Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Different strokes for different strokers

It is interesting how situations can be given different interpretations according to who is interpreting it or for what purpose they are interpreting it.

An example of this is the Global Financial Crisis (or GFC for short). Ever notice how this phenomenon is described as a recession by anyone trying to explain their inability to improve their business performance or that of the country while those who are trying to kid us they have made a difference tell us ‘things are looking up’?

But one thing is for sure; the GFC is not all bad – at least not for all people. Take the banks, for example. To look at their performances you wouldn’t know there was anything amiss with the economy at all. If KPMG’s latest Financial Institutions Performance Survey can be trusted, the last year was one of the most profitable for bankers in recent times. Combined net profits of banks in NZ last year amounted to $3.3B compared with $2.77B in 2010. That is an improvement of more than 20 percent.

So the banks are doing very nicely thank you while the rest of us are seeing our income stalled and prices rising and have to dip into our savings to make ends meet.

But don’t worry; Jianqi is going to sell our top performing State Owned Assets to pay for our health and education. But wait a minute wasn’t education going to be funded by the great charter school scheme?  That’s the great plan where McDonald’s Secondary Modern and the Coke Adds Life Intermediate both start churning out a whole new generation of burger flippers and people with no teeth.

Of course the stars of last week’s blog are doing very nicely as well during this ‘downturn’. Figures released by the casino company in February of this year show its profit for the six months ending December 31, 2011was $78.8M. In the previous year it made a profit of $123M and expects this year to reach $140M. It is easy to see why they want more machines. Revenue from their slot machines increased by a whopping 17 percent.  It’s harder to see why they NEED them though.

What was that somebody said about ‘harm’? Don’t talk rubbish. I have it on good authority (SkyCity CEO, Nigel Morrison) that Lotto is more harmful than pokies, although given he runs no Lotto games and a shitload of pokie machines, he might be just a tad biased, don’t you think? However in addition to being biased, our Nige is also stupid and he doesn’t do his homework. Had he bothered to check before opening his independently operating gob, he would have found some very handy and interesting figures in the Gambling Helpline New Zealand Report which show that in 2010 NO problem gamblers contacted the Helpline due to their problems with Lotto and in 2011 only six had a problem with Lotto. On the other hand... there is a fist and it should leave Nige with his ears ringing and fully informed about the more than 800 people who contacted the Helpline after having problems associated with their use of gaming machines, casino tables and cards. Admittedly most of those on the gaming machines are accessing pub ones. However it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if pub machines reduce in number while SkyCity ones increase, then the problem gamblers are going to migrate to SkyCity in ever increasing numbers.

So it seems, somewhat ironically, that the financial crisis is affecting everyone except the money people. Am I the only one smelling putrefying rodent flesh here?

We bailed out a load of finance companies when this all kicked off and the insurance companies following the Christchurch earthquake. It is hard to find out exactly how much this has cost but the scheme was originally designed to ‘guarantee’ $133B of deposits. It would appear that the fund has actually paid out at least $2B. That amount of money if added to our health budget would have given us around another 14 percent to spend or 20 percent more for education.  It gets really crazy when you consider that bailout fund was also guaranteeing a further $131B. How about guaranteeing expenditure on things that actually matter to most of us, eh?

However we are unlikely to get that with a gnome like Jianqi who, let’s remember also took up an appointment with the Federal Reserve before becoming our PM. (How handy was that?). Thus he is in a perfect position to understand what it is like in the real world (Yeah!). With a mere $50M to his name, Jianqi really knows what a struggle the last few years have been for the rest of us and sees no problem in taking our shilling (or $411,510 p.a. plus allowances) for his troubles.

It’s a wonder to me that he can actually tell when the economy improves. It is hardly likely to make any difference to him either way.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

I spy in my little Sky something beginning with ‘C’

Ain’t private enterprise wonderful? Actually, yes it is, in its purest form, when an enterprising citizen sets up a business to supply a useful good or service to a willing public.

However it begins to take on a far less sweet and pleasant odour when it gets too big for its boots and thinks it deserves consideration over the needs of the majority of us. While it is nothing new to learn that ‘big business’ is usually in a position to gain concessions from politicians that serve only them (and possibly the pollies as well); the current dirty deal being considered with SkyCity is something new.

What is new about it might only be the fact that we all know about it. Most of those opposed to Jianqi’s offer to change gambling laws to suit the casino in return for them building a convention centre are appalled we could be auctioning our laws for some mythical windfall for the City of Sailors. Personally, I would be extremely surprised if this was a first. However I would think it is the first time anyone has been so blatantly obvious about it. And I don’t see that as a matter of ‘transparency’ (the latest buzzword of the conversationally challenged).

Instead I see this as further evidence of the utter contempt in which Jianqi and his overpaid and under-skilled gang hold the voters of Aotearoa. Six months ago they won an election. Well when I say they won an election, I guess the word ‘won’ needs some clarification.

Under our electoral rules they gathered more seats (59) than any other single party. However as there are 121 seats in our Parliament they did not win the majority of them and they needed the electorate seats of coalition partners United Fiasco and the Actors to reach a one seat majority. Furthermore if we turn our attention to their percentage of the party votes cast we can see that 47.31 percent is not a majority either and even adding in the pathetic contributions from the aforementioned ‘collision’ partners that still only gets them to 48.98 percent. It is only by adding the Maori vote in that this unholy cabal makes it over the 50 percent line (by a whole 0.41 percent. Now that’s hardly the stuff of blank chequebooks and unlimited mandates for one’s entire policy.

But back to the issue at hand.

Paperwork has emerged showing that on the strength of this ‘win’ or ‘mandate’ or ‘travesty’ depending on your viewpoint, Jianqi saw fit to order officials to cease work on plans for a major convention centre in the City of Seals and advise himself (at least he was telling somebody!) to chase SkyCity to build one for us instead.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact our laws seem to be up for auction in return. The National Disgrace is quite prepared to alter gambling laws which would allow SkyCity to put in bigger better faster and greedier gambling facilities. This is an interesting policy in the light of an oft mentioned mantra that our legislation is supposed to be some kind of sinking lid on gambling and a disincentive to the unlimited greedy growth plans of the casino barons.

There is another aspect to this barrel of rotten fish that should also be of concern to us. It is easy to imagine SkyCity had special treatment over this matter. Consider the following:

1.      Ministry officials began a feasibility study on the proposed convention centre in August 2009.

2.      In the same month Ministry officials heard of SkyCity proposals to expand their facilities and Jianqi ordered them to stop work until he had heard more about what SkyCity was planning.

3.      At their AGM in October 2009, SkyCity chairman Rod McGeoch told shareholders the company’s relationships with Government were as good as they had ever been and that he now had opportunities to meet high ranking officials and cabinet Ministers. He added that situations like that were changing how the company was seen by key influencers.

4.      At the same meeting Mr McGeoch said SkyCity wanted changes to the Gambling Act because it barred them from expanding their casino activities. He said the Act should take account of the contribution the casino industry makes to employment and tourism.

5.      A valuable piece of background information here is that SkyCity employ the services of Mark Unsworth who is a professional lobbyist and one of only about a dozen such people who can walk into Parliament whenever they like to see Cabinet Ministers and officials on behalf of their clients.

6.      On November 4, 2009 Jianqi had dinner with SkyCity bosses and where he discussed the convention centre and they talked about the possibility of relaxing the gaming laws for SkyCity. Key says he was relaxed about this because it was a way to get the convention centre without spending any Government money.

7.      In March 2010 Cabinet called for expressions of interest for the building of the convention centre and decided the feasibility study with Auckland Council for the centre and for which a budget of $250,000 had already been approved must stop.

8.      Over the next nine months or so the Ministry of Economic Destruction spends $277,698 on legal fees and various (no doubt useless) reports vaguely connected to the project.

9.      In June 2011 it was announced SkyCity would be building the $350M centre contingent upon gaming laws being changed to suit them along with a further ten year extension to their gaming licence.

It certainly seems like nobody else got a look in and it appears pretty certain the favourite was picked long before the race began and it appears the punters are the ones that are being asked to jump over the fences while the horse just ties on a really big feed bag.

An interesting aside to this that I discovered while researching this blog (yes, I do actually check stuff), was that when SkyCity applied for permission to new gaming tables and machines to ‘fund the building of its new convention facilities’ (that sounds like a familiar turn of phrase); the Chair of the Casino Control Authority who ruled in favour of them was Judith Collins, our current Minister for something or other quite major. She agreed with them that it would have a positive effect on tourism, employment and economic development. Now where have I heard that phrase before? Spooky, eh?

Or put another way; “Lot 23 the New Zealand Gaming Act, now who’ll give me an opening bid of $350 million?”

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

You must never go down to the end of town without consulting me

For many years now Government Departments and Councils have been using consultants for all kinds of things. Often the organisation concerned has shed a whole load of staff and taken on consultants to do the work which they were unable to shed along with the staff who used to do it.

Probably like me you have scratched your head when you have heard how much the consultants are paid and wondered where the savings are actually occurring. Most people would guess there is a saving because there is no need to pay sick leave, annual leave, or give paid public holidays. However between them, these extra costs to an employer would only add the equivalent of five unproductive paid weeks for each employee at the most. So it all depends on how much more the consultants are paid than the employees they replaced as to whether there is any saving at all.

But the use of consultants has other implications as well. Consultants as independent contractors have no loyalty to the organisation they are contracting to and are not part of the organisation’s ‘culture’. In the case of many Government Departments and Councils this might not be considered such a bad thing, but given the need for teamwork in such organisations, it could hardly be seen as helpful either.

During the term of the last Laboured Government the National Disgrace Party regularly harped on about how much Government was spending on consultants, but now the mangy moggy is out of the bag and we get to see how well the NDP actually ‘fixed’ this problem under their watch.

Their solution seems to be a case of “do as I say, not as I do”. Freelance journalist Keith Ng who writes on Scoop, must have had an inkling of this when he recently requested data on consultant expenditure by Government under the Official Information Act.

He discovered that expenditure on consultants under the current government has exceeded that of the previous administration by an outrageous amount. He also found that Governments (for many years) have failed to keep proper records of consultant expenditure in some departments. Furthermore they were aware of this when they used figures that did not show the full picture to ‘prove’ their ‘sound economic management’.

The current rag-tag Government has also made a great fuss about how they are capping departmental expenditure and this has led to a good deal of staff lay-offs. When challenged by opposition parties over the tactic, the National Disgrace claimed the staff being shed were not being re-hired as consultants after being dumped (and paid out redundancy compensation). It would seem in the light of the figure Keith Ng has obtained under the OIA that they were making this assertion based on woefully incomplete data. Many Government departments including Land Transport, Education, Economic Development, Conservation, and Te Puni Kokiri are missing from the expenditure.

So the fact is the Government cannot give us a true figure, although some of the departments Ng was able to get figures for are revealing enough in themselves.

Housing NZ has doubled its consultancy expenditure last year compared with the last year of the Laboured Government as did MFAT which is particularly interesting as they are contemplating another re-jig so expect their $7.3M figure of 2011 to be exceeded in 2012. MAF managed to triple their bill for consultants over the same time period but Treasury (those great guardians of our loot) managed the largest increase to their 2008 spend on consultants with a figure almost six times that of 2008.

Our spendthrift Treasury was not the largest donor to the consultants’ benevolent society however. That honour goes to the Ministry for the Environment who managed to spend a cool $57M on consultants since National Disgrace snuck into office.

These figures are worrying enough, but what horrors lie in those we are not currently privy to?  Land Transport NZ has just recently (no doubt) wasted money on consultants to ‘advise’ on the introduction of the altered Give Way rules. This was another waste of money as the adverts were littered with confusing images and despite the fact the changes are minor they were presented in a way that has left half the country wondering what the hell has happened.

We know that TPK is already in the gun and is in line for a restructuring, so more consultants are bound to be involved in that and we also know there are considerable plans to revamp the Ministry of Economic Development so a small fortune will be spent on consultants for that too.

And last, but certainly not least we already know a huge amount will be spent on consultants in order to effect the State asset sales, for which no accurate figures to prove the Government’s case have ever been produced.  But despite that small hitch consultants will be hired an eye-watering fee and the $165M spent in 2009, which ballooned to $174M in 2010 and then to $188M last year will be blown out of the water.

So if you think about it, it becomes obvious the National Disgrace was well aware of the situation regarding their expenditure on consultants before and during the election while they were trying to discredit the Laboured Party over the same.

It is a shame we don’t have a written constitution in this country – something that could be used to challenge election results where the winner has clearly lied to the voters about material matters.

Something needs to be done quickly because we seem to be heading down a very corrupt path at the moment. It seems every day we discover something else that was going on around election time that was hidden away until the voting was done. For example we have just learned this week that two major meth dealers had to be let go just before the election because the cops had misled the court and hidden vital evidence from the defence. These were not small time crooks; they were busted with $1M worth of P and with the stuff all over their hands. But because the cops didn’t play it straight, (the judge described them as ‘consciously reckless’) they have both walked free with name suppression still firmly in place. Originally they were to have been convicted when the judge thought the police had been muddled and careless because he felt the offending was too serious to let them go. However when more evidence came to light Judge Christopher Allen began to see the actions of police in a more sinister light and overturned the convictions. His decision was made on August 5 but not released until Granny Herald requested it. Ironically (and I might add, rather typically) Detective Sergeant Rod Carpinter who led the investigation was promoted to Senior Sergeant just two months before the judge made his decision. An internal investigation into the police actions is under way and although neither Carpinter nor his fellow officer Constable John Grantham has been stood down, it is quite possible criminal charges could follow.

Interestingly the Ministry of Justice was the second biggest spender on consultants with $56M spent over the last three years. It certainly sounds like the sort of work to get into and it is clear governments are only too keen to shell out a truckload of our money to anyone bearing the proud title of consultant. I think I feel a change of career coming on....   

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

What on earth?

The world is changing in many ways. You could call it evolution, although sometimes it seems to be working in reverse and sometimes it seems just plain silly. Progress is generally good and one cannot live in the past forever, but sometimes those so-called steps forward just seem a bit pointless. You know the sort of thing – ‘progress’ for no logical reason. I should clarify that what follows is not a sheaf of April Fool jokes despite how stupid they might seem.

The first of these dodgy steps forward is the announcement this week by Massachusetts firm Terrafugia that their production prototype Transition car-plane has successfully completed a test flight. The Transition car-plane (dumb name, but then.....) is a street legal car 2.3m wide which can apparently fit into a normal sized garage. Okay, so far. But with this car, at a flick of a switch or a push of a button (the story didn’t say which); it can pop out an 8m wingspan and be all ready for flight instructions.

Of course the company is quite breathless about their new toy and are no doubt salivating over the trillions of dollars they are expecting to make when ‘every home has one’.

They reckon they will have it on the market within a year. However, it is unlikely every home ever will have one for a number of reasons. For starters you need a pilot’s licence and at least 20 hours flying time before you will be able to fly this kite. Next, it would appear that it will not be the traffic escape route that every frustrated commuter has at one time dreamt of because it needs over three quarters of a kilometre of runway for takeoff. This means of course that once you are in a traffic jam; that is where you will have to stay. So while the Tc-p can be flown or driven; it is unlikely hybrid journeys to avoid traffic congestion would be feasible. The article in the Herald didn’t specify how much room it needs to land, but I’m betting it would probably be more than what is needed for take-off.

The only way I can see this ridiculous contraption working would be if you drove it to the airport, taxied onto the runway, flew to another airport and then drove into town. What with filing flight plans and getting air traffic control clearance, it might not be all that quick. The company reckons 100 vehicles have already been ordered, but there are always a few wankers who have to have the latest invention no matter how pointless it might be.

I notice there was no mention of how fuel hungry the Tc-p is or what sort of fuel or fuels it runs on. Actually this story raises way more questions than it answers, which is only too typical of journalism in the popular press these days. But I digress.

Even if this plar or cane isn’t particularly thirsty, it will still be unlikely to pop up in a garage near you anytime soon, because anyone wanting one of these babies will need to have a spare $338.000 lying around. I think you’d have to do an awful lot of flying in the normal course of your life for that to be an economical purchase and not just an expensive folly.

It would seem the car industry is quite keen on hare-brained ideas because Lexus has just released a new model that contains a very silly ‘extra feature’.  The new Lexus GS which has just gone on sale in Australia has a specially modified air-conditioning system that sprays a fine mist of invisible nano particles over the driver. According to Lexus (who might be lying, because if they are invisible how do you know?), it releases nano particles of between 20 and 50 nanometres in size that have negatively charged ions wrapped in water molecules. These are only emitted from the driver’s air vent and are claimed to purify the air and get rid of odours. It seems to me it would be better simply not to fart in the car, but there you go.

However this fantastical development which I know will make us all want a Lexus GS has another ‘benefit’ as well. According to Lexus, these ions contain roughly 1000 times the amount of moisture compared with normal ions which means it will be like having moisturiser applied to your skin while driving. I can see this beauty catching on with the lazy slobs in that Volkswagen advert who head off to the shops half awake, half dressed and picking their noses. They will be able to clamber out of bed straight into the car and get freshened up on the way to work without having to waste time or water in the shower. What’s next, I wonder. A car that dresses you and feeds you breakfast as well?

 The Malvern A&P Show is probably not the first place you think of when you think of new products being debuted. In fact, most of you probably don’t even know where Malvern is. My nearest guess is ‘somewhere in Canterbury’. However in the last week the A&P Show at marvellous Malvern previewed woollen coffins.

These are not simply hollowed out sheep, and despite what you are probably thinking, they were not invented by a sheep farmer from Malvern. They were in fact developed in another location famous for its woolly headedness; Yorkshire. I am guessing they came up with the idea because it can be so bloody cold in Yorkshire. The article in the ODT did not say whether the coffins are knitted or crocheted, but a local undertakers has added them to its range of eco-friendly caskets. The name of the undertakers is, appropriately enough, Lamb and Hayward. So I guess their next eco-friendly coffin will be one made out of hay.

However the silliest thing to come to my notice this week (apart from Judith Collins’ ill-advised legal action) comes from Finland. And to think Gezza (three dinners) Browneye was trying to make them look ridiculous only a week or so ago. Now they have achieved that all by themselves and it is one of their foremost companies that has come up with the silly application.

Mobile phone company Nokia has just filed a patent application for a tattoo. This seems silly and one is immediately drawn to the conclusion this must be a cock-up by the journalist reporting it and the actually means a copyright application. And why would they want to register ownership in any way on a tattoo?

However closer inspection reveals this is no ordinary tattoo; it is a tattoo with special powers. It is applied using ferromagnetic ink and it becomes a receiver for magnetic waves from your mobile phone. A tingle in your tattoo will mean someone is trying to call you. Apparently Nokia has plans to customise the feature so you can have differing tingles, itches or vibrations in your skin according to who is calling.

I say why leave it at a simple tattoo in one part of your body? You could have tattoos all over the place so that someone you can’t stand gives you a pain in the neck; a loudmouth gives you earache, or your darling gives you a tingle somewhere else.
Nokia also has plans to do a less invasive (or permanent) version which would consist of a wrist band that had the same properties. What I can’t understand is why they don’t just carry their phone with them. Then they wouldn’t need some intermediary system to tell them it was ringing? Sometimes these people are just too clever for their own good.