Friday, May 29, 2009

The Big Bill

Yesterday was Budget Day; one of the annual highlights of the Parliamentary Year.

I had been working up all manner of epithets, mots bon, and suitably cynical ripostes for my response to The English Willie's first budget of this new centre-right government.

However, I have to confess to some pleasant surprise!!

I had anticipated much of what was in the Budget, but suspected (as any good cynic should) that the bad news being broadcast was a smoke and mirror concealment for far worse; whether a massive overspend on "anti-recession" programmes, or a slash and burn on government services a la the Mother Richardson of all Budgets from the early '90s would be equally disastrous.

No, I confess to pleasant surprise.

The English Willie has taken an amazingly pragmatic stance. No dramatic tax cuts, no borrowing money to make saving for the future.

The Big Bill is for the future - an estimated $20billion shortfall in the Cullen Fund in 10 years time, an estimated 10 years before the short term borrowings already in place are repaid in full.

But, it could have been a whole lot worse. That is for sure, a huge amount worse.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It’s a strange old world –

- when those who promote and persuade on behalf of “free trade” start paying market subsidies to support specific producers.

This time around (again) it was kicked off in the EU when the French government started buying dairy products from their farmers and selling it at a loss in the international market. That mechanism, while providing price support for their farmers and depressing the international market prices through increased supply, at least is allowing the market to operate openly and without direct influence.

It is the follow-up from the US that has that rank stench of market manipulation and bare-faced subsidy. And, as is usual in these arguments the cause might well be the EU but the enemy is “in fact” New Zealand. Why? Because after a major drought last year the production levels in this country have reached the same as four and five years back. Those fluctuations have all reflected directly in our supply to the international market.
New Zealand milk production is forecast to increase 8% in MY 2008/09 compared to the drought affected MY 2007/08. New Zealand dairy export volumes fell 9% during the first seven months of MY 2008/09 compared to the same period last year.

The problem for the US, and the EU come to that, is that NZ dairy farmers get no government support; there are no export tax breaks, there are no production subsidies, there is no government tariff relief on imports such as equipment, fertilizer or fuel. The truth of the matter is that NZ makes the best product, and does so cheaper than most (if not all) other contributors to the international market. That “cheapness” is due to two major factors; NZ ingenuity (the number eight wire factor) and the fact that our climate allows for year-round open grass grazing. What is biting the bum of the US and the EC is that NZ is expanding its market influence into other producing countries; specifically at this time into Uruguay where Fonterra is buying large acreages, providing New Zealand management and training skills, and growing their production as a result.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that “top end” producers – both the US and EC in particular – are ignoring the principles of free and open markets when it suits themselves and insisting that the Rules are applied very strictly to others when they are winning; and that is a hypocrisy that has applied to products as diverse as steel, electronics, agriculture, timber and grains.

There is a very interesting analysis of the EU dairy market – both production and consumption - here and follow the .pdf link at the bottom for the full report showing amongst other things that between 2000 and 2008 one country increased its share of the total import to EU from about 19% to over 37%. No, not NZ but Switzerland. NZ increased from 10% to 13%.

Why do the “Free Trade” negotiations at the WTO keep stalling, as the current Doha round has once again? No, it is not just because of India, China, and Brazil. It is also the US (in particular this time around) trying valiantly to make sure that there are Rules that they can manipulate to protect their own from the fact that internationally they are price uncompetitive.

Oh, and “who” is Fonterra? You want to buy shares in Fonterra?

Come to NZ, buy a dairy farm, sign up as a Fonterra supplier, THEN you can buy your shares – the number of which will be based upon your contracted supply volume…

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Legitimate protest? Or mob rule?

Auckland has its “Harbour Bridge”, a miniscule equivalent of the Golden Gate, or perhaps one of the Manhatten Bridges.

For the past few years there has been a campaign to provide for bicyclist and foot access to the bridge. A proposal for a maintenance access to be upgraded for the purpose was declined as too expensive – around $1.5 million and the security (of users) too difficult to provide. There was then, and still is from time to time, considerable heat in the debate.

Today there was to have been a “protest walk” from Auckland to the North Shore. The requisite applications were lodged and declined. So, the protesters lined up as arranged and eventually “broke through” police there to stop them.

The news this afternoon has the organizer and leader of the protest telling Auckland that while they are “sorry” for any inconvenience caused to people using the Bridge legitimately, “it was all the fault of the Road Transport Authority for preventing the legitimate and right to protest by walking the bridge".
But NZTA says the protesters will not get what they want any sooner.

Mr McDonald says there are plans to provide access for bikes and foot traffic, but it will be 30 years before it is complete.

This is what the same section of the bridge (looking in the opposite direction) looks like at rush hour...

giving some idea of the magnitude of the "problem". (the news photo from today is looking back down the four lanes on the left side of the bridge in the second photo.)

OK, so normally I would side with "legitimate protest". This time, no.

What is more, I do not particularly care if they do have to wait about 30 years. There are far more important public transport projects to be undertaken before the Bridge is opened to foot and cycle traffic. Projects such as; light rail to the Airport, reinstating rail access to Fergusson Wharf, public transport that does not presume everyone works in the CBD.... And perhaps by the time we are through the next 30 years we will have run out of oil.

So is it legitimate protest? Legitimate use of civil disobedience?

Or is this another instance of mob rule?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lessons learned...

If you have a (fairly expensive) digital camera, and you make a practice of downloading images direct from camera to pc...


if you are the live-in servants to a 6Kg cat...


it would be a very good idea to invest in a remote SD card reader so that the cat will not knock your (fairly expensive) camera off the desk during the 15 minutes it takes to download the images and thus damaging the (in this case very small) data outlet plug that is part of the camera motherboard.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Feminism - and a response to the Teflonman

My wife “lived” through the feminist years of the late 60s and the 70’s. She was directly involved (at a personal level) in gaining pay equality, and work equality.

To explain.

When she became pregnant with our first child she held the position of City Treasurer’s Secretary; a very senior position, one which these days might carry the title of “Executive Personal Assistant” or somesuch, with commensurate salary. In that position she was one of the top four Secretaries in the organisation. But the rules were that if you got pregnant you had to resign. “Why?!!?” was the immediate reaction. That policy of “not employing” pregnant women was almost universal at the time and was one of the primary targets of the feminists.

Prior to that the City – as employer – had made some moves toward the totally radical idea of equal pay for equal work. If you were comparing the salary for a male clerk with that of a female clerk, the solution was quite simple; and in some cases the simple solution led to male clerks having their pay held at the same rate for some years while the women “caught up”. At the level of trying to set the salary of an Executive Secretary it became somewhat more difficult. So difficult, that SWMBO was told she would have to wait three years for the full value of her personal increase – like about 8% per annum for three years gives a clue. In the meantime she had corporate authority that (in some detailed instances) exceeded that of an accountant.

The point here is that “feminism” at that level was a very admirable thing. As an executive responsible for the selection and appointment of staff in my department it gave me almost double the population from which to select and I had an excellent team of eight women and one man under me. Oh, and if I recollect the man was third ranked in the pay scale. Even better, I could pick the best person for the job to be done and pay them accordingly.

The experiences my wife had at that time were frustrating in the extreme (“Why should I give up my job just because I am three months pregnant??”). She was not a member of the “militant” feminism movement but certainly she was well supported by people who were.

The difficulty then, and now too it seems from your (the Teflonman's) article, was the impact of opposing propaganda. So we get the idiocies of the “woman God”, the “Chairperson”, the “person-hole”, “post-person” and all of the other stupidities. At least in our Parliament, “Mr Speaker” became (quite correctly) “Madam Speaker” despite the efforts of some (male) members to attach other connotations to the title. I suspect that the similar rebuff of “Male members” would have been sufficient to quiet that line of thought. The idea of androgynous descriptives and nouns seemed to disappear out of the window overnight; driven out of the room, not least by the strident voices of extremism on both sides of the fence.

That feminism was one of the major and better social changes of the twentieth century – at least in the western world – should now go without saying. When you consider that it came less than 100 years after universal voting rights (at least in this country) shows that the rate of change was not exactly fast. That it came within ten years of the acceptance of the contraceptive pill is of no surprise and shows the speed with which society can change when even relatively small changes are made.

That feminism should still be the butt of jokes and politicised propaganda from a small (predominantly male) section of society is hardly surprising. Those that fall into the category would also, I suspect, feel hard done by immigrants “who work for low wages and take the jobs of more deserving people”.

It just seems to run through the territory.

Actually this whole change of social attitudes is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

I was interviewed for a position (some years ago, and I was not successful) when I was asked whether I would have difficulty with the fact that I would be working with a boss who was homosexual. My response was “Not unless the fact I am hetero becomes a problem with her. Otherwise why should it matter?”. Did that affect my chances? I was thanked for my honesty at least. Was I upset not getting the job? No, not one bit.

Back to the start -

How many "advanced" nations are now giving as of right maternity leave? How many are providing paid maternity leave? That change, as much as any other single instance signals just how far the Feminist movement has taken societal attitudes. To those who crow the old "feminist mantras" (and remember that very few hens crow) I say, "Grow up just a bit. Perhaps then you might earn the respect of a lady."

Thursday, May 07, 2009

D'Israeli's "Sybil"

Reading Mr Benjamin D’Israeli’s novel “Sybil” was interesting, it could even be enjoyable if you have that bent for reading Victorian era political tracts. In some respects it was an experience similar to reading a very mild and genteel version of Swift – the difference between a good baccy and menthol or between a Central Otago Pinot Noir and an Aussie vin rouge ordinaire.

Essentially, D’Israeli uses the character of a young, single, impressionable and out-of-income upper class man to trawl through the underbelly of Victorian England It is made clear from the beginning that his best chances for a comfortable life lay in a convenient marriage, the Church, or in politics if he could find a sponsor. As best Victorian tradition seems to require, there is a beautiful young maid involved as well who does not meet the criteria of a "convenient marriage". I have been able to confirm that the rumours the character was based upon Auntie Helen are entirely fictitious.

He portrays an age and living conditions which,it must be said, prompted much of the emigration to other parts and NZ in particular. It certainly (if you read NZ historians such as Michael King) provided the incentive for those many who escaped from the class driven society of 1880’s England to seek the more egalitarian (if not equally as hard) society of the new colonies in NZ and Australia.

The actual story is flimsy, sketchy at best, but I can imagine Mr Disraeli painting his characters into the various landscapes rather than taking the opportunity to develop the characters and the story around a less defined or detailed panorama. His commentary on the surrounding events - the Corn Law, the Child Labour Law, the prospect of the abolition of slavery amonst many others - is both detailed and in some instances quite caustic.

But, this is the purpose of the book. It is about the landscape far more than it is about the characters. If you judge otherwise then the tale is worth little.

The time that Disraeli is writing is the peak of the Industrial Revolution; the industrialisation; the loss of the cottage industries; the social upheaval created by the urbanisation of large numbers of people; the legacies of past political actions – religious suppression, civil wars, and political change. It is a time of great political change – the death of the “rotten borough” is in the wind. The nature of political representation is beginning that slow but inexorable swing from vested interest to electorate interest; from class politics to party politics. It is a time when the law was made, and used, to maintain the control and advantage of a small group of people over the majority.

It is also the time that saw the rise of such neo-political activists as Marx and Engels (who was living in England at the time Disraeli wrote). I have not read Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class…” but I suspect that there would be many parallels between that and Disraeli’s “Sybil”. That is not to elevate Disraeli’s novel to the level of a serious political analysis; it is far from that. But the times are the same; the people are “the same”; the landscape is generally “the same”.

Disraeli gives detailed description – sometimes running to pages – of surroundings, of neighbourhoods, of the people in them. He sounds the lifestyles. He watches the swell of popular antagonism against those who rule. He is not “pretty” in his prose either. Those of the governing classes are (correctly) described as “drones”; interested only in self-perpetuation; only existing for that one purpose of procreation; they have no defensive function as they are without a sting; they do not forage for the hive; they are parasites on the society in which they exist. The bee parallel is only too appropriate.

His characters walk through (here is the parallel with Swift and Gulliver) a series of societies. Each is different in outlook and response to the greater environment. They range from (what would later be) total socialism to the perpetuation of the current system. Each scene produces its own outcome; none are perfect or utopian. Where Swift though is unrelenting in his description and detail, Disraeli tends to back out just as the current landscape begins to threaten his characters.

The sympathetic chord that Disraeli (he who was one of Britain’s longer serving Prime Ministers) struck with me, comes from my meagre knowledge of my own family history at exactly the time that “Sybil” is set. My “ancestor” was a naval man, a “petty officer”, a man who did not have the “right” to progress any further in rank*. On retirement, George would have been “demobbed”; no support, no income. As son of Northumberland (probably fishing folk) parents there would have been little prospect of a comfortable retirement there in North Shields. I can only guess that his subsequent progress from Southampton to Channel Isles to Hamburg (then an independent City State) was driven by the need for his family to live – three of his sons were in merchant marine, two subsequently becoming officers and one having command before emigrating to NZ. It is impossible (at this distance in time) to reconstruct George’s motives for leaving Britain. As a decorated ex-naval man he would have had some prestige but not sufficient standing to warrant any consideration for employment. Reading Disraeli and having that dilemma of “What to do that is best” in the back of my mind has left me with images of George working the system as best he could to his family’s advantage.

* As a matter of history, that was a distinction that was still being made as late as WW2; the RAF officers were horrified by the “colonials” coming in and taking over with no inherent right to their position. (Don’t believe me? Read the RAF response to the appointment of Sir Keith Park as Air Chief Marshall, South East Sector Fighter Command.) and the running batlle between him and Leigh-Mallory over the tactics that should be employed. It is perhaps fortunate for us all that Keith Park carried the day; there has been much subsequent criticism of the tactics proposed by Leigh-Mallory.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Idle thoughts for a winter's day...

This starts with one of Liberty Bob’s articles about the Swine Flu. Not the PC of H1N1 around these parts. Officials and the probligo have decreed that the name is Swine flu; in just the same way as the Geographic Board has decreed that “North Island” and “South Island” are just not good enough, nor do they reflect the “traditional" Maori names, but most importantly of all they have never been Gazetted.

Be that as it may, and back to Liberty Bob. He had a (non-probligo) comment bewailing the millions who had died in the avian flu epidemic. The probligo, intentionally and because he was in a bit of a mood, took it seriously and was quite rightly mildly castigated by L-B for not recognizing the sarcasm of the first comment.

Be that as it may as well, and moving on from Liberty Bob to the wider world… Well, America in fact.

Why is it that Americans (and it seems to be a fairly general trait and not something that is in just the small circles of Americans that I have met) have this propensity for mindless bravado, for totally disregarding risk, for being the villagers who ignored the little boy who cried wolf once too often? I have to admit that it is a trait that has given impetus to their country’s place in the world. Without that bravado, a lot of very valuable things would never have happened, and the world would be the poorer (and in some cases, the better) for it.

Just a second, the cat is trying to crawl into my lap…

Now, WWI? Oh, yeah, the bravado.

To take examples other than Bob writing on the Swine Flu we could look at the overall reaction to the warnings of Katrina as a Cat 5 storm; or the warnings back in 2005 and 2006 that national and international financial systems were getting “overheated”; the scepticism that “global warming” is something we should worry about. “We’ve heard them before and nothing happened!” “Cry wolf again…”

Perhaps there is a converse here. If we look at the national reaction to 9/11; a mixture of justified outrage at one end and a paranoic fear at the other. When America “worries” it is an all-consuming fear. The current “fear”, now that Osama has not been found in Afghanistan, is that Obama will ruin America. Will he? I believe no more than it has already been “ruined” by successive administrations each following their individual political mantras into oblivion. And there is still that chance that he might do good…

So, it looks like Americans at least consider the Swine Flu – sorry H1N1 Mexico – to be little more than a beat-up by the left wing media. Once again. Tail wags the dog – again.