the four gospels - Matthew the eye-witness; Mark the keen young on-the-spot reporter with his crisp, tightly-written account; Luke the perceptive feature writer who came along later; and John the editorialist - it is as fresh and as gripping as the first time I read and understood it in my teens.

But this week I was taken not so much by the awesomeness of the part played by God and his only son, Jesus, but by the sheer humanness of those who might be called the bit-players in the climactic events that make this the greatest story ever told.

I identify with this humanness - the foibles, the failings, the weaknesses - to which mankind has always been, is, and ever will be heir to, Christian or not, and with the despair in the hearts of those who saw their hopes and dreams crashing around them.

There were genuinely evil men, of course, in this cast of thousands - the high priest Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, the chief priests and their hangers-on, and the contemptible King Herod.

But were they any worse than the benighted ayatollahs and imams of Islam and Christian pastors and priests of today who protect and accumulate more power and wealth by manipulating the ignorant and naive?

Judas the betrayer and Pilate the Roman procurator seem to be seen as the villains of the piece, too - but were they?

I suspect that Judas was just a bit sharper than the rest of the disciples, saw that everything was about to turn to custard and devised a way to secure his future. He wasn't the first and certainly not the last to renege on a contract and leave his boss hanging out to die.

Pilate, for all that he was exposed to Jesus' enormous charisma and convinced of his innocence, in the final analysis saw him as just another Jewish stirrer, something he could well do without with Caesar's beady eye on him.

Pilate was a politician.

And as for the mob. They made it clear they would rather have the terrorist murderer Barabbas set free among them than accede to the claims of Christ - an attitude that echoes down the millenniums even to this day.

So much for the baddies, now what about the goodies? Take Peter, the big, bluff, bombastic bloke who had become a leader among the disciples. On this night all those years ago at the last supper he announced, "Lord with you I am ready to go to prison and to death."

And only a few hours later, after Jesus had been arrested, with curses he was proclaiming to all who would listen that he'd never even met the fellow. Then a cock crowed and the fisherman who saw himself as a hard man "went out and wept bitterly".

Little was he to know that the excruciating humiliation he suffered at that moment - and even today the only way to learn humility is through humiliation - was to be a turning point in a life that was to make his name immortal.

As for the other disciples, who had lived in the warmth of the reflected glory of Jesus the miracle worker, the prophet and teacher, when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane in the early hours of the first Good Friday, they "left him and fled" - every last one of them.

Including John, who in his record of events is at great pains to tell us - as many times as he can fit it in - that he was the particular disciple "whom Jesus loved".

They weren't the last to desert a cause as soon as the going got rough; and John is certainly not the only one to have claimed a special relationship with Christ which implies preferential treatment.

Unsurprisingly it is the women who attached themselves to Jesus who come out of this whole affair with nothing but credit. They stood by their man right to the end and it was two of them who discovered he had risen from the dead - and believed it.

Not so the disciples who had to see him first before they would believe. And hasn't it been that ever since, women have more readily come to believe than men? Still do.

Then there's Thomas, who wasn't there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples and who refused to believe in his resurrection until he'd seen him for himself. But when he had seen the holes in the hands and the wound in the side, he stammered in awe, "My Lord and my God".

And thus became the first person to realise that Jesus was indeed God incarnate.

We Christians today can, if we choose, this Easter learn much from looking afresh at the people- who were much like us - who took part in the events which were to split mankind's history in two.

As for my favourite character, Peter, let's fast-forward a month or so to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Twelve and, suddenly, everything made sense.

The chastened Peter stood before the multitude and preached the finest Christian sermon heard, and 3000 souls were baptised in the name of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And nothing in the world has been the same since.

Talkback: How to engage with your local community over planning

By Bruce Fraser

Here's the challenge for local body communications staff.

How do you best communicate with and engage your regional community (or city or district depending on which arm of local government you work for) over the council's 10-year plan?

The Local Government Act 2002 requires each council to create a council community plan to provide integrated decision-making with a long-term focus while being publicly accountable and involving the public.

Of the barriers to be addressed, the strongest is public scepticism that their views count for little and won't make any real difference.

Some believe councils have already made up their minds and are merely going through the consultative process with little if any real intention of taking notice of the public.

Others take the view that democracy means voting for your local body representative every three years and letting them get on with it. If I like what you do, I'll vote you back in. If not, I'll pick someone else. These people often like to be kept informed but think their lives are busy enough with issues that are more important.

Yet another barrier is money. If the council spends too much by way of advertisements, flyers, letterbox drops and displays, the community will object to their rates being used in this way. Keep me informed, many say, but don't spend too much doing it.

A seachange is going on here though. The old ways are no longer good enough to meet community expectations and government directions. Internationally, communities are demanding more say in what happens to their social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing. Guide notes say "at the heart of the Local Government Act is a desire to strengthen the concept of local democracy and the sustainable well being of communities".

The task of the council communicator is to guide his or her councillors and staff in interesting, creative and meaningful ways of engaging their communities in this process. We could each easily meet the compliance requirements of the act and do the same old things. Or we could rise to the challenge, address the barriers with clear, intelligent communications planning and provide real opportunities for people to engage with us.

Communities, through the outcomes processes that have been running over the past 18 months in all localities, have set out what sort of places they want to live in. Our challenge now is to work with them and find out exactly how they want local government to help achieve those outcomes.

American poet Walt Whitman wrote: "The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlours, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."

Let's acknowledge those people in our communities and genuinely involve them in our 10-year plans. As local body communicators, we need to embrace the change and engage more strongly with communities.

Here are a few simple ways we can engage meaningfully with our communities over our long-term council community plans:

Firstly, get rid of that ugly phrase "the long-term council community plan" and call it something the community can understand. Something like what it really is - the 10-year plan.

Secondly, commit to a plain English approach. Provide information in a way that suits our target audiences. We face a major challenge in avoiding bureaucratic and technical language. Much of our work is steeped in such material but we have duties as communicators to convert this into ways that will mean something to our communities.

Thirdly, provide a variety of ways communities can express their views on our proposals. The act says people can make a submission in any way that suits them. We need to think creatively about channels that will match the variety of preferences people want.

Fourthly, we need to take our messages to the people, not expect them to come to us all the time. We should think about how we can go to their spaces, to the places where they feel comfortable.

Lastly, we should provide clear feedback to communities to show how their input has made a difference There's nothing new here - many councils have been trying these and other approaches over the past few years.

We can also progress and get better at this if we also learn from each other's successes and failures.

* Bruce Fraser is Environment Bay of Plenty's community relations group manager.