Hard News by Russell Brown

55

Taking the stage in Mount Albert

National probably made the right call when it declined to contest the Mount Albert by-election. After wheeling in the big guns in Roskill last year and getting thrashed, it would not have relished the prospect of Bill English's election year opening with a defeat. Indeed, that's the media narrative the new Prime Minister would look to avoid at all costs.

So it opted for the lesser evil of allowing Labour and the Greens to open their election year with two months' exposure for their respective platforms and – if they get it remotely right – two months of largely positive headlines.

Labour leader Andrew Little seemed well aware of  that when he spoke at the launch of Jacinda Ardern's Mount Albert campaign yesterday. Indeed, he took the opportunity – rare enough these past few years – to mock the governing party.

"They really believed they were going to win!" he chirped of National's experience in Mount Roskill. He talked about his own party having "the wind in our sails from Mount Roskill and the local body elections last year." He actually looked like he believed it.

He also looked ... different.

Andrew Little no longer wears spectacles, at least while he's out on the big jobs. He had a sharp haircut and his suit, with a dark open-neck shirt, looked tailored. Perhaps I'm imagining it, but this guy:

Looked a lot cooler than this guy:

The biggest speech I've heard Little give in person was last year's State of the Nation in Albert Park. And while the substance of that speech (free tertiary education) was strong, it felt like we were being asked to make allowances for his lack of charisma in delivering it. He (ahem) laboured through dud jokes, sincere but clearly not one of nature's orators.

Yesterday, he seemed a more relaxed and confident speaker. He told one joke (about being able to tell he was in Auckland by the floor-to-ceiling mirrors) which wasn't exactly a Billy T winner, but wasn't too bad either. He expressed some political philosophy, hit points about housing, education and transport, and it flowed.

Perhaps it's just another year in the job – or perhaps what Simon Wilson described recently as an "Andy Plan" actually exists.

Little needs a small crew of high-powered advisers to take charge of his public appearances. I’d say, five. First, a director of theatre and television to train him in oratory and compelling presence, on stage and on screen. Seriously, he needs to rehearse with an expert.

Next, a writer for those inspirational and confidence-building speeches, with the rhetorical skills to craft phrases that set news bulletins and social media alight. Third, a stylist. Fourth, a media trainer to work on how to give better answers to journalists. And last, overseeing it all, someone who will make him take all this seriously.

Of course, he has people in some of these roles already. But it’s not working, guys. You need to up your game or step aside.

On the other hand, I wholly disagree with Simon's contention (and that of Phil Quin, who I'm much more accustomed to disagreeing with) that it's unfortunate that Little himself is not Labour's candidate in Mount Albert.

That would have been a very awkward path to take. An "I don't care where so long as I'm mayor" decision. Labour flying in a leader with no connection with Auckland in the hope he might get a seat to call his own.

And the perception of Ardern being shoved aside by the party would have been damaging. Ardern has a real claim on being considered the local candidate here in Mt Albert, not least because successive boundary changes mean her natural support base actually now lies in Mount Albert. You could say that she didn't leave Auckland Central, Auckland Central left her.

She's popular in Auckland. She is, although she'd be obliged to cringe at the idea, something of a celebrity here. She has useful connections with the local body left. And as of a couple of months ago (and before David Shearer resigned), she lives in the electorate, in Point Chevalier.

She's also a hard-working campaigner. Encouraged by the evidence that what Labour did in Mt Roskill works, her team will do a lot of old-fashioned door-knocking. She alludes to that at the end of this clip:

It wasn't an accident that she later invited any new volunteers to join her in going out and knocking on doors immediately after the event – promising beers at the end of the day. Being on Team Jacinda might look like a cool thing to do.

Certain other commentators have declared that the Greens' decision to stand Julie Anne Genter in Mt Albert is a disaster. It really is not. It's a perfect opportunity for both parties to show that they can engage in a respectful contest of ideas within an overall understanding of cooperation.

It might have been otherwise with different candidates, but Ardern and Genter are grown-ups. They like each other personally. They have things in common – while Ardern was speaking at the Women's March in Auckland on Saturday, Genter was addressing its sister rally in Wellington. (They both also have informed perspectives on drug policy – the difference being that while Genter can actually talk about policy, Ardern is confined to wearily acknowledging that any reform is "not a priority" for her party this year.)

The Mount Albert electorate has had only four different members, all from the Labour Party, since it was created in 1946 (and one of those only lasted a year before dying) and half of them became the MP in a by-election. The odds are that on February 26 it'll be three out of five. The challenge for Labour and its friendly rival will be to see that that plays out in a way that is as beneficial as possible for both of them. 

178

The next four years

And so, tomorrow, the United States of America will inaugurate a new President. I've been meaning to write about what that portends, but it's surprisingly difficult. Each of the last few dozen mornings has brought a fresh basket of outrages and absurdities. The opportunity to stop and summarise goes missing daily.

On one level, obsessing about another democracy's election is silly. Don't we have our own general election this year? We do. But it's already clear that there will be international consequences to President Trump.

The confrontation with China that Trump and his team have been fecklessly stirring, even before he takes office, bodes no good for New Zealand. We don't want a crazy trade war between two of our largest trading partners. We really don't want the actual shooting war implied by the incoming secretary of State's promise to blockade China's man-made islands in the South China Sea. We especially don't want to be required to choose sides in either war.

There's no good for us either in an unstable, roiling Europe. When Trump airily declares that NATO is "obsolete", people in Lithuania and Estonia (where thousands, mindful of Russia's annexation of Crimea, are signing up to paramilitary forces) hear something different than self-professed "anti-imperialists" in the West do. Late last year Sweden's government put local authorities on the first rung of a war footing and revived a defence strategy unused since the Cold War. As Russian military aircraft repeatedly breach Sweden's airspace, its government is drawing closer to NATO than it has ever been.

Sweden has also for the past two or three years suffered a wave of apparently Russian-initiated cyberattacks. The pattern should be familiar: disruption, the fostering of fringe ultra-right groups and a big, targeted fake news campaign spreading disinformation. Last year, employing what is now a familiar form of doubespeak, Russian attackers knocked all of Sweden's major newspapers off the internet, in a purported protest against their spreading of "false propaganda".

Last month, Germany's intelligence agency reported a surge in Russian-initiated cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. It said that the aim was to spread uncertainty, strengthen extremist groups and parties, complicate the work of the federal government and "weaken or destabilise the Federal Republic of Germany". The Czech Republic, which, like Germany, has national elections this year, is also taking steps to protect its democratic infrastructure.

A particular focus of the attack messaging in Germany is the country's refugee intake under Angela Merkel. Last week, Trump told the German newspaper Bild that Merkel had made an “utterly catastrophic mistake by letting all these illegals into the country”.

This messaging is quite pervasive. I recently argued on Facebook with a pro-Putin New Zealander (who seemed to be a leftie or at least some sort of greenie) about Russia's actions in Syria. It wound up with her literally posting neo-Nazi material to the Facebook thread. She was not at all chastened when I pointed that out.

I guess there are always going to conspiratorial dingbats at the extremes of the political left and right, so far as their actual politics can be determined. What I've found more surprising is the attitude of people I'd always thought to to be classical conservatives – people with whom I might disagree, but who I figured believed in institutions and in conventional notions of probity. In free trade. Not so much, now, apparently.

I had trouble getting my head around this until I read this long, fairly dense New Yorker story about the "conservative intellectuals" furiously trying to backfill "Trumpism" with some sort of theory. They are more impassioned than they are coherent, but a kind of picture does emerge. As the author, Kelefa Sanneh, notes:

It is no surprise that many of Trump’s critics, and some of his supporters, heard his tributes to a bygone American greatness as a form of “identity politics,” designed to remind white people of all the power and prestige they had lost.

These freshly-minted Trumpists distrust globalism, they are economic nationalists. The same applies of course to many on the left. But the Trumpists and the Brexiteers seem to be motivated less by economic philosophy per se than by the loss of their cultural primacy.

The world is actually getting better on a range of measures. According to the World Bank, China has raised 500 million people out of extreme poverty in the past three decades. That's an extraordinary achievement and it can't be separated from China's engagement with the global economy in that time. But remarkably  low numbers of people in wealthy western countries are currently inclined to perceive the world as improving. And some, clearly, see withdrawal from institutions as a way to address their own relative disadvantage (and it is strictly relative: the poverty bar used by the World Bank is income of $US1.90 a day).

This rhetoric is not coming in any coherent form from Trump himself, of course. As Sanneh says, it's not even clear whether Trump is a Trumpist. But amid his narcissistic flailings, enough Americans in swing states heard the anti-establishment philosophy they wanted to hear.

And, again, Russia has found remarkably successful ways to employ such sentiment for its own ends. Putin does not want a cohesive Europe. He began a trade war to persuade the Ukraine government to back out of an Association Agreement with the European Union – a step Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych eventually took, on the promise of billions of dollars worth of Russian loans. The Euromaidan protests that followed led to Yanukovych being dumped by his own party, fleeing to Russia and subsequently being stripped of his role by the country's supreme court. And that led Putin to annex Crimea and facilitate, with Russian troops, a shooting war in the east of Ukraine that seems to be becoming even more intense.

In a no-holds-barred speech at the Davos Economic Forum overnight, outgoing US VP Joe Biden declared that Putin wants to see a "collapse of the international order." It sounds much less of a wild assertion than it might if you've read a bit about the strangeness of Putin's Russia. As to the motivations behind such a goal, well, let's just say that "Kremlinologist" is going to be a good trade to be in for the next few years.

In the New Yorker this week, Robin Wright notes the concern and confusion of foreign leaders and diplomats as they try to reconcile Trump's wild statements with the understandings and alliances they have had with the US for many decades. If you were trying to sow chaos, this is how it would look.

But how much influence have Putin and the needs of his mafia economy actually had on the Trump bandwagon? It's hard to say, but perhaps the multiple US intelligence agency investigations underway as the new President takes office will bear fruit. It is hard to see some things – the installation of Putin confidant (and political novice) Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State, the Trump team gutting the Republican platform on Ukraine but being apparently almost uninterested in most other policy – in any other light.

At WORD Christchurch in August, I heard American historian Peter S. Field insist that should Trump become President it would be a thrilling time for the Congressional Republican Party, which would set about holding a President to account as the founders intended. It would be great for democracy! I've seen other conservatives express the same hopeful view since. But really? Are we talking about some other Republican Party?

The Republicans, in firm control of both houses, seem disinclined to address the unprecedented conflicts of interest which Trump takes into office. Insofar as they're concerned about ethics, it is to roll back ethical oversight on themselves. Earlier this month, House Republicans voted to gut the House's independent ethics office – only to reverse their decision on a message from Trump.

Yes, that's right. US House Republicans were schooled on ethics by Donald Trump.

But there are already clear signs that oversight and accountability will be under threat in the new regime. Trump ally Newt Gingrich is calling for the abolition of the Congressional Budget Office, because its assessments reflect poorly on Trump policy. As Forbes contributor – and government spending specialist – Stan Collender noted, it's as if Gingrich wanted to take his party back to the economic dark ages.

Simple competence is another issue. Trump's Cabinet is stacked with people who are either ignorant of their portfolios or openly hostile to them. His education secretary (and handsome donor) Betsy DeVos knows little of education, but is associated with a gay conversion "therapy" group. This week she said that there should be no federal protection for the education of disabled children.

There's one area where competence really matters – to an existential degree – and that's around climate change. His major Cabinet appointees are nearly all climate change deniers. The new head of the Enviromental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a coal industry lawyer who led a lawsuit against the EPA's clean energy reform.

This matters on an international level too. Multilateral accords are utterly crucial to addressing climate change, and if Trump withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement, it weakens, perhaps critically, the whole structure.

The next four years are going to be very important for American journalism. Journalists and the organisations they work for will be attacked, abused and marginalised – that's what Trump's done from the moment he started campaigning. Obama's use of his final press conference to give a pep-talk to the White House press corps, emphasising their key role in a democracy, was no accident.

They'll have plenty to work with. With the hammer coming down on oversight and transparency, I think US politics will enter an unprecedented era of leaking and whistleblowing. Public servants are likely to display more principle than elected representatives, put it that way.

In seeking to make Trump seem less unprecedented, Scott Field compared him to the famously badly-behaved Democratic President Andrew Jackson. But as fond as Americans are of comparing presidents, I don't think that works. Jackson was a rascal, but he wasn't a compulsive liar and a sociopath. And the world is different place than it was then. Far worse things can happen than ever could in 1829. 

So it's uncharted territory, and I haven't even got to the extremely valid fears of America's various minorities, or of American women who see the prospect of a Trump administration defunding Planned Parenthood as an attack on their very wellbeing. (Some of those women are even Trump voters.)

Here in New Zealand and, I'm sure, other places, we've seen a less tangible consequence of the Trump phenomenon: an erosion of social norms that seems to have given permission for expressions of racism or misogyny that might not have been made before. The bigots have been emboldened. So, while the institutions and Constitution of the United States of America face an unprecedented stress test, I think the next four years will be interesting times for for us all.

20

Is the Ministry of Health acting outside the law on medical cannabis?

The key barrier to the use of medical cannabis – or to even discovering what its uses might be – has long been marijuana's illegality under the Misuse of Drugs Act. But what if it transpired that a key component of cannabis is not, and has never been, controlled by the act? And that heavy restrictions on its use and importation are in fact taking place outside the law?

This may sound to you like one of those conspiracy theories your embarrassing friend posts on Facebook, but it's quite serious. And it's the subject of an intended legal challenge notified by Nelson lawyer Sue Grey. You may recognise her name: she's the lawyer who won Rebecca Rieder the right to walk through New Zealand Customs with a jar of raw cannabis prescribed to her in Hawaii.

Grey's intention, and its legal and scientific basis, is summarised in a letter sent to the Ministers of Health and Customs at the beginning of this month. I've uploaded the letter here – it's admirably clear in its language and worth reading.

The substance in question is cannabidiol (CBD), the principal cannabinoid in raw cannabis apart from THC. It's proper to be cautious about its medical potential, but a 2012 review in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that it was "a potential medicine for the treatment of neuroinflammation, epilepsy, oxidative injury, vomiting and nausea, anxiety and schizophrenia, respectively." No Cochrane reviews have focused on CBD per se, but advocates point to multiple recent studies investigating its application in treating a wide range of conditions, from pain and inflammation to anxiety.

CBD is present in a 50-50 concentration with THC in Sativex, currently the only approved medical cannabis product in New Zealand. It was also approved for use (as Elixinol) by the doctors treating Alex Renton, the Nelson teenager suffering from status epilepticus in 2015 – but only after approval from the Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne.

Ministerial approval was required because CBD was deemed to be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act – and Regulation 22 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations demands the approval of the minister (even Sativex, an approved medicine, can't simply be prescribed and each use must go through and be rubber-stamped by Ministry of Health officials).

But CBD isn't explicitly scheduled under the act, and the contention of Ministry of Health officials that it is covered as an isomer of THC is flatly rejected by ESR scientist Dr Keith Bedford in an affidavit obtained by Grey on behalf of her client, a man with terminal cancer. (The affidavit reiterates the official view of ESR itself.)

And neither should it be, given that it's not psychoactive (although it does seem to moderate the "high" of THC) and poses no known individual or social harm that would meet the test posed in Section 3A of the act.

"The Ministry of Health want CBD to be covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, but they can't get any experts that will say that it is," Grey told me when I spoke to her yesterday. "They keep getting advice from ESR that says it's not, and they've been looking around through their own staff trying to find somebody with some qualifications to say that it is."

This is a battle that has spilled over into the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, where Dr Bedford, a founding member, sits along MoH officials. The issue arose at the EACD's meeting in April last year, of which Grey's letter says:

The minutes of the EADC’s April 2016 identify no scientific or legal reason why Dr Bedford’s view is wrong. It appears the different views relate solely to policy consideration and perhaps vested interests, although it remains unclear to me why some members of the committee would prefer to continue to treat CBD as if it is illegal. Clearly government policy cannot override the law that was written by Parliament, and in particular s3A of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

It was discussed again at the EACD's meeting in October – a meeting for which Grey is still unable to obtain minutes.

"They don't want to release them because they're having an internal disagreement about what to say," she said. "Reading between the lines, the Ministry of Health advisors on that committee are saying 'we want it to be covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act' and ESR and other representatives are say, well, legally it isn't."

The Ministry of Health may indeed have quietly given up its argument that CBD is controlled under the MoDA in favour of focusing on the issue of cross-contamination with small amounts of THC, which is typically present in tiny quantities in non-psychoactive strains of cannabis sativa: ie, hemp.

"There's a note in the April minutes saying their secretariat needs to do some research on it.," said Grey. "Well they've had nearly a year now and I don't understand why it's taken so long when Australia's come out loud and clear on it."

In 2015, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) down-scheduled CBD to a Prescription Only Medicine “in preparations for therapeutic use containing 2 per cent or less of other cannabinoids found in cannabis”. It observed that such low levels of other cannabinoids were "not clinically significant" and that that there was "low risk of misuse or abuse as cannabidiol does not possess psychoactive properties."

Problem solved then, surely.

This brings us to another dimension of this story: which is that cannabidiol is about to be approved by a joint Australia-New Zealand regulator – as food. This process has been grinding on for a long time, but Food Safety Australia New Zealand's Final Assessment Report is clear and emphatic. Although hemp seeds and plant material will inevitably contain CBD, it says:

There are no public health and safety concerns associated with the use of food products containing derivatives of industrial hemp, provided there is compliance with the proposed maximum levels for THC in hempseed, oil derived from hempseed and other products derived from industrial hemp.

And:

Foods containing derivatives of industrial hemp do not produce any psychotropic effects, and cannot be used as a source of THC.

And furthermore:

The current prohibition on Cannabis spp. use in food, in the absence of identified public health and safety concerns, could be contrary to Australia’s and New Zealand’s obligations as members of the World Trade Organization.

In the most recent report I can find, from September, New Zealand's Food Safety minister Jo Goodhew said she supported the sale of low-THC hemp seed food as "a safe and nutritious food, which could potentially provide economic benefits for New Zealand."

So we're left with a strangely contradictory situation. Not to mention a confusing one.

"I think it's completely clear that CBD is not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act," said Grey. "And then everything else follows: you can have hemp seed food, you can have a hemp industry, the whole industrial hemp regulations make sense. And ESR's analytical approach fits. Everything makes sense. The only thing that doesn't fit is the Ministry of Health trying to say that it's covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act."

It's tempting to conclude the some Ministry of Health officials have a hangup with CBD, but it's hard to think of a good reason why. It's already scheduled as a prescription medicine under the Medicines Regulations. Acknowledging that it is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act would simply make it more straightforward to prescribe.

Grey would like to see "some criteria that are obvious and simple and make sense. So that hemp food can be sold as hemp food, so we can have benefits of the same hemp foods they have in North America and Europe. Then probably a category for the dietary supplements. And perhaps some category for the medicines, particularly if it's in combination with THC and other medical products."

Grey has received a response from Customs minister Nicky Wagner, explaining that Customs – which has been seizing medical CBD products at the border –  is guided by the advice of the Ministry of Health, which is that "CBD is a class B1 controlled drug as it is an isomer of tetrahydrocannabinol. Customs has acted on that basis."

"How long do we have to wait? We've got people who are sick now," Grey said. "They don't want to have to wait another six months or two years for the advisory committee to align itself with what the law already says.

"I'm still hoping that the Minister of Health will get some control over his officials and ask what are you guys doing, why don't we just listen to what the experts are saying and accept that it's not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act and it doesn't need to be? Then we won't need to go to court. But if they don't come to that conclusion fairly quickly, then we will file in court."

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Although Sue Grey is acting on behalf of a client, her action is being supported by a wider group of advocates, caregivers, processors and growers, along with The Hemp Store and Norml NZ. Norml president Chris Fowlie, who told me:

"CBD could improve the lives of many people. It is not psychoactive, has no known side effects, and is widely used in the USA and Europe. They say we must follow the law. We just want them to follow the law too.

"CBD is not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, and we believe the Ministry of Health and Customs are acting unlawfully when they seize it, and when they tell doctors they need special Ministerial approval to prescribe it. In fact, any doctor can prescribe it to any patient, for any condition.

"It seems extraordinary that officials have disregarded advice of their own expert, Dr Keith Bedford, and have instead based policy on the opinion of a secret scientist, whose identity and qualifications they have redacted. This is unprecedented in public policy, and we believe it will not stand up in court."

7

Friday Music! Theo Parrish: Detect rhythm and dance

Here's a thing about dance music: half the time, it's in an identity crisis. Its founding myths are in dark little clubs full of the marginalised, but it reaches the masses as risible stadium EDM. This isn't exactly new: as far back as the 1990s, dance music tours to New Zealand were undertaken less by DJs than by megabrands. Remember when 4000 people packed into the Aotea Centre for Gatecrasher, on a school night? If you do, it's probably not for the music.

But in recent years, we've seen something more real flourish: touring club shows by real originators, promoted by real fans. That was very much the case last Sunday at the latest show in the Anno Domini series, spanning the afternoon and evening outdoors at Auckland Art Gallery's rooftop cafe and featuring Detroit's Theo Parrish.

It was a nervous afternoon for the promoters: Parrish's flight from Australia was delayed and CC:Disco (aka Melbournite Courtney Clarke, interviewed here by RNZ Music) played a longer set of of her unpretentious, good-timey disco than originally intended, until the headliner arrived. But, fortunately, arrive he did.

The most notable thing about Parrish's work is its sheer variety: from straight-up house music (he's been an associate of everyone from Lil Louis to Moodymann) to Black Jazz Signature, 2013's brilliant mix album of tracks from the obscure California label Black Jazz. But by reputation, his live sets focus most of all on his much-bootlegged Ugly Edits series of reworks of soul, funk and disco records from the deep crates.

And so it came to be. I'm not going to pretend to know much of what he played, but when his edit of Jacky Beavers' 1974 cut 'Mr Bump Man' wove its way into the mix early, it was every damn thing: taut, funny, very, very funky.

Parrish, more that most DJs, works the EQ hard when he plays live (occasionally more than the PA will comfortably bear, as was the case on Sunday) but it's not just knob-twiddling. By scooping out different ranges, he recontextualises each track live and relates it to the one before and after (he talks about that here). He actually has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sound Sculpture, which probably makes this all sound more pointy-headed than it really is: you don't need to know this stuff, you just need to be able to detect rhythm and move to it. My body was aching by the time the evening was done.

As the appointed end of the evening, 8.30pm, ticked over, he began taking it down – not with anything those conventional as a chillout tune, but with jazz records, bumped into each other to create crazy polyrhythms. I just kind of stood still and let my head dance at that point. It might even have been my favourite part of the whole set.

Simon Grigg observed that one really nice thing about the whole show was how clearly Parrish himself was enjoying the music he played – even singing along with the records at times. Simon also got some nice pics:

Thanks, Anno Domino: this was a fun day and a really rewarding one musically. I've come away wanting to get my head around more of Theo Parrish's music.

You can buy Theo Parrish's 2014 album American Intelligence directly from his Sound Signature website (along with a whole lot of other stuff), or here at Bleep

On Bandcamp, there's the 2015 collaboration with afrobeat legend Tony Allen:

And his rework of Fat Freddy's Drop's 'Mother Mother':

Did I mention he had range?

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Something – sort of different but not different to the above – I've been enjoying over the break is Brian Eno's new album, Reflection. It's an ambient album, but I don't think I'd cracked its particular nature until I read a review that made a passing comparison with the painting of Mark Rothko. Dammit, that deserves more than a passing mention, because it seems to me that's exactly what this is: the sound of a Rothko painting. And it's lovely.

Also: very good music to read books to.

PS: The album is also available as a generative app for iOS. I propose that you spend the $US40 and tell me how it sounds.

––-

This New Yorker story, The Folk Power of Jamaican Dancehall Signs, looks at a new book, Serious Things A Go Happen: Three Decades of Jamaican Dancehall Signs, which collects more than 100 of them. Nice.

–––

I really enjoyed catching up with Jay Clarkson yesterday during her brief visit to Auckland. If you're in Christchurch, be aware that she's playing with her original Breathing Cage band next week – once at Blue Smoke and again in a free gig at St Albans Park. Details are here on her website.

–––

Finally, I'm pretty buzzed out by the news that disco mix god John Morales has been added to the Splore 2017 lineup. Because you know how much I like that shit.

57

Taxpayers' Union: still stupid, cynical and dishonest

In  a story cross-posted from Newstalk ZB today, the Herald reports that it has "been revealed the New Zealand Government has paid a foundation owned by Hillary Clinton $7.7 million," going on to note  that "in November it became apparent New Zealand was implicated, but exactly how much and when it occurred was unknown."

Um ... implicated?

At this point you should be aware that this is a story generated by the Taxpayers' Union, so the level of stupidity will typically be very high.

Here's how the story came to be. Late last year, the Clinton Heath Access Initiative published its updated donor list, covering the period from 2010 to September 2016. Presumably, the Taxpayers' Union noticed that New Zealand was on the list and on November 11 fired off an OIA request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That request resulted in this response from MFAT. Well and good. It's mildly interesting.

What's not well and good is the idiotic commentary from Taxpayers' Union spokesman Jordan Williams:

Mr Williams said New Zealand's one of the biggest contributors and a pattern is emerging of New Zealand using aid money for diplomatic, instead of aid purposes.

"Why are we giving millions of dollars of New Zealand aid money to the Clinton Foundation? It's similar almost to the Saudi sheep saga."

It's nothing like the Saudi sheep saga at all. Not even remotely.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative has saved literally millions of lives by providing HIV/AIDS medication in countries where it was otherwise unaffordable. Nearly 12 million people currently take HIV/AIDS drugs provided by the initiative. It also provides anti-malarial drugs and other forms of healthcare support. (It further bears noting that not only is the foundation not "owned" by Hillary Clinton, CHAI itself has been a separate nonprofit since 2010.)

Williams continued:

Mr Williams added it not only looks bad to New Zealanders, it'll also surely annoy the incoming Trump administration.

"If you were forming a plan to make New Zealand unpopular among the incoming administration you couldn't formulate a better plan than giving money to the Clinton Foundation".

Mr Williams said the government needs to promise the tap will be turned off between New Zealand tax payers and the foundation.

Seriously? Have a look at that donor list. The governments of Australia, Britain, Norway and Canada have given multiples more in aid to CHAI than New Zealand has. We're not one of the "biggest contributors" – and if we were, what of it?

Our contributions are tied to a project to reduce child malnutrition in Rwanda and Ethiopia by strengthening local farming and food processing infrastructure with the goal of providing fortified foods to children and breastfeeding mothers. Successive tranches of aid are subject to reporting – which, it appears, has been very favourable. Harvests are up, there's a new food-processing joint venture and vulnerable women and children are being fed.

Oddly enough, this isn't actually news. The project is listed on MFAT's African aid page. The New Zealand-based international aid consultancy FCG ANZDEC announced back in 2013 that it would be working with the New Zealand Aid Programe and CHAI on the project

Yes, 2013. And yet somehow we're being asked to believe that this is all diplomatic pandering with an eye on a Hillary Clinton presidency.  

The Taxpayers' Union, nonetheless, doubles down on the stupid in its press release:

Even worse, this money comes from the NZ Aid budget which should be going to programes which are the most effective at helping the world’s poor - not sidetracked into political objectives.

It is possible that officials have reason to believe that the Clinton Foundation’s work does provide good value for money, although given the controversy in the US that seems unlikely. The refusal to front up and explain leaves a stench of buying political access.

Given New Zealand’s faux pas in co-sponsoring the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel on Christmas Eve, and the heavy criticism of New Zealand which has resulted, the continued support of the Clinton Foundation risks even more damage to New Zealand’s ability to wield any influence in the US.

I submit that these clowns probably know very well they're peddling bullshit. They know this is aid money for an ongoing development project and they know quite well they're constructing fake news. I think it's unfortunate that the news media would be helping them by credulously reporting that construction.