Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bill Ralston has finally been dumped by TVNZ.

The news is out and so is Ralston.

There is justice in the world. The former Metro editor who presided over a slump in circulation from 21,000 to 14,000 an issue and was rewarded with a job paying megabucks at TVNZ has finally been sacked for presiding over an equally catastrophic collapse in ratings with the State broadcaster. It could not have happened to a more deserving candidate.

I have to confess that I have only spent a few hours in Mr Ralston's company and during that time I found him to be as pleasantly vacuous as he always appeared to be on television. His Ralston show was somehow meant to be a combination of humour and politics in a cheap chat show format which typically relies on the wit and imagination of the host.

But where Rove McManus has discovered a completely new approach to television: delighting in the triumph of the common man over the tyranny of televison by taking the piss out of the high and mighty, Ralston presumed only that he and his co-hosts were the high and mighty by dint of scoring their dog-in-the-manger spot on state funded broadcasting. The result was a show of forced good humour punctuated by observations of the bleeding obvious.

The simple fact is Ralston does not have it. He is a product of Auckland media politics and he has no connection with the rest of the country. His response was to wrap television around his own world trying to create a cult of Auckland celebrity which simply does not square with New Zealand's solidly egalitarian ethos.

Who will replace him remains to be seen. TVNZ is an odd fish in the world of television. A state broadcaster almost entirely reliant on commercial funding with, until TV3 began making serious inroads, a huge share of the national advertising market. On the one side it is beset by Wellington politicians who would prefer the state broadcaster to behave more like a state broadcaster (but who don't want to put up the cash) and on the other side the simple fact that by dint of geography the scope for competitive entry into the Auckland free-to-air TV market is enormous.

TV3's success has largely come from its Campbell show which is driven, it has to be said, by some core strengths in good old fashioned journalism. That these have paid off is a testimony to the patience of CanWest management and to the dedication of TV3 journalists.

It would be nice to think that TVNZ might find a management team who can get their heads out of TVNZ's snakepit of bitchiness and egoism and focus on their customers: the people of New Zealand. The only apalling thought that however suggests is that the people of New Zealand may look for a return of their former favourite:Paul Holmes!

Now that would be truly revolting.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Organic New Zealand

Once again the greenies are making noises about an Organic New Zealand. The idea (enshrined in Green Party policy) is that New Zealand should become wholly organic in its agriculture so that foreigners buying our products will get lumps in their throats and let fall tears of gratitude that a little country in the South Pacific has led the world in producing organic macrobiotic mung beans for them to eat.

Well forget it!

In point of fact those Birky wearing mung bean munchers in Europe are simply old style protectionist peasants in disguise. They don't want organic product from the other side of the world. They want organic product from down the road. They will boycott our produce on the ground of "food miles" (the concept that any amount of oil spent in moving or producing goods is evil because it pollutes the environment). They don't want New Zealand farmers to show up their wasteful, subsidised and expensive methods by under-cutting them. They want to be left alone, keeping the grass down in the French, German, or whatever countryside making exotic cheeses, drinking local wines and living their organically pure existence courtesy of the industry they will happily rail against.

More to the point Europe is increasingly not where our product goes. Where once Britain took everything we grew now it is a relatively minor export destination ( see http://www.teara.govt.nz/NewZealandInBrief/Economy/6/en). The result is, it doesn't matter what the Europeans think, what matters is what the Australians, Americans and North Asians think.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand land prices are forcing our farmers to go completely the opposite way. The average dairy farm for example used to cost $8k per hectare. Today its $20k and in some places, like the Bay of Plenty its already $50k. The payout for milksolids has remained a fairly flat $4/kg with the average farm returning only $1200 per hectare. Reducing costs in a period of higher interest rates, land prices and input costs (eg energy) is becoming steadily impossible. The only way to increase profitability is to increase production and margins.

MAF has done some excellent work going through all this and the net result of going organic is harder work on an already tough lifestyle for less money.


But take a look at this paper on high input farming


and one cannot fail to be convinced that the answer is not in obtaining a fictional organic premium but simply improving productivity.

As the dichotomy between urban and rural understandings of New Zealand increase, so too will the separation in understanding between extremely urbanised consumer movements (eg the Greens) and rural (overwhelmingly National Party voters) producers increase. It is essential that rural producers continue to have a voice rather than be drowned out by consumers who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Australia 100 New Zealand 0

Australia has effectively taken over New Zealand. Its not something most people want to admit but its a fact. In the end New Zealand will end up with an airline, a bunch of sports teams, and a ridiculously expensive Government and nothing else.

It all started with the Australians buying all our banks. Banks sell indebtedness and the Australians have done an excellent job selling that to New Zealanders. With the connivance of local government incompetence forcing up land prices they have managed to get New Zealanders in record amounts of mortgage debt. With the connivance of central Government they have managed to saddle our young people with huge amounts of personal debt. And with the connivance of Australian shopping mall owners they have created huge amounts of credit card debt. So now we are hideously in debt to Australians.

And anyone who saw the Australian film, The Bank, knows that being in debt to Australians basically means being owned by them. That means they own our land, our businesses and our futures. We don't own our own country any more.

Now they are gradually taking over, not just our malls and supermarkets but also the Warehouse, and other large retail outlets. And they will all be advertising in Australian owned media. Soon you will not be able to spend money without enriching an Australian. And then businesses will start asking why they have to use a foreign (NZ) currency to do business when they could do the same business in their own currency. As trans-Tasman standards erode the points of difference between our countries in the end whole sectors of Government (eg Health) will give up being different at all. Slowly but surely the lights will go out on New Zealand as anything other than a label and a tourist destination.

Is this a bad thing? Weren't we always doomed to be another state of Australia anyway? Well, I think it is because it shows a complete lack of management. We have simply drifted into the vortex without thinking about where we are going or what we want. Small nations that are actually thinking for themselves, such as Singapore or Finland do the opposite. Indeed they become the vortex around which larger nations turn.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about Australia dominating New Zealand. Australia lacks water. New Zealand coud easily accomodate Australia's population. Britain has three times Australia's population and it is physically smaller. New Zealand has simply accepted a lesser role, has accepted second place and has accepted Australian bullying. It doesn't have to be the case, but admittedly, our ability to extract ourselves from this embrace is getting harder and harder as the years go by.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Property Rights, Risk and the Building Act

Christmas is a time for people to catch-up with friends, neighbours and relatives, talk about their year, and air their grievances about the world to a sympathetic audience. Fascinating then (to me anyway), that over this period so many of the conversations revolved around the Building Act, and rapacious local authorities.

Conceived following the "leaky buildings" debacle the Building Act 2004 is essentially a declaration of war on the home handy-person. Part 5 Schedule 1 of this Act essentially allows one to repair existing items, build a mound or platform no higher than 1 metre, erect a tent, and build a retaining wall up to 1.5 metres tall. Other than that you need a building consent.
Obtaining a building consent involves paying councils a percentage of the cost of the work (why?), extensive design drawings, a project information memorandum, site inspections, and adherence to design standard 3604 (which costs $200 plus).

Now one can certainly accept that nobody should be allowed to build dangerous structures. I remember visiting a former girlfriend living in a lower flat, looking up and realising that the extensive deck above our heads had been constructed without recourse to bolts. While a 3-inch nail certainly has its uses the disaster at Cave Creek where 14 students died after an amatuerly constructed viewing platform plummeted 30 metres down a cliff should have demonstrated to anyone that they have their limitations.

But my gripe is that even structures which have very limited capacity for catastrophic failure need an outrageous amount of bureacracy to be built or installed. My neighbour, for instance, wants to replace an aluminium window with a wooden one. He isn't planning to do it himself, he's simply planning to pay a craftsman to do a simple job. But to achieve this you need a PIM, pay a the Council a small fortune and have two inspections. Question: What possible business is this of the District Council? If the window is poorly installed my neighbour can take the craftsperson to the small claims court and have the problem rectified. Since when did the District Council have an ownership stake in private property?

And this is the issue. Increasingly Councils are assuming the responsibility and duties of property owners. In one case they even denied a property owner a consent because they judged that the conservatory he wanted to add to his house was "too small". How is this a judgement local Government is qualified to make. This attitude adds to local Government's liabilities and costs, and results in them charging absurd compliance costs.

In Germany planning law is not simple. However there is one important Constitutional safeguard. The owner of property has the constitutional right to do with their own property what they will. Without a constitution New Zealanders have no such safeguard. The result is law which has left us at the mercy of petty officials and a construction industry now safe to pad costs to the hilt. This is where expert committees need to be balanced with more ordinary members of the public. The process for developing this Act was entirely industry driven. The result was that when it got to Parliament it divided on political lines. This meant that the very sensible words of warning from National and ACT were ignored as political posturing.

Ultimately it can only be hoped that the political process, will in time redress what has been described more than once as "overkill"


Hansard debate

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Birth - a little consistency would be nice.

Yesterday my wife and I visited the obstetrician our nominated obstetrician has filling in for him while he was away over Christmas. My wife, Jenny, is expecting (6 months) our second child and my fourth. Being somewhat older than average, the baby having a single umbilical artery and having had an emergency Caesarian section last time around, Jenny is, not unsurprisingly, keen to see the birth proceed with as little excitement as possible.
Now my wife is extremely fortunate that we have an obstetrician at all. In Wellington at the moment we know of four who are still practising, one of whom is not taking on new patients. All the others have quit. Interestingly all the midwives I have ever met have quit as well. In fact there are precious few of them left either and increasingly women are being assigned hospital midwives from a pool. People whom, while probably nice enough, birthing women have never met before.
Birth is a pretty big experience for all involved. Unfotunately human beings, with their collosal skulls, are not well built for their mother's pelvis's and birth canal. Thus the process of giving birth is visceral, painful, immodest and even at times humiliating. Going through the process of grunting and shoving something huge out of your lower orifice is not something you really want to do in front of popcorn-munching strangers.
Back in the 1980s the idea that women wanted more control over this process, wanted to form a relationship with those helping them and didn't want to be treated like patients was big news. But it led to an explosion of mystical feminist nonsense which made midwifery back into witchcraft unassisted by fetal heart monitors, sonography and sensible anaestheia. Indeed midwives did not even have to be nurses! Doctors, particularly GPs, were told they shouldn't have anything to do with this feminist miracle which is birth. Which, when many GPs are women, is completely loopy.
During the 90s independent midwives were, reportedly making a killing, and GPs were reluctantly retreating, warning that babies and mothers would be at risk. And, surprise, surprise, some babies did die because some illtrained witchy midwives did not recognise when they were out of their depth and the babies were in trouble. Of course good midwives ( and I have to say all the ones I ever 'worked with' fall into this category) did have nursing training and were very good at ensuring the safe delivery of healthy babies.
But now even midwives are giving up. The bureaucracy having tried to replace expensive GPs with slightly less expensive midwives is now finding that too much. The result is that even midwives are hard to come by in Wellington. Essentially women are being driven into private care by a system that is hostile to anyone who would practice in it. So today we have a system that serves no one except administrators trying to keep their budgets down so the Minister of Finance can report another whopping surplus.
To my mind this system needs an overhaul.
The best system should revolve around a woman's GP for the first 25 weeks of gestation. Essentially until this point the foetus is not viable without its mother and the health of the mother in all respects is paramount. From 25 weeks a woman should be able to choose her own midwife, preferably an independent one, with whom she can establish a rapport. That midwife must be a registered nurse. If the GP believes it is advisable an obstetrician should also be consulted. Then when the woman is in labour the midwife should be in attendance and advise the obstetrician and GP. Women should have the choice of a birth at home only after their first child is delivered at a suite in hospital. The suites now are very friendly and much safer. Every midwife should be required to monitor the foetal heart rate. If there is any problem the midwife should have expert assistance on hand immediately. If not a new baby will be born as safely and as privately as the mother likes.
To my mind the fact that this was once exactly what we had, and now don't, shows that the Government is responsible for withdrawing services from women in this country. In my view women should be making as much noise about this critical issue as they can.

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Monday, January 8, 2007

Just like TV

Questions are now being asked about how parolee Graeme Burton was ever released only to kill again. But instead of focussing on the specifics of this prisoner we should ask ourselves deeper questions about the role of violence in our society.

Graeme Burton has spent the past three weeks eluding Police around Wellington while gearing up with a heavy duty selection of weapons - obviously from associates he has maintained contact with on the outside. Police were gradually closing in on his position in the Wainui hills when Burton tried to steal a quad bike by shooting its rider, Karl Kuchenbecker, killing him. Fortunately two mountain bikers who happened on the scene slightly later were spared as were two others later on. Neverthless the situation was rapidly turning ugly and Police ended up shooting Burton in the leg before arresting him.

There is no doubt that Graeme Burton is a very violent man. He killed Paul Anderson in 1992 in a nightclub while high on 6 different drugs and the time he spent in jail has not softened him one whit. But what is interesting is not Graeme Burton's violence but society's reaction to it.

Every night our television routinely portrays violence every bit as terrible as that which occurred in Wainui yesterday afternoon. But when this "entertainment" escapes into reality society falls back in shock and horror. TV can show all sorts of apalling acts of violence and cruelty but when it starts happening nearby its as if a dream has started coming true.

It seems obvious to me that the televisual violence plays an important psycho-social role. We need it to act out our fears of real violence. Because televisual violence is always about the reassertion of societal norms over criminality we are reassured by this pantomime violence, even when it is shown with some grittiness. The question, however is, to what extent does the stretching of the violent imagination by story-tellers stretch the violent imaginations of criminals. Did Graeme Burton have any real concept of what he was doing or was he merely acting out a role; casting himself in his own crime drama?

Women's views on violence are crucial to this. Women are the main fans of televisual violence. They are also the main victims of real violence. It is also arguable that as society has seen an increase in female power it has seen a decrease in officially sanctioned violence to contain male aggression. Today parents, prison officers, school teachers, and Police walk a minefield of policies and procedures when confronted with young male challenges to authority. Instead of simply adminstering a quick boot up the bum a panopoly of family discussions, group therapy and yacking follows any act of bullying. Perhaps the aim is to pussywhip the transgressors into compliance but anecdotal evidence at least, suggests this isn't working.

To my mind the question of violence has not been properly addressed by our society. The most polite people in the world are generally the most seriously violent. The best way to address violence is through channels which teach it. Men have long had structures by which the young males are taught to be violent within a system that disciplines that violence. All martial arts training involves rules and a controlling heirarchy. It is training that encourages violence without training in it (eg rugby) that leads to explosions of violence both on and off the field.

Violent discipline without disciplined violence can become abuse. But lack of any discipline at all can lead to widespread abuse as well. In my view society has to ask whether it would rather have disciplined or undisciplined violence. Personally I would rather see disciplined violent discipline than widespread undisciplined violence. Such violence is not necessarily about causing pain as reducing the capacity to do harm.

Many people have commented that Graeme Burton's loss of a leg following the shootout, will at least slow him up a bit. But one has to ask why this has to be a random side-effect of participating in a shoot-out rather than a deliberate act by society in response to his stabbing Paul Anderson? Paul Anderson, and now Karl Kuchenbecker have died at Graeme Burton's hands. These are not accidental killings, nor responses to many years of abuse but murders of innocent bystanders.

Locking a person up in jail rarely makes them a better person. Nor does it reduce their propensity to reoffend much. That is because it does not instill discipline. Sending prisoners to a zen monastry where they had to meditate, carry out menial tasks, eat what they can beg and bathe in freezing water would instill discipline. Teaching them to survive in the bush might instill discipline. Making prisoners sail a ship together might instill discipline. Even making them march up and down and clean things in the Army might instill discipline but putting them in a concrete institution which perpetuates expensive and pointless existential torture does nothing but make them angry.

People need to be given a chance to learn from and reflect on their mistakes and do their best to make amends. To seek redemption in both the eyes of society and their own conscience. To do this they have to take responsibility for their actions and be presented with a choice. Surveys of offenders have found that once they have experienced prison they have no fear of it. Some even welcome it. Without fear their is no deterence and without deterrence people like Graeme Burton reoffend.

If a person cannot learn self-displine and is still a threat to society then the next response is a choice of two options. Either they must be placed outside society (which is not feasible) or they must have their capacity to threaten society reduced. Very few violent criminals, for example, are remain violent when confined to a wheelchair. Very few violent criminals are blind. Limiting a violent criminals ability to defend himself is in itself a lesson in humility many need to take on board. If a man who kicked his "girlfriend"s eye out were subjected to medical blindness in one eye in response (instead of 4 months in jail) he might develop a better appreciation of the loss he had inflicted.

To some this may sound hideous, illegal and reactionary. And I must confess it is not something which fills me with joy. But we are not talking about ordinary people here. We are talking about that 0.1% of society which makes life for everyone else wretched.

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