New Zealand experience demonstrates flaws in PR, Africa's woes and others

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The New Zealand experience demonstrates the flaws in PR

The New Zealand experience demonstrates the flaws in PR

Sir: I have been following your debate on proportional representation (PR) with much interest. Your front page of 15 June presents research showing that PR results in higher voter turnout. I don't think this conclusion can necessarily be drawn from the data, because there are many country factors that would contribute to turnout figures.

New Zealand's experiment with PR is illustrative. The highest voter turnout ever, since elections began in 1853, was in 1984 under the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that New Zealand inherited from Westminster. Turnout had fallen to 85.2 per cent by the time of the last FPTP election in 1993. In 1996, the first election after PR's introduction, turnout rose to 88.3 per cent, but then fell to 84.8 per cent in 1999 and to just 77 per cent in 2002.

Having voted for PR in both referenda on the issue, I now want to return to the trusted and tried FPTP system. All that PR has delivered is the tails of small fringe parties wagging the two large dogs of Labour and National. Politicians promised New Zealand voters that we would be allowed another chance to vote on going back to the old system. Not surprisingly, those now ensconced in parliament under the new system won't let go. They won't even let us have a referendum, because they suspect that voters would probably dump PR.

What I miss most about the old FPTP system is the fun of election nights, with all the drama of winners and losers. Nowadays your joy at hearing someone has lost a constituency quickly fades when you learn they're in on the party's list.

PR gives far too much power to political parties, who stack their party lists with unelectable cronies, and takes away the direct connection that voters should have with their local MP. Britons should think carefully about ditching a system that has served them so well and played no small part in making Britain the world's most amazing nation.



West is to blame for Africa's woes

Sir: Paul Adams's faith in free trade (letter, 17 June) reflects a simplistic free-trade orthodoxy which neglects the history of the last 25 years. To risk being equally simplistic, I would say that the root of the problem for Africa is that the West won, imposing its free-trade "structural adjustment" policies from 1980. By contrast in Asia, by and large, it lost, certainly in China, India and Vietnam, which resisted; and in the newly industrialised countries, particularly Taiwan and South Korea, which were given special dispensation for being in the front-line of the Cold War. All these protected their domestic markets and used the state to plan economic strategy (including export promotion). By contrast, from 1980 Africa was forced to abandon planning and industrialisation and embrace the free market by the IMF, the World Bank and individual Western nations, while their economies were still in their infancy.

I write from experience in Zimbabwe in the 1980s which, almost alone, stood out against this trend, and enjoyed growth of three times the African average. This produced a suspension of programme aid from the USA and the UK, and in 1990 (despite still healthy growth) it succumbed to promises of a restoration of substantial aid (most of which has failed to materialise) and liberalised. Since then it has been downhill all the way.

Mr Adams calls for honesty and realism. The first step is to accept that infant economies, like infant people, need protection from adult competition (all the more so when, as with the Common Agricultural Policy, we do what we tell them they mustn't). Africa was quite successful between independence in the early 1960s and the late 1970s. We have set it back at least 25 years.



Sir: I would like to congratulate Bruce Anderson on his thought- provoking article on African aid (Opinion, 13 June). While politicians sit in self-congratulatory mode, delighted with their own magnanimity in cancelling Third World debt, they refuse to look at the real issue and deal with the rampant corruption that has been bleeding the continent, and its people, dry for decades.

Corruption costs Africa more than $150bn every year. All over the continent, people watch their communities pillaged and decimated through greed and corruption. The poor lack even the basic human rights of food and shelter and the dignity of being able to provide for their children. At the same time they see government fat cats licking their lips as they fill their wallets with the spoils of donor aid.

While their efforts are to be praised, it is naïve of Messrs Blair and Brown to believe that they are championing the African cause. By giving money to corrupt and criminal regimes we are doing more damage than good; in some instances it could even be seen as collusion.



Sir: I agree with much of Johann Hari's assessment of the dangers of linking aid to fundamentalist ideologies, secular or religious (Opinion, 15 June). But in making his case he reveals his own imbalanced ideology.

The churches have much to answer for across sub-Saharan Africa in the past and the present. But to blame US fundamentalist churches for the current aid policies without even mentioning that the churches are a leading part of the Make Poverty History coalition, whose work he commends, is bizarre.

In Jubilee 2000, Make Poverty History and countless other initiatives, the churches have worked positively and creatively with trades unions, aid agencies, schools, hospitals and businesses across the African continent. The universal primary education of which Hari speaks in Tanzania could not have happened without Jubilee 2000; a coalition led by Christians.



G8 nations must not ignore science

Sir: Your report of 17 June says that the draft communiqué on climate change from the G8 summit has apparently been watered down to accommodate the position of one or more participants (probably the US). Commitments to research and education have been withdrawn and statements of support for what is now the virtually unanimous view of the scientific community have been removed or are being so diluted as to be meaningless.

While this may not be the final position of the summit, it is disturbing that this point in the negotiation has been reached immediately after a stark warning from the science academies of all the G8 nations, plus Brazil, China and India, that urgent action is required now to bring greenhouse-gas emissions under control. Since this warning was clearly timed to coincide with the summit and was intended to express as strongly as possible the position of the world's most authoritative scientific institutions, the response of the G8 nations suggests a worrying lack of respect for the scientific enterprise itself.

While I would not expect our heads of government to understand in detail all the scientific issues involved, I would at least expect them to appreciate that there is world of difference between the ethical opinions (however deeply held) of many NGOs and the evidence-based views of professional researchers that the survival of the planet is indeed under threat. By effectively putting two fingers up at the world's scientists they are displaying a level of ignorance and arrogance for which they will not be thanked by future generations.



Can torture ever be justified?

Sir: Robert Fisk asks what we can do about the complicity of our governments in torture (Opinion, 18 June). To the question "How much suffering may you inflict on a helpless prisoner, if in the process you acquire information that may save innocent lives", there are only two rational answers: none whatso-ever, or whatever it takes.

It's hard to tell which is worse; the ineffectuality of an attitude that limits ill treatment to a degree which, while causing distress to those wrongly suspected, is easily withstood by any experienced and committed terrorist; or the hypocrisy of blind-eye laisser faire to the way interrogators pursue their objectives, followed by hand-wringing and scapegoating when the truth comes out.

We all need to pick our position, and stand by it unapologetically. There is no obvious moral high ground. Whichever way you go, sooner or later, you will have innocent blood on your hands.



Sir: I think that your recent front page reports have covered some very important issues. But I can not help feeling that after reading Robert Fisk's horrifying article about torture and the UK and US Governments' complicity, that some front-page coverage of this subject is needed. Mr Fisk asks what we can do. We could start by making sure that reports such as this get as much prominence as possible. Maybe one day we will get rid of the psychopathic maniacs who run our countries.



Stay-at-home dads should be wary

Sir: I was sympathetic to the report on fathers who take over the main child-care role (16 June), but would urge caution.

As a teacher in further education at a college which was in dire straits (it was subsequently closed) I took an early retirement/redundancy package. My daughter was then aged four, and I did the taking her to and picking her up from nursery, and cared for her in the rest of the day. Wonderful. I became an expert in the Teletubbies and Bob the Builder but also in checking out BBC maths programmes for kids, recording and watching them with her.

The problem, however, is returning to work. I have applied for part-time teaching posts where the human resources people cannot get their heads round the idea. They need references from previous employers. Mine has disappeared. And they will not accept one from you for the important job of looking after a child yourself. They have a stereotype of child carers as young mums, not old dads. So do it. But watch it. The bureaucrats will not understand it.



Liberal Democrats and Europhobia

Sir: It is a bit rich of Mr Kennedy to be complaining in The Independent (17 June) that the UK public have not been involved in the EU process. For as long as I was a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, I could not get either Mr Kennedy or his campaign managers to support the production of pro-European materials for local parties. I was told there "was no demand for such materials". The tragedy for those of us who value the peace and stability the EU has given us for almost half a century, is that those who should have been providing leadership have failed to do so in the face of UK tabloid xenophobia.



The benefits of road pricing

Sir: Professor Davis argues against road pricing (letter, 15 June), concerned at the disruption it will cause to the economy. He tells us that this disruption may include transfers of jobs and GDP away from the congested South-east to other regions and, heaven forbid, falls in house prices in the affected areas. To me, these sound like arguments in favour of road pricing. If that is the result of business having to bear the true costs of its activities, then so be it.



A solar solution

Sir: If Mrs Beckett and the Government really want to encourage reduction of CO 2 levels, why do they not make it mandatory for all new houses to include solar panels or photovoltaic cells on their roofs?



An even faster man

Sir: Jeff Wright (letter, 18 June) says that Michael Johnson's average speed of 0.0966 over 200m makes him faster than Asafa Powell, who took 0.0977 seconds per metre over 100m. However, Mr Wright doesn't take into account the period of acceleration from rest, making average speed always less than top speed. The 200m runner begins his second hundred metres from a flying start, improving his average speed overall and compensating for his inability to sustain top speed over the longer distance. The world-record 100m sprinter is the faster man.



More Chinese, please

Sir: We have been told for many years that China is heading to become the next economic superpower. So you would think that universities would have responded to this opportunity. Yet Ucas lists only four UK universities offering Chinese as a single subject this year; in contrast 40 universities are offering French as a single subject. Tony Blair is right to point out that our economic future will be closely tied to that of China, but there's little chance that we will be successful so long as our higher education lives in the past.



Phoning home is costly

Sir: Why does it cost people from one of the poorest countries in Europe so much to phone home? Looking at my BT phone bill I am astonished to find that it cost me £9.87 to phone Romania for 24 minutes, but only 98p to phone Germany for 12 minutes and 80p to phone the USA for 10 minutes. If the reason is that few people want to telephone Romania, then the answer is to make it cheaper so that they don't have to take out a mortgage to do so. Something is wrong with such huge disparity of charges.



The ring saga

Sir: We have not met Armani Man but have twice been stopped in Paris by Girl with a Golden Ring. Last autumn, a young woman found a gold band on the pavement and captured our attention with her exclamations of delight. My husband and I congratulated her on her good fortune and she then tried to persuade us to take the ring. We sensed trouble and walked on. Two weeks ago, another girl leapt into the gutter beside us and also "found" a gold ring. What is the scam and have others encountered it?