Thursday, February 23, 2006

Sideswipe

A cat piano and a Speights billboard at a Grey Lynn/Ponsonby intersection.

By Ana Samways

The offensive issue: One person's funny is another's outrage.

Warning: Likely to offend people with cats, PETA and the SPCA. In the 17th century, a musician trying to cheer up an Italian prince created this cat piano. (above) The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike into the appropriate cat's tail. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. (Source: cynical-c.com)

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Warning: Likely to offend the gay community (the explanation of the billboard should offend anyone with a brain). Putting this billboard (above) up at a Grey Lynn/Ponsonby intersection echoes the old expression, "Backs to the wall - faggots on the crawl" says GayNZ.com. A Speights spokesman explains: "This is in reference to a southern man's tips for keeping your eyes peeled and being aware when you come to a big city. A country man's first visit to the city can be an intimidating thing and this billboard just jokes about them keeping their eyes open for any trouble. It's a survival technique - the southern man would rather have a wall behind him, so that any potential trouble comes from the front." Yeah right.

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Warning: Likely to offend journalists. Newmarket Business Association spinner Cameron Brewer generously supplied the Herald with unsolicited pap quotes to insert into our coverage of Bill Clinton's visit, just in case the former President buys some socks in Newmarket. Brewer penned the following for our "exclusive" use.

1. "America has a special place in Newmarket's heart and unlike Winston Peters we would love the opportunity to show Bill Clinton our appreciation for his country's role in the Pacific," said Cameron Brewer, head of the Newmarket Business Association.

2. "We would love to get the stars and stripes back out on Broadway. Newmarket is the spiritual ground for any visiting American."

Editorial: Irving ought to be freed, and ignored

Austria for much of history has been a tolerant, cultivated centre of European thinking, writing and music. It bears, like other nations of central Europe, a sorry stain on that heritage during the second quarter of last century. No doubt it is in the hope of assuaging that stain that Austria holds Holocaust denial to be a crime, and this week an Austrian court sentenced the discredited British historian David Irving to three years in prison for the crime of speaking his mind.

It is hard to think of a worse moment for a liberal European state to undermine one of the principles of Western freedom. The fires are still burning in the Islamic world over the misuse of press freedom by European newspapers who ran gratuitously offensive cartoons.

The continuing protests are out of all proportion to the offence caused but they underline the fact that right now Muslim societies are in a mood to seize and nurture any grievance the West may give them. They will note that no Western critic of those newspaper cartoons ever suggested the errant editors be brought before a court, let alone sentenced to jail.

David Irving and those who similarly study the Holocaust pose a particular problem of free speech. However dubious their scholarship - and Irving's was thoroughly condemned by the British court that heard his libel case in 2000 - no subject of history should be immune from critical reconsideration. Yet the response of Jewish organisations everywhere to any questioning of the historical account leaves little doubt that it is as deeply offensive to them as any racial or religious slur could be.

If "Holocaust denial" was simply what the term suggests, it would pose no problem to publishers or university administrators. The death camps discovered at the collapse of Hitler's Germany are beyond denial. But Irving and his ilk deny they are deniers. They question evidential details of the generally accepted account and say they do not doubt the greater truth that a Holocaust happened.

Irving was charged under an Austrian law which declares it a crime to diminish, deny or justify the Holocaust. He pleaded guilty to the charges, which arise from a speech he made 17 years ago, and said he had been mistaken in one contention - there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Offensive as that claim must have been to all Jews who lost relatives in that way just two generations ago, it is not a jailing offence. It is an offence to be met with evidence, reasoning and a fair degree of contempt for the error.

The risk in over-reacting to any offence is to generate sympathy for the offender. That is what prolonged protests against the Danish cartoons are in danger of doing to sympathy for Muslim sensitivities in the West. And that is what the prison sentence has begun to do for Irving. His lawyer, who intends to appeal against the sentence, says Irving was getting 300 items of supporting mail a week even while he was in custody awaiting trial.

Offensive speech, which can encompass printed matter and television programmes, has become a subject of moment, mainly because of tensions within the Islamic world. Jihadists are in need of examples of Western antagonism to Islam for their own purposes and those who deliver needless offence play into their hands.

Governments and media in liberal democracies need to keep their heads, recognise all religious sensitivities and deal with them as consistently as is possible in free and competitive societies.

To imprison somebody for uttering sentiments that are, incidentally, heard commonly in Islamic countries at loggerheads with Israel, sends the wrong message to the Muslim world, quite apart from the offence it gives to our codes of free speech. Irving should be released, and ignored.

Alexander Gillespie: Tolerating the trash is part of the freedom of speech

Garth George's carefully worded column, strongly critical of the decision by a private company to screen an offensive episode of South Park, is a fine example of why we need free speech, and not censorship.

George's contribution comes from his inability to recognise that if offence is the litmus test of what people should be allowed to say or not, then our society will rapidly descend to a point where either majorities or minorities end up dictating to other members of society what they should be allowed to read, watch and ultimately think.

This descent is the opposite of the Kiwi sense of decency and fair play on which George mistakenly thinks he has a monopoly. The fair and decent society is the one that allows free speech, and defends the right of people to think and say what they believe, and restraints are based upon physical threat, not moral upset.

Over the past year we have witnessed the whirlpool of a debate that began with the murder of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who was critical of some alleged Islamic practices. The response to this slaying was the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten asking illustrators to make drawings of Muhammad. The rest is history.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand, we are assured that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are deeply offended by the South Park episode, that domestic economic embargoes will follow the screening, and that those who choose to watch the episode not only have a retarded IQ and social development, but they have also abused the right of a free press.

The only connection between the South Park episode and the cartoons that originated in Denmark is that both involve highly offensive material. However, George is of the view that the Danish cartoons are only a mild lampooning of Islam's founder whereas the cartoons which have offended him are of a much more serious nature.

Exactly how he comes to this conclusion and determines that the offence that he has taken from the South Park cartoon is greater than his Islamic neighbour has taken from the Danish cartoons, is a mystery.

The joy of the above situation for both audiences is that they have agreed on a common solution. This solution is easy to reach as both have been offended by the respective cartoons before them - but often not each other's.

That solution is censorship, whereby such offensive material should be prevented from entering the public space.

Unfortunately, the support for this view is growing. It is unfortunate because censorship is the antithesis of freedom. The Western World is rightfully obsessed with individual freedom because it has taken more than 1000 years to crawl out of the quagmire of the Dark Ages, when liberty was only for those in power.

Deep in the Western psyche are the memories of countless despots who have tried to control what people can say, think and do.

The leaders of monarchies, religions and ideologies have all taken their turn, telling others what is permissible, and punishing those who have dissented and have tried to turn their freedom of thought into freedom of speech.

The Western tradition has shown that fear and censorship are much easier to implement than living with free speech and the challenge of accountability. Millions have been, and continue to be, targeted because of the offence caused by their religious, ideological, sexual and social views, or simply because of their stupidity or humour.

Under the guise of free speech, citizens in the West burn their national flags, sell pornography and live in a sea of intercultural criticism. Western citizens used to utilise free speech for blasphemy, but in their modern secular world blasphemy is now an historical footnote, although the same idea is beginning to reappear under the generic label of offence.

The best use of free speech in the West is when it is used to attack those in authority, but those in authority do not like to be mocked.

We are currently seeing a reflection of this control in Britain, with its Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005. This legislation banned protest without permit within 1km of Parliament.

The first conviction under the Act was last December when Maya Evans was convicted for reading the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the Iraq War, under the Cenotaph, without police permission.

In a perfect world, the debate about free speech would revolve around weighty items of central importance to democracy being contested in an open marketplace of ideas, from which truth would emerge.

Unfortunately, the great majority of that which demands the loudest to be protected, is rubbish with few redeeming features to anyone except those who spoke it.

The cartoons at the epicentre of the current debates are a perfect example of such trash. They have minimal value, and the troubles they have caused far outweigh the papers they were printed upon, or the pictures that were broadcast.

But those troubles do not outweigh the right that allows the printing or viewing to take place. The difficulty for most people in the Western World, is that they can understand the position of those who would like others censored. What is one person's rubbish, is another person's gold.

In the West, we have learned to live with the rubbish, not because we like trash, but because we have spent 1000 years dealing with others trying to clean out our minds, and replace it with what they think is appropriate.

Free speech laws reflect this situation, but not the basic values of good manners, respect or tolerance. The values of good manners, respect and tolerance are the etiquette that allows people to possess rights, without pursuing them to their absolute limits.

The majority of people in New Zealand and elsewhere would not have recommended the printing of the Danish cartoons or the screening of the South Park episode as they disapprove of their content.

However, this majority will still strongly defend their right to print or broadcast such material, trash or not.

* Alexander Gillespie is a professor in the school of law at the University of Waikato.

Dr John Salmon: University's role in changing world

Social research should acknowledge the values that drive it, said Dr John Salmon in this address to the University of Auckland's Commencement Service yesterday

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The place and status of the university is being contested today. We are living and working in a tertiary environment crammed with a range of very different kinds of institutions, all vying for the right to provide education at post-secondary level, all competing for fees and public funding, and all claiming a contribution to the tertiary education of New Zealand and the right to influence New Zealand life.

Over centuries, universities have helped each generation to enter into and provide leadership for the particular society in which they are set. But we face a different situation now. Our contemporary society - that cluster of interactions and expectations and behavioural styles that is often referred to as postmodern - poses considerable challenges to the culture and assumptions of the university as an educational model and social institution.

In this setting, fewer people settle for socialisation into the traditions of society. In any case, the diversity of cultural patterns and group perspectives makes such socialisation an impossible and inappropriate task for any single institution.

And the perspectives of postmodernity challenge in other ways as well: The "uni" in university no longer names the nature of knowledge or study in a fragmented and diverse world. Transmission of information is not what we understand as the essence of education today.

Theory and practice are increasingly understood as inter-connected and reliant on each other. Value and spirit cannot be excluded from data and research. So, what is it to be a university in this setting?

So-called old universities, like Oxford University or the University of Auckland, are finding this challenge especially hard.

A central piece of re-positioning undertaken by universities like the University of Auckland has been to stress the importance of research-based teaching. That has become a defining characteristic of the university amongst other tertiary bodies.

Research-based teaching is a clear and relevant way of claiming a distinctive mark of this kind of institution in the wider contested market-place. In doing so and taking account of the style of society in which we are now operating I suggest there are some key things that warrant careful consideration.

Like many others, I am convinced that values are a part of both research and teaching. It is widely agreed these days that research is not value-free, but reflects the interests and perspectives of those who engage in it and those who promote or fund it. Let's acknowledge what those values are, so that we do not pretend they are not present.

Further, it assists the larger learning process if the value-questions are clearly engaged with along with the research data and their implications.

That is not a matter, I believe, of mixing morals and method and making what are commonly understood as moral judgments about research. Rather, it is a matter of carefully thinking through the range of implications, issues, and priorities associated with any research project and teaching programme, and declaring those and opening them to discussion.

All research, no matter how abstract or theoretical in form, has flow-on effects in practice.

Both individual and social living are affected by our research, even at if at an unseen distance.

A major focus these days is in the economic flow-on, the relevance of particular research areas for business and for economic growth. This readily ends up influencing the kind of research that is fostered and the range of implications drawn from that research.

I would hope we can see further than that. In our teaching function, it seems to me that contemporary society expects exploration of the links between research materials and everyday social living.

This includes the way groups of different backgrounds can learn to live with each other (and the current debate over published cartoons and religious values and sensibilities highlights this) without focusing dominantly on economic values.

I think we owe it to students to expose and explore those links, and not assume that we are being more faithful to university research principles by staying with the data itself, or the theory itself, or the text itself, without considering its place for persons living in and with the complex issues that face us in society today.

None of that is easy. I would want to underline the need for an ongoing reconsideration of what constitutes a university and what constitutes effective and relevant research-based teaching.

It might be that our discipline boundaries provide serious barriers to more effective holistic learning, and that joining historical insights with business skills, or philosophical perspectives with engineering principles, might well enhance the way in which values are being assessed and practical outcomes are being explored.

Relevant university teaching is certainly about ensuring that what we undertake is education, and not simply the passing on of information, not matter how important or well-researched.

It is about looking towards insight and wisdom and the formation of persons who are able to contribute in our world. Research is critical: so is ensuring that research is fostered and used in ways that shape our social relationships and infrastructure and not solely for financial benefit or the needs of business and the economy.

The university thus has the possibility of either contributing to positive social change or building a climate of fear of change. Either way, universities do have influence in society, and need to be held accountable for that influence. This calls for an ongoing two-way critical relationship between the university and all sectors of society.

I would suggest that an outcome might be to see the university as working towards shaping a society that reflects and engages a changing and complex world. Its role, I think, is properly to stimulate reflection, to provoke new thinking, and to lead change toward positive futures in a challenging time.

* Rev Dr John Salmon is an educational philosopher, has lectured in theology and ethics, and is President of the Methodist Church of New Zealand

Irfan Yusuf: Guantanamo a blot on US image

In January, I toured three Indonesian cities as part of a delegation sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Institute. I visited the American Corner at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

The Corner is a public relations initiative of the US Embassy in Jakarta, consisting of a largish classroom containing a range of books, magazines and other materials about American life and culture in both English and Indonesian.

A particular focus is placed on the status of America's large Muslim minority. Copies of the glossy American Muslim magazines and books authored by Arab and Muslim Americans were prominently displayed. The Corner sought to provide students with a view of American interactions with Muslims that contradict popular Indonesian perceptions.

Not that Indonesian media are exceptionally anti-American, nor blindly towing the line of the pro-US Indonesian Government.

But Indonesians we spoke to from all walks of life were united in their condemnation of one American policy: the continued detainment, often without charge, of some 500 terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite attempts at opening communication channels across Indonesia, the White House's refusal to come clean on the extent of torture and mistreatment of Guantanamo prisoners is winning few friends even among otherwise friendlier Muslim communities.

The latest 54-page UN report on conditions at the Guantanamo facility will not help America's cause in the region. The report, prepared by five investigators from the UN Human Rights Commission, calls for its closure without delay.

As expected, the White House rejects the report's findings. It questions the veracity of the report's claims, arguing that investigators did not accept an invitation to visit the facility. But given the US' refusal to allow them unfettered access to inmates, it is little surprise UN investigators were not part of a highly censored and sanitised inspection.

Allegations of torturing prisoners corroborate statements already given by British former detainees and by released Australian detainee Mamdouh Habib. It is possible Mr Habib's allegations will be tested by a court should he bring proceedings against the Australian Government.

It isn't just former detainees with complaints. The recently released book of former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, was nowhere to be seen at the American Corner.

Yee's dealings with detainees and guards led him to believe that a large proportion of prisoners had little if any relation to terrorism. As soon as he made noises to this effect, Yee found himself the subject of officially spread innuendo and eventually trumped-up charges of spying.

He was also accused of adultery and downloading pornography on to military computers.

Following eight months of high profile detention and investigation that destroyed Yee's career and marriage, all charges against him were dropped without explanation.

Yee was imprisoned at the order of Major General Geoffrey Miller, who later became embroiled in the first prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

Reviewing Yee's book, Norman Abjorensen wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that it is difficult to read Yee's account without a rising sense of anger and injustice. The book, Abjorensen continues, brings into sharp focus the inhumane monstrosity that is Guantanamo Bay.

In Australia, at least one South Australian family hopes the UN report will focus attention on one of their own. David Hicks has been imprisoned at the facility since 2002.

Last November, former Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale called for Mr Hicks to be released and if necessary tried in Australia.

Mr Howard refused her request, reaffirming his commitment to the Guantanamo Military Commission process. The Prime Minister claimed he'd received advice that even if Mr Hicks was returned to Australia, he could not be charged under Australian law.

He was reported as saying: "We do not intend to pass retrospective criminal laws. That would represent a very significant regressive move, and it would violate the basis of our criminal justice system."

Within weeks, his Government passed some of the most draconian anti-terror laws containing more retrospective elements than one could poke a stick at.

Canberra's lacklustre concern for the welfare of an Australian citizen is in sharp contrast to the stringent lobbying efforts of the UK and other Western countries with nationals detained at the facility.

It also sharply contrasts with the Government's robust involvement in the welfare of convicted Australian drug smugglers facing death row. It is a disgrace that the Hicks family could end up receiving more support from the United Nations than from their own Government.

Even lawyers appointed by the US military to represent the detainees have stated the Guantanamo military commissions are mere kangaroo courts. Their ultimate result will be a continuing injustice. And as the UN report illustrates, unless the facility is closed altogether, justice will ultimately be denied.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.

Ted Lapkin: Deterrent force of prison camp is all that militants understand

It is a simple truth of human nature that those who reward anti-social behaviour will end up getting more of it. The feebler the penalty paid for past atrocities, the flimsier the deterrent against future acts of barbarity.

This principle must surely guide us in our dealings with jihadist Islam, where experience dictates that the stick is a far more appropriate tool than the carrot. Those who argue for a softer and gentler approach towards al Qaeda terrorism are engaged in an enterprise of fools. To advocate the closure of Guantanamo Bay is to provide passive encouragement for those who plot the next suicide bombing.

Radical Islam does not recognise the concepts of compromise, comity or conciliation. The only language understood by Palestinian jihadists in Ramallah and their Iraqi counterparts in Fallujah is the violent dialect of total victory or total vanquishment.

But the self-righteous antics of the anti-war Left are providing sorely needed aid and comfort to the holy warriors of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda network.

The existence of debate over the fate of al Qaeda prisoners will earn Western society no brownie points with Osama bin Laden. Jihadist Islam views the voices of democratic dissent as evidence of an effete and decaying culture that has lost the will to defend itself. Any evidence of Western irresolution only tends to buttress al Qaeda's resolve.

The savage domestic criticism of Bush Administration policies has convinced the jihadists that they must simply hang on a bit longer until the infidels' morale finally cracks.

Such delusions of al Qaeda grandeur are dangerous, not because radical Islam has any real chance to triumph over the democratic world. But these hallucinations serve to buttress enemy morale, thus prolonging the terrorist conflict that is being waged against us. The anti-war ideologues who encourage the jihadists to place their trust in Western weakness bear substantial responsibility for the unnecessary perpetuation of this carnage.

The closure of Guantanamo's Camp Delta would send precisely the wrong signal on both the macro and the micro levels. From the grand strategic perspective, such a move would signal that the US could be successfully pressured to surrender its national security interests. The ululations of jihadist jubilation that would echo from rooftops throughout the Islamic world would attract legions of new followers to the radical cause.

On an individual level, each of those recruits would feel much more eager to volunteer in a world without Gitmo than in an environment where Camp Delta was still operational. The Geneva Conventions limited the scope of their protections solely to legal combatants for good reason: the drafters of those treaties wanted to encourage lawful warmaking and to discourage war crimes.

David Hicks and his fellow detainees were captured in an active combat theatre while fighting for a movement that violates every tenet of international law. No clause of the Geneva Conventions requires the application of that treaty's terms to irregular jihadists who see the beheading of hostages as a legitimate battle tactic.

We must be tough on the war criminals of today to dissuade the war criminals of tomorrow. Only thus do we stand any chance of deterring the next Beslan massacre, London train bombing or 9/11.

And to this end we must retain a powerful weapon in our deterrent arsenal: the promise that those who fight as illegal combatants will wind up in Guantanamo rather than enjoying prisoner of war commissary privileges. If the prospect of being tried before a military commission disheartens even a single potential al Qaeda recruit, then the Bush Administration's policy is well justified.

* Ted Lapkin is Director of Policy Analysis at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

Brian Fallow: Let's use what we have first

Chances are New Zealand taxpayers and electricity consumers will end up bailing out Origin Energy's Australian shareholders from a risky investment their company made little more than a year ago.

I came out of Monday's press briefing on the proposed merger of Origin and its subsidiary, Contact Energy, with the uneasy feeling that we are being hustled further down the path to a future in which electricity prices are driven by an ever more costly imported fuel - liquefied natural gas.

Prominent among the reasons advanced for supporting the merger is "the ability to better manage the strategic challenges that Contact Energy faces in a fuel-scarce New Zealand".

Excuse me? When did New Zealand become fuel scarce? By the standards of the island continent perhaps, but we still have at least eight billion tonnes of coal in the ground and no shortage of windy hilltops.

What they mean, of course, is that a crunch is looming in natural gas supplies from about 2011, unless a lot more is found soon - a problem for Contact which has invested heavily in gas-fired electricity generation.

Origin, of course, knew that when it bought Edison Mission's controlling stake in Contact in October 2004.

Happily for Contact's shareholders - not only Origin but about 200,000 Kiwi minorities - state-owned Genesis Energy is in a similar hole.

And the Government has deepened that hole by providing Genesis with an insurance policy against there not being enough gas down the track, in order to approve its E3P combined cycle gas turbine plant to be built at Huntly.

That decision, no doubt, came as a relief in the boardrooms of Contact and Origin.

Contact has been clear the costs of building an infrastructure for LNG are likely to be too large for a single party like itself to bear alone.

It said the risks would need be spread across gas users, gas suppliers and the Government.

Underwriting E3P's gas supply risk could be seen as a shareholder assuming some risk to make a project bankable.

But it could also be seen as the Government intervening in a decision that should have been left to the market.

And having lost its virginity, so to speak, it may be more amenable to backing an LNG future, if only to avoid having that guarantee called on.

Contact and Genesis say the preferred outcome will be to find enough natural gas to keep their turbines spinning without recourse to LNG but that it is prudent to explore the option as a backstop.

Time is running out for discoveries that would avert the need to commit to LNG to run existing gas-fired plant.

Taking 2011 as the year in which new supplies must be on line and allowing a three-year lead time to build a regasification plant either in Taranaki or near Whangarei and the associated pipelines, a go/no-go decision would have to be made by 2008. So the companies are expected to begin the process of seeking resource consents this year.

The problem is that a decision to go for LNG is gravid with consequence not only for the two generators concerned, and their customers, but for the future of the electricity sector and the economy as a whole.

Even though the intention is to start with a facility to import 60 petajoules a year, roughly half of national demand, most likely that would be only the beginning.

LNG would establish squatter's rights, if you like, as the fuel of choice for future thermal generation. It would create a situation in which the marginal cost of expanding existing LNG facilities might well be lower than, say, extending the national grid down to Southland's vast lignite deposits.

Yet there are some reasons to dread an LNG-dependent future:

* We would be relying on an imported fuel for much of our electricity supply, a step backward in terms of national energy security.

* There would be an exchange rate risk.

* LNG is traded under long-term contracts but at prices linked to international oil prices. And they are only going one way: up.

* LNG prices would effectively set the wholesale price of electricity much of the time.

That is because of the way the wholesale electricity market works. The spot price is the price of the most expensive generation needed to satisfy demand in any given half-hour period. Much of the time that is from a thermal power station.

Industries alarmed by the (still live) prospect of a carbon tax flowing through to their power bills would contemplate without joy the potential level and variability of spot prices under LNG - such electricity would not come cheap.

The Ministry of Economic Development is in the process of updating these numbers but its most recent published estimate of the relative cost of different sources of electricity had wind power and South Island coal, even with a carbon tax, cheaper than LNG for the next 20 years.

Energy Minister David Parker has promised a national energy strategy to be put out for consultation later this year. The country faces big and fateful decisions: The choice between renewables and fossil fuels, and between domestic gas (if more is found), domestic coal and imported LNG.

The proponents of LNG dismiss coal, and especially lignite, as dirty and stranded at the wrong end of the country in terms of where the electricity load is. But it is still closer than Australian or Indonesian natural gas fields.

Because of climate change concerns, a lot of money is being spent around the world on clean coal technologies, including carbon capture and storage. The idea is that instead of sending carbon dioxide from a large point source like a coal-fired power station up a chimney you poke it into suitable geological structures underground or under the sea where you can be confident it will stay put.

It might not be economic to do that now but if you were to build large lignite-powered generation in the far south, it would make sense to future-proof it by designing it so that that technology could be incorporated later. At least the technical and commercial feasibility of that scenario should be explored as assiduously as LNG.

Likewise the cost of associated upgrading of the national grid and of ongoing transmission losses should be quantified so that they can be compared with the cost of LNG infrastructure.

Origin has more than 2200PJ of proven and probable gas reserves.

Phil Pryke, chairman of Contact's independent directors, may well be right that from the standpoint of the Contact minority shareholders it makes sense to spread the risks of LNG investment over a larger and more diversified company.

"If we ended up going down the LNG route, the ability in effect to hedge the gas cost in that environment within our own business is greatly enhanced, thus reducing the risk," he said. But what is good for the Contact minorities might nonetheless end up foreclosing what are, from a national point of view, better options.

Frances Grant: A quest for kids' drama

As one of the eminent New Zealanders calling for television to assume a more responsible public broadcasting role, children's author Margaret Mahy must be somewhat gratified that the medium, even in these days of full-blown commercial crassness, has managed to produce a significant dramatisation of one of her books.

Maddigan's Quest, an adaptation of Mahy's children's novel Maddigan's Fantasia, is not even showing on the charter-obligated state network, but on TV3.

Still, a home-made children's drama is rare these days - this country, once a place where the kidult drama flourished, also produces such a welter of quality children and teen books, it's a crying shame such adaptations aren't done more often.

Like those movies which have been such a boost to the tourism industry, Maddigan's Quest makes good use of the stunning New Zealand scenery. It's hugely satisfying to see our landscape as an integral part of an indigenous production, rather than a picture postcard background for somewhere else.

At 493 pages, Mahy's book is something of an epic and the difficulties of kicking off such a tale, without the novel's advantage of getting inside characters' heads, are obvious. The story so far has been a bit of a bumpy ride, like the rough roads Maddigan's Fantasia is travelling.

A brave band of circus folk in a post-apocalyptic world, the Fantasia leave their home, the beautiful city of Solis, ostensibly to earn money and bring "joy" to the huddled groups and towns struggling to survive after the "Great Chaos".

But after her father is killed by thugs, young Garland Maddigan discovers the circus is in fact on a highly dangerous quest to reach another city and bring back a solar converter, essential to the future of Solis, an island of light and civilisation in a dark world. Like her mother, she is determined they will succeed.

Thrown into the mix are a couple of mysterious lads with a baby sister, seeking refuge with the circus. They are fugitives from a future Solis, hotly pursued by an evil uncle and dastardly robot-human hybrid.

Those who have read the book might have difficulty accepting pretty blonde actress Rose McIver as Garland, supposedly a fiery red-headed tomboy full of spunk and courage.

So far, McIver, isn't quite managing to convey her character's strength. But it is intriguing to see the teenage girl fashion for the bare midriff has - like the cockroaches, presumably - come through the apocalypse unscathed.

As in many kids' movie, such as the Harry Potter franchise, while the child actors struggle somewhat to bring their roles alive, the adult actors steal the show, revelling in their larger-than-life characters.

Michael Hurst, in particular, is fantastically OTT as an evil "cyborg with a human head" - a head which has not seen shampoo in many an eon.

And Geraldine Brophy was a hoot last week as the nasty matriarch of a band of ferals, folk who have a fair dash of orc in the bloodlines judging by the state of their dental work.

Some scenes, even by children's drama standards, require fairly hefty suspension of disbelief, such as the ferals being distracted from their hijacking of the Fantasia by a circus act which would make morris dancing with the Green Party a riveting night out.

But with 11 episodes to come, there's plenty of time for the story to hit its stride and McIver to really own her central role. We, meanwhile, are grateful for at least one major children's drama production, despite the apocalyptic years of television dictated solely by commercial imperatives. Not all was lost in the Great Chaos.

Talkback: Playing blame game when passion dies

By Robert Bree

If marketers and their agency partners are focused on business growth through strong customer connections, why is it they often fail to build strong, productive and lasting connections with each other?

Why is the client-marketing partner divorce rate so high and the length of relationship typically less than five years?

Is it related to the churn of senior marketers and/or their bosses? Do we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves before we point the gun at our agency or other partners?

Like marriages, client-agency relationships usually start well, full of optimism around working together and producing great results.

The changes that lead to the parting of ways are gradual and, when examined, are generally attributed to:

* Relationships. Quite simply, key people in the partnership aren't getting along, can't resolve their differences and this severely inhibits the productivity of the partnership.

* Outputs. The outputs of the agency don't meet expectations leading to delays, arguments and budget blow-outs.

* Results. Ultimately, marketers and their teams are held accountable for results. When they don't deliver the results expected then the pressure goes on to make changes.

Maybe disenchantment with the agency is a little bit like the gradual moderation of passions in the marital bed. And often, the problems that plagued the first relationship re-emerge in the new one.

I'd like to suggest that we are sometimes too quick to make our supplier-partners the scapegoat for some of our own shortcomings.

Take a look at the pitches for some of the big accounts. Didn't they just pitch last year or the year before?

If the real problem was an agency one then surely it was remedied with the last change? Will we see these same accounts up for grabs in a year or so?

Is it conceivable that the problems could have been internal with inexperienced or over-stretched marketers, ineffective strategy or lousy briefs? Have those problems been decisively dealt with?

We all know that appointing a new agency is a quick way to generate "profile" and some instant new energy. Fixing internal problems, personnel, strategy, briefing and delivering market connection is harder and takes longer.

Maybe we're too quick to start talking divorce and slow to grapple with the real issues. Maybe clients and agencies need to seek external help before thinking about moving on.

Maybe they should be getting help at the start of a new relationship so they can analyse the beliefs, attitudes and habitual behaviours that led to the last breakdown and ensure they don't carry them over into the new one.

For an agency perspective, I called Tom Davidson at Publicis Mojo. His advice to clients experiencing difficulties is: "Get a fix on all the issues the business faces; internal culture, products, innovation and communication before you fire the agency. A small investment upfront often avoids an expensive (and possibly counter-productive) agency review down the line."

Before you start thinking about parting ways, you might want to consider:

* Is your problem an advertising problem or is it more fundamental than that?

* Would you say that your people, strategy and subsequent briefings are first rate?

* Would your agency and other partners agree with you?

* How good is the work your agency is doing for its other clients?

* You want a great agency. Are you great client?

Your agency problems might reflect deeper ailments in your organisation that are affecting performance in several areas, so spend some quality time in addressing those problems first.

Get help if you feel you could benefit with someone objective in the mix. Then when you eventually do raise your concerns with your agency, you'll be on firmer ground and you might find you can solve the problem and save all parties a lot of grief and expense.

* Robert Bree, of Viso Cognito, is a growth solutions consultant. He can be contacted at: visocognito@xtra.co.nz