Hard News by Russell Brown


Not yet standing upright

I've never greatly liked our current national flag: it looks too much like Australia's, and the Union Jack is an anachronism. And yet, I have an abiding fascination with New Zealand national identity and the cultural nationalists who first began talking about such a thing. Ten years ago, I even published a book about it.

So in theory, I should have been a starter for a new New Zealand flag, one which reflects what we have forged here and our aspirations henceforth. One which demonstrates that we have indeed learned the trick of standing upright here.

And yet, yesterday, with the announcement of the final four flag designs, selected by the flag consideration panel from the longlist of 40 it had previously selected from more than 10,000 submissions, I just felt sad. After all this contemplation, we seemed to have wound up with what you'd get if you hadn't really thought about it.

Three of the four feature the silver fern, the emblem the Prime Minister has repeatedly told us he prefers (when he says "it's no secret" what he likes he's not joking) – and the one that various sportspeople who have worn the silver fern unsurprisingly appear to like when reporters ask the question. It's the one that might be top-of-mind after watching the sports news, or visiting the supermarket, where a range of products already feature versions of the fern, some of them strikingly similar to the proposed flag designs.

But the flags aren't really designs. The two Lockwood entries in particular are assemblages, almost the opposite of strong ideas. Moreover, they breach most of the principles of flag design outlined in the video from the New Zealand Designers Institute uploaded two months ago by the flag consideration panel itself. If you have a few minutes, please do watch the video:

It can hardly be a surprise that professional designers, who were not represented on the panel, are unimpressed.

Andrew Fyfe's koru stands out from the three fern finalists (although is, of course, a stylised version of a fern itself), but it's not even the best koru entered. Andrew Baker's Huinui/Together made the longlist and its invocation of the Treaty partnership, and Rangi and Papa, is attractive and meaningful. It also coheres with basic flag design principles.

I liked another Gordon Walters-esque entry, by Michael Smythe, although the colour palette could be a problem.

The significance of a Walters-inspired design might take a minute or two longer to explain than the silver fern, especially at a time when the fern is to be emblazoned on the breasts of a group of rugby players most of us hope will win the World Cup. (Where, by the way, most of us will be more moved by the haka than by our dirge of an anthem – even brightened as it has been in recent years by the addition of the far more pleasant Maori verse.)

One of the fern designs will win the first round of the public voting – the only real question is around turnout. It will then be put up against the existing flag, and on current polling may not win. Some people will vote for the current flag because they treasure it, others because they dislike the "new" one, or the process that has procured it. We won't know the details.

I'm not sure what to do. As I said at the top of this post, I don't greatly love the current flag. But I really don't want to endorse another hundred years under some bleak clip-art that seems to leave out Maori altogether, that seems to celebrate nothing so much as a lack of imagination.

I make no claim that these are the thoughts of my fellow citizens. Maybe this was never going to be a moment of reinvention, because most people don't even want that. But I do feel sad about what this all says about us as a country.

Is this where we're at? How did we get here? And can we ever get back?

PS: I think Rowan Simpson makes a good case for the Dustin 'Red Peak' flag. I'd be happy with this too.


Fine words, some hope

If intentions were deeds, or even laws, the National Drug Policy 2015-2020, launched last week, would be a game-changer. As it is, the policy is more notable for the words that accompany it than the force and clarity of its proposals.

That's not to say it's a bad thing. As woolly as it might sound, the policy's identification of "creating a people-centred intervention system" as a priority is, in principle and in context, a helpful move. Like most of the policy's intentions, it supports existing practice.

The next priority, "shifting thinking and behaviour", is essentially an educational mandate. That can be done well, or not so well. We can only trust that health officials will pay heed to evidence on what works there. We certainly do better on this than, say, Australia.

But it's the third priority, "getting the legal balance right", that is inevitably of greatest interest. Associate Health minister Peter Dunne spoke about this at some length in his launch speech:

This responds to the recommendations made by the Law Commission in their 2011 review of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The laws we make need to be reasonable, and it is crucial that our enforcement response is proportionate. We want to make sure that drug use is deterred where possible, but also that the laws are actually working for individuals, communities and society.

We are trying to minimise harm, not create more. The Law Commission recommended that we repeal the Act and replace it with a whole new one.

We thought carefully about this recommendation. But we have now decided that a complete revision of the Act is not required at this time.

Instead we want to dig deeper.

We want to understand how the legislation is operating on the ground. Is the legislation allowing appropriate access to controlled drugs for medical reasons, while protecting communities from their misuse?

Does it allow Police to make appropriate decisions to stop drug harm?

The Act only sets the boundaries for us to work within. We can still make changes within that.

So a number of actions in the new Policy respond explicitly to the Law Commission recommendations. The Ministry of Health will work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to make sure that drug classification decisions are focused on harm.

They will also commence work to examine whether the laws and enforcement around drug possession and utensil possession are still reasonable compared to the severity of these offences.

The first sentence of this passage is fairly remarkable, given that former Justice minister Simon Power responded to the Law Commission review on receipt by simply dismissing it and declaring "as long as I'm the Minister of Justice, we will not be relaxing drug laws." Fortunately, he's no longer Minister of Justice.

But we can be fairly sure that the present Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, would not have said out loud what Dunne said, given that he has airily assured the public that "the policy settings at the moment are the right ones ".

Unlike his two National Party colleagues, Dunne is not looking to climb any ladders within his caucus (that would clearly be a bit redundant) and like Jim Anderton before him, he has allowed himself to be persuaded by evidence.

In its dying throes, Jenny Shipley's government responded to a media panic about an ecstasy-related death by expediting a terrible bill long championed by John Carter MP that cracked down on drug utensils. Predicated on the dubious notion that young people could be "confused" about what is right and proper if they saw a bong for sale in a shop, Carter's amendment act did not noticebly reduce drug consumption. Hell, it barely even reduced the supply of bongs in shops. More troublingly, its further criminalisation of injecting equipment was disastrous in a public heath sense

And yet, only a year or two later, Anderton hailed the positive results of a review into the needle exchange programme launched in 1987, then made needle exchanges free to use and then introduced a bill that reversed the onus of proof on anyone caught with needles. Future Health minister Tony Ryall made an execrable speech during the passage of that bill:

What I want to alert that Minister to is that this bill effectively decriminalises the use of needles for injecting illegal drugs. If this legislation is passed, effectively it will no longer be an offence to have needles for injecting illegal drugs. It will no longer be an offence, because the police will find it nigh on impossible to prosecute any intravenous drug user who possesses a needle. This bill is part of this Government's politically correct approach to drugs. I suspect that this Government has us on a path to legalised injecting rooms. That is where this decision takes us.

Legalised injecting rooms are really a response to serious street drug problems of a kind that aren't generally seen in New Zealand, but if they led to fewer people dying, and kept communities safer – and the evidence is that they do – why would that be a bad thing?

Dunne's promise to "dig deeper" and find out more stuff about how the law works on the ground – rather than amend the law as two select committee inquiries and the Law Commission have recommended – is probably the best that might be expected under the present government, which is never likely to let evidence get in the way of political expedience. But useful inititiaves – the drug court pilot, for example – have happened without recourse to legislation.

So, as the strategy document openly acknowledges, has the slow shift towards the de facto decriminalisation of marijuana at the hands of police:

The enforcement of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 also provides scope to offer low-level offenders alternatives to the criminal justice system. For example, a study into cannabis use offences in New Zealand between 1991 and 2008 found a substantial decline in arrests, prosecutions and convictions for cannabis use over that period. This was despite any changes to the statutory penalties for cannabis use since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1975 (Wilkins et al 2012).

Thus, the strategy's "by 2017/18" action points are largely to do with changing settings rather than changing law:

Work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD) to ensure harm minimisation is a central feature of drug classification assessments. 


Review the regulation of controlled drugs for legitimate purposes (such as medicines) alongside reviews of the Medicines Act 1981 and other therapeutics legislation 

This is actually quite a big one, and more likely to have substance for the fact that the Medicines Act is politically easier to amend than the Misuse of Drugs Act.


Develop options for further minimising harm in relation to the offence and penalty regime for personal possession within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 

The key word here being "within".


Release a discussion document seeking feedback on appropriate regulation of drug utensils.

This is a really interesting one. If there's a cannabis harm that everyone agrees on, it's the part about inhaling smoke into your lungs. Under Carter's stupid law, shops should not be stocking weed vapourisers for sale. But they are, and removing them would unequivocally cause additional harm.

I don't have the time or knowledge to cover the other action points in that section, or those in the "disrupting organised crime" section, but a couple of the points in the "improving information flow" section are worth noting:

Develop a multi-agency Early Warning System for the purposes of monitoring emerging trends and informing both enforcement and harm reduction strategies 

Yes. This is already happening. The question is whether the political courage can be mustered to make that early-warning information available in some way to people who actually use drugs. Because that saves lives.


Update the New Zealand Drug Harm Index. 

How about throw away the whole thing and start again? The Drug Harm Index we have isn't a useful policy aid, it's a Police PR tool.

Politics also seems to have dictated that, although the strategy specifically includes alcohol, the drug that causes the most harm in New Zealand society, there is  little concrete about reducing either demand or supply for the drug.

If I appear uncharitable about this strategy, I don't mean to. It probably goes to the limit of what can politically be said, and its emphasis on compassion and proportionality is very welcome indeed. It holds the promise of beneficial change. It is also a reasonable pointer to the likely shape of this action point:

Develop a New Zealand position for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs 2016.

But that's a whole other story, for another time ...


Friday Music: Songs of Ennui

It's five whole years since Street Chant released their debut album Means. The record's smart, crunchy guitar pop songs took them from being the young band who seemed to be playing somewhere in Auckland every weekend to memorably winning the Critics Choice prize – beating the all-stars-aligned Naked and Famous on the night – and touring internationally with the Lemonheads.

But the difficult second album seemed to be inordinately difficult to finish. Apart from an EP of alleged out-takes, there has been nothing. In the meantime, Emily Littler established a prolific solo thing as Emily Edrosa and they lost a drummer. Well, the album has a name, Hauora, and a release date in November. But most of all, this week there's a first taste. And it's great.

Like 'Stoned Again' from Means, it's about being a bit stranded. Emily says:

'Pedestrian Support League' is a song loosely about Auckland life. Coming back from being on tour a lot and moving back into a crummy flat in Grey Lynn I felt an extreme sense of ennui amongst my peers and especially in myself.

A few years ago I had felt excitement for the future and now I was paranoid my flatmates were stealing all my margarine. The chorus "enrol to vote and so it goes, everyone dresses like us nowadays" expresses the amusement and dissatisfaction I felt with my surroundings – amusement because I felt like I was living out some “food for flatties” cookbook cliche, but watching National win another election as well my seemingly endless ability to stagnate brought about an extreme sense of apathy.

Street Chant play The Sherwood in Queenstown tonight, Chick's in Dunedin tomorrow night and the spectaular The Other's Way Festival on K Road next Friday.

Also playing The Other's Way next week: Kody Neilson's Silicon, whose debut album is out today. It hasn't appeared on the wires yet, but you can stream all the tracks via the record company's website.


New on Audioculture, Gareth Shute's history of the Wine Cellar and Whammy, which reveals the way Wine Cellar founder Rohan Evans was inspired by the squatter bars of Berlin and the neighbourhood Izakaya bars to make a place that he wanted "to look like the bar might’ve always been there. There wasn’t any intention for it to be a music venue. It was just a dive bar, where it’s the people and the things that you’re drinking that are important so it’s always been dark and dingy and recycled."

Turns out I wasn't the only one a bit mystified by Sony NZ's big local signing Maala. It seemed the mystery was strategic, but who exactly was he? Melody Thomas's Music 101 interview with Maala (real name: Evan Sinton) explains a lot.


Hey! We've got a giveaway! I've got three copies of Yo La Tengo's Stuff Like That There, an album largely composed of an eclectic mix of cover versions of songs originally recorded by Hank Williams, The Cure, Sun Ra and, er, Yo La Tengo. Just click the email link at the bottom, put "Yo La Tengo" in the subject line and I'll draw it tomorrow.


You know who else is playing The Other's Way? Chelsea Jade. And if you like her music, you'll probably like this dreamy track from Melbourne's MayaVanya, not least because she has a guest vocal on it:

Auckland-born, Peckham-based Chaos in the CBD have a pretty gorgeous new EP of supple, atmospheric house music out now. Stuff like this:

That track is a free download here. And the Midnight in Peckham EP itself is available on Bandcamp in digital and vinyl formats.

Another free download: Team Cat Food take Boycrush's 'Caprice' to the house:

I really liked Electric Wire Hustle's Kimbra collaboration 'Brother Sun' when it dropped a couple of weeks ago, and the EP from which it came, Aeons, is out today. With its swirling electronic strings, the title track is quite a different affair to the single. You can buy the EP for $5.50 on Baboom.

And finally, dancefloor remixes of stone classics are a risky business, more so when the sonic character of the original is so much part of the magic, but I kinda like this accelerated edit of 'Sign of the Times':


Everybody has one

Dita de Boni bowed out from her New Zealand Herald column this morning with a powerful explanation of why she might, as some people have apparently suggested to her over the years, have become more "biased against" the government.

The answer's that the examples of contempt for the public, hypocrisy, and flat-out bulls***tery have become too overwhelming to ignore.

And while these traits can also be found in the opposition, it's not the same. A journalist - even an opinion columnist writing on politics, which is not the same thing as investigative journalism and certainly not as important - must necessarily give more weight to the actions of the party in power. Anything else starts to look like meaningless diversion.

The other reason, of course, is that I love New Zealand - not in a new flag baloney, jingoistic, Richie McCaw-worshipping kind of way, but as a country that is small enough, wealthy enough, and forward-thinking enough to ensure a great life for most.

She goes on to lament government policy – or the lack of it – in Housing and Corrections, noting that while she has a nice life in "an expensive house in central Auckland ... children live in sheds and sleepouts and die from the diseases of overcrowding not 40 minutes away." It's a strongly-written piece about holding power to account.

In the same online paper today, Mike Hosking has a confused and self-serving column that also addresses claims of bias, most notably from Winston Peters. Hosking professes surprise at "how appallingly ill-informed so many people are about how the media works" and explains that because he is not, as is widely supposed a journalist, "I can, like most people, say what I like." Most people do not, of course, have the benefit of multiple platforms on which to amplify their sometimes weirdly inaccurate reckons.

It would be easy to think that Hosking's primacy and de Boni's departure represent a conscious editorial tilt to the right. I don't think that's necessarily what's happening here. After all, Toby Manhire still writes very well every week, and Jarrod Gilbert this week offered an insightful opinion on the way that public anger gets in the way of actually addressing the causes of violence against children.

It's more like this: Hosking's thoughts are automatically echoed in the Herald because Newstalk ZB and the Herald are part of the same company, NZME, and Hosking is one of NZME's banner names. The company wants both to promote Hosking and reticulate traffic through its different media assets. (TVNZ is basically an add-on to this.) Over at Mediaworks, an increasing proportion of what you see and hear is also in service of another part of the company – and that will become even more the case when Mediaworks' events venture gets up to speed. In both companies, commercial radio provides the profits, meaning radio calls the shots. If there's a conservative influence, that's radio.

The other factor is that opinion – and that's increasingly what column-writing is becoming, rather than analysis or argument – is in oversupply, because everyone has one of those in the age of the internet. It no longer fetches much of a price.

So while Jarrod Gilbert gets paid in recognition of his greatly-deserved Blogger of the Year award, it suits the Herald to keep on Bob Jones, who writes for free, and dump Paul Casserly, who doesn't. The tedious tit-for-tat columns that Judith Collins and Phil Goff get their staff to write in the Sunday Star Times are, similarly, funded from your tax dollars, rather than the paper's editorial budget. [Correction: Collins is paid a modest fee and donates the money to the Totara South Auckland Hospice. Not sure about Goff.]

Dr Michelle Dickinson's new Science and Tech column in the Weekend Herald is sponsored by Callaghan Innovation "to promote the coverage of science and innovation". As welcome as a science column is, and as fine a communicator as Michelle is, I suspect this means the paper is being paid to publish a columnist, rather than paying a columnist. You'll see more of this in future. It would be good to think that means more money for investigative journalism.

Hosking's column includes a shot at his journalistic critics – for foolishly mistaking him for a journalist. He declares " as a journalist one of your primary tasks is accuracy and if you start off with inaccuracy you never really recover".

Hosking, on the other hand, is relieved of the burden of accuracy because it's just his opinion. But it appears in the newspaper, and I'm sure there are many at the Herald who worry about the paper being dragged down to commercial talk radio standards of opinionating, let alone prose style. I suspect in the hard world of modern media, they don't have much choice.

Hosking further suggests that "my glass half-full view of the world might just happen to coincide with the glass half-full view of the Government" and declares himself to "have been glass half-full for about 50 years".

De Boni invokes the same phrase in her farewell column:

If I have a "glass half full" mentality, it's because that's easy for someone in my privileged position to have.

I need hardly explain to you the difference in what they're saying.


Announcing: IRL at The Golden Dawn

Hello! You know, it's waaay too long since we've done an event for you. Well, I've fixed that. On the afternoon of Saturday week, September 5, we're kicking off a new talk series called IRL at The Golden Dawn and it's going to be a lot of fun.

"We" in this case is me, 95bFM's nine-to-noon host Esther Macintyre, Matthew Crawley and his team at The Golden Dawn in Ponsonby – and Orcon, who are kindly making all this possible.

Esther helped me out with this year's Splore Talk and I'm a big fan of her radio show, so I was keen to work with her again.

The programme will kick off with Esther interviewing Mainard Larkin, aka Randa, who is one of the most intriguing figures in New Zealand popular culture.

Then I'll be chatting to Ali Ikram, the Campbell Live reporter who left his job with TV3 when that show got the chop and has now joined the ranks of media soldiers of fortune. You can be assured I'll get the, er, story.

Silver Scrolls finalist Anthonie Tonnon will then join us to play some of his smart, journalistic songs.

And finally, all of us, Anthonie included, will convene on a plenary panel to address important questions submitted by you, the live audience, on hand-crafted artisan pieces of paper, which Esther and I will draw from a hat. (NB: Serious questions and silly questions are both important. And the paper probably won't be artisan. As such.)

It's going to be a lot of fun, and there will be the excellent Golden Dawn food and drink to add to the merriment. Note that this is happening out in the Golden Dawn courtyard, which is mostly sheltered, but if the weather is too foul, we have a rain date set for the following Saturday. But hopefully not.

Note that, like the old Great Blend events, IRL is free to attend, but you'll need to RSVP here.

Capacity is limited, but I've held a few places for the unfortunate souls who can't use the internet at work and will release those this evening.