Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

Like so many busy people in our hectic world, Ahmed Zaoui has had to resort to a diary co-ordinator to handle his heavy demands. The information comes from the good folk at Zaoui Volunteers in their latest email to friends. "We ask you for your continued support of Ahmed and his family at this very uncertain time," it opens. It then tells us his lawyer, Deborah Manning, is going overseas to see witnesses who cannot be briefed from New Zealand. But, in the meantime, "if you live in Auckland, please feel free to invite Ahmed to your homes or favourite place for coffee, lunch, dinner. If you would like to join him for dinner at the Priory also let us know. For efficiency reasons, please call Ahmed’s diary coordinator, Sarah on 836 5509 or email at zaoui_volunteers@xtra.co.nz." Sideswipe is seeking suggestions for Zaoui’s diary. Email them to newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz and we’ll make sure they get to Sarah.

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Small differences: A reader clicked on the Woolworths online store and tried to order Lisas Hummus. Up popped a pic of Kylie Minogue.

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It’s good to know they even have petrol problems in civilised Scandinavia. The chauffeur with Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf in northern Norway drove away from a petrol station without paying for his fuel, the palace admitted. The King and Queen Silvia have a cabin in Norway’s Troendelag region, which they routinely visit at Easter. On their way home from a day’s outing last month, the royals stopped to fill up. Their driver went in to pay and buy sweets but drove off after paying only for the candy. "As you do, he went to pay and didn’t think separately about paying for petrol," palace spokeswoman Ann-Christine Jernberg said. "When you pay with your credit card, you sometimes just sign ... It was really a mistake." The bill was paid after the owner of the petrol station at Graamyra south of Levanger contacted the palace in Stockholm.

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Reader Kerry Bax sent in this news: "In 1996 when my children were 7 and 10 years old we had a holiday in the Bay of Islands. One of the highlights was to be a dolphin encounter. Unfortunately the weather was bad on the day of the boat trip and we never got to see dolphins. But Fullers gave us a voucher for a repeat trip, which could be redeemed at any time in the future. We never went back to the Bay of Islands so the voucher just sat in a drawer until my daughter (now 17) had a friend visiting from Wales in April. One of her dreams was to swim with dolphins. I found the voucher, and they took it with them on their trip up north. The woman at the booking office was surprised to see the age of the voucher and commented that although they had no way of checking it because it was issued before their computer booking system, they would honour it. On the trip itself the guide mentioned that if the group did not see dolphins they would get a voucher to return another time and pointed out my daughter as an example of the system working, saying that she had last been on the trip when she was 7 years old! This time the girls were lucky and had a wonderful dolphin experience." Good on you, Fullers.

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One for trivia experts is this email doing the rounds: Check your computer this Thursday at two minutes and three seconds after 1 am. The time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. That won’t ever happen again.

John Armstrong: National deputy on right track with call for rethink

His colleagues claim he simply said something he did not mean to say. But mistake or not, Gerry Brownlee deserves credit for suggesting the National Party take a hard look at its pledge to abolish the Maori seats.

National has to ask itself how long it keeps luring voters down this dead-end street under false pretences when its more pressing priority is building a solid working relationship with the Maori Party.

Sometimes the only exit from a policy cul-de-sac is to back out slowly.

National’s deputy leader appeared to be gently nudging his party towards engaging reverse gear at the weekend - only to be jumped on by his boss, who insists National is not about to dilute its pledge.

The result is confusion as to exactly where National now stands - something its MPs were subsequently trying to thrash out during a closed-door session on policy development yesterday.

The trouble is National wants the best of both worlds. It wants to keep its promise to axe the Maori seats for the votes that brings the party’s way. It also needs to establish a rapport with the Maori Party before the next election in the likelihood it will need its backing afterwards.

Reaching such an understanding is going to be difficult enough, yet National persists with a policy that threatens the Maori Party’s very existence.

The policy also comes a long way down National’s "must do" list. National would be unlikely to get the numbers in Parliament as other support parties would lack the stomach for what would be a particularly divisive measure.

The promise is, therefore, somewhat hollow. Its credibility is correspondingly devalued. As Labour was quick to point out, Mr Brownlee’s apparent willingness to discard it suggests National would willingly drop a supposed bottom line if that stood between it and power.

But Mr Brownlee could justifiably argue that National would be naive not to bring such policy into line with political reality - just as it is doing by firming up its opposition to visits by nuclear-powered ships.

It is better to be transparent well in advance of the election, rather than pretending to be sticking with a policy that everyone knows will be shelved once National reaches the negotiating table.

However, the difficulty with the promise to abolish the Maori seats is that it does not stand in isolation. The pledge symbolically underpins National’s fundamental assertion that Maori not receive any favourable treatment. Making an exception for the Maori seats would make a nonsense of that wider stance - one which sparked the party’s resurgence in the last parliamentary term and one in which Don Brash has invested a lot of his personal political capital.

There is already concern within the party that since the election, National has been blurring its differentiation from Labour on too many policy fronts.

Mr Brownlee’s remark - a response to a reporter’s question following his considered speech to the party’s northern region conference - is consequently being explained away as a slip of the tongue.

The other interpretation is that the party is speaking with a forked tongue. Mr Brownlee is sending one message to the Maori Party, while Dr Brash is sending a different one to Pakeha voters.

The more likely reality is that National’s wooing of the Maori Party was always going to be a long and delicate courtship filled with tentative advances and coy retreats.

Mr Brownlee’s advance is the latest. It won’t be the last.

Editorial: Protecting wishes of lifesavers

Last year, only 29 New Zealanders became organ donors after they had died. That is a low number, even for a country in which the annual donation rate over the past decade places it towards the bottom of the developed world. But perhaps it is no more than expected, given the peculiar donation framework. That structure effectively ensures that the final outcome will bear no relation to the fact that 1.1 million people have said "yes" to organ donation on their driver's licence.

The problem starts with the status and scope of that affirmation. Unlike other parts of the licence, it is not legally binding. Nor does it specify what parts of the body can be used for patients needing a transplant. Nor, indeed, is the process of granting approval a matter that drivers are encouraged to regard as more than an afterthought.

All this has meant that people who have signed up to be organ donors do not always have their wishes honoured. In the highly fraught circumstances of emergency rooms, where suitable organs are most likely to become available, doctors allow grief-stricken relatives a veto. They decide, in effect, not to heap more trauma on family members by forcing a donation they do not want.

The sensitivity is understandable. But, notwithstanding the delicacy of the situation, it also denies donors their wish. And that fundamental fact has prompted an increasing demand for a more cogent donation framework, one which ensures donors' wishes are honoured and which alleviates the pressure on doctors to bow to the view of grieving families.

That demand has prompted a public petition, an expanded national donation agency, and a recommendation by Parliament's health select committee that an organ donor register should be linked to the driving licence database. The latter was initially rejected by the Government. But it has subsequently promised to set up a public register after the completion of a ministerial review.

That development ties in, albeit not completely snugly, with a private member's bill that will be introduced to Parliament tomorrow. The Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill, which is sponsored by National MP Jackie Blue, would create an opt-on database of people who, on the basis of informed consent, wished to become donors. They could state which organs they wished to donate. The bill would also prevent anyone from overturning the wishes of a registered donor.

Doctors are adamantly opposed to the bill, describing it as unenforceable. But that view does not tally with the fact that similar law is being passed by an increasing number of American states. The bill, as Dr Blue concedes, has flaws in its present forms. It will be the job of a select committee, aided by the current ministerial review, to refine it. At the very least, the legislation provides a foundation for tackling the low rate of organ donation.

The doctors' opposition is understandable on one count. Legislation, by itself, will do little to lessen the delicacy of their encounters with distraught families. For that to happen, there must be early and more intensive discussion within families. Prospective donors need to let their relatives know they wish to donate. Families forearmed with that knowledge and insight would be far less likely to pressure medical staff.

In sum, the removal of the veto will be best for all concerned - donors, families and doctors. As will the replacement of a framework perched unsatisfactorily on the periphery of driver licensing. Organ donors deserve more than that, as do those awaiting life-saving transplants.

Peter Nowak: Government holds web key

The rural sector has been quite vocal of late in the broadband debate. Farmers and other provincial residents have been voicing their opinions in an effort to avoid getting left behind by the Government when it unveils its telecommunications review, evidently now only a month away.

If anything the complaints shine a spotlight on just how much broadband is the Government's problem, not Telecom's.

Hugh Ritchie, Federated Farmers telecommunications spokesman representing 17,000 farmers across the country, wrote in the Herald a few weeks ago that unbundling Telecom's local loop could be bad for rural residents.

"If Telecom's network is unbundled, can farmers and their families really continue to expect Telecom and other companies to invest in getting broadband services to rural New Zealand?" he wrote.

Telecom's competitors have admitted they'll concentrate their investment on high-value urban areas once unbundling is instituted. Telecom, for its part, has suggested the resulting increase in urban competition could mean less investment in rural areas.

Nobody wants to invest expensive telecommunications equipment in sparsely populated areas that show little promise of generating a return.

Strangely, Federated Farmers - which comes to Telecom's defence whenever there's a regulatory threat - seems to harbour the belief that the company is their benevolent friend.

But Telecom isn't necessarily providing rural New Zealanders with services because it wants to. It may be good for public image to do so, but it certainly doesn't stack up for the company's bottom line.

Telecom is obliged to provide these services by an agreement it signed with the Government in 1990. The deal requires Telecom to maintain phone services wherever they were available at the time, and the agreement was updated in 2001 to include dial-up internet services.

Each year, the Commerce Commission determines the total cost to Telecom of provisioning these services - $41.2 million in 2003-04 - and then forces other telcos, such as TelstraClear and CallPlus, to pony up a portion based on their percentage of the telecommunications market.

In effect, the Government requires Telecom to supply services to unprofitable customers, then forces other telcos to subsidise the act. It's a bizarre set-up that doesn't make business sense for anyone involved.

The broadband complaints from rural New Zealanders are inevitably about either their inability to get it, or if they can get it, the slow speeds and high prices on offer.

The cynical city slicker is often quick to spurn these complaints. Poor telecommunications and slow internet speeds are part of the price to be paid for living in the country, the argument goes. After all, rural dwellers don't have to deal with recycling trucks smashing bottles outside their apartment at two in the morning, and the sight of rolling hills or mountains is substantially more soul-soothing than concrete skyscrapers and traffic jams. We city dwellers may get better and cheaper broadband, but we don't get peace and quiet and nature.

But the issue goes beyond that. Given that the economics of the private sector provisioning rural residents with proper telecommunications services don't stack up, this is clearly a public sector problem.

The Government seems to understand this, but its solutions thus far have achieved only limited success. Four years ago, the Ministries of Education and Economic Development set up Project Probe to help facilitate the roll-out of wireless and satellite broadband to rural communities, primarily to schools.

Tens of millions of dollars later, the project was completed last year, but given the number of complaints that continue to roll in, it's obvious there's still much to be done.

The Government's first step should be the removal of the anachronistic universal phone service obligation on Telecom. Supplying rural New Zealanders with their phone and internet services should not be any company's obligation. They should only do so if there's money to be made.

Indeed, that fact has led to a cottage industry - pardon the pun - springing up. Internet service providers such as Iconz and Bay City seem to be doing quite well in trying to fill the void by selling satellite and wireless broadband services out in the boondocks. The impending addition of services from US-based PanAmSat will increase the choices - and thus lower the prices - for rural dwellers.

Still, as far as wired phone and broadband goes, if the Government is really serious about rural New Zealanders not being left behind it needs to knuckle up and invest some serious money of its own.

The Government needs to either build its own rural network, buy Telecom's, or pay the company to provide better services. Nobody else will, and nobody else should.

Eye on China: Few guests but many a reservation

The United States' leading tech and entrepreneur magazine, Red Herring, has just held an interesting conference in Beijing. It was interesting in the same way a motorway pile-up is interesting.

Perhaps that's overstating the case - the lunch buffet was excellent - and the venue, the brand-new Intercontinental in the west of Beijing, was good as well. But problems became apparent from the first day.

The Intercontinental has a rock-bottom occupancy rate and there's a good reason for that - it's in a bad location. With typical obduracy, the Chinese Government has looked at the thriving downtown district in the east of the city and decided that setting up something completely artificial and inconvenient on the other side of town makes far more sense. They can't leave well alone.

Partly as a result, few people actually turned up. Cost was also a major factor: At US$1500 ($2300) a pop, the tickets were about 10 times what local people usually pay for such conferences, if they pay at all.

Ironically, many of the speakers were Japanese. Smart, polished and with well-established ventures behind them, these men reflect a resurgent Japan. They were much older than the Chinese present and they had accomplished far more.

Sacchio Semmoto spoke about his intense rivalry with Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, a rivalry which helped drive Japan's broadband access cost to among the lowest in the world - from being the highest - a situation which had put Japan's ability to compete in a new high-tech world seriously in peril.

Semmoto did so by creating the first rival to the incumbent Japanese telecoms provider since World War II. He's now hoping to do the same thing for mobile phone services in Japan.

Contrary to popular belief, airtime for Japan's mobile phones is expensive, and penetration and usage rates are relatively low. Semmoto exemplifies the tremendous impact the right kind of entrepreneur can have and his comments about the foolish decision of Japan to adopt mobile phone standards completely different to the rest of the world were revealing.

Japanese telecom monopolies at the time hoped thereby to keep competition from foreign companies away from Japan. They succeeded, but only at the extraordinarily high price of depriving themselves of export markets for their main products.

Yet despite the value of these speakers, it was something of a social gaffe. Relations between Japan and China are at their lowest point for several years and, in any case, Japan's economy is so large and isolated that it functions at a rhythm quite separate to the rest of the Asia.

While the organisers did their best to make the conference go with a bang, other problems rapidly became embarrassingly apparent. The second day was meant to start at 7.40am, but was delayed by more than an hour since not a single delegate was out of bed at that time. The dynamic West Coast American organisers' amazement at the much slower pace of life in Beijing was quite comical.

Another Chinese aspect of the conference was that the local delegates were basically uninterested in what was occurring on stage. They were networking like fury over the lunches - which thus also dragged on for much longer than scheduled - rather than listening to the speakers.

Even more striking was a somewhat gladiatorial event known as "meet the money" whereby a few brave souls have three minutes to pitch their company to a board of venture capitalists. After a round of questions, the VCs give the thumbs up or down.

Here a huge cultural gulf appeared. Getting information in China, including the most basic, is still astonishingly difficult. Even with listed companies, potentially sensitive information is hidden away under random headings, while technical issues such as badly maintained websites compound the problem.

A culture of intellectual property theft makes people even more reserved (one doltish and obviously monolingual Chinese entrepreneur at the conference had dubbed his company Softbrain, in an attempt to piggyback off Son's Softbank). But, as a result, information is hoarded.

The Americans weren't used to this and the US-trained VCs were clearly outraged at the soft presentations and mushy videos provided by most of the candidates, about 90 per cent of whom they failed. It was easy to applaud the Americans' demands for more access to key information, however much it made the locals squirm.

The conference did highlight one of the paradoxes of China, namely that a developing country should have such a high-profile tech sector and attract the attention of magazines such as Red Herring. When I put this to some of the delegates, they put an interesting gloss on the phenomenon.

One told me that Chinese tech companies were not really intent on becoming "real" tech companies. Companies such as Hong Kong-listed Focus Media merely put LCD screens in office lobbies and sell advertising on them. Tom Online, also listed in Hong Kong, has a hugely successful mobile phone services operation, but mainly revolving around simple texting and downloads. But what the technology does is enable these companies to achieve the vast scale necessary to exploit China's gigantic and far-flung markets.

Overall, I thought the conference was a brave stab at a new market. One can only hope that the Chinese will ponder the advice for increased financial transparency, while the Americans might consider lowering their prices.

* Eye on China is a journalist based in Beijing.

Cameron Pitches: Projects hinge on price of oil

A little over a year ago, when oil was US$56 ($88) a barrel, I wrote an article which concluded that New Zealand needed to diversify away from fossil fuels in order to survive and prosper.

One year on, and with oil now over US$75 per barrel, there has been no policy response at all from central Government.

Transport projects that would reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels, such as electrification of the rail network, are being passed over in favour of completing "missing" links of the motorway network.

With the price of oil forecast to go much higher than the 25 per cent increase we have had in the past year, many fossil fuel-dependent projects simply will not be viable.

Fuel prices will continue to rise as they have done for over five years now. This is because demand continues to grow globally, while supply remains flat or even starts to decline.

Recent studies show that nine out of the top ten international oil companies have flat or declining production rates as a result of their oil fields maturing.

Why do fossil fuel-dependent transport projects continue to be funded in New Zealand? Mainly because the benefit cost ratio (BCR) framework used by Government agencies completely ignores the future price of fuel.

An example is the road pricing study being championed by the Ministry of Transport. I attended a briefing for this recently and I asked officials what the expected price of petrol will be in 2016, which is the purported time frame of the project.

After a bemused silence, the answer was that the price was irrelevant for the purpose of comparing different charging options, and so was benchmarked at today's prices.

Future fuel prices are also similarly ignored for billions of dollars worth of projects, such as the Manukau Harbour crossing and the State Highway 20 projects being promoted by Transit.

Under the BCR evaluation framework, therefore, fossil fuel dependent projects will still appear to be viable even if no one can afford the future price of petrol.

It shouldn't be like this. In 2003 the Government enacted the Land Transport Management Act. The aim of this act is to provide an "integrated, safe, responsive and sustainable land transport system".

The act established a funding process so approved organisations such as Transit, local and regional councils and the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) could seek funds for transport projects from Land Transport New Zealand. Projects from different sources were supposed to be evaluated and prioritised according to the aims of the act.

Clearly the implementation of the Land Transport Management Act is failing. It is hard to see how the sustainability of transport projects can be evaluated if the price of oil is not considered. Also projects which are environmentally beneficial or reduce carbon dioxide emissions don't receive any greater weighting than ones that don't.

Further adding to the confusion is a recent Government directive that Treasury will now take over the funding of rail capital projects.

The Government went as far as supplying the Auckland Regional Council with a list of Auckland rail projects that Treasury is willing to fund.

These include established projects such as double tracking the western line, but don't include any plans for electrification or expansion of the rail network such as the Onehunga branch line.

ARTA, the agency tasked with planning Auckland's passenger transport, has wisely determined that Auckland needs electrification as the price of oil rockets through the US$70 a barrel mark, but it is unable to convince Treasury of this.

Our Government has funded alternative transport more so than any other in recent history. But now we are facing a new challenge. We must accept the reality of rising oil prices, start making intelligent decisions and fund the most appropriate transport projects.

It remains to be seen when the Government will finally start doing this. Perhaps, when petrol reaches $2 a litre, it may realise that the congestion charging initiative will be redundant.

Perhaps, when petrol reaches $3 a litre, it may suspend all uncommitted roading projects, and begin investment in an alternative fuels infrastructure instead.

We can only hope that whenever the Government does decide to act, that it will not be too late to catch up with the rest of the world.

* Cameron Pitches is a software consultant and the Convener of the Campaign for Better Transport.

Dov Bing: Fermenting of a dangerous brew

To the surprise of many observers, Hamas won the recent elections on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has formed a Government and replaced the secular Fatah party of Abu Mazen. The latter remains the President of the Palestinian Authority, thus creating a so-called co-habitation situation.

Almost immediately after the election of Hamas, the large sponsors of the Palestinian Authority cut their funding.

The United States, the European Union (25 states), Australia, Canada and Japan have indicated that as long as Hamas does not recognise Israel, does not renounce terrorism and does not recognise the Oslo Accords, no further funding will be forthcoming.

New Zealand, not having designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation, stands virtually alone among the Western countries.

The external funding of the PA amounted to some $1.5 billion a year. Iran and Syria have with much fanfare, but minimal amounts, announced they will now support Hamas and its policies.

Hope exists on the part of some of the erstwhile sponsors that Hamas will rewrite its charter and adopt more realistic policies now that it has accepted Government responsibility. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have strongly recommended that Hamas change its irredentist policies and its support for terrorism.

Unfortunately, statements by the Hamas Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs make it clear that Hamas has no intention of changing its policies.

During the Al Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005), Hamas was responsible for most of the suicide murders of civilians in Israel. Recent suicide murders in Israel, for which Islamic Jihad took responsibility, were condemned by Abu Mazen, but not by the Hamas Government, which condoned them.

What makes Hamas such an irredentist terrorist movement? The answer can be found in the Hamas Charter (1988).

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation banned in most Muslim countries.

According to Article 13 of the charter: "[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of Hamas ... there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad."

Article 15 expands on this Jihad: "We must spread the spirit of Jihad among the Umma, clash with the enemies and join the ranks of the Jihad fighters ... we must imprint on the minds of generations of Muslims that the Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise".

The second part of the charter reads more like Hitler's Mein Kampf. Article 32 informs us that "Zionist scheming has no end and after Palestine they [Israel] will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates. Their [Israel's] scheme has been laid out in The Protokols of the Elders of Zion".

And in Article 28 we are informed who will help the Israeli Zionists to fulfil their desires. "It [Israel] relies to a great extent, for its meddling and spying activities, on the clandestine organisations which it has established such as the Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, Lions and other spy associations. All those secret organisations ... strive to demolish societies, to destroy values, to wreck answerableness, to totter virtues and wipe out Islam. It stands behind the diffusion of drugs and toxics of all kinds in order to facilitate its control and expansion."

In Article 17 of the charter Hamas makes it clear that "it will wipe out those organisations which are the enemy of humanity and Islam".

The Protokols of the Elders of Zion is the most notorious anti-Semitic fabrication of all time. It contains a so-called secret plan for world domination, and provided the ideological justification for the destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

But it is widely known that the Protokols were compiled by Russian anti-Semites in the office of the Tsarist Okbrana (Secret Police) at the end of the 19th century.

Elsewhere the Hamas Charter accuses the Jewish people of being responsible for the French Revolution, the Communist Revolutions and both World Wars. Article 22 of the charter claims: "There was no war that broke out anywhere without their fingerprint on it".

The combination of virulent European anti-Semitism with religiously motivated Jihad against Israel is a dangerous brew. The aim of Hamas is the destruction of Israel and that policy has been clear from its inception in 1988. Hamas now has the support of Iran to "wipe Israel off the map".

* Professor Dov Bing is on the staff of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Waikato.