Sunday, May 07, 2006

Peter Griffin: Unbundling order not before time

Why didn't someone send Helen Clark to South Korea sooner? Last year the Prime Minister came back from that country, a high-speed internet Mecca, and said she'd felt like a "country cousin" on seeing internet services there.

By the time parliament resumed in February she was talking about urgent new regulatory measures to increase competition in broadband.

"Our country is on a journey - away from the old economy to a new one," she said. We need to increase competitiveness to keep up with the rest of the world. Last week's decision to open Telecom's network to its competitors was a welcome one that should have been made three years ago.

The template for what was decided last week was set out in a report by the Commerce Commission back in 2002. But the commission did a U-turn after hearing submissions on the matter. The then communications minister Paul Swain took the recommendation not to unbundle to the Labour cabinet and despite his own reservations, it was approved.

Instead of unbundling we got a flaky wholesale internet regime that Telecom's competitors haven't been able to make any money out of.

Unbundling means you won't have to keep paying Telecom $42 a month in line rental just so you can have a broadband connection with another supplier. It means that competitors can deliver internet and phone services at speeds and levels of service they decide on.

These companies can put their equipment in the Telecom exchanges that will make them money, the ones in urban centres. It's inevitable that customers in rural areas won't initially benefit from unbundled services and the Government will have to step in.

The biggest winner will be TelstraClear which has been restricted from selling residential broadband services profitably outside of its cable networks in Wellington and Christchurch.

The ball will now be in TelstraClear's court. Its Australian parent, Telstra, knows the unbundling game; it's spent years trying to keep competitors out of its exchanges across the Tasman. The other winner is iHug and its Australian parent iiNet which has been putting its equipment into Telstra's exchanges to deliver unbundled services.

It knows what's involved and has in the past pledged to invest $20 million in rolling out services here if unbundling was mandated. Depending on the pricing and Telecom's level of cooperation, things are looking up for businesses and consumers.

Be warned, wherever unbundling has been introduced, it takes a long time to get right. Incumbent operators drag the chain and haggle over price.

Britain's unbundling regime got off to a shaky start. But in 2004 after four years of minuscule progress, the British regulator Ofcom demanded that BT lower the prices it charges competitors for granting access to its lines.

Suddenly it became economical for internet providers like Easynet, UK Online and Wanadoo to put equipment in BT's telephone exchanges. America Online entered the British phone and internet market in January. British consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to internet services.

Early last year, only 31,000 BT lines had been unbundled. By February of this year 300,000 lines were unbundled.

Richard Prebble: Leak demands full inquiry

It is the "C" word - corruption! We have to find out not just who leaked the Budget Cabinet paper to Telecom, but why. What did they expect to get?

Nothing less than a commission of inquiry by a High Court judge with broad terms of reference and powers of subpoena is needed to inquire into what is the most serious leak of Budget information in New Zealand's history. It is not just the government's reputation at stake; our country's reputation for the lack of corruption is at risk.

Shareholders around the globe lost money. The world is watching and nothing less than a public inquiry where we can see witnesses giving answers will satisfy.

A commission of inquiry can investigate whether this was a one-off, or if, as Minister of Finance Dr Cullen is reported to have said, Telecom has been receiving other leaks and using them to influence government policy.

Everyone knew how sensitive the information was. Telecom, in its now notorious letter to previous Communications Minister Paul Swain, said deregulation would wipe huge value off its shares.

I am amazed at suggestions that at least 50 officials as well as ministers may have read and been able to copy the document.

In my experience of a document as sensitive as this, it should have been in a separate envelope marked "minister's eyes only".

Once Budgets were full of surprises and the whole country listened as it was announced after markets closed. Today, Budgets rarely have market-sensitive information.

I suspect Minister David Cuniliffe, who has never been in parliament when a dramatic Budget is announced, just does not know how to handle a sensitive Budget paper.

Finding out which Cabinet paper was leaked will be easy. Each paper is numbered and Telecom admits it has kept the leaked document. Telecom staff are paid well, but none is paid enough to go to prison rather than reveal the leak. But we need to know why they leaked and what else has been leaked to Telecom.

Telecom is the best lobbyist in Wellington. I have always been amazed at how well informed it is. It knows in detail what ministers' and officials' views are, and the status of telecommunication regulation. We are an open democracy.

There is nothing wrong with transparency, but somewhere, somehow, someone has gone over the line.

Our government needs to restore confidence and publicly investigate the most serious Budget leak in our history.

Matt McCarten: Politicians pay the price for hocking family silver in sell-off of the century

Wasn't the decision on Telecom great last week? It was the crime of the last century that our entire public telecommunications infrastructure was hocked off to a multi-national for a song. The profits alone creamed from this monopoly and sent overseas would have been enough to give our country a completely free education system.

Privatisation means the people's assets get flogged off to multi-nationals cheaply. These corporates thus get themselves a giant monopoly and screw us big-time.

To think of the tens of thousands of Kiwis who lost their jobs, and the untold pain and worry that destroyed a generation still makes my blood boil today.

The assets our ancestors had built for us were sold off on the premise that it would help competition and lower prices for us ... Really? Name one privatisation that has lowered prices for consumers.

Every time we have sold off public assets it has meant only job losses, fewer services and higher prices.

Our politicians hocked the family silver on the cheap to corporates which then took out loans to pay for it. The new owners, granted a monopoly, were able to charge whatever they liked to pay off those loans and tap exorbitant profits. The corporates make fortunes; senior managers rake in bonuses that would make any mafia boss's eyes water - and the silly politicians who sold our assets use the purchase money to cut corporate taxes. Telecom was the biggest theft of all. Ever since our phones were sold off, Telecom has expended all its energy in maintaining the stranglehold on its monopoly, preventing any form of competition.

The fact Telecom got the Cabinet paper within hours of it being approved is being touted as the leak of this new century.

It probably is.

But it illustrates the reach the company has had within the political system - and partly explains how Telecom has been able to use its contacts to protect its cash cow.

The decision to cut Telecom's monopoly on internet and phones cost Telecom a billion dollars on their share price in a couple of days. So you can see how important the political strategy to maintain their grip was. Telecom has always has a full-time political lobbying team headed by a senior manager who reports directly to the chief executive.

I have first-hand experience of the company's lobbying strategy.

In 1996, I was running the campaign for the Alliance.

At that time, it looked likely the party would substantially increase its number of MPs and could form part of Government.

I wrote a begging letter to all businesses I knew made political donations, including Telecom.

The usual patter is that, as large companies, they should support the democratic process by making a donation to political parties.

I got invited to lunch by a member of the Telecom lobbying team. He told me Telecom was prepared to make a donation - but was concerned about the attitude of the Alliance towards them.

I reminded him that, of course, we didn't support our publicly-owned phone company being sold off to overseas interests and that view wouldn't change.

My host responded that if we stopped bagging the company and had a telecommunications policy his employer approved then we'd get a substantial donation.

He then offered to "assist" in writing a suitable policy. I was impressed by the audacity of the proposal. I asked if this was an arrangement he had with other parties. He chuckled, and said that it would be irresponsible of his employer to "invest" in the democratic system without a return. Unsurprisingly we didn't get a donation, although he assured me Telecom had made substantial donations to other parties. He no longer works for the company.

During the following election, in 1999, the Alliance didn't even get a reply from Telecom to our standard solicitation letter. Telecom takes its political strategy of keeping its finger on the pulse very seriously.

I'm glad Labour has now changed its mind. I'd rather Telecom kept the monopoly and the Government nationalised it - but the proposed deregulation is the second best choice and the Government should be congratulated for its decision.

Deborah Coddington: Hide's antics final nail in coffin for ailing Act

You have to wonder if Private Heather Roy wants to learn to fire a gun so she can shoot Rodney Hide. She's a good MP but no matter how earnestly she promotes policy, Act's media coverage is fully subscribed by Hide's scandal-busting and personal life. Or is Hide preparing to cut himself loose from Act and stand as an independent?

But meanwhile, who's filling the policy vacuum? In its early days, Act won 70 out of every 1000 votes; today it can barely get three out of every 1000. So where have those 67-per-1000 missing voters gone?

National's impressive recovery at the last election, in no small part from Don Brash's support of Act's policies, came at Act's expense.

But National's latest policy wobbles over tax cuts, the Maori seats, and a Treaty-based constitution indicate the conservatives are still in danger of outflanking Labour on the left.

I would suggest that now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of a new political party.

I don't mean a re-born Act (don't look at me, the lady's not for recycling), nor a liberal or libertarian party. Not right wing or left wing, nor the parliamentary arm of the Business Roundtable.

But a niche party like the Greens, not afraid to boldly put forward new and controversial ideas for debate. Sue Kedgley doesn't care if people abuse her because she wants to ban junk-food advertising. Sue Bradford's the only MP with the guts to champion a law change giving children the same legal protection as adults if they're beaten with bits of wood or hose-pipes. And in the pre-election debates, Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons showed more courage and integrity than all leaders put together when asked about drug-law reform - a subject which even causes libertarian Hide to duck for cover. Fitzsimons calmly said the Greens did not flinch on this matter, basically a health rather than crime policy, even if it lost them votes.

In Britain, many abandoned voters are flocking to support the British National Party (BNP), but they're basically pretty racist, objecting to the "blimmin' Africans taking over old Blighty".

Parties like this do okay in the UK but Kiwis are different. We might mutter about refugees jumping the queue for state houses, or taking over the taxis and dairies, but if they move in next door we're at the gate with a batch of scones and "join us for a beer and barbie?"

I surmise that at the last election those who abandoned Act gave National or Labour their party votes, but because these voters are neither conservative nor politically correct, they still don't have a political home to go to. They're liberal-minded in that, for example, they don't care if gays want to marry each other and adopt children, but they don't see why they should be prohibited from advertising for a pretty girl to work in reception.

Many consider themselves feminists, but they privately doubt that equal rights meant downgrading motherhood as not a valid career choice.

They support, in principle, Treaty settlements where the stealing of Maori land is clearly proven. But they see injustice in the Treaty gravy train making lawyers rich at the expense of impoverished Maori people.

They enjoy the arts, music, New Zealand films and literature and don't advocate abolishing state funding of such, but they'd like some tax breaks so they can choose their own pleasure.

They see a role for the state in providing healthcare, but are not ideologically opposed to private involvement for quick and efficient surgery and cancer treatment.

They want children to be well educated, and believe all parents, not just the wealthy, are capable of choosing the best school for their offspring.

They don't really care if it's NCEA or Cambridge exams, so long as all children learn to read, write, do mental arithmetic and leave school with an internationally recognised qualification.

And overwhelmingly, they realise the burgeoning welfare state is causing more problems than it cures, but they despair that no political party is coming up with an alternative.

Here's one idea to think about. It comes from American academic Charles Murray's new book, In Our Hands, and UK Chancellor Gordon Brown's already shown an interest. Abolish all welfare and instead pay $10,000 a year to every New Zealander aged 20 and over. Then, for example, a solo mother could grab $10,000 off the baby's father, and with their parents' and grandparents' entitlements there's a potential $80,000 a year. Or don't get pregnant if you can't afford to support a child.

It comes back to accepting responsibility for one's choices, which is quite another thing from deciding between the tango and the foxtrot.

Are there 1000 people prepared to sign up and register such a party or is New Zealand inexorably sliding back to a two-party system?

Kerre Woodham: Are we ready? Absolutely not

Last year I presented a one-off telly special called Are You Ready? It looked at New Zealand's preparedness for a civil defence emergency.

The documentary looked at a volcanic eruption, a flood and an earthquake and in all three scenarios, the answer to the question Are You Ready? was no, New Zealand was not ready to cope with the consequences of a natural disaster. The good people of Gisborne had their own dramatic what-if scenario this week - and it seems that New Zealanders still aren't ready for a disaster.

An international tsunami warning was issued early on Thursday morning after an earthquake in Tonga and within half an hour of the warning, international media were broadcasting a story that said Gisborne was due to be struck by giant waves just after 6am. This being a global community, concerned expat Kiwis frantically phoned their family members and friends and warned them to head for the hills. Which is precisely where local residents fled. They piled into their cars, many still in the pyjamas, and made for the Waimata Valley Rd lookout first stopping at local service stations and filling up with essential supplies - like gas and cigarettes. Following the insouciant example set by Charles Upham, when you're staring death in the face, you can do so with equanimity while you're puffing on a fag.

By a quarter to seven it was all over - in fact, by a quarter to seven it would have been all over for thousands of people had the tsunami struck.

New Zealand's Civil Defence team issued its first public statement, advising that it was a false alarm, 20 minutes after the tsunami had been predicted to hit. When residents pointed out that this vital information was a bit late coming, civil defence officials went all wide-eyed and innocent and blamed news organisations for broadcasting inaccurate and sensational information. Which is all very well and good, but if Civil Defence has a secret - and they know that the tsunami is unlikely to happen which is something officials knew as early as 4am, apparently - why not let everybody know?

It's not like the bad old days of the civil service surely, when information was only released after requests for information had been received in triplicate and had gone through the appropriate channels.

The third and final notification, cancelling all warnings occurred just after 5.30am - there was plenty of opportunity to let people know that it was a false alarm, thus averting the panic in Gisborne.

For heaven's sake, overnight talkback hosts are just sitting there, praying for phone calls, and most news organisations have staff rostered to work through the wee small hours for this sort of scenario.

Radio is the quickest way to disseminate information. Civil Defence officials need to understand that the media is their friend - although I very much doubt the Wellington civil servants will be feeling particularly warm and fuzzy towards the media given the caning they're now experiencing in editorials and letters to the editor.

Civil Defence has to be an organisation that is nimble, quick and highly responsive - it can't be a lumbering great beast that takes three hours to make a decision or change direction.

There needs to be a complete rethink about the way the entire bureaucracy is structured - simply chucking money into the beast's maw is not going to help. And hopefully this exercise will reinforce to New Zealanders that when disaster strikes, communities will be pretty much on their own. You are the army that will be mobilised to help. So stock up those cans, store that water, have the emergency kit ready. You don't want to end up looking as unprepared and slow-witted as Civil Defence has done should disaster strike.

Kerre Woodham: Schools should wake up and cater to teenage sleep patterns

Sometimes when I'm lying awake at four in the morning, as you do when you reach the magical age of 40, I think of my teenager lying in the arms of Morpheus in the next room and I am consumed with envy. Morpheus being the Greek god of sleep of course, not the six-packed son of some West Coast hippies.

Nobody can sleep like a teenager. When the young things do actually stagger into bed, after working through the night to finish an assignment or slinking home after a party that lasted until the sun came up, they sleep like champions.

If sleeping was an Olympic sport, they'd get 10 for performance and 10 for technique. Waking them to get them off to school seems just plain cruel, although I suppose it is parental payback for all those times they bounded into your bed as toddlers at quarter to six in the morning.

And really, you have to wonder, as you send them off bleary-eyed into the cold harsh light of day, how much information is going to be retained as they slump over their books at school.

So full marks to a team of junior scientists at Wellington High School whose video documentary on teenage sleep patterns convinced the school decision-makers that lessons for senior students will now start from 10.15am.

And good on the principal for being prepared to cede to a reasoned and intelligent pitch. Senior lateness has just about vanished apparently so both the school and the students are winners. It's good to see commonsense can still be learned at schools.