Saturday, April 29, 2006

John Armstrong: All sizzle and little sausage

Plenty of sausage, not enough sizzle. Mike Ward's analysis of what is wrong with the Greens will not alter his status as the rank outsider in the four-way tussle to fill Rod Donald's shoes as the party's male co-leader.

However, Ward's sausage analogy illustrates how the leadership election - now formally under way - has inevitably turned into something of a stocktake of the party's progress after nearly a decade in Parliament.

The Greens' sausage - definitely organic, quite possibly soya-bean to boot - is not to everyone's taste. But the Greens have to believe there is a bigger market for it than they are capturing.

In politics, you need the sizzle to sell the message. Ward says he is good at sizzle. But Ward may be all sizzle and little sausage.

If the flamboyant one-term MP was not the best-dressed male MP in the last Parliament, he was certainly the most sartorially expressive, topping that by winning Wellington's wearable arts award.

While in Parliament, he picked a seemingly unwinnable fight with the makers of disposable nappies. Nappies won. The Great Nappy Campaign was not a success. Ward spent much of the last election campaign riding around the North Island on a recumbent-type tricycle. He would be a very different co-leader. But not one that even the tolerant Greens could contemplate.

Ward's candidacy speaks of the time when the Greens played at politics. That time is over.

The buzzword within the party is "realism". It is a coded way of saying electing Ward or Nandor Tanczos as co-leader would send the wrong message to voters and cut across the party's bottom-line priority of growing its vote.

Tanczos, a far more serious prospect than Ward, has countered by seeking to reinvent himself as a more rounded politician than someone who has been seen as fixated with cannabis law reform. He is handicapped by lingering doubts about his commitment to being an MP, let alone co-leader. He has sought to answer that criticism by displaying huge energy and drive since returning to Parliament following Donald's death.

He has also been quick to turn the co-leadership contest into a debate about the party's future direction. He had to.

The acknowledged front-runner, Russel Norman, has manoeuvred behind the scenes to postpone such a major debate until after the party's Queen's Birthday weekend conference where the co-leader will be chosen. Norman argued that party direction should be driven by grassroots members rather than becoming hostage to the personalities and campaigning strategies of those fighting over Donald's job.

The 100 or so delegates who will determine the co-leader under the STV voting system favoured by the party arguably have enough on their plate in determining who would work best alongside Jeanette Fitzsimons. But not only that. The decision must take into account the likelihood that the next parliamentary term will be Fitzsimons' last and a replacement will have to be found.

Dual leadership - a nod to gender equality - could be a millstone around the party's neck. That was disguised by the chemistry between Fitzsimons and Donald - a chemistry which had Donald stepping back and allowing Fitzsimons to front as the face of the Greens when there was not room for both on a platform.

The order of seniority would be most obviously preserved by electing a non-MP - Norman or the remaining candidate, Unitech lecturer Dave Clendon.

Fitzsimons has already hinted that is her preference. She has complained the party membership has become too reliant on its MPs. Norman or Clendon - both having served in various backroom roles - could concentrate on rebuilding and reinvigorating the party organisation without the distraction of Parliament, while Fitzsimons could concentrate on parliamentary duties.

Squeezed out of the picture, Tanczos could hardly allow the election to be defined on terms favourable to Norman.

The Rastafarian has made a play for those who believe the party should retain a strong environmentalist thrust which should not be overshadowed by the increasing emphasis on "social justice" - the philosophical background from which Norman springs.

Tanczos has cleverly linked this argument to the other major question taxing members' minds - the party's relationship with Labour.

Tanczos is saying the party should avoid being constantly marooned to the left of Labour, which leaves it in a position of weakness when bargaining with Labour.

Worse, the Greens are vulnerable to the emergence of a true left-wing alternative to Labour or to Labour shifting leftwards - just as Act was steamrollered by National pushing to its right.

Staking out a more independent position on the political spectrum would also attract voters sympathetic to Green messages but who feel the party is too far to the left.

Tanczos is seeking to redefine the contest in his terms by offering a strategy which deals with the party's overriding priority: how to stop flirting with parliamentary extinction by hovering too close to the 5 per cent threshold and instead register closer to 10 per cent support, which would enable the Greens to exert far more pressure on Labour.

With the party's strongest support in the inner cities and enclaves around Nelson, the Coromandel and Waiheke Island - all home to alternative lifestylers - Norman has been talking of the Greens making the leap into the suburbs by picking up on mainstream issues such as higher petrol prices, lack of public transport and latent fears that global warming is escalating. That thinking is shared by Clendon.

Both candidates would knock on the doors of business and sector groups to extend the party's reach and to stop people automatically attaching the "whacky" label to everything the Greens do.

They will not be stating it directly but the implication of them saying they can best communicate the Green message is that Tanczos is too typecast to open doors so far closed to the party.

Their candidacies are all about the party making the next step up by looking much more professional and sounding much more focused.

It is something the Australian Greens have successfully taken to heart. Image matters in politics.

Tanczos' dreadlocks and Ward's dandyish suits simply get in the way of the message - as did Donald's braces.

If the Greens want credibility in the suburbs, they are being told they have to smarten up their act - literally. Otherwise, it is going to be fizzle rather than sizzle.

Editorial: Well-merited jolt for Transpower

Transpower has much to think about after the draft ruling denying its plan to upgrade the power supply into Auckland. Before the Electricity Commission delivers a final verdict in July, the national grid owner and operator must either modify its proposal to erect a new 400kV transmission line from Whakamaru to Otahuhu or present a more compelling case for its acceptance. Either way, it should also assess its approach.

The perils of arrogance have rarely been so clearly shown as in Transpower's attitude to those who questioned its proposal. In some ways, this may even have contributed to its downfall. Transpower's view was always that there was no alternative to stringing 430 huge power pylons across the Waikato and South Auckland landscape. Never mind that many landowners were appalled by the risk to land use, land values and their health. Never mind that some reckoned the need for a more powerful national grid could be negated by building small power stations closer to the area of demand. Transpower, like a government department of old, was not for turning.

In such circumstances, the presence of an independent arbiter like the Electricity Commission is welcome. Its brief is to cut through the bluster and deliver a cogent assessment. In this instance, it found that Transpower was not convincing. The commission concluded that an investment of $140 million in the existing network, and perhaps the building of power stations near Auckland, would delay the need for a 400kV line until 2017. That is seven years after the deadline deemed essential by Transpower to avoid the risk of power cuts.

The commission chairman, Roy Hemmingway, also noted, however, that the Waikato farmers who opposed pylons going over their land needed to accept the inevitability of a new transmission line. That, unfortunately, has the effect of rendering the commission's case less than fully convincing. The seven-year delay may, as Mr Hemmingway suggests, save the country as much as $250 million. But why wait if that saving may come at a serious cost in terms of the robustness and reliability of Auckland's power supply? Certainly, there is nothing to say that the power stations near Auckland referred to by the commission will ever be built.

It is reasonable to ask whether there can be any justification for delaying what both the commission and Transpower agree is an inevitable response to Auckland's power demands. In that context, New Zealand's history of infrastructure development is extremely chequered. For every Think Big project that would never have got off the ground if the Government had exercised greater discretion, there is a gridlocked Auckland road that bears testimony to the perils of procrastination.

The commission could not say it, but there is, in fact, at least one reason for caution. That is the fate of Comalco's Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter, which gobbles up 14 per cent of the country's electricity. Its power supply contract, which runs out in 2012, is now being negotiated with Meridian Energy. If Comalco chose to close the aging smelter, it would open up a whole new scenario for electricity transmission, through a direct-current spine, to the north.

In the final analysis, Transpower is expected to ensure that Auckland has a guaranteed power supply. It will bear the odium if the lights go out. But it must acknowledge that the importance of that task no longer guarantees it unfettered sway. It will not always be able to make the investments it sees fit. The Electricity Commission's draft ruling should have convinced Transpower that a touch of humility would not go astray. And be the catalyst for a meeting of minds.

Fran O'Sullivan: Reporter with a mission should get back to basics

"You are implicated" said the headline which sprang up when I clicked open my email at the Herald several days after last year's election.

Ian Wishart's accusation was unexpected but as an attention-grabber it was probably without parallel.

What was he on about? Anyone with half an ounce of life about them will inevitably have accumulated an array of personal "crimes and misdemeanours" after a considerable time on this planet - but this was not an insider gossip session between two journalists with a "history", one around the 1990s wine-box tax-dodging scandal where we competed vigorously but also combined to ensure a story was exposed that the then establishment wanted buried.

This time the boot was really on the other foot.

Wishart had lined me up as a member of the MSM (mainstream media) sloths who failed to investigate documents relating to Doonegate which were posted on a right-wing blogsite days before the election.

Wishart, and the vast right-wing conspiracy that is the Sir Humphrey's Department of Unspin blogsite, believed these documents proved Prime Minister Helen Clark spread lies to unseat the former Police Commissioner. He believed they were documents which would have fatally damaged Clark.

"These were drawn to your attention. Did you inform your editor?" was the tenor of the email.

"Coverup - the story that could have changed the election result - but the media didn't tell you" - blazoned the cover on the following month's Investigate magazine after Wishart did some "dot-connecting" and attacked MSM for general gutlessness by playing up the campaign funding scandal over the National Party's links to the Exclusive Brethren but neglecting new facts that could have fingered Clark.

I was angered by Wishart's claims then and still feel a lingering sense of unease about the issue and not because I failed to "do the story" myself.

I did spend a considerable amount of time working through my own Doone file before deciding the issue needed considerable journalistic re-investigation because much of the substance had already been reported by Herald journalists who mined out the story.

Neither the Sir Humphrey's blogsite, nor "Antarctic Lemur", the anonymous poster of these documents, would declare their political interests in the affair. I did speak to an "Adolf Finkelstein" in weighing these documents but the promised original documents did not materialise.

Were these simply documents obtained for Doone's much-trumpeted defamation case against Clark - which has still to materialise, as Wishart subsequently fails to report?

Was the National Party the source? If so why didn't they go public rather than try to manipulate journalists? Or were the documents fakes?

These are the kinds of questions any journalist will ask before going to print with strong allegations in the last week of an election campaign. The consequences of journalistic failure at this high-wire level are too high to get wrong.

My concern was the presumption that MSM missed an opportunity to bring down Clark, which is not the media's democratic role.

I suspect my attention was drawn to the blogged documents because I had written that it was time to change horses because the Clark Government was running out of ideas.

But the essential difference between the MSM and bloggers is that we have to make sure our journalistic investigations and stories are factually underpinned, are made water-tight as much as possible within the time constraints available, and that the accused gets a chance to respond.

What would have happened had we raced to print with an unverified story that had cost Clark the election and it had then turned out we had missed some obvious links?

My suspicion is that Wishart would have cheered us on because he so obviously now wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Clark and her Government.

The reason Clark calls him "lowlife" is that he has made a number of outrageous attacks against her, claiming she has a lesbian cabal running the Government. But if we had rushed to put Brash in the frame we would have been condemned.

This is clearly hypothetical.

What is not is the "two and a half" Cabinet scalps Wishart has come close to bagging in his crusades against Labour over the past year.

His John Tamihere sting was justified, but there are big weaknesses in his campaigns against David Benson-Pope and David Parker where he chose to again run with the accusations by disaffected sources without putting them to the relevant Cabinet Minister first.

I am not crowing because Wishart's latest effort has blown up in his face. I have a lot of respect for any journalist who is prepared to dig down - uncover the stones - and take a few risks.

But going on to claim on his blog that Benson-Pope could be charged with "kidnapping" under the Crimes Act in relation to peeping tom allegations relating to school girls in shower rooms is just plain nutty stuff.

So, too, is not giving Parker the ability to respond before going with a bankrupt's allegations.

Wishart needs to stop acting as a criminal prosecutor, to go back to his journalistic roots - or get an editor who can save him from his own excesses.

Paul Thomas: Steep oil prices fuelled by an attitude of waste

A friend who has high-powered contacts in government and business circles tells me that, to a person, they believe petrol will hit $2 a litre before Christmas. After the latest hike, economists are already warning of across-the-board price increases and dire consequences for the restaurant and entertainment sectors as households cut back their spending. There are even suggestions that New Zealand's "drive anywhere" lifestyle is under threat.

If it's any consolation, the Poms are no better off. This week, the chairman of BP warned that the price of petrol in Britain would shortly crack the fateful £1 ($2.85) a litre barrier. Rubbing salt into the wound, he went on to reveal that BP is racking up profits of almost $3 billion a month.

Not surprisingly, this announcement triggered accusations of profiteering and demands that these windfall gains be reined in, either by increased taxation or forced price cuts.

The company's defence is that the price of crude oil is being driven by factors outside its control - political instability, nervousness over the standoff with Iran and the activities of hedge funds and speculators trading in the oil markets.

BP also made the point - thereby emphasising the Rubik's cube nature of contemporary capitalism - that the many British pension funds with considerable shareholdings in the company won't be complaining about its profitability.

Because the price of oil has geopolitical as well as economic ramifications, it is an endless source of conspiracy theories and in this day and age most conspiracy theories lead to Washington DC.

Before we blame the Americans yet again, it is worth considering the thesis advanced by Nils Pratley in the Guardian that the price of oil is going through the roof now because it plummeted in the late-1990s.

In 1997, oil was US$10 a barrel and the Economist ran a story headed "Drowning in Oil", predicting that US$5 a barrel wasn't far away. What happened was that oil companies, faced with falling profits and a grim outlook, slashed their investment in exploration and refining capacity.

When demand surged as Asia recovered from its currency crisis, supply couldn't keep pace. In other words, it is simply the law of supply and demand working in the producers' favour. Add Hurricane Katrina, chaos in Iraq and a nuclear face-off and $2-a-litre here we come.

In the United States, the home of cheap petrol, the price is up to US$3 a gallon ($1.25 a litre). As there was a time when US$1 a gallon was regarded as political suicide, it is little wonder the Republican Party is eyeing the mid-term elections with trepidation.

There must now be a distinct possibility that President George Bush - widely regarded as a front-man for the big oil companies and who, according to received wisdom, invaded Iraq at vast cost to secure control of its oil reserves - will be brought undone by the commodity he supposedly serves.

However, it wouldn't have escaped the notice of conspiracy theorists that Bush's response to this crisis was to renew his call for Arctic wildlife reserves to be opened up to drilling.

One of the more interesting commentators on the economics and politics of oil is Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Originally from Transylvania, Luttwak achieved the desired mix of prominence and notoriety in the late 1960s with his book Coup D'Etat: A Practical Handbook which he compared to a cookbook "in the sense that it aims at enabling any layman equipped with enthusiasm - and the right ingredients - to carry out his own coup".

He was part of the clique of hard-line defence intellectuals who coalesced around the Reagan presidency (and probably claim credit for winning the Cold War) and has an article titled "Three reasons not to bomb Iran - Yet" in the latest neo-con organ Commentary which is a thought-provoking read, whatever your views on the situation.

For more than 20 years Luttwak has been arguing that cheap oil is strategically and environmentally disastrous for the West, therefore the higher the price the better.

He points out that the 1973 Arab oil embargo galvanised the West into a huge drive to conserve energy, including the replacement of old machines and plant with energy-efficient equipment, an unblinking focus on avoiding waste, a worldwide search for alternative sources, and an almost overnight switch to small, fuel-efficient cars.

But when normal service was restored, the investment and political will behind these endeavours dried up and business and the consumer went back to their old wasteful ways. These days, the US doesn't really have a small-car market and 60 per cent of buyers choose sports utilities.

Luttwak argues that by abandoning the joint strategy of conservation and the development of alternatives, the West condemned itself to a future of acute shortages and vicious price increases, the beginning of which we may be witnessing.

As it is, the global economy remains totally dependent on a single, diminishing commodity, much of which is located in the world's most unstable region and controlled by undemocratic and, in some cases, hostile regimes.

Brian Gaynor: Time has clipped wings of brash Hawk

The Hawk is back, but he is a far more cautious individual than the high-flyer of 20 years ago.

In the 1980s, Allan Hawkins was a confident and aggressive businessman who took Equiticorp and its 40,000 shareholders on a hectic roller-coaster ride.

The Equiticorp chairman and chief executive was the quintessential risk-taker as he acquired major interests in Feltex, Fisher & Paykel, Aurora Group, New Zealand Steel, Yates Corp, Carter Holt Harvey and Guinness Peat. He also made audacious takeover offers for ACI and Monier in Australia and acquired a controversial 4.4 per cent stake in BHP.

Hawkins showed no signs of self-doubt even after Equiticorp collapsed in January 1989. His post-collapse book, The Hawk, was brash and confident and finished with the words: "I'm going to keep on scrapping."

But with the passage of time, including a jail term, Hawkins has lost most of his appetite for risk. He is now chairman, chief executive and a major shareholder of Cynotech Holdings and this week's annual meeting was a far cry from the crowded and upbeat gatherings he presided over during the mid-1980s.

The former high-flyer has become cautious and conservative and he told a small gathering of Cynotech shareholders that the group's finance company operations had adopted a low-geared strategy because of press reports of a softer economy.

Hawkins also got into a scrap with former Cynotech director Richard Guy over the confiscation of 5.5 million shares and the ability of Guy to vote these at the meeting.

Many of the shareholders at this week's gathering were old associates and friends, and they must be asking whether their loyalty will be rewarded and if Hawkins' low-risk strategy will succeed in the present competitive business environment.

Cynotech, formerly known as Rocom Wireless, was listed on the New Capital Market in August 2000. Rocom began experiencing problems at the end of 2001 and the next few years saw large losses, board and executive changes and numerous attempts to raise new equity to keep the company alive.

At one stage, its shares were suspended for not producing the annual report on time and a rights issue was affected by severe snowfalls in Ashburton, the home of its share registry.

Hawkins first appeared on the scene in June 2004 when his companies, Cynotech Securities and Newmarket Securities, were assigned a Rocom borrowing facility. He was appointed chairman and chief executive of the listed company and his interests were contracted to underwrite a rights issue.

Rocom was in dire straits with $7.7 million of accumulated losses and $1 million of negative shareholder funds. It also operated in the technology area, where Hawkins had limited expertise, and he accepted the position of chairman and chief executive, which is contrary to modern corporate governance best practice.

The former high-flying businessman still had a loyal band of supporters as the company's share price shot up from 8c, just before Hawkins' involvement was announced, to 28c a month later.

One of his first initiatives was to establish Rocom Finance, now called Budget Loans. The original intention was to provide finance for the company's corporate and private clients but it now supplies loans for holidays, home improvements, cars, weddings, debt consolidation, mortgages and other personal items.

The finance company is low-geared with a shareholders' equity ratio of 44 per cent and its growth has been extremely slow compared with that of its competitors.

At the end of 2004, Rocom sold most of its traditional technology business and changed its name to Cynotech Holdings.

In 2005, Cynotech purchased Betta Foods, now called Merlin Foods, the ice-cream cone manufacturer. The purchase and sale agreement involved Cynotech Securities, a company associated with Hawkins, purchasing Betta Foods in March 2005 for $3.68 million (including legal fees, funding fees and a bank loan guarantee fee of 2 per cent a year) and selling it to the listed company for $3.89 million two months later.

Merlin made a major contribution to Cynotech's earnings in the December 2005 year, although Hawkins warned that trading conditions were now more difficult because of cost pressures, particularly electricity, gas and labour, and a more competitive environment.

At December 31, 2005, Hawkins owned 23.5 per cent of Cynotech's paid-up capital and 26.3 per cent of the warrants. A number of his old mates had also come on board, with Mike Daniels, one of Equiticorp's main stockbrokers, holding 2.8 per cent, Daniels and Mike Benjamin 2.6 per cent and Peter Francis, an old Chase Corp sparring partner, 2.7 per cent.

The main issue at this week's meeting was the proposal to change the exercise price of the warrants from 25c an ordinary share (exercisable on May 27, 2006, or May 27, 2008) to either 10c on June 27, 2006, 20c a year later or 30c on June 27, 2008 (shareholders could choose any one of the three exercise dates if the motion was passed).

Guy, a Cynotech director until November last and the largest shareholder before Hawkins took control, opposed the motion because he had sold his warrants and the proposal would dilute his shareholding. The dilution issue is important because Cynotech has 34.1 million warrants and 68.3 million ordinary shares (including convertible notes).

Guy was also annoyed because on April 20, just six days before the meeting, Hawkins transferred 5.5 million shares owned by Guy to Cynotech Securities, one of his own companies.

This dispute relates to security over loans from Hawkins to Guy to fund the latter's purchase of Rocom's original assets and his participation in a rights issue. Hawkins claims that Guy had been selling shares and he needed to protect his interests by transferring the shares, while Guy said he had met all his loan obligations and was in Fiji when the unauthorised transfers occurred.

Hawkins told shareholders the lower exercise price for the options was required because Cynotech needed the funds as he was lending money to Budget Loans. The finance company needed more equity in order to issue a prospectus and grow more quickly.

The warrants motion, which required a 75 per cent majority, was carried by 31.4 million (76 per cent) to 9.9 million. All of Guy's shares, including those transferred on April 20, were voted against the motion.

There weren't many positives to take away from the Cynotech meeting. Net earnings for the six months to June 30 will be well down on the $442,000 achieved in the same period last year because the latter included an extraordinary gain from the sale of assets of $500,000 and there are no exceptional gains in the pipeline this year.

As far as the December 2006 year is concerned, Hawkins said: "Provided we can control the impact of cost increases in our manufacturing operations [Merlin] we expect to produce an acceptable result for the full 2006 year."

But the most disappointing aspect of the meeting was Hawkins' lack of vision. He talked vaguely about acquisitions but, this time around, he doesn't have the financial resources to undertake an aggressive acquisition strategy or a team of bright young executives to support and assist him.

The big picture view of Hawkins is that he was far too aggressive and gung ho when he got his first chance in the 1980s and he is now too cautious and conservative.

A more middle ground approach is best suited for listed companies.

Cynotech Holdings

Share price 14c
Warrants price 5c
Market capitalisation $8.9m

Allan Hawkins (chairman & CEO)
Paul Hutchinson
Kevin McDonald

Net earnings
(December 31, 2005 year)
Operating earnings $308,000
Gain on asset sales $416,000
Tax - nil
Net earnings $724,000

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

John Gardner: Games of power and taking the blame

You would have to be possessed of a heart of stone not to sympathise with Mrs Shelley Kovco. Her soldier husband is sent to Iraq as part of the Australian contingent and is accidentally killed, apparently by a bullet from his own gun, circumstances which don't even offer the consolation of a hero's death.

Then her grief is compounded by an appalling blunder in which the wrong body was repatriated from Kuwait, leaving her husband's body behind.

But Mrs Kovco's reaction to this black comedy of errors is a sign of the times. She insists on speaking to Prime Minister John Howard. Remarkably, she is put through to Mr Howard at 11 o'clock at night and proceeds, in the words of Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, to give him an earful "in a very Australian way".

For the distraught widow to want to lash out in her extreme situation is understandable but her choice of a political target is now the regular routine.

No matter the cause or the grievance, the standard response for many of us is to seek to hold politicians accountable. It is absurd and means we've fallen for the politicians' spin.

While Mr Howard may be held culpable for his alliance with the United States and the decision to send Australian troops to Iraq, to suggest that he is personally liable for a cock-up on the part of some Kuwaiti funeral directors is to stretch the doctrine of responsibility beyond reason.

It seems that Mr Howard, who is nothing if not politically skilled, reacted sympathetically to the widow's tongue-lashing. And so he should, for it is politicians who are to blame for this monstrously inflated sense of their role.

If it is, in the cooler light of reason, nonsensical for John Howard to catch the flak over the details of a bungle thousands of kilometres away so it is daft to expect, say, a health minister to really be in control of the incompetence of some middle-ranking hospital administrator who loses somebody's notes and leaves them on a waiting list. A social affairs minister cannot be expected to make sure each case worker who turns up on a the doorstep of a suspected child abuser isn't bullied off the premises without getting to see the baby.

But politicians pretend this is realistic. Listen to any MP - and this is universal and independent of whichever party happens to be in power - and the assumption is that the whole of life's calamities can be sheeted home to mistaken politics.

The knee-jerk nature of adversarial politics is so ingrained that the poor dears can't help it. If the flood plains fill with rain it's the fault of the previous administration. In government they claim they have the answers and can fix anything.

The most depressing aspect of this is that they don't actually believe this games playing themselves. And when we stop to think about it, neither do we.

If some jackass fork-hoist driver runs over your foot in the DIY warehouse you don't really expect the CEO to fall on his sword. But at some level when it comes to politics we appear to go along with the paradox that politicians are simultaneously omnipotent and totally incompetent.

It is part of this charade that politicians not only seek to blame their rivals for any failing at whatever level but that they accept the praise for any favourable outcomes even if they have no part in it or, at best, a peripheral influence.

Hear them banging on about how "we" have cut the unemployment figures or boosted the economy, as if businesses had nothing to do with it. See them flying in to be photographed with winning sports teams. Listen to them crowing when some New Zealand rapper tops the Australian record charts.When the economy starts to struggle it becomes the result of external circumstances beyond their control, if they're the government, or gobsmacking blunders, if they're the opposition.

Why is political life outside the experience of normal existence? It must be in the nature of politicians.

Auberon Waugh was one of those who subscribed to the view that anyone who volunteers for political life demonstrates a personality disorder that should disqualify them from office. It's often hard to disagree.

But they will not relinquish their vision of their role at the centre of the universe and, regrettably, we buy into it.

Despite Thomas Mann's dictum that "everything is politics", in truth a high proportion of the events that shape our lives lies outside the political process. The modern world is the way it is because of the development of the internal combustion engine.

The future will be dictated by developments in information technology, a sphere in which political intervention has been non-existent or futile.

Politicians are, like the rest of us, subject to forces beyond their control but only few of them will admit it.

The languid British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan did when he answered a question about what influenced governments with the reply "events, dear boy, events".

But a New Zealand parliamentarian who came up with that response in the Beehive bearpit or when being snapped at by a talk show interviewer would be committing political suicide. They have to keep up the show. "I blame the Government" and so, it appears, say all of us.

It can't have been pleasant for Mr Howard to be abused by an angry and distressed soldier's widow. It wasn't his fault. But as a politician, he does have himself to blame.

Paul McIntyre: Coming to a food store near you

Not content with dominating the weekly grocery shop, Australia's two big supermarket chains are now in a race to take on TV broadcasters with in-store "narrowcast" TV networks.

Coles Supermarkets and Woolworths are both eyeing international projects such as Tesco TV in the British grocery retailer, Tesco, and Wal-Mart in the US, which has 2600 stores wired-up with TV screens. Wal-Mart is now effectively the fifth largest TV network in the US behind CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, reaching a shopping audience of 130 million every month. The retailer initiatives in Australia are likely to incorporate 15-second ads for products in specific grocery aisles, news and current affairs programs and retailer-specific content which might include recipes and health tips.

But as the local grocery chains toyed with their grand digital in-store media aspirations this week, they were again fending off claims of excessive market power and hard-ball pricing tactics on suppliers, this time from growers and farmers.

Estimates from the fruit and vegetable industry this week were that up to 900 of 6000 growers in New South Wales alone would leave the industry in the next 12 months as their viability was squeezed.

Much of the heat is being levelled at the grocery chains - producers claim the retailers are screwing down farm prices to shore up their own profits and are not passing on those savings to shoppers as often claimed.

One example raised this week involved apples. Orchardists were being paid A93c/kg (lower than the price in 1970) while the retail price was more than A$5 a kg.

The supermarkets are facing more supplier fury because they have managed to escape a federal Government initiative to introduce a mandatory code of conduct for trading with the horticultural industry. Some industry figures are not happy.

"There is a substantial imbalance of market power already between growers and retailers, who can be very heavy-handed in their dealings with growers by refusing to enter into contracts or cancel contracts without notice," said John Rogers, the former head of NSW Farmers Association horticulture committee. "These types of things are commonplace."

But even with all that crossfire, the grocery giants' plans to leverage their clout into new areas is not slowing and in-store digital media is virgin territory.

Packaged goods companies spend about A$300 million annually on TV advertising alone and the retailers figure they can poach some of that along with other media channels such as print because of the proximity of their technology to the point-of-purchase.

Coles Supermarkets finished an in-store TV trial last December which was understood to have shown healthy sales increases for most of the 40 brands which participated in the three-store pilot.

Coles has so far led Woolworths in the development of in-store TV initiatives. Some industry observers estimate chains could pull up to A$25 million in advertising revenue for every 100 supermarkets (Coles and Bi-Lo have more than 700 stores between them in Australia; Woolworths has 748 attracting 13 million customers each week).

Coles Supermarkets played down its plans this week, saying: "We have completed the trial and are assessing whether to proceed with a broader roll-out."

It is understood the review across the Coles Myer group has slowed down the process although some of the retailer's suppliers said this week the supermarket chain had privately indicated it would go ahead with a national roll-out.

Major consumer goods companies such as Reckitt Benkiser, Unilever, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Goodman Fielder and Dairy Farmers were among the companies participating in the Coles pilot.

Some indicated the results were less than satisfactory while others saw sales increases in the double-digit range. Staples such as bread and milk are understood to have shown volume increases of up to10 per cent.

Woolworths last year was cool on any in-store TV roll-out but confirmed this week it was again "exploring" an in-store narrowcasting video network and had appointed one of its executives, Anthony George, to head the project. "Yes it is something we are exploring in a general capacity but we can't confirm any plans at the moment," a spokeswoman said. "That's for supermarkets. It's more about digital communications. It's not really TV, that would imply making programming. It would be a combination medium for a variety of purposes. That's how overseas retailers refer to it."

The Coles TV trial allowed products to be promoted in the grocery aisles but also carried news and entertainment from Network Ten at the checkout. Recipes and hints were also carried on the large flat screens.

Paul McIntyre is a Sydney journalist