Joe Hendren

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Green party co-leadership on Agenda

Yesterday morning I watched the Agenda special on the Green party co-leadership election.

Agenda presenter Lisa Owen clearly had not hosted many panel debates before - she looked nervous and unsure of herself at times. The clearest example of this was right at the end, when she called for final closing statements from all the candidates, and then only gave Mike Ward a go before she ended the programme!

The candidates Nandor Tanczos, Russel Norman, Dave Clendon and Mike Ward faced questions from the presenter, an audience of Green party members and phone-in questions from members of the public.

Perhaps the format was wrong, but all four candidates seemed to emphaise what they had in common, rather than the qualities and inclinations they would bring as co-leader. So many of the candidates answers came across as simple platitudes or restatements of Green party policy.

The phone-in callers appeared to be a bunch of single issue nutters, unlikely ever to support the Greens, who seemed to use the program's to land some cheap political points against the party. First we heard from Mike the Climate Change denier, and then another guy who attempted to make tenuous link between getting compensation for Agent Orange/Nuclear Test Veterans and a free trade agreement with the US. I though Nandor answered the latter question well, sympathising with the plight of the veterans and making a comparison of their plight with sawmill workers suffering 'hugely' from dioxin poisoning. Instead of the phone in circus, it would have been better to have questions from a panel of sympathetic commentators, like Chris Trotter and Keith Rankin.

Given that I have heard Russel Norman would like to place more of an emphasis on social justice I was a little disappointed he did not differentiate himself a great deal on this point, other than give a ringing endorsement of the work of Sue Bradford. Generally lefties want to hear more than just simple statements that social justice and ecological wisdom are innately 'connected' - they want proof. Despite the tax free band present Green party tax policy - tax shifting (which Norman endorses) - would still have a regressive effect unless tax rates were made way more progressive. It would be good to see Russel to follow Sue's lead and promote a Universal Basic Income alongside a more progressive tax policy to pay for it. If Norman wants to gain more support from the left it will not be enough for the policy to stand still.

This was the first I had seen of Dave Clendon, and he seemed to go ok. My spies tell me Dave has more 'centrist' inclinations, so I was pleased to see him rule out a coalition with National under his leadership. Perhaps Dave is the candidate for conservatively minded Greens who have concerns about Nandor's 'image'?

Mike Ward was awful. He seemed to have more to say than anyone else, but at times he came across as hectoring and dominated too many of the questions. How he managed to get into the top 10 of the Green Party List in 2002 I do not know. I heard a reliable rumour he was demoted below Catherine Delahunty - a non MP- in the first draft of the Greens 2005 list - and he should have stayed there. I have noticed that some MPs after they leave Parliament never get over the loss of status - lets face it they get three years of being treated like a VIP. I even came up with a name for this affliction. Mike Ward standing for the co-leadership appears to me to be a bad case of 'MP-a-lit-us'.

If I was forced to name a 'winner' of the debate I would call it for Nandor. He answered questions with an easy and relaxed manner and got some good points in. But so he should, given that he has had many more opportunities to be in front of the cameras than the other candidates. That said, I would expect some media training would be on the cards for whoever won the co-leadership.

This is not to say I endorse Nandor's strategy of moving the Greens towards the centre, and dissociating the Greens away from being a 'left-wing' party. Greens who say such things appear to be wanting to separate the ecological and the economic, at the same time they say they are 'interconnected'. They can't have it both ways. In my experience many of these types do think of social justice considerations, but think of them in a secondary fashion. If the Greens are to be 'less left wing' this means some of their policies will be closer to those of National or Labour - they risk the big parties only allowing the Greens to be a mere environmental clip on.

If the Greens avoid identifying free market capitalism as the key driver in environmental destruction (which it is), the level of analysis becomes shallow indeed. As a friend of mine put it "a good left critical analysis of our public health system is more than simply an inquiry into obesity and banning McDonald's happy meals."

I do find it a bit of an irony that Nandor appears to be targeting some of the conservative 'middle class' who are unlikely to support him on account of the dreds and the dope. I personally do not have a problem with either, but I suspect the petty middle class constituency who do not like to think of themselves as 'left wing' do. Lets face it, we are talking about image in both cases.

I noticed Nandor had his hair tied up for the Agenda debate!

While some on the left are predicting Russel Norman will win the co-leadership, I am not so sure. As the postal vote will be conducted under an STV system, it is likely Nandor will pick up more of the second and third preferences of those who cast their first vote for Ward or Clendon.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Telecom the Telecon

Click here to watch a fantastic spoof of the latest Telecom TV advertisement. Even if you are only on dialup it is totally worth the wait!

Imagine the kids saying "I am not going to take it anymore, I've been ripped off"

While I agree Telecom do not deserve to keep any of their customers, it is not as simple as closing your accounts and taking you business somewhere else - in many areas of New Zealand there is simply no choice of provider for basic phone services. Hopefully unbundling the local loop will help fix this problem - the best way to ensure "stability", in every sense, would be to fast track the required legislation.

Update: Telecom are attempting to suppress it - typical corporate censorship - it is now available here

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The Da Vinci Code is pure fiction and based on a hoax

Finally got around to reading the Da Vinci Code in the weekend. Its a good book, but by no measure a great book, despite the large number of sales.

While I was backpacking in Europe in 2004 the Da Vinci Code was being read, or had just been read by, every second traveler I met. It is always quite fun to read about places as you visit them, and many travelers said the Da Vinci Code made them more interested in the famous paintings in the Louve and elsewhere, even if some of the interpretations might have been a bit suspect. Short chapters and the fast pace of the story also make it a good travelers book. I was regularly the only one on our bus reading actual history books, but then I am a bit of a geek!

The Da Vinci Code is full of puzzles and word plays, reminding me of Alice in Wonderland at times. Yet part of the appeal of Alice is the way Carroll uses cogent arguments to create absurd nonsense, whereas the author claims the Da Vinci Code is based on facts. In an introductory page to the book titled 'fact' Brown claims The Priory of Sion as founded in 1099 was a real organisation, and that parchments known as Les Dossier Secrets were discovered in Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale in 1975 identified numerous members of the Priory including Sir Issac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci.

The claims of Dan Brown are based on an 1982 "non-fiction" book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. So much so two of the authors sued Brown for "copyright" infringement, supposedly the first time a writer of fiction had been accused of plagrising a work of "non-fiction". The authors of Holy Blood lost their case. And so they should, given Dan Brown quite openly acknowledged his primary source though the character Teabing in the start of chapter 60 (Teabing is an anagram of Baigent). Some of Brown's comments about "Holy Blood" are a bit snarky, and may have got the blood of the "Holy Blood" boiling a little.

"To my taste the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis, but their fundamental premise is sound, and to their credit they bought the idea of Christ's bloodline into the mainstream" (p. 339)

Given the debate over the Da Vinci Code, for Brown to accuse people of dubious leaps of faith is more than a touch ironic. Brown also follows "Holy Blood" in arguing there is evidence Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had one or more children, and those children settled in Southern France. Later their descendents intermarried with the noble families who would become the Merovingian dynasty (471 to 751AD), which was championed by a secret society called the Priory of Sion.

My immediate reaction to the link to the Merovingian dynasty was - yeah right. Even if you take a huge leap of faith and assume such claims are not simply a modern invention (as is likely), their would be strong political motives for promoting such a claim. In those days Kings claimed to rule by 'divine' right, so being descended from the big G himself would make a good case for being on the throne. In reality, the Merovingians were booted out of office by Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short, after years of ineffective Merovingian rule.

More critically for the credibility of Brown, Bagient, Leigh and Lincoln - the Priory of Sion has been shown to be a hoax. This article in Wikipedia claims (I wish they had attributed a source)

"Pierre Plantard and de Cherisey needed to create 'independent evidence'. So during the 1960s, they deposited a series of forged documents, the so-called Dossiers Secrets or "Secret Dossiers", at the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF), in Paris. Therefore, people who set out to research the 'Priory of Sion' would come across these fake documents at the BnF. One of those researchers was Henry Lincoln."

In the 2005 Channel 4 (UK) programme "The Real Da Vinci Code" looked at the main arguments of Dan Brown and those of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln. From the Wikipedia article "the da Vinci Code".
"The programme featured lengthy interviews with many of the main protagonists cited by Brown as "absolute fact" in the Da Vinci Code. Arnaud de Sede, son of Gerrard de Sede, stated categorically that his father and Plantard had made up the existence of the Prieure de Sion, the cornerstone of the Jesus bloodline theory - to quote Arnaud de Sede in the programme, "frankly, it was piffle".

Rest easy folks - the Da Vinci Code is nothing more than a work of fiction! I suspect you already knew that :) Actually I suspect the claims of 'fact' made by Dan Brown amount to not much more than a clever marketing ploy. Perhaps if "Holy Blood" had also claimed to also be a work of fiction the little court case may have been more successful!

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Corporate welfare for commerical radio operator Cam-West

During some quite random web surfing, I came across a very interesting interview with NZ musician Neil Finn criticising the recent Government decision to bail out the failing Kiwi FM, a station owned by transnational broadcasting operator Cam-West.

"I can't understand how [Cam-West] can be that the main opponent of youth radio and the main opponent of any Government interference in radio is now the recipient of three frequencies and courtesy of NZ On Air a whole lot of free programming."

"...I think Brent Impey, I've got a letter from him saying that a YRN– - a youth radio network - would ghettoise New Zealand music by putting it, by separating it. Well, I think that's exactly what Kiwi has done."

Finn long championed the idea of a national youth radio network, to be run in a similar fashion to National Radio and Concert FM. Laila Harre strongly pushed the idea while she was Minister of Youth Affairs, and I heard at the time both Steve Maharey and Trevor Mallard were supportive of the idea. Cam-West CEO, Brent Impey strongly opposed the youth radio model, no doubt keen on the income Cam-West gains from the overload of advertising broadcasts on its commercial stations.

Finn also told the NZ Herald
"It really irks me that [CanWest's] Brent Impey is basically getting frequencies that he very strongly argued should never be given by the Government to anybody for free."

According to Finn the youth radio network
"...was effectively sidelined by the Labour Government after eight years of putting together forums and advisory groups and with the overwhelming result from all of those that young people wanted it and that it was the best idea out there to improve radio services for young people. I took part in a few of them, some of them were without me, but certainly the Government got plenty of incentive and very good information and a model was drawn up, but they just ignored it and there'’s been no movement whatsoever."

Now as Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey has propped up a failing Cam-West station. So its a complete dole out of corporate welfare for a company that opposes Government interference in radio. Neil Finn can't understand it either.

"So, you know, it just makes you ask the question what are the Government hoping to achieve from it, other than currying favour with a commercial broadcaster?"

I also loved Neil Finn's suggestion of how to help New Zealand bands make it internationally.

"Well, get Air New Zealand to provide a few empty seats to musicians and buy a big hostel in London that people can hunker down in and stay there for, for as long as it takes. Because that's what it takes, you have to go there and be in their faces and hunker down. That would be a very practical way of helping a lot of different people. They've never really taken that idea on board."

That could so work. Thousands of young pilgrims from New Zealand on their OE's could visit the musicians to give them an enthusastic crowd away from home!

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Support NZ Post workers

The Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) have launched a campaign to help NZ Post workers gain a 5% pay rise this year.

"In less than a decade NZ Post has grown 500%, from a four hundred million dollar business to a two-and-a-half billion dollar company. And a lot of that is due to EPMU members at NZ Post: their loyalty and hard work has ensured the company earns good profits and has a great reputation."

As a loyal Kiwibank customer I say hear hear!

NZ Post made a profit of $130 million last year, and has made a profit every year since 1987. Yet over that same timespan pay packets have only kept up with the cost of living, and the latest offer from NZ Post is yet more of the same.

NZ Post likes to boast the company strives for "common goals and mutual gain"” and "“being a great New Zealand company and meeting our social obligations"”, so its about time NZ Post put its money where its mouth is, and offered their workers more than a Penny Black.

Click on the Take Action link and send a message to SOE Minister Trevor Mallard, NZ Post management and a message of support to NZ Post workers. Help STAMP out poor wages!

It is great to see the union movement getting into the digital age with designated websites to support their campaigns. It also provides a great avenue to educate workers about legislation relevant to their job. While the EPMU do not make mention of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) Act 1986 on their campaign website, in my humble opinion it is highly relevant.

While the Act defines the primary objective of SOEs is to "operate as a successful business" the Act also requires NZ Post to be a "good employer" and exhibit a sense of social responsibility. At the time Richard Prebble introduced this deeply flawed piece of legislation, Ministers considered the requirement to be a "good employer" a 'quite harmless clause' that unions would agree with*. While this might not be much, this demonstrates that SOEs have greater responsibilities than 'just another private business', so the rant from the right about SOEs being run according to some purist business model should be ignored.

It is high time the Government and State Sector employers were challenged to make the "good employer" clause mean something. I would also like to see the union movement calling for such clauses to be strengthened, as this would help build solidarity right across the state sector, from NZ Post, to Solid Energy and Air New Zealand.

It is also worth mentioning that the SOE Act lacks any specific requirement for SOEs to exhibit a sense of environmental responsibility - this now looks like a glaring omission.

* Jane Kelsey, "Rolling Back the State", p 365.

PS: I realise Air New Zealand is not strictly an SOE, but it should be!

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

KOPP campaign docks in Dunedin

The campaign to stop the sale of Lyttelton to a multinational port operator has now spread to Dunedin.

The Dunedin branch of Keep Our Port Public met yesterday. Green MP Metiria Turei and Victor Billot (Maritime Union of New Zealand and Alliance) spoke at the inaugural meeting.

The Otago Branch of KOPP aims to keep all ports in New Zealand in public ownership, and ensure both Lyttelton and Port Otago are kept out of the hands of privatisers. KOPP Otago also support the Maritime Union campaign to oppose the national push by multinationals to privatise ports.

"The issue is often portrayed as wheeling and dealing by big companies," says Victor Billot. "But the underlying and important issue is not about ports beating each other, it's about ports being operated in the public interest, in a responsible way, and that's what our campaign is about."

He says the involvement of Port Otago in purchasing an interest in the Lyttelton Port Company has created strong interest in the issue nationally. Mr Billot says the campaign will become a national one if there are any more moves to privatize ports.

"Publicly owned ports provide an excellent income to the citizens of New Zealand which is why they are such a juicy target for the 'pirate privatizers' who want to gain control."

Keep Our Port Public was formed in Christchurch in February 2006 after the business arm of the Christchurch City Council attempted to push forward a complex deal that would have seen the operational arm of the port of Lyttelton pass into majority ownership of Hong Kong based multinational port operator Hutchison. The deal is currently stalled after Port Otago purchased a block of shares in Lyttelton Port Company and Hutchison withdrew.

As Victor rightly points out, the proposed sale of the Lyttlelton Port Company is much more than just a "local issue to worry Cantabs". Hutchison also expressed an interest in the Auckland Port Company, and the draft long-term community plan of the Nelson City Council states that council ownership in the Nelson Port will be 'reviewed'. We all know what that means.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Local body election decided by drawing pencils

In the recent UK local body elections the Wheathampstead ward created a dillema. For the seat based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats each had 1,132 votes, after three recounts.

According to the BBC, the seat was won by the party who picked the longest pencil.

After 'drawing pencils' the Tories lost the seat to the Liberal Democrats. I could make the obvious joke about the Tories lacking lead in their pencil, but I won't :)

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Combating Corporate Spin: Westpac Bank

This week Westpac Banking Corporation released their half year profit figures, along with a predictable press release attempting to make Westpac look wonderful. To say this statement is 'carefully worded to be misleading' would be a touch too charitable!

"In the latest benchmark AC Neilsen Consumer Finance Monitor survey, covering the March 2006 quarter, Westpac was the only one of the major banks to record an increase in the percentage of respondents rating overall service as 'excellent' or 'very good'’. Our rating now stands at 60%, not far off the leading bank."

One would hope Westpac would record the greatest improvement when it comes to customer satsifaction - given they have been sitting at or near the bottom of such surveys for years.

In the University of Auckland business school retail bank survey released in November 2005, Westpac only gained a satisfaction rating of 64% - the lowest of the banks. New Zealand owned TSB and state-owned Kiwibank lead the ratings with 95% each. (Press, 14/11/05, 'Kiwi banks shine')

"An increase in income tax expenses, from $92 million in the half-year to March 2005 to $162 million in the current period, is primarily a result of the unwinding of structured finance transactions in the prior period."

Which is only because Westpac were told off by the Inland Revenue Department for using structured finance transactions the IRD regarded as tax abusive. The taxmen and taxwomen presented Westpac with a lovely large bill, and they continue to investigate the dodgy tax dealings of the banks. Westpac faces a potential tax liability of NZ $611 million (NZ$750 million if you include the interest). More detail here.

"Ann Sherry said Westpac continued to demonstrate its commitment to corporate responsibility with a number of initiatives. These include the installation of '‘talking'’ ATMs in the five major centres, and the raising of more than $500,000 in Westpac's annual chopper appeal in support of rescue helicopter trusts around New Zealand. “In the next few months we will also roll out a financial literacy programme, initially to Westpac staff and later to customers and the wider community. "

In 2005 Westpac's "support" for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter included free chopper rides for children of Westpac executives, and eight of their little friends, for a 'special treat' (NZ Herald, 4/3/05, 'Birthday treat on rescue copter'). The executive in question later resigned, with no one saying why. Management thanked her for her "great contribution" to Westpac.

No doubt the aim of the 'financial literacy' programme will be to blame individuals for making poor money management decisions, instead of Westpac demonstrating some real corporate responsibility. Financial union Finsec and others have called on Westpac to change its debt selling practices that encourage people to make poor money management decisions. Of course, the banks make more money when the debt levels of their customers are higher.

The Consumers Institute criticised Westpac in 2005 when it heralded its decision to lower minimum monthly payments from 5% to 3% as "good news" for customers. "Of course its not good news," said David Russell. "Its about keeping people in hock for longer". Westpac staff gain more 'performance points' on their reviews by selling debt products, such as credit cards, than they do for savings products. Profit driven debt selling also places pressure on interest rates. In greedy pursuit of profits, Westpac damages the New Zealand economy.

Last year Westpac were also blamed for fueling an unsustainable 'mortgage price war'. The CEO of Westpac expects the 'war' to flare up again this year.

It should be no surprise that Westpac was one of the co-winners of the 2005 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

There is heaps more in the Westpac statement I could fisk, but that will do for now :)

Tags: New Zealand, Corporates, Westpac

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Happy Birthday Blog - You are 2 Today

This blog is now two years old.

Sitemeter Hits since May 2, 2004: 12,741

On my first anniversary I reported hits of 2527.

So dear readers, this seems a good opportunity as any to welcome some feedback. What content did you find interesting/worthwhile? What sort of content did you skip over quickly? If you were to describe this blog to a friend, how would you do so?

Ok, so my real life job at the moment involves sending our surveys as part of a research project - perhaps it is all going to my head :)

I ought to explain that I largely blog for my own amusement - I often find I can think more clearly about an issue once I have written something about it. Sometimes what I feel like blogging about seems a bit random, even to me.

Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day 2006: Join the Left Wing Conspiracy

As a way of marking International Workers Day I can now announce I have joined the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

Yup the title is ironic, as a real conspiracy would have to be more than a collection of RSS feeds of left wing blogs from different parts of the world. Still it is good reading nevertheless :)

Actually most of the blogs appear to be Canadian based at present (not necessarily a bad thing!), but I would expect the conspiracy to become more 'vast' as time goes on.

So if you currently write a blog, and you are not, as MyBlahg put it, a 'clownservative' you should consider joining the conspiracy!

As the NZ blogsphere appears to be quieter this year, most notably among the left, I intend to help attempt to remedy this by making more linkage with left wing blogs overseas. So the emergence of the VLWC is indeed timely and welcome :)