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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dail Eireann - Overpaid Legislators and an Indifferent Public

Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament has been in session for the past month and there are about six weeks to go before our over-worked parliamentarians will head off for a six-week break.

Apart from the row in early October, that ensued following an Irish Times report that the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern availed of the financial help from some business friends when Minister for Finance in the early 1990's, the Dáil could still be on a recess given the impact it has been having in recent weeks.

Groucho Marx remarked after attending a cricket game in the UK, "if you suffer from insomnia after this, you really need to see your analyst."

Proceedings are often so boring because there simply are so few good parliamentary performers. Beyond, Pat Rabbitte and Joe Higgins, who comes to mind?

The late Fine Gael TD John Kelly was unmatched and it's rare generally to find people like Tony Blair and David Cameron who can speak impressively without notes for more than 15 minutes.

A politician does not have to be a Cicero and anyone worth their salt should only depend on notes in a debate. The only exceptions should be in relation to technical issues.

In the old days, apart from the emphasis on debating in school, politicians were also able to hone their skills on the stump with the help of hecklers.

In the 1950 election, the Republican governor of California Earl Warren began a speech:

I'm very happy to welcome such a dense crowd here tonight...

A heckler interrupted:

You ain't that lucky Governor. We're not all dense.

A T.D. or aspiring one, should be expected to put forward challenging ideas, defying conventional wisdom where appropriate and addressing issues of public policy beyond a forthcoming election. However, it is a rarity to behold such evidence.

The limited talent on the backbenches can also be seen when up to 30 senior and junior ministers are selected.

How many of the current crop would be selected in an open competition to run a significant business?

This is an important issue because when ministers are expected to sign-of on big public sector projects for example, it's pretty blatant that even some of the more obvious questions are not asked.

The typical existing or aspiring T.D. who cannot articulate a challenging idea, finds refuge in an expression of support for party policy but ask what will likely follow the ending of the current CAP system for farmers in 2013 or when the foreign manufacturing sector or construction industry will contract, there is nothing to be said.

Then there are the one-issue independent candidates who are vacuous beyond their pet local hospital or whatever got them elected.

Politicians have a varying mix of self interest and common interest. Self interest is undoubtedly the principal issue and that in itself is not a bad thing. Given that each T.D costs the taxpayer directly about €250,000, we should expect a higher standard from them.

HIGHER PAY - BETTER REPRESENTATIVES??

The pay of members of the Australian Federal Parliament - the House of Representatives - is €72,000 per annum compared with our typical backbencher who is on €96,000.

The pay of TDs could even be trebled from the current level, and the quality of representatives would hardly change.

Overpaid Legislators: 30% Special Pay Awards including Sham Benchmarking and Pay up 119% since 1997 - Average Weekly Industrial Earnings up 60%

Ireland has 166 members (TDs) in the lower parliament chamber Dáil Éireann who represent some 4.2 million people. With one TD for every 25,000 persons, the people are over-represented in parliament, and their representatives are, by international comparison, overpaid as national legislators.

However, following the latest census of population, Ireland may even get more.

Joseph O'Malley, Political Correspondent of the Sunday Independent recently wrote that IreIand has far more TDs than Britain has MPs: four times as many in proportional terms. The TD in Leinster House is now better paid than his or her counterpart at Westminster.

The TD also enjoys superior pension benefits, and for a much lower pension contribution: 6 per cent of a TD's salary, while the MP pays 10 per cent.

O'Malley says that for the TD, the transformation from being underpaid to being overpaid represents a remarkable turnaround in a short time. The TDs, however, are not complaining. Within a decade, few sectors of society have done better in pay terms than the political class at Leinster House.

In 1997, the Westminster member was paid a quarter more than the TD, who then earned €44,067. Nine years later the TD/MP pay gap has not just been closed, it has been reversed.

Today, the Dáil deputy earns €96,650 and the MP earns 11 per cent less, at €87,132.

O'Malley writes: Few can seriously dispute that the TD has less onerous national responsibilities than his British counterpart. The Dail sits less often than the Commons, and parliamentary life is much less demanding in Leinster House than at Westminster. Never mind that Britain's population is 15 times larger. And its economy is 11 times the size of the Irish economy. The TD represents fewer people in a much smaller country. Nevertheless, Dail deputies are now paid more than MPs to do a less challenging job.

The key to the current high salary status of TDs has been the conjunction of some remarkable series of developments on the pay front.

First, in 1999 the Buckley pay review awarded TDs a special pay increase of some 18 per cent. Buckley also recommended that Dáil deputies' pay should be linked to that of a principal officer in the civil service. Second, in 2002 the benchmarking review recommended a 12 per cent pay rise for principal officers. And because TDs were linked to principal officers, they also benefited from that award.

Since 1997, the 30 per cent from the special pay awards, when added to the normal partnership pay rises, has meant that the pay of Dail deputies has more than doubled. It is up 119 per cent, or twice as rapidly as the average industrial wage.

Stephen Collins in The Irish Times reported last July that politicians received their fourth pay rise in a year at the beginning of June, bringing the basic salary of a TD to €96,560 before special allowances and expenses are taken into account.For the Taoiseach and his Ministers, it was the sixth pay rise over the past 12 months. Mr Ahern's salary is now €258,730 a year, including his TD's salary, while the Tánaiste earns €222,256 and other members of the Cabinet get €204,020.

Each Government minister has got 2 benchmarking awards, even though everyone knows that the system has been an absolute scam.

A comparable country to Ireland, such as New Zealand, which is similar in population size (4.1m) and economic scale and performance to Ireland, manages with 120 MPs, one chamber, and no upper house. Indeed in 1999, in a non-binding referendum, the New Zealand people voted to reduce the number of MPs to 99: some 84 per cent voted in favour. Even more remarkable: the Kiwi MP is paid just €56,730, under two thirds the Irish rate.

Joseph O'Malley in The Sunday Independent, says that a contribution of only 6 per cent of salary entitles TDs to a full pension after just 20 years, based on half their final salary, and with a lump sum payment of one and a half times that salary. But what the TD pays for his pension bears no relation to the real economic cost of providing his retirement benefits. The taxpayer pays that extra, unquantified, cost.

In a damning indictment of the current wide gap between many of the governed and their legislators, O'Malley writes: Many private sector companies are closing their defined benefit (final salary) schemes to new entrants, while others raise contributions to close the funding deficit, which the law passed by the Oireachtas requires. Remarkably, however, little echo of this great debate on pensions can be heard in the national parliament.

To cap it all, part-time local councillors are seeking public occupational pensions even though most private sector workers beyond the foreign-owned sector and large Irish-owned companies, such as banks and public companies, have none!!

The Sunday Independent has reported that thirteen Government ministers have benefited from tax breaks, averaging almost €5,000 each on second homes in the capital, just weeks after the Taoiseach's brother Noel Ahern, said property speculators should be "taxed out of existence".

The break designed exclusively for members of the Government, allows ministers to claim relief on second homes and for overnight accommodation in Dublin. Latest figures reveal that 13 ministers availed of the perk, claiming €63,477 between them.

Messenger Boys and Girls

In a paper presented at a Central Bank conference last September, Dr. Frank Barry of University College Dublin, highlighted issues such as the "structural flaws that give zoned land an artificial scarcity value and that continue to offer strong incentives for corruption. The failure to tackle these issues seems ascribable, in part at least, to the failure to introduce international best-practice measures with respect to the financing of the political process. The failure to address cost and time overruns in infrastructural provision over the boom period represents a further weakness in Irish governance."

On the latter, Dr. Barry said that Ireland’s single transferable vote (STV) electoral system is usually blamed for the brokerage style of politics practiced in Ireland. Political scientists have accorded it a key role in generating “…the heavy emphasis on constituency casework, faction-fighting between candidates from the same party (and) a focus on constituency and localist matters in election campaigns and parliamentary work”.

"The current system certainly appears frequently to lock Irish politicians, competing against each other within the same constituency, into a type of prisoners’ dilemma," Barry said.

A number of countries, and not just those new to parliamentary democracy, have changed their electoral systems in recent times. Most – including Italy, Japan and New Zealand for example – have switched to “mixed systems” of the German type, which combine national lists (where political parties offer lists of the most capable people willing to serve) alongside constituency representation. This would dilute the stranglehold of localism on the system and allow governments to devote more attention to difficult longer-term issues.

The final report of the Constitution Review Group (1996) chaired by Dr T.K. Whitaker cautioned that the present PR-STV has had popular support and should not be changed without careful advance assessment of the possible effects. If a change were to be made, it went on however, “…the introduction of a PR-list or AMS (the additional member system, referred to above as the mixed system) would satisfy more of the relevant criteria than a move to a non-PR system” such as that of the UK, an option already rejected by the Irish electorate in the referendums of 1959 and 1968.

When will conservative Ireland be ready to embrace change?

Where are the leaders with a vision to set the foundations and structures for an Ireland that has changed radically from the one that existed when our current system of governance evolved?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Actor Michael J. Fox and stem-cell research

Michael J. Fox on YouTube

Jim Nichols in the US The Nation magazine, writes that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who admitted an addiction to pain killers in 2003, is not just making an issue of Michael J. Fox's campaign ads for Democratic candidates who support stem-cell research. "He is making it the issue of a fall campaign that gets stranger by the day."

For the better part of three hours each day this week, the radio ranter has been "Swift Boating the television and film star for daring to do what Limbaugh -- who freely admits that he is an entertainer -- does every day.

In Limbaugh's warped assessment of the political process, it's fine for him to try and influence the votes of Americans. But woe be it to anyone else who attempts to do so.

Since Fox began speaking up in favor of candidates who support science over superstition, the television and film star who suffers from Parkinson's disease has been accused by Limbaugh of "exaggerating the effects of the disease" in campaign commercials in which he points out that Democratic candidates for the Congress and governorships in the battleground states of Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin and now Iowa favor a serious approach to stem-cell research while their Republican opponents do not.

Limbaugh was relentless in his assault on Fox. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act," the conservative commentator says. "This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting." After it was pointed out to Limbaugh be everyone, literally everyone, who knows anything about Parkinson's disease, Limbaugh declared, "Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right then, I stand corrected. . . . So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."

Nichols writes that that should have been the end of it.

But Limbaugh wasn't backing off. His new theme became: "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician."

One problem with that line of attack is that Fox was the one who volunteered to make the ads, with the express purpose of helping voters see beyond the spin and recognize the stark choices that they will be making on November 7. Another problem is that, two years ago, Fox cut an ad supporting a top Republican, Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who supports embryonic stem-cell research. But the biggest problem is with Limbaugh's emphasis on the Fox's physical appearance, as opposed to what the actor is saying in the ads? Why blather on and on about whether Fox, an actor, might be acting?

Because it is easier to criticize the way that Michael J. Fox looks than it is to criticize the content of his message.

Fox's ads are fact-based. They reference the voting records, public statements and policy initiatives of the Democratic and Republican candidates he is talking about.

That being the case, beating up on the "Back to the Future" actor would not seem like a smart political strategy. And it certainly is not going to help Limbaugh soften his image as a partisan hitman who knows a little too much about what it means to be on or off particular medications.

So why are Limbaugh and other readers of Republican talking points continuing to accuse Fox of "acting" sick, and of lying his own disease and about the role that stem-cell research may play in the search for treatments and a cure? Why devote so much time and energy to attacking one ailing actor and one set of commercials? It has a lot to do with the powerful lobby that is opposing serious stem-cell research.

Unspoken in much of the debate over this issue is the real reason why candidates such as U.S. Senator Jim Talent, the embattled Republican incumbent who is the target of Fox's criticism in Missouri, and U.S. Representative Mark Green (news, bio, voting record), the Republican gubernatorial candidate who is mentioned in Fox's ads in Wisconsin, so vehemently oppose embryonic stem-cell research.

It is not because they think the research is unnecessary -- no one who has heard from top scientists and groups advocating on behalf of the sick and suffering, as both Talent and Green have, would take such a stand. Rather, it is because Talent, Green and other politicians who are campaigning not just against their Democratic opponents but against scientific inquiry want to maintain the support of the groups that oppose serious stem-cell research: the powerful and influential anti-choice political action committees that in each election cycle spend millions of dollars in questionable cash to support candidates who are willing to echo their faith-based opposition to research that could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne' Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.

Groups that oppose reproductive rights are central players in our politics because they have established networks that serve as some of the most effective hidden conduits for special-interest money that is used to pay for crude attack campaigns against mainstream candidates.

They also mobilize voters on behalf of contenders who cynically embrace the ugliest forms of anti-scientific dogma to make the rounds since the evolution deniers ginned up the 1926 Scopes trial on evolution. For this reason, the antiabortion machine gets what it wants when it wants it.

Nichols say that politicians who align themselves with antichoice groups are willing to attack anyone who challenges them -- and for good reason. In states across the country, so-called "Right-to-Life" and "Pro-Life" groups spend freely on behalf of the candidates they back. And much of that spending goes essentially undetected, as the groups often do not give money directly to candidates but instead run "issue ads" and mount independent-expenditure campaigns.

Republican politicians like Talent and Green fully understand that, without the behind-the-scenes work of antiabortion groups -- most of which flies under the radar of the media and campaign-finance regulators -- they could not possibly win. And Limbaugh, whose stated goal is to maintain Republican hegemony, is perhaps even more aware of the fact than the candidates he is working so feverishly to elect. That's why the radio personality is on a personal crusade against Fox. That's also why Limbaugh has been willing to stick to his outlandish claims about the actor, even while acknowledging that he's gotten the facts wrong.

Jim Nichols writes that like the Republican politicians who are scrambling to smear Fox, Limbaugh is doing the bidding of one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes political forces in America -- a force that is essential to Republican prospects. And he is not going to let a little thing like the truth make him back off.

Politics is a cynical game. But, sometimes, the cynicism becomes so extreme that the word "unconscionable" doesn't quite seem to capture the ugliness of it all.

Rush Limbaugh announced on his radio program in October 2003, that he is addicted to pain medication and that he was checking himself into a treatment center immediately.

"You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life," the conservative commentator said in a statement on his nationally syndicated radio show.

"I need to tell you today that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication."

Law enforcement sources said that Limbaugh's name had come up during an investigation into a black market drug ring in Palm Beach County, Florida. The sources said that authorities were looking into the illegal sale of the prescription drugs OxyContin and hydrocodone.

Limbaugh, who has a residence in Palm Beach County, was named by sources as a possible buyer.

Roger Friedman of Fox News says that since 2001, according to federal records, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has raised an astonishing $80 million for research. Unlike most celebrity charities, the Fox Foundation has a Web site that even links to its most recent federal tax filing, and the filing is current.

This is an amazing achievement, considering how young the foundation is. Fox has turned his illness into something incredibly positive; the group even runs in the black, meaning its income is greater than its expenses. Last year the group finished with $7 million in the bank after giving away $17 million.

Response Ad to Michael J. Fox on YouTube

Patricia Heaton — who won an Emmy for her work on "Everyone Loves Raymond" — is taking sides in the stem-cell research debate.

She’s put herself on the opposite side of Michael J. Fox, the much-beloved actor who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease since 1991 and is a firm supporter of embryonic stem-cell research.

Heaton is now appearing in a commercial intended to persuade Missouri voters to vote against Amendment 2 on their ballot.

Fox, in his own commercial, urges voters to support the measure and Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is running for U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Jim Talent, a Republican who opposes embryonic stem-cell research.

Many scientists believe stem cell research could lead to cures for Parkinson’s and many other illnesses. Amendment 2 would constitutionally protect any embryonic stem cell research in Missouri that falls within federal law.

Michael J. Fox was born Michael Andrew Fox in 1961 to parents William and Phyllis in Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta. (He later adopted the "J" as an homage to legendary character actor Michael J. Pollard.) Fox, a self-described "Army brat," moved several times during his childhood along with his parents, brother, and three sisters. The Foxes finally planted roots in Burnaby, British Columbia (a suburb of Vancouver), when William

Fox retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1971.Like most Canadian kids, Fox loved hockey and dreamed of a career in the National Hockey League. In his teens, his interests expanded. He began experimenting with creative writing and art and played guitar in a succession of rock-and-roll garage bands before ultimately realizing his affinity for acting. Fox debuted as a professional actor at 15, co-starring in the sitcom Leo and Me on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) with future Tony Award-winner Brent Carver.

Over the next three years, he juggled local theater and TV work, and landed a few roles in American TV movies shooting in Canada. When he was 18, Fox moved to Los Angeles. He had a series of bit parts, including one in CBS' short-lived (yet critically acclaimed) Alex Haley/Norman Lear series Palmerstown USA, before winning the role of lovable conservative Alex P. Keaton on NBC's enormously popular Family Ties (1982-89). During Fox's seven years on Ties, he earned three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, making him one of the country's most prominent young actors.

Though he would not share the news with the public for another seven years, Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991. Upon disclosing his condition in 1998, he committed himself to the campaign for increased Parkinson's research.The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which he launched in year 2000, and its efforts to raise much-needed research funding for and awareness about Parkinson's disease.

Fox wholeheartedly believes that if there is a concentrated effort from the Parkinson's community, elected representatives in Washington, DC, and (most importantly) the general public, researchers can pinpoint the cause of Parkinson's and uncover a cure within our lifetime.

Parkinson's disease is a chronic, progressive disorder of the central nervous system that belongs to a group of conditions called motor system disorders. Parkinson's is the direct result of the loss of cells in a section of the brain called the substantia nigra. Those cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals within the brain. Loss of dopamine causes critical nerve cells in the brain, or neurons, to fire out of control, leaving patients unable to direct or control their movement in a normal manner.Parkinson's disease has been known since ancient times. An English doctor, James Parkinson, first described it extensively in 1817; the thoroughness of his analysis is such that researchers and clinicians are still urged to read his original notes on the condition.

Artificial land supply restrictions boost house prices in US and Ireland

The average price paid for a house in Dublin and outside Dublin in September 2006 was €419,809 and €266,339 respectively. The equivalent prices at the start of 2006 were €368,576 and €240,201.

The median sales price of new US houses sold in September 2006 was $217,100; the average sales price was $293,200.

Last week, I posted an article on Finfacts, which stated that for the cost of a typical management level house in Dublin, Ireland, one could buy 9 similar houses in Houston, Texas, 3 in Amsterdam, 2 in Sydney and almost two in Tokyo.

I said that in Houston, there's a positive approach to supply where restrictions are at a minimum and competition forces builders' margins down to single digit figures while in contrast, planning intervention and cronyism has prompted the European Environment Agency (EEA) to use Dublin as a "worst-case scenario" of urban planning so that the new EU member states in Eastern Europe avoid making the same mistakes.

The current issue of BusinessWeek magazine (Nov 6, 2006), says that, even though Houston has had a long stretch of healthy economic growth, it's so easy to build homes there, that inflation-adjusted prices are still 19% below their 1983 peak.

Peter Coy asks in BusinessWeek, how common is a boom-bust-boom pattern? He says that over the past three decades about 40% of housing busts in big US metro areas have eventually been followed by strong recoveries. That's according to a BusinessWeek analysis of inflation-adjusted housing prices. In an additional 15% of markets, prices adjusted for inflation barely got back to their previous peaks after 15 years. In the remaining 45% or so of markets, prices adjusted for inflation were still down a decade and a half after their pre-bust peaks.The disparity between winners and losers was striking: Among the winning markets, the average inflation-adjusted gain after 15 years was 43%, while among the losers the average inflation-adjusted loss was 19%.

Coy asks how do you know if your own local market is the kind that will snap back or the kind that will languish indefinitely? One key factor is the ease or difficulty of building new homes. Places where new home construction is a long and expensive process, such as Boston and San Francisco, tend to experience big price movements, both up and down. "Restricted supply leads to more volatility in prices," says Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard University economist who has studied big-city housing markets.

BusinessWeek says that supply considerations can cause markets to diverge from what seem to be the fundamentals for a long time, perhaps permanently. One explanation for this is the "superstar cities" concept developed by economists Joseph E. Gyourko and Todd M. Sinai of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Christopher J. Mayer of Columbia Business School. They argue that certain cities -- Boston and San Francisco, say -- benefit from a winner-take-all phenomenon that separates them from also-rans. People all over the world want to own homes in Boston and San Francisco, and the supply is limited. As worldwide wealth rises, there is a bidding war for homes there. No such luck for, say, St. Louis. In fact, according to the authors, the gap between prices in San Francisco and the national average doubled between 1970 and 2000.

What makes the housing supply inflexible in markets like Boston isn't necessarily a lack of land. Far more often, the cause is regulatory constraints like minimum lot sizes.

"There's a pretty strong correlation between volatility [of housing prices] and regulatory constraint," says Stephen Malpezzi, a housing economist at the University of Wisconsin School of Business.

Glaeser says that because of zoning regulations, the density of housing in many metro Boston communities is actually lower than in growing areas of the supposedly wide-open Southwest.

"In Wellesley [Mass.], they should be building apartment buildings around the train stations, but it's all single-family housing," says Richard K. Green, a finance professor at George Washington University.

Peter Coy writes that at this stage in the slump, restricting the supply of housing may sound like a good thing. It's not. Sure, it can make current owners richer by increasing the scarcity value of their homes. But it's murder on first-time buyers. And in the long run, it's bad for the local economy. As Glaeser notes, companies tend to migrate away from areas with costly housing to avoid paying the higher salaries needed to compensate employees for their home costs. He notes that between 2003 and 2005, high-cost Massachusetts lost 0.3% of its population, more than any other state. "The economy cannot grow unless the population grows, and the population cannot grow without new housing," he wrote in a May paper.

Ireland, a country that is 4% urbanised, is short of land!!

The Irish land rezoning system that has been the subject of a public tribunal investigation of planning corruption for 9 years - with no prospect of any change to the system that spawned it -turns Irish farmers on public welfare from the European Union, who are lucky to be located near Irish towns into multimillionaires, selling at up to €500,000 ($640,000) an acre or more.

Two years ago, the Irish Government paid €29.9 million for a 150-acre site at Thornton Hall in North Dublin, for a prison relocation. Stupidly, Government officials left the cat out of the bag on the identity of the prospective buyer.

The farmer who sold his land to the Department of Justice, moved North-west of County Dublin to the adjacent County Meath and bought a replacement 133 acre farm for €5.3 million. According to journalist Frank Connolly, in March 2005, the 238-acre Grange Farm at Kilbride, just ten miles from the city centre and four kilometres to the west of the Thornton site at Kilsallaghan, was sold at public auction for €6.2m or just over €26,000 an acre as compared with the €200,000 per acre paid for the Thornton Hall lands – almost eight times more.
Once it's known that Irish land is for development, it's like winning the lottery, without even having to buy a ticket.

Global Survey: Cost of typical management level house in Dublin, Ireland, could buy 9 similar houses in Houston, Texas, 3 in Amsterdam, 2 in Sydney and almost two in Tokyo

State of Chassis: Artificial restriction on land supply puts Ireland and UK at bottom of property league in Developed World; Irish urbanisation at 4% is among Europe's lowest

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ireland among top rank in the world for a free press but free is relative

The three-year prison sentence imposed on cyber-dissident Li Jianping today as French President Jacques Chirac arrived on a three-day state visit to China was “slap in the face” for French diplomacy, Reporters Without Borders said, reiterating its call to Chirac to intercede on behalf of the 63 journalists and cyber-dissidents imprisoned in China.

The report from China coincides with the annual worldwide press freedom index.
According to the index, Ireland has the most free press in the world. This year's index was compiled before the Irish Government's planned legislative restrictions on the media are enacted.

Top of the rankings are Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands. These countries have "no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals" against the press.

Ireland's ranking does not suggest that there is more transparency here than in other countries; that the Irish media can subject public officials to more in-depth questions and scrutiny than in other jurisdictions.

A current media case underway in Ireland, is against the Irish Times newspaper that has been taken by the 9-year old planning corruption tribunal in respect of the disclosure of confidential information that was supplied by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

In a small establishment, the media in the past has been timid in handling and investigating corruption allegations. On the other side, in the media, a small number of people controlled the agenda and what resulted was a cosy consensus for both politicians and media.

With the Freedom of Information Act, despite its limitations, the principal media organisations are even more opaque than the public sector in some ways.

Finally, the media here is currently subject to some of the harshest libel laws in the world - so how free is that?

Reporters Without Borders: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea the worst violators of press freedom

France, the United States and Japan slip further Mauritania and Haiti gain much ground

New countries have moved ahead of some Western democracies in the fifth annual Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index, issued today, while the most repressive countries are still the same ones.

“Unfortunately nothing has changed in the countries that are the worst predators of press freedom,” the organisation said, “and journalists in North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Burma and China are still risking their life or imprisonment for trying to keep us informed.

These situations are extremely serious and it is urgent that leaders of these countries accept criticism and stop routinely cracking down on the media so harshly.

"Each year new countries in less-developed parts of the world move up the Index to positions above some European countries or the United States. This is good news and shows once again that, even though very poor, countries can be very observant of freedom of expression. Meanwhile the steady erosion of press freedom in the United States, France and Japan is extremely alarming,” Reporters Without Borders said.

The three worst violators of free expression - North Korea, bottom of the Index at 168th place, Turkmenistan (167th) and Eritrea (166th) - have clamped down further. The torture death of Turkmenistan journalist Ogulsapar Muradova shows that the country’s leader, “President-for-Life” Separmurad Nyazov, is willing to use extreme violence against those who dare to criticise him.

Reporters Without Borders is also extremely concerned about a number of Eritrean journalists who have been imprisoned in secret for more than five years. The all-powerful North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, also continues to totally control the media.

Northern European countries once again come top of the Index, with no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals in Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands, which all share first place.

Deterioration in the United States and Japan, with France also slipping

The United States (53rd) has fallen nine places since last year, after being in 17th position in the first year of the Index, in 2002. Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of “national security” to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his “war on terrorism.” The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 US states, refuse to recognise the media’s right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.

Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned when he refused to hand over his video archives. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April this year.

France (35th) slipped five places during the past year, to make a loss of 24 places in five years. The increase in searches of media offices and journalists’ homes is very worrying for media organisations and trade unions. Autumn 2005 was an especially bad time for French journalists, several of whom were physically attacked or threatened during a trade union dispute involving privatisation of the Corsican firm SNCM and during violent demonstrations in French city suburbs in November.

Rising nationalism and the system of exclusive press clubs (kishas) threatened democratic gains in Japan, which fell 14 places to 51st. The newspaper Nihon Keizai was firebombed and several journalists phsyically attacked by far-right activists (uyoku).

Fallout from the row over the "Mohammed cartoons”

Denmark (19th) dropped from joint first place because of serious threats against the authors of the Mohammed cartoons published there in autumn 2005. For the first time in recent years in a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists had to have police protection due to
threats against them because of their work.

Yemen (149th) slipped four places, mainly because of the arrest of several journalists and closure of newspapers that reprinted the cartoons. Journalists were harassed for the same reason in Algeria (126th), Jordan (109th), Indonesia (103rd) and India (105th).

But except for Yemen and Saudi Arabia (161st), all the Arab peninsula countries considerably improved their rank. Kuwait (73rd) kept its place at the top of the group, just ahead of the United Arab Emirates (77th) and Qatar (80th).

Newcomers to the top ranks

Two countries moved into the Index’s top 20 for the first time. Bolivia (16th) was best-placed among less-developed countries and during the year its journalists enjoyed the same level of freedom as colleagues in Canada or Austria. Bosnia-Herzegovina (19th) continued its gradual rise up the Index since the end of the war in ex-Yugoslavia and is now placed above its European Union member-state neighbours Greece (32nd) and Italy (40th).

Ghana (34th) rose 32 places to become fourth in Africa behind the continent’s three traditional leaders - Benin (23rd), Namibia (26th) and Mauritius (32nd). Economic conditions are still difficult for the Ghanaian media but it is no longer threatened by the authorities.

Panama (39th) is enjoying political peace which has helped the growth of a free and vigorous media and the country moved up 27 places over the year.

War, the destroyer of press freedom

Lebanon has fallen from 56th to 107th place in five years, as the country’s media continues to suffer from the region’s poisonous political atmosphere, with a series of bomb attacks in 2005 and Israeli military attacks this year. The Lebanese media - some of the freest and most experienced in the Arab world - desperately need peace and guarantees of security. The inability of the Palestinian Authority (134th) to maintain stability in its territories and the behaviour of Israel (135th) outside its borders seriously threaten freedom of expression in the Middle East.

Things are much the same in Sri Lanka, which ranked 51st in 2002, when there was peace, but has now sunk to 141st because fighting between government and rebel forces has resumed in earnest. Dozens of Tamil journalists have been physically attacked after being accused by one side or the other of being biased against them.

Press freedom in Nepal (159th) has shifted according to the state of the fighting that has disrupted the country for several years. The “democatic revolution” and the revolt against the monarchy in April this year led immediately to more basic freedoms and the country should gain a lot of ground in next year’s Index.

Welcome changes of regime

Changes of ruler are sometimes good for press freeedom, as in the case of Haiti, which has risen from 125th to 87th place in two years after the flight into exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in early 2004. Several murders of journalists remain unpunished but violence against the media has abated.

Togo (66th) has risen 29 places since the death of President Gnassingbe Eyadema in February 2005, the accession to power of his son and internationally-backed efforts to make peace with the opposition.

A coup in Mauritania in August 2005 ended the heavy censorship of the local media and the country has risen to 77th position after being 138th in 2004, one of the biggest improvements in the Index.

Reporters Without Borders compiled the Index by asking the 14 freedom of expression organisations that are its partners worldwide, its network of 130 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 50 questions about press freedom in their countries. The Index covers 168 nations. Others were not included for lack of data about them.

- Questionnaire for compiling a 2006 world press freedom index
- How the index was compiled

CountryScore
1Finland0,50
-Iceland0,50
-Ireland0,50
-Netherlands0,50
5Czech Republic0,75
6Estonia2,00
-Norway2,00
8Slovakia2,50
-Switzerland2,50
10Hungary3,00
-Latvia3,00
-Portugal3,00
-Slovenia3,00
14Belgium4,00
-Sweden4,00
16Austria4,50
-Bolivia4,50
-Canada4,50
19Bosnia and Herzegovina5,00
-Denmark5,00
-New-Zealand5,00
-Trinidad and Tobago5,00
23Benin5,50
-Germany5,50
-Jamaica5,50
26Namibia6,00
27Lithuania6,50
-United Kingdom6,50
29Costa Rica6,67
30Cyprus7,50
31South Korea7,75
32Greece8,00
-Mauritius8,00
34Ghana8,50
35Australia9,00
-Bulgaria9,00
-France9,00
-Mali9,00
39Panama9,50
40Italy9,90
41El Salvador10,00
-Spain10,00
43Taiwan10,50
44South Africa11,25
45Cape Verde11,50
-Macedonia11,50
-Mozambique11,50
-Serbia and Montenegro11,50
49Chile11,63
50Israel12,00
51Japan12,50
52Dominican Republic12,75
53Botswana13,00
-Croatia13,00
-Tonga13,00
-United States of America13,00
57Uruguay13,75
58Fiji14,00
-Hong-Kong14,00
-Poland14,00
-Romania14,00
62Central African Republic14,50
-Cyprus (North)14,50
-Guinea-Bissau14,50
-Honduras14,50
66Madagascar15,00
-Togo15,00
68Ecuador15,25
69Nicaragua15,50
70Burkina Faso16,00
-Kosovo16,00
-Lesotho16,00
73Congo17,00
-Kuwait17,00
75Brazil17,17
76Argentina17,30
77Mauritania17,50
-Senegal17,50
-United Arab Emirates17,50
80Albania18,00
-Qatar18,00
82Paraguay18,25
83Timor-Leste18,50
84Liberia19,00
85Moldova19,17
86Mongolia19,25
87Haiti19,50
88Tanzania19,82
89Georgia21,00
90Guatemala21,25
91Angola21,50
92Malaysia22,25
93Comoros22,50
-Zambia22,50
95Niger24,50
-Seychelles24,50
97Morocco24,83
98Bhutan25,00
-Côte d’Ivoire25,00
-Turkey25,00
101Armenia25,50
-Malawi25,50
103Indonesia26,00
-Sierra Leone26,00
105India26,50
-Ukraine26,50
107Lebanon27,00
108Cambodia27,25
109Guinea27,50
-Jordan27,50
111Bahrein28,00
112Cameroon28,25
-Peru28,25
114Gabon28,50
115Venezuela29,00
116Uganda29,83
117Tajikistan30,00
118Kenya30,25
119United States of America (extra-territorial)31,50
120Nigeria32,23
121Djibouti33,00
122Thailand33,50
123Kyrgyzstan34,00
124Chad35,50
125Burundi39,83
126Algeria40,00
127Swaziland40,50
128Kazakhstan41,00
-Rwanda41,00
130Afghanistan44,25
131Colombia44,75
132Mexico45,83
133Egypt46,25
134Palestinian Authority46,75
135Azerbaijan47,00
-Israel (extra-territorial)47,00
137Bangladesh48,00
-Equatorial Guinea48,00
139Sudan48,13
140Zimbabwe50,00
141Sri Lanka50,75
142Democratic Republic of Congo51,00
-Philippines51,00
144Maldives51,25
-Somalia51,25
146Singapore51,50
147Russia52,50
148Tunisia53,75
149Gambia54,00
-Yemen54,00
151Belarus57,00
152Libya62,50
153Syria63,00
154Iraq66,83
155Vietnam67,25
156Laos67,50
157Pakistan70,33
158Uzbekistan71,00
159Nepal73,50
160Ethiopia75,00
161Saudi Arabia76,00
162Iran90,88
163China94,00
164Burma94,75
165Cuba95,00
166Eritrea97,50
167Turkmenistan98,50
168North Korea109,00


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cullen to produce a new Road Safety Plan sometime

This is another week where the number of deaths of young people on Irish roads has got a lot of media attention and there will inevitably be another week because necessary action will not be taken.

The accident-prone Minister for Transport Martin Cullen has said that the Government wanted to completely overhaul the licensing system because of the large number of young drivers involved in fatal crashes. Has the penny finally dropped?

"It shouldn't be cheap to get a licence, it shouldn't be easy," he said. "There will have to be an element of professional training in it, and the response seems to be if people have to invest more into getting a licence they will treat it with far more respect and greater responsibility."

Cullen has to cobble together some proposals and as with so with many laws, people will just give a shrug of the shoulders unless the penalties really hurt.

Last summer Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy warned people not to drink and drive but the alcohol limit remains unaltered. So most drivers will continue to drink and drive and the minority who will chance one more drink, will continue unabashed.

In rural areas, it is quite an adjustment to accept a situation where even one drink would put a driver over the limit.

We love sprawl in Ireland but there has to be a trade-off.

The Irish Independent has reported that board of the Road Safety Authority has drawn up the range of new measures aimed at slashing the death toll among young drivers. They are certain to include:

  • Learner drivers and those just qualified will be automatically banned from driving if they get six penalty points instead of the normal 12 points. Drivers who pass the test face the six point ban for a further two years.
  • L-drivers will not be permitted to drive above a certain fixed speed, expected to be 80kph. This means they cannot drive at higher permitted speeds such as 100kph on main roads and 120kph on motorways.
  • They will be restricted to low engine size vehicles for a set period. The size has yet to be determined but it is expected L-drivers and new full licence holders will not be able to drive high-powered two-litre cars and will be restricted to entry grade 1000 to 1400 cc.
  • They will have to put 'R' plates on the front and rear of their cars.
  • They will have a zero drink-driving limit.
If measures do not include a zero drink-driving limit on every driver old and new, and confiscation of the vehicle, then it will be just another failed effort.

Migrant workers are unlikely to be too fazed about the risk of disqualification.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Kuala Lumpur - the cheapest city on earth!

Located on the old site of the Royal Turf Club in the heart of the capital city, the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) is truly a spectacular sight. Here, the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest twin structures, soars to a dizzying height of 452 metres. Inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam, this gleaming mega-structure was designed by Argentinian-American architect Cesar Pelli. Below lies a beautifully landscaped fountain park designed by prominent Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. KLCC is also home to the world-class Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Suria Shopping Centre and Petronas Philharmonic Hall. On the left side of the image is the KL Tower, which provides a 360° panoramic view of the city at night from its revolving restaurant.

At the weekend, The Wall Street Journal showcased my favourite Asian city - Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia - commonly termed KL by younger locals.

In August, Swiss bank UBS's Price and Earnings Report for 2006, ranked Kuala Lumpur the cheapest of 71 global cities.

UBS said that Kuala Lumpur and Manila are favourable for a short stay- besides expenses for accommodation and food, a stroll around town also has its price. To get a picture of price differences for a short stay in a large city, UBS put together a basket of ten goods and services comprising an overnight stay for two in a first-class hotel, two dinners with a bottle of the house red wine, one taxi ride, a 100 kilometers in a rental car, two outings to the theatre by public transport, and various small expenditures such as a paperback novel or a phone call.

This package is most expensive in London, where visitors will cough up $1180, and Tokyo, where the basket costs $1090, excluding the money needed to get there and back. A short stay doesn’t come much cheaper in cities like Geneva, New York, Oslo or Zurich, either. The global average price for a quick trip is $ 640.

The cheapest places are Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Buenos Aires and Nairobi. For people with a budget of less than $450, Sofia, Bogotá and Lima are appealing choices. Regionally, the price difference is themost extreme between Africa ($ 425) and Western Europe ($ 800), Africa on the average costing over than 40% less for a short trip. But costs differ widely within Western Europe, too: a short stay in London is more than three times as expensive as one in Sofia ($ 380). At $ 723, a short stay in North America is also disproportionately high.

In the previous UBS survey, in 2003, Kuala Lumpur was also a bargain for tourists, with its overnight city break cost of $230 ranking second-lowest to Karachi's $150 (London was the most expensive at $900, followed by Tokyo at $860). Daniel Kalt, a UBS economist, attributes Kuala Lumpur's relatively consistent performance during the years between the surveys primarily to Malaysia's ability to get a firm grip on inflation. He notes that over the three-year period, Malaysia's cumulative inflation was just 5.6%, compared with 12.6% in India.

The Journal's Ken Sesser says that he paid $107 for a room in the Shangri-La hotel room, bought through Web site AsiaTravel.com, would have gotten him no more than the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong. In London, the cheapest hotel room he could find on the Internet cost $140, and that had the bathroom down the hall. The startling price differential doesn't end at hotel rooms. According to the UBS survey, a three-mile taxi ride in Kuala Lumpur would be just $1.60, compared with $11.60 in New York and $20.30 in London.

I have paid $90 myself for a room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, in the KLCC area, just a short walk from the Petronas Towers.

Sesser says that for most Americans, Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Malaysia remain off the beaten path. Last year, Singapore (the island is connected by a causeway at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia) attracted more than twice as many American tourists as did all of Malaysia, 371,000 compared with 151,000. Thailand, which borders Malaysia to the north, attracted four times as many Americans, even though Malaysia can match many of Thailand's attractions, such as stretches of uncrowded beaches backed by rain forests and mountains. Mirza Mohamed Paiyab, director general of the government's Tourism Malaysia, says the difference is primarily because Bangkok and Singapore are large air-travel hubs, the first with many connections to Indochina and the second to Bali and Australia.

There are direct flights to KL from many of Europe's capital cities.

Malaysia comprises Malays who are Muslim (65%), ethnic Chinese (25%) who dominate the business sector and Indians.

Experience the variety at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia, at a great price, and you will feel that a visit to a counterpart in Dublin is very deflating!!

Check out the food guide.