Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sideswipe

Needed: A comma as well as friends to replace those that seem to keep zipping off overseas for coffee, etc.

By Ana Samways

Owners of a red diesel-powered Range Rover with roof racks and rego starting with TM who have teenage boys, please take note: A reader writes, "One wonders if it is the same three youths mentioned in Tuesday's Sideswipe column who successfully - if one can call it that - smashed the glass in the bus shelter opposite St John's Theological College early on Sunday morning and also, the week before, in the shelter just outside the college? Perhaps they would not be as destructive if they actually had to catch a bus instead of being loaned their parents' car!"

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Our Air New Zealand cabin crew member might have mixed his semolina with his salmonella, but over at Freedom Air they at least have a sense of humour: A reader writes: "Two weeks ago on a flight to Christchurch, we waited on the tarmac in Auckland for over an hour because of a no-show passenger whose bag was on board. When we finally arrived late in Christchurch, the delightful woman on the intercom said the following: 'At Freedom Air we pride ourselves on having the most professional crews in the industry. Unfortunately, we're not one of them.' And: 'If you're visiting Christchurch, welcome, and if you're returning home, we're sorry.' And: 'Don't forget to collect your personal belongings from the overhead lockers. And your children.' Her spiel went down a treat. She was applauded."

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Dear Sideswipe,

What ever happened to the naked swim with Bob Harvey. I went on TradeMe just now and it's gone. Do we know how much it raised, and who and why on earth they bought it?

A: Keen to get his name (and mug) in print whenever humanly possible, Newmarket Business Association head (and former sidekick to Mayor Banksie) Cameron Brewer purchased the prize for $105 and donated it to Auckland's three other metropolitan mayors and the Minister for Auckland Issues - all in the name of closer regional relationships. (P.S. The Newmarket Business Association's coming Xmas bash makes no mention of a dress code or lack thereof, but if there's a photo opportunity up for grabs no doubt Brewer will de-kit in a flash.)

Garth George: Meddling over our foreshore law is barefaced cheek

So a meddling United Nations bureaucrat has descended, or is about to descend, on us to "probe" whether our seabed and foreshore law has breached Maori rights. What barefaced cheek.

And the suggestion that our Government should be bracing itself for "embarrassment" over Professor Rodolfo Stavenhagen's visit is nothing but arrant nonsense. There is no way the geezer can embarrass this country, not if you look at the outfit he represents.

It seems he asked for an invitation to come here after an approach to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by a few bunches of disaffected Maori, who should be ashamed of themselves.

What sort of New Zealander would whinge to an inefficient and corrupt organisation such as the United Nations just because they can't get their own way in their own country? It's tantamount to treason.

It seems that a complaint prepared by Ngai Tahu, the Taranaki Maori Trust Board and Treaty Tribes on the seabed and foreshore issue was sent to this obscure UN committee, whose report was rejected by the Government.

The report criticised the haste in enacting the legislation and the lack of consideration given to alternative plans. The UN committee found (what else?) that the legislation was racially discriminatory, saying it extinguished the possibility of establishing customary Maori rights yet failed to provide guaranteed redress.

Well, what the Government should have done when asked for an invitation was to tell this Mexican bloke to go take a jump. We need his sort here like we need an outbreak of avian flu.

Helen Clark has said that the committee he is employed by has "most unsatisfactory" processes and "sits on the outer edges of the UN system". You can take that as gospel.

The committee, among its 18 members, contains such paragons of human rights virtue as China, Russia, Algeria, Brazil and Pakistan. Then there's Burkina Faso, a land-locked dot on the map of Africa.

Just last weekend its President, Blaise Compore, who took power in a bloody coup in 1987, had himself "re-elected" for a third term, in spite of the former French colony's constitution specifying only two presidential terms.

In what is described as the poorest and least-developed country in the world, Mr Compore is reported to have spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on his campaign. Bet he knows a thing or two about racial discrimination, eh?

Professor Stavenhagen, who is described as a "rapporteur" for the UN committee, is scheduled to attend four hui, including a major one at Parihaka at the weekend, where, the Herald suggests, he can expect to hear severe criticism of the Government.

Well, you can put a ring around that. And the sad part about it is that this foreigner will probably believe more than half of what he is told and write the sort of report he prepared on the Philippines, which has been described by people who know as "a litany of unsubstantiated allegations and ridiculous recommendations".

Surely there are some intelligent Maori out there who are prepared to mount a challenge to his presence at the hui and give him an earful, not of whinges but of a mere?

It is said that he is here to gather information. Not so. If his main input is from hui, and hui called by the disaffected at that, then what he will get is only one side of the story.

He is also to have a meeting with Michael Cullen, who so far has wisely kept his head down on the matter and refused any comment. I would love to be a fly on the wall of that meeting when this globe-trotting busybody meets our urbane and wily Deputy Prime Minister.

Not that it will do any good. You can guarantee that Professor Stavenhagen will present those who pay his no doubt substantial salary and copious first-class travelling expenses with a negative report. Because that is what they will expect.

They must, after all, continually give themselves a plausible raison d'etre lest someone with a few brains concludes that they are superfluous and are wasting UN money which could be better spent trying to fix some of the real tragedies of racial discrimination in the world today.

Maori Party "co-leader" Turiana Turia is to have her own private audience with Professor Stavenhagen, and I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall at that one, too. According to her, the Government "is embarrassed that he has come".

"Now they [the Government] are going to have to front up and it's going to be very interesting to hear what they have to say."

Poor Mrs Turia. If she thinks people like Helen Clark and Michael Cullen and their colleagues will be embarrassed by some jumped-up nobody from an obscure and largely discredited UN committee, she hasn't taken much notice of the pragmatism of those with whom she was tight for so many years.

As for National's Gerry Brownlee: "It will be, to say the least, testing for [the Government] to have a rapporteur here very carefully questioning the way in which they have dealt with the indigenous rights of Maori."

Perhaps Mr Brownlee is unaware that the first definition of the French "rapporteur" is "sneak" or "telltale".

Gwynne Dyer: Future of the web at stake

The situation can certainly be criticised but the proposed remedies seem much worse, said the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, not exactly the first organisation that you would expect to rally to the American Government's position.

"If there was ever a time to invoke the maxim 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it', this is it," said Joseph A. Morris, a Chicago-based lawyer who watched internet law evolve from a ringside seat as a senior official at the US Justice Department. Both were alarmed by changes being considered in Tunis.

Representatives of 170 countries are in Tunisia for the World Summit on the Information Society this week, and warnings are flying that the future of the internet is at stake. The United Nations wants to take control of the web away from the non-profit American corporation that runs it and give it instead to an international body where all UN members would have influence on its decisions. And the most enthusiastic backers of this idea, unsurprisingly, are countries like China, Libya and Iran that want to limit free speech on the web.

The scenes in Tunis itself reinforce the notion that this conference is really a conspiracy against the free flow of information.

Tunisian police rough journalists up outside the conference centre, and an alternative Citizens' Symposium on the Information Society found its reservations for hotel meeting rooms mysteriously cancelled. Seven leading Tunisian figures including the head of the Union of Tunisian Journalists are on a hunger strike to demand greater freedom of speech in their own country while they have the world's attention.

The threat to the internet as a self-administering organisation has not happened overnight. Other governments have long disliked that it is run by an American non-profit organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), created and is ultimately supervised by the US Department of Commerce. No surprise there: as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote recently in the Washington Post, "it would be naive to expect [other] governments not to take an interest" in who runs the internet.

In practice, however, the US Government has let ICANN run itself, and that has given us the best of all possible worlds: independent, non-political management of the world's key information technology.

The small organisation based in the Los Angeles suburb of Marina del Rey has efficiently supervised the expansion of the internet over the past decade with no trace of prejudice or favouritism towards any country, and it only costs $15 million a year. But the good old days may almost be over.

Part of the problem resides in the US itself. The statute that created ICANN in 1998 (replacing an earlier internet-governing body that was also US-based) does allow for some international representation on the board of directors.

But that statute is only a few months away from expiry, and the Bush administration plans to replace it with a private for-profit corporation that would also be US-based and subject only to US law.

Meanwhile, the control freaks who abound in every government are trying to get a stranglehold on the internet by putting it under the control of the International Telecommunications Union, a body ultimately answerable to the UN. By a happy accident, what began as a US Defence Department project turned into a liberating technology that increased the flow of information in the world with practically no official supervision, but the management of the internet as we know it is caught in a pincer movement, and this story could have an unhappy ending.

Any vote taken at this week's symposium would not be binding on the US Government, which could continue with its plans to hand the management of the internet over to a private corporation.

However, dictatorships that are eager to isolate their citizens from "corrupting influences" from abroad, such as China, might use this as a pretext to create their own supervisory bodies with their own numerical codes and domain names. The internet would fragment, and the world would lose something precious.

The best outcome would be for the US Government to put its own plans to privatise ICANN on hold, while the 170 governments gathered in Tunis dodge a confrontation by appointing some international commission that spends the next decade considering alternative, more international ways of managing the web.

Meanwhile the weird little organisation in Marina del Rey could get on with its job, which it has been doing extraordinarily well, for many years to come.

Sometimes the best solution is no solution at all.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Philippa Stevenson: Superb deal for peat lakes

When it comes to saving the Waikato's significant but besieged peat lakes, the experts agree there is only one way to do it: prioritise.

The lakes may be internationally unique for having survived for 17,000 years, but the last 200 years of human interference has damaged the 40-odd lakes to such an extent that most are beyond saving with the paltry resources we allocate to such restoration projects.

Stop tinkering round the edges of the many, says the scientific consensus, and spend the limited funds on the few lakes that remain salvageable.

The good news is that in the last month some more funds have gone the way of peat lakes in the Waipa district.

In an interesting, possibly unique, deal, the regional council, Environment Waikato, and the Waipa District Council propose to simultaneously advance two environmental projects - one in the hills, the other in the plains lakes - with the same money.

The prospect of getting two bangs for a single buck arose after the Waipa council committed $1 million over 10 years to the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, which is putting a pest-proof fence round Maungatautari to create a mainland wildlife sanctuary.

The council's money is drawn from levies paid by developers of new subdivisions or businesses in Waipa and was to be paid to the trust at the rate of $100,000 a year. That rate proved a bit slow for the trust, which aims to finish the fence by next year in time for a major pest eradication programme.

To assist both the mountain and the lakes, the two councils had something of a swap meet. Using its natural heritage fund, Environment Waikato will now advance, in one hit, $650,000 to the trust for the fence.

In return, Waipa will "pay back" the loan by spending the same amount of money on five threatened peat lakes: Maratoto, Ngaroto, Mangakaware, Rotomanuka and Rotopiko (Lake Serpentine).

Waipa deputy chief executive Garry Dyet says the money, whose use will be overseen by the members of the Waipa peat lakes and wetland accord, is tagged for capital works. It will be used to buy land and to help establish protective covenants.

The accord, designed to restore and enhance Waipa lakes and wetlands, was signed in 2002 between the regional and district councils, the Department of Conservation, Fish & Game and Ngaa Iwi Toopu o Waipa.

Tony Roxbrough, a 30-year DoC veteran who worked on wetlands for the Waikato conservancy, has recently joined Waipa and will oversee the lakes' restoration.

The whole project looks very promising. It could even be the "win-win" claimed by Waipa Mayor Alan Livingston, who was delighted to point out that it would not cost his ratepayers anything extra.

"The fence will be built more quickly, and the peat lakes in our district will receive some serious environmental attention. It's really a very good result."

But things look less rosy when you come back to that little matter of priorities. Four of the lakes chosen for restoration figure high on scientists' lists of those worth saving for their ecological value and, importantly, our ability to restore them.

But Lake Ngaroto, while popular for recreation use despite its often toxic water, is considered by some to be too degraded to be successfully restored, especially from a thinly spread fund.

Catherine Smith, head of Acre, an advisory committee to Environment Waikato, questioned the choice of lakes.

"You've got to pick winners," she said.

Even Ngaroto's staunchest ally, Murray Dench, had no idea why it should be included in the targeted five.

"They've spent $1.2 million there and it's deteriorated. I can't see $650,000 doing much when it's got to be shared around five lakes."

Dyet and Roxbrough are much more optimistic about Ngaroto's chances. Dyet believes planting round the lake is helping, and closing off drains flowing from adjacent farmland will be another significant step.

And while one school of thought believes the only real effort put into the Waikato's peat lakes has been to monitor their decline, Roxbrough says the installation of weirs, setting of minimum lake levels, creation of buffer zones and studies of pest fish and plants are making a difference.

Paul Norris: Public asset in danger of losing its soul

The scriptwriters for the latest reality TV show, set in the studios of an infamous state broadcaster, would have been hard put to better the storylines of recent weeks - CEO walks out after tiff with meddlesome board; viewers in revolt against huge presenter salaries; court slams contract bungle; ratings gap opens up as viewers switch channels; millions of dollars of advertising revenue lost to competitors; and the final touch of farce - Judy Bailey returns to find her wardrobe sold off.

Truly, truth can be stranger than fiction.

Of course there are those who will lose no opportunity to attack TVNZ under any pretext. But some, politicians and commentators alike, are rushing to the judgment that the whole sorry saga simply shows the failure of Labour's policy of trying to revive TVNZ as a public broadcaster with a dual mandate to both deliver the broadcasting charter and maintain commercial performance. In the words of one critic, TVNZ cannot serve both God and Mammon.

This conclusion is wrong-headed. The dual remit is challenging but possible. The problems we have seen are failures of management and relationships, not inherent to the hybrid nature of the model.

Furthermore it can be argued that the very future of free-to-air television in New Zealand depends on making TVNZ work as a public broadcaster largely dependent on commercial revenue. There are ways forward, but neither Government nor TVNZ can afford to be fazed by the current shambles.

The Government can take some comfort from yesterday's annual report. Commercial performance strong enough to provide a dividend of $10.5 million and a substantial list of programmes to confirm that the charter is not a mere document with no impact on TVNZ's programming or culture.

But the annual report takes us only to the year ended June 30, 2005. Since then the ratings trend in key demographics has continued downwards. Ad revenue is also down, with TVNZ being driven to cut its advertising rates - something of a desperate measure.

There are signs of panic in the TVNZ camp. Within the last few days there has been a reining back of key charter programmes such as Mataku and the Festival documentary series. This move - which could be seen as the betrayal of charter ideals for the saving of small pieces of silver - sends entirely the wrong message to viewers, the production community and Government.

One can only speculate if this stems from a board placing too much emphasis on the commercial side of the remit, or from leaderless executives too mindful of bonuses linked to ratings success.

The whole point about the charter, and indeed public broadcasting, is that some programmes must be in the schedule for their social and cultural value, not for their contribution to revenue or market share.

It undermines the fine words in the annual report to learn that there is no commitment beyond 2006 to the Festival documentary series, which has seen such inspiring programmes as those on Colin McCahon, Michael King and David Lange.

As for the Government, if it is serious about the charter, it should rethink its determination to extract a dividend from TVNZ, despite it no longer being a state-owned enterprise driven primarily for profit. If TVNZ's revenue continues to decline the Government may have to support its public asset by increasing the level of public funding. Not requiring a dividend is one way of doing this.

Opposition politicians calling for a public inquiry on the basis that a public asset is losing value reveal their failure to understand the charter or public broadcasting. Commercial value must not be the only measure of success. Where is their assessment of public value, of the social and cultural benefits that accrue from public broadcasting?

Commercial value does become a key factor if the asset is to be sold, which is certainly the cry from some critics. TVNZ has botched the job so badly there is nothing for it but to cut the losses and privatise - effectively the final abuse of a public asset. No doubt there could be a ready sale to a Murdoch or a Packer, but does anybody imagine that, when the chips are down, such foreign moguls would put our public interest before the private interests of their shareholders?

Their commitment to New Zealand programmes and stories would depend on how much money they could extract from NZ On Air for commercial programmes. Do we really want a return to the late 90s when a thoroughly commercial TVNZ refused NZ On Air money even for documentaries?

There are ways forward. The boldest strategy would be to encourage the public broadcaster to demonstrate that it can create more public value, especially from the opportunities afforded by the digital future.

TVNZ has been working for some time to create a digital free-to-air platform, together with CanWest and Prime. Once such a platform is launched, many new channels will be possible, indeed desirable, as new channels are one reason why viewers switch to digital.

TVNZ could create a number of new channels of largely charter content. One might be a factual channel, with new international documentaries, minority programmes at accessible times, and repeats of factual programmes. Other channels could be targeted at children, drama and the arts, or lifestyle.

These new digital channels, free-to-air unlike those on Sky, could be non-commercial or with a low level of advertising. Their funding would rely either on new taxpayer funding (some $30 million to $50 million) or subsidy from TV One and TV2 perhaps under a new no-dividend policy, or some mix.

This strategy allows TVNZ's two main channels to continue much as at present, delivering some charter content without, in Ian Fraser's phrase, "screwing the business". But it then enables TVNZ to deliver much more charter and add considerable public value. The new digital channels could establish TVNZ in public broadcasting mode as not seen in the past 15 years.

Digital also allows TVNZ to ramp up its online presence, offering all kinds of interactive experiences and access to Video on Demand, meaning viewers could download recent or archived programmes. This too can be seen as adding public value to its mainstream activities and delivering on the charter in another form.

So here is a vision for TVNZ to move on from its present troubles and rejuvenate its mission as a commercial public broadcaster. As with any vision, it requires leadership, staff support and commitment.

As a first step, the Government needs to move fast on two fronts.

First, crack the whip to get the digital platform launched. Second, appoint a new chairperson to the TVNZ board.

The present chairman, Craig Boyce, is due to depart next April, but the search for a new CEO requires that a new chair be put in place without delay, as any incoming CEO must know who he/she will be working to.

Above all, it will be absolutely vital that both chair and CEO know what TVNZ is for. It is not just another commercial broadcaster. It is a public asset to be used for public purposes. Let them both swear to this, that the blood let in recent days may not be shed in vain.

* Paul Norris is the head of the Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology.

David Skilling: Full steam ahead into tricky overseas waters

The New Zealand economy has generated strong economic growth over the past 15 years, with growth rates higher than in previous decades and that compare well against countries such as Australia and the United States.

The challenge now is to build on this and to look ahead to the sources of economic prosperity: to move from good performance to great performance.

This is a significant challenge because, despite strong recent economic growth, New Zealand's per capita income ranks 21st out of 30 OECD countries and remains over a quarter lower than in Australia. New Zealand's per capita income is well below the OECD average because labour productivity (the amount of value produced for each hour worked) is just 79 per cent of the OECD average, which more than offsets the relatively high level of hours worked per capita.

And it is not clear that the present course and speed will deliver economic growth over the next 15 years at the level generated over the past 15 years. This is because key drivers of recent growth are not sustainable at their current levels.

Two-thirds of the economic growth generated since 1990 has been due to growth in hours worked, as unemployment has reduced and labour force participation has risen.

Only one-third has been due to labour productivity growth. Our productivity growth rate of 1 per cent over the past 15 years is in the bottom quartile of OECD countries.

Indeed, the country has only maintained its relative income position since 1990 by working more hours to almost exactly offset its declining relative labour productivity level. This is not a sustainable way to proceed.

This means that the way in which growth has been generated since 1990 will not be sufficient to deliver the type of economic future that many people aspire to, characterised by high and growing incomes and world-class opportunities. Having the lowest rate of unemployment in the OECD is cause for celebration, but New Zealand now needs to build on this achievement by raising labour productivity.

Substantially higher labour productivity growth will be required just to maintain economic growth rates at their average rate since 1990. And to move into the top half of the OECD by 2020 will require additional labour productivity growth.

These are demanding goals in the context of historical productivity performance. But the good news is that countries such as Ireland, Finland and Australia have turned in performances at these levels over the past 15 years.

New Zealand needs to chart a course between complacency and fatalism.

We cannot afford to become complacent on the back of our recent strong economic performance, because it cannot be sustained. Neither should we adopt the fatalist view that achieving demanding productivity goals is beyond us. Other small countries have demonstrated that it is possible to do this.

The key question, then, is what are the priorities for action to generate this improvement in labour productivity growth? Why is New Zealand's income level still so much lower than in most other OECD countries? One obviously distinctive feature of New Zealand is its combination of a small domestic market and remoteness from other major markets.

There is a well-documented link between the effective size of a market and productivity. And so there is good reason to believe that the relatively small scale of the local market has acted to persistently constrain labour productivity growth.

That small scale reduces the incentive of firms to invest and means that some types of economic activity are not feasible here.

A lack of scale also reduces the intensity of competition, lessens specialisation and means that there is less scope for productive firms to grow. This is an important reason why the policy reforms have not led to even greater economic gains than they have.

In this context, expanding the effective size of the market through increased international economic activity, in terms of firms exporting and investing abroad, becomes vitally important in achieving substantially higher productivity growth. The domestic market is too small to generate and sustain significantly higher growth rates without a much greater proportion of national income coming from international activity.

Of course, increasing growth is about getting many things right, including addressing issues around infrastructure, savings, tax, education and so on. But policies that increase the efficiency of the domestic economy need to be coupled with a clear focus on international engagement so that the productivity gains from domestic policy changes can be leveraged across a much larger market.

As we have seen over the past 15 years, policy change without an increase in international activity does not deliver the sustained productivity growth needed.

The key to substantially raising labour productivity, then, is to take the economy to the world. We have spent the past 20 years increasing the efficiency of the domestic economy. But in order to move the economy forward over the coming decades, we will need to take it to the world and work towards having many more firms competing successfully in international markets.

The priority now is to substantially increase the extent of New Zealand's international economic activity. Efforts are under way in this area, but they are not sufficient.

The vital importance of this issue to our economic future, combined with the low level of international economic activity, means that additional action and real seriousness of purpose are required from business and the Government.

* Dr David Skilling is the chief executive of the New Zealand Institute, a think-tank comprising business, community and education leaders.

Michele Hewitson: Top prize for no-thrills TV

The Qantas telly awards were to be held in a spirit of togetherness, hosts Jason Gunn and Petra Bagust told us at the start. This was equal opportunity celebrity television. So we had Gunn from TVNZ, Bagust the "showpony" from TV3 and Charlotte Dawson from Prime out the back doing the interviews with the winners.

"If anything happens backstage, even if it's fisticuffs, we want to know first," said Bagust. It's hard to imagine who else would have been interested in what happened backstage, because exactly nothing happened.

Dawson got to interview Robyn Malcolm who won the Readers' Choice Award for female telly personality (personalities are only banned at TVNZ when they're on the news, apparently) and best actress.

She seemed a bit distracted but then she was about to have a baby any minute. If she'd had it that minute we might have seen some drama.

Marc Ellis won the Readers' thing for favourite bloke. He was either stunned to hear this - he was gazing off into the middle distance - or he was valiantly trying not to perve at Charlotte's impressive cleavage. I know I was having the same difficulty.

So, not a lot happening there, then. But we got to see it not happening first. It makes sense, on paper, I suppose, to televise telly awards. But this has all been attempted before and despite Charlotte's cleavage it hasn't got any less boring to watch.

Playing count the references to the long-running soap playing at TVNZ helped pass the time. Janet McIntyre said, "it's not all bad at TVNZ," an effort which came second only to Ellis' attempt.

There was a joke, by Oliver Driver, about how he was going to wear something like what Jaquie Brown was wearing but they sold it. That was a crap joke.

I do want to know, though, why Bagust changed outfits near the end. There's a crap joke in there too. There was a Woman-Yelling-at-Her-Kids joke. "It's not about ratings," said Bagust. No, you can see that it couldn't be.

Neighbours at War (TV2, Wednesdays, 9.30pm) will likely rate. It is also on the cards that there will be fisticuffs at some stage. God only knows what possesses people to go on these shows.

They shouldn't be encouraged. We've seen Ray, who likes to be known as Ray-Mow, because he runs a lawn mowing business, and his son, who have taken to drilling holes in fencing so they can rig surveillance cameras, erecting steel alloy panels on said fencing to stop the neighbours being able to see them, following the neighbour to attempt to prove that she's at the pub all day (she wasn't) and so on and on in drearily mad fashion.

The police has been involved and warned Ray to cut it out. This seems unlikely.

We also met the D'Souza family, who are from Goa, whose neighbours are from the Punjabi region. People from this region are very noisy, the D'Souzas told us. These neighbours make "unacceptable, intolerable" noise. What do they do? Well, when one of the kids goes to the toilet, he shouts something in Hindi which means "I've finished my pooh job." Also, the father has a very loud, very annoying laugh. And they have parties.

These parties are noisy because they get the pressure cooker going, and they grind spices.

These neighbours sensibly declined to appear. Shame really, I would have liked to have heard that laugh.

The telly awards might have been boring but Neighbours at War - which is what the telly types are the rest of the year - is just too depressing to watch.

Even more depressing than the fact that in this country Jason Gunn, who is cheesier than one of those cheese balls that passed for cuisine in the 70s, passes for a television celebrity.

Bill McCormick: Meaning lost in translation

The new American ambassador to New Zealand meditates on a little linguistic difficulty and a steep learning curve

Wow, what a rollercoaster first few days. I can see immediately that one of the best things about this job is the lessons I'll get to learn along the way.

Lesson one: Both countries speak English, but American and Kiwi are two different languages.

I made a few comments in my first few days here which didn't seem to land as I had anticipated.

It seems when I said, "The ball's in your court", many Kiwis heard, "The US doesn't care about the relationship ... The US are not going to make any moves on this ... It's up to you fix any problems in the relationship."

That is not what those words mean to me.

I also believe it would be useful for both countries if, together, we were able to create a new future for the relationship - a future free from the echoes of the past and always looking forward.

I fully recognise that such a shift would take some rethinking by both countries.

For my part, I am convinced that the relationship is worth engaging in that kind of rethinking, but that is not something New Zealand can or should be forced into.

I wanted to underscore my predecessor's suggestion that both countries could choose to create an improved relationship dynamic that would carry us into the future. But I also wanted to make it clear that the US is not going to push New Zealanders into that.

I would like to hear what New Zealanders have to say. Kiwis are renowned for their creativity and innovation. I would like to hear your suggestions for overcoming our differences.

But first steps first. The US has said it is interested in creating a forward-looking, strategic relationship with New Zealand, so now we're asking if New Zealanders are interested in the same thing. That's what I meant when I said, "the ball's in your court".

I agree with Prime Minister Helen Clark that we enjoy a very close relationship. For example, in the very short time I have been here I have spoken many times about how much we appreciate New Zealand's participation in the rebuilding of Iraq and the work you have done in Afghanistan.

Please let me say it again. Thank you. The US values New Zealand's contribution. The wider coalition of countries values New Zealand's contribution.

Most importantly of course, New Zealand's contribution is valued by the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope they will allow me to take the liberty of saying thank you from us all.

I also agree with the Prime Minister that dwelling on our disagreements is not the most productive way forward.

But we can't ignore our differences - unless we can discuss them we'll never understand why we disagree nor understand the value those differences might have for both of us.

I am a guest in your country and I see it as my job here to continue to celebrate our friendship and delight in all the things we accomplish together.

I also need to work with you to lay a foundation for our relationship 20 or 30 years from now. In doing both, I will not take the friendship of New Zealanders for granted.

Maybe this whole experience simply demonstrates that we need to enhance our common language and our common bonds for the uncommon times in which we live.

I want to spend a lot of time listening to Kiwis before I develop and share my vision for the relationship.

During my tenure here you have my solemn promise that I will do all that I can to make our already strong relationship even stronger.

Talkback: TV unites to cash in on gong shows

It is the season for awards and last weekend the television industry patted itself on the back.

The Qantas Television Awards are a new venture by the free television industry and illustrate that, despite the daily competitive battles between them, the networks understand the value of celebrating success together.

The awards were shown on TV One on Saturday night to an audience of more than 200,000 people, some of whom would have voted in the four Woman's Day Readers' Choice Awards.

This year was the first time news and current affairs had been joined by the other mainstream programme genres such as drama, entertainment, comedy, reality, sport and information.

In other words, all sectors of the television production industry were competing against each other for honours.

More than 400 entries were received from which 31 winners were chosen by about 50 judges (including four leading Australian television heavyweights).

For the awards ceremony and TV show, three of the most powerful brands in New Zealand (TV One, TV2 and TV3) combined with the newer names in the business (Prime and C4).

So, in marketing terms, why would fierce competitors get together and agree to share their patch? Where is the value to them? And why have the three companies making up the Television Broadcasters' Council agreed to rotate televising of the awards event itself?

The answer to the first question is simple.

The production and broadcasting of New Zealand-made programmes is expensive and risky and it's in everyone's interests to invest in the success of this large area of the industry. Awards help to raise standards.

Local shows perform really well against imported competition. So far this year, 11 of the top 20 shows among people aged 18 to 54 were New Zealand-made.

Off the Rails is the outstanding example of a show with an absolutely local feel which resonates with the TV One audience, and Fair Go and Shortland Street continue to bring pleasure to many. On TV3, Downsize Me was a real success, showing the value of tapping into a high-profile issue in an informative way.

So where is the value to the broadcasters? The most significant investment made by broadcasters is in local content production and building audience support for these thousands of hours is central to their commercial success.

The sale of prime time commercial airtime to advertisers provides their central source of revenue. The commercial value of a programme depends on the audience a show is expected to draw and the more viewers a series builds up the more attractive it is to advertisers.

We want New Zealand-made shows to be really successful, encouraging even more local production.

For all the talk about the impact of fragmentation, interactivity and new consumer products, the mass audience cannot be provided to advertisers with the same potent sales and marketing power of free television.

So to the third question: why are the networks rotating the Qantas Television Awards, having started with TV One?

This decision underlines the industry commitment to the awards. The awards themselves are intended to be a long-term part of our television scene but putting them on screen represents an extra investment of airtime. Sharing that broadcast around the broadcasters enables each of them to take ownership of the show while reinforcing the collective character of the awards.

Last Saturday, Petra, Jason and Charlotte were the highly visible personalities from TVNZ, TV3 and Prime working together but appearing on TV One.

Next year, TV3 plans to host the show and again it will seek to reflect the character of the awards through its presenters.

What better way for an industry to entertain its audience and delight its advertisers?

* Bruce Wallace is executive director of the NZ Television Broadcasters Council.

Editorial: Decision more than just a fine

There is more than a whiff of irrationality about the demands we place on foreigners who wish to buy land in this country.

New Zealanders can buy a pristine block near Queenstown and develop it any way they want, for good or for bad, within planning rules. Yet a foreigner wishing to gain consent to buy the same property must file a development plan chock-full of goodies that suggest the purchase will benefit New Zealand.

Further, as Atlanta businessman Lance Weller has discovered, the overseas investment rules include penalties if that commitment is not honoured.

Weller said he would develop a chestnut orchard and a Douglas fir plantation. Instead, in three years, his property witnessed only roading and foundation work for a luxurious holiday home. Then he sold the land, making a $1 million profit. For this, he has become the first person convicted of breaching rules for foreign investors. In Queenstown District Court, under the forerunner of the 2005 Overseas Investment Act, he was fined $17,000 for non-compliance with the conditions of the purchase consent.

Scorn has been poured on the level of the fine. It should not be. The conviction puts foreign investors on notice, as do the far tougher penalties in the new act and the heightened scrutiny of the Overseas Investment Office.

The office says it has about 30 investigations under way in Auckland and the southern lakes area. Those convicted of non-compliance can now be fined up to $300,000 (a ten-fold increase on the old law) and face up to 12 months in prison. Alternatively, they could lose the entire profit made on their investment, and the High Court can order the disposal of property.

It is easy to see why the Government acted. The likes of Lance Weller could cause considerable embarrassment.

For reasons of nationalism, if no other, people are wary of the activities of foreign investors. As much was highlighted during the sale of Young Nicks Head.

It surfaced again when Shania Twain sought to buy two high country stations near Wanaka. A prolonged process resulted in the singer committing to a $1.6 million farm management programme and public access, including the development of a tramping track, that was undeniably of national benefit - and much more than would have been delivered by all but the most altruistic of New Zealand buyers.

Yet if we are to have such rules, they should be policed. The Government impressed this point on the Overseas Investment Office when the new act came into force in August. The task has been made much easier by the legislation's requirement for foreign investors to report annually (through a statutory declaration) for five years on how they have complied with the terms of their consent.

This is important. The Overseas Investment Act may have heightened the monitoring of foreign buyers and increased the penalties for those who err, but its aim was not to deter overseas investment. On the contrary, the main objective was to encourage such investment, partly through reduced compliance costs.

Central to the Government's thinking was the growth benefits that foreign investment brings, through the likes of job creation, new technology and export receipts.

The task for the Overseas Investment Office, therefore, is to maintain a welcoming approach to foreign investors while ensuring compliance. It is a balancing act of sorts. But it is a balance the regulator seems ready to strike. For the benefit of all.