Hard News by Russell Brown


UNGASS 2016: No one believes in your consensus any more

Last night's Media Take features my report from the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem: UNGASS 2016. It raises the question of whether the ultimate victory of this UNGASS lies in its failure.

The "outcome document" adopted by UNGASS was deficient; grievously so. A handful of hardline countries had held out a month earlier to enforce a "consensus" that failed to condemn the death penalty for drug offences, or even include the dread words "harm reduction". Even as the consensus document was adopted in the meeting's frst hour, one signatory nation after another rose to emphasise the document had been accepted only "as a start". It was the opposite of an end to the matter.

The feeling of brokenness was futher emphasised by what appeared to be a  political move at the event itself to frustrate the many NGOs present – who were supposed to have played a full and useful role this time. I got caught up in that as a journalist. By the last day of the meeting, my week-long media pass did not gain me entry to even listen to the speeches. (Tip: learn where the back stairs are.)

The victory is that reforming countries will now no longer feel bound to the idea of consensus. They will take their own paths to drug law reform, and many have already begun to do so – with the more or less explicit support of multiple UN agencies. New Zealand's associate Health minister Peter Dunne will properly come under pressure to demonstrate the "boldness" he called for in his speech to the assembly.

Dunne's speech went down well with reformers, but for me the most remarkable address was that by another New Zealander: Tuari Potiki, director of Maori development at the University of Otago, chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation and a beneficiary of the judicial compassion that directed him to treatment for his hard drug addiction and not prison, when he was 27. In a week when a good deal of bullshit was spoken, Tuari's speech was perfectly direct.

I think you'll see a good deal happen in the next five years. Unfortunately, as Sanho Tree notes in my report, people live in the hardline countries, and those people will continue to have their human rights impaired. We shouldn't give up on them either.

You can watch Media Take here on demand.

And you can see the whole of Tuari Potiki's speech here:


A weekend in a mad, lovely place

The plan had been for a quiet weekend. Watch a little sport, make a little chicken stock, see off the jet lag. I held to that right up until about 9pm on Friday, when I thought I should go and see Street Chant at the King's Arms, because I figured they might need some more fiftysomething dudes stroking their beards and stuff.

Duly enlivened by the rock 'n roll, I decided afterwards I'd stroll down Karangahape Road, perhaps even get myself in to the show by reggae legend Johnny Osbourne at Neck of the Woods. There were 20-odd kids queueing at the door when I passed (did any of them know who he was?), so I kept strolling, taking a few photos with my new iPhone along the way.

I found myself back in the same mad, lovely place the next night, to see Anthonie Tonnon play his first show with his Successors band in nearly a year – and the last before he flies out to tour Europe with Nadia Reid. It was actually the first time I've been in The Wine Cellar's new performance room, which is like the old one only better. Tono played some new songs, including a monster ballad (called, I think, 'Leave Love Out of This') earmarked for his next album. It was really pretty fabulous. Meanwhile, Carter Morley and Yeats played nearby at the Audio Foundation and some freaky shit was going down next door at Whammy.

Suddenly, it was Sunday – the day Auckland Transport's Open Streets concept was coming to K Road. You know, I wrote a very long story about the place just recently, and I concluded they'd never close the strip to cars, however desirable that might be. I was wrong – and it was awesome. It was the magic that happens when you let people occupy the street.

Open Streets is designed as a moveable feast – it might come to your suburb next – but there was something special and particular about it being on on K Road. The community there lives on the street in more than one way and it flowered in the autumn sunlight yesterday.

Yesterday showed it could be done. The buses ran alternative routes, cars went another way and the world didn't end. So let's do it again. Let's have this all summer. Let's have a music festival! Who's with me?


Friday Music: Digging in New York

"Did you have lots of fun in New York?" people have asked. Well, kinda. I had a fun weekend in Brooklyn on arrival, but the week that followed, covering the United Nations, and getting together a TV story without a producer, was pretty full-on. So I didn't do any touristy things or even visit an art gallery.

But there was one thing I'd promised myself I'd do: go to record shops and buy vinyl records. So I thought I'd tell you about that in this week's post.

The first place I went to was a 20-minute walk from where I was staying in Brooklyn. The African Record Center has been trading for nearly 50 years in Flatbush. "Not 15, 50," Roger Francis told me with a smile when I asked.

He took me through a bunch of records on the turntable in the store, the first of which was this raging slab of Nigerian acid rock from 1972:

Knowing what I know now about the store, I've love to go back and have another turn. I was after African disco (and I did find some) but the better part (in both senses) of its stock is things they've had for years, some of them from the store's record label, Makossa International. That Ofo single cost me $US10. It's for sale for as much as £180 on Discogs. Roger had a box of them.

I also bought an original 1972 7" of Manu Dibango's classic 'Soul Makossa'. Oh, and some disco:

Next stop was Deadly Dragon Sound on the Lower East Side near Chinatown, which (thanks for the tip Pete Darlington!) was closing the next day because it the landlord declined to renew the lease. I dug through records for a while and, found a couple I wanted and could afford (truth: vintage reggae sevens go for serious money) before I asked co-owner Jeremy Freeman about a Sidney, George and Jackie 7" I'd like to own, 'Nine Pound Steel'.

He didn't have it. But he thought a bit, looked at his catalogue on the computer and observed that they had a Pioneers record – same group, it's complicated – in storage and he could get someone to fetch it for me if I could wait five minutes. I was happy to go for a walk around the neighbourhood.

The A-side of the record is their heavied-up version of Desmond Dekker's 'Sabotage' (spelled, curiously, 'Sabatarge'), but on the flip is this:

Jeremy sold it to me for $15, which turned out to be a 50% discount on its stock price.

It was a lovely, tiny shop which seemed to be full of friends and family. I took this pic outside:

There's also this nice 2009 mini-documentary about the store:

I gather they'll open again when they find a new space.

The next day was Record Store Day and I had a list of Brooklyn shops I wanted to go to: primarily Academy Records and Captured Tracks. It didn't turn out that way. Because I arrived in Greenpoint a little early for opening time (ie: before noon) I went for a walk down Manhattan Avenue and on my way back came across a shop with stacks of records out the front.

The shop was The Thing, and it's a junk shop with a lot of records down the back. Like, tens of thousands of records. This video gives you the picture:

The only concession to order is that the more recent arrivals have their own section. The records are jammed in (it's quite hard work getting them back in place) and many of them are in a bit of a state. But everything is $2 and it's a 100% crate-digging experience. By the time I stumbled out an hour and half later, my hands were filthy and actually bleeding.

My 10 records ended up costing me only $10 – mostly freaky old disco platters, but also this:

I can't even find this version on YouTube. 

Next stop was one place I did have on my list. Record Grouch was a much more orderly place than The Thing (not to mention cleaner), but still kind of hard to move around. They had an admirable range of strange indie records, but I was after second-hand bargains to DJ with – and they had those too. I left with a 12" of 'Heart of Glass and a Brian Wilson 7" on green vinyl fror my buddy Andy, among other things.

By that time New Zealander Mac Hodge was texting me to hook up for an intriguing-sounding opportunity. An artists' collective in a house near the Newkirk Plaza subway station had built up a big pile of records over the years – and we'd been invited to go for a free dig.

There turned out to be a lot of 90s hip hop (Jay-Z promos ahoy!), but I left that for people who'd value it more. The big find from a pretty weird collection (I gather it had mostly been accumulated by DJ-producers who wanted to sample the records), was this:

Yup, that's the original gatefold with the 3D cover panel. And the vinyl is well playable.

There was time for one more visit, to Black Gold, also in Brooklyn. They sell coffee and curiousities, but mostly records. I bought a few good things there, but I'm damned if I can recall right now which ones. Turns out I missed one of their $1 Dig sales by a week. Oh well ...

I didn't get into a record store again until the following Friday, when I was due to leave. But I had taken note of Hugh Lucero's recommendation of Good Records NYC – and I'm really glad I did. The owners were sitting in the sun outside when I arrived, but they opened up for me. And man, what a nicely-curated selection of soul, funk, jazz and disco those guys have.

I bought a few things, including the original 12" of LNR's 'Work It to the Bone' (which I have coveted for a long time), part of a remarkable stack of   mid-80s house records which I gather came in as a single lot. But the thing I didn't expect to see was Laura Lee's feisty feminist (and very sex-positive) soul album Women's Love Rights:


I didnt get to half the places I had noted down, but it was still a brilliant few days' digging. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago into London, but – for my purposes, anyway – this was next-level. You can sit there at your computer and order up anything via Discogs, but actually being there and getting your hands dirty is much more fun, and in most cases, way cheaper. I spent more time than money, believe me.

I don't know when I'll get back to New York – it's an expensive place to get to and an expensive place to stay – but, man, I hope it's not too long.

PS: Thanks so much to Gareth and Mac for showing me Brooklyn.


I was in a store on 5th Avenue in New York. They had the radio playing. And something jumped out of the burble and banter of the hosts. They're saying ... Prince is dead?

I went back out the door, got out my phone and checked Twitter. Almost unbelievably, it was true. I wasn't able to do what I'd normally do and start talking about it, so I just had to carry the knowledge through a busy day in a foreign city.

Now, more than a week on, most of what can be said, has been said. But I do want to mention one nice thing that happened later, when I had time to sit down in my tiny hotel room and take stock.

It turns out that way back in 1986, a guy called James Lewis clipped out my Rip It Up review of Prince's show at Wembley Arena on the Parade tour. He slipped it inside his copy of the Parade album. And last week, 30 years on, he fished it out, scanned it and tagged me on Twitter.

I still remember how I felt after that show. It was my first year in London and I felt I'd really seen something. When my bus passed through Trafalgar Square on the long journey back from Wembley, I realised an off-licence was open for another five minutes, jumped off and bought a bottle of cheap bubbly. I got back to Brixton and babbled to the friend I was crashing with at the time. I may have seemed a little mad.

Inevitably, I'd forgotten quite a bit of what was in the review – most notably the cameo by Ronnie Wood (yay!) and Sting (not yay) on a version of  'Miss You'. My attempts at critical balance seem a bit redundant now. But the main part, the end, where I wrote "the best thing I've ever seen" ... I'm pretty sure that's still true.


We lost someone else last week: someone closer to home. The great Bill Sevesi died, aged 92. He crafted a style of music that was was inspired by Hawaiian pop, with its characteristic steel guitar, but which now seems to speak richly of its era in New Zealand history. And he was, by all accounts, a lovely man. That certainly seemed the case last year when he was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame and talked about the importance of music.

There is some lovely writing about Bill. Graham Reid wrote about his "timeless ... magic" music on Public Address in 2004, and observed this about the man:

Whenever I mentioned Bill's name in print while I was at the Herald he never failed to ring and say thank you. Those messages, usually just left on the answer phone, were genuine and never unwelcome. He wanted nothing more than that, just to say thanks. That is rare, and Bill is a rare musician and an even more rare individual.

Graham also interviewed Bill in 2011 and theorised that while he claimed to speak three languages, he actually spoke four – the fourth being "the musical history of Auckland".

And, of course, there's Chris Bourke's definitive entry on Audioculture.

Here's Bill, front left, in the early 1960s.


Couple more things. Duncan Greive at The Spinoff has done a fascinating interview with Emily Littler of Street Chant. They play the King's Arms tonight (ie: Friday).

Anthonie Tonnon plays his first full band show with The Successors in nearly a year at the Wine Cellar tomorrow night, before heading off to tour Europe with Nadia Reid.

And although it's not wholly a music event, Open Streets on Karangahape Road on Sunday will feature a stage curated by the good people at Neck of the Woods. I've written a substantial magazine feature on the place and I seriously doubted that K Road would ever be closed to traffic, so the more people who get along on Sunday, the better the chances it will happen again. Can you imagine a music festival literally on the street on K Road? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.


The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant


How the years flew by ...

Four or five years ago, there was a reliable social media set-piece associated with newspaper stories about couples struggling to buy in the Auckland housing market. A typical example was this 2012 story about buyers getting innovative to try and get the attention of vendors.

These twerps needed to lower their sights, said some people (who generally didn't live in Auckland). Well, no, said other people (who generally did live in Auckland), there's something worrying going on with house prices. These spoilt professionals needed to pick a cheaper suburb, said the doubters. But that just forces up prices and and displaces aspiring homeowners on lower incomes, said the worriers.

David Farrar at Kiwiblog had a different response to the story linked above in a post headed Herald omits key facts:

On a minor note, they are economically illiterate. There are some sounds reasons to have a capital gains tax. But reducing house prices is not one of them. A tax on housing will increase house prices, not decrease them.

But is it a coincidence that this random couple said that the solution is capital gains tax – the key tax proposal by the Labour Party?

Either the reporter was unaware that Kate has been the Womens vice president of the Labour Party for the last six years, or they decided not to tell the public this.

Kate was also a candidate for Labour in 2008 and 2011. The failure to disclose this in the article is appalling. Even worse it is their lead story online with the headline “Buyers begging for home”.

I presume – well, actually, I'd hope – that Farrar knows very well a capital gains tax isn't "a tax on housing". But his principal concern at the time wasn't the substance of the story, but in deflecting criticism of his party's studied inaction on the developing housing crunch. (Whaleoil wrote much the same post about the same couple, only nastier.)

The median house price in Auckland at the time the story was published in November 2012 was $530,000. In April 2016, the media house price in Auckland is nearly $1 million. And John Key, the Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, is proposing – sort of – a tax on housing.

Relatively wealthier buyers have been, predictably, displacing the relatively less wealthy in the interim. But it's actually worse than that. Duncan Garner justifiably rages about what's happening in Auckland's southern working-class suburbs:

If you want to know what's wrong with Auckland's housing market, then Otara is a poster-child for failure.

Auckland's 'working poor' - the hard working, taxpaying, minimum wage cleaners and factory workers - can no longer afford to live in the working class suburbs set-up to house them.

It's a bloody disgrace and it's wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. We need to rally against this.

Houses are now selling for $600,000. This one in Otara is for sale right now and it's attracting attention from investors only. One investor has shown interest from Portugal!

Garner's column follows the publication of a University of Auckland study indicating that 80% of freestanding houses in Otara are now owned by investors, rather than the people who occupy them. (The figure for Papatoetoe West is 63%, a staggering 38-point increase since 2010.)

There's something stomach-churning about this. When we were a young family of renters in Grey Lynn in the 1990s, the funny old Tongan bloke next door got what was – then – a good price for his house on the Richmond Road ridge. He bought two adjacent houses in South Auckland  so his family could live together, with a bit of money left over, and he was happy about that.

That way exists no more. The Pasifika who once called Grey Lynn home are mostly long gone and the chance to benefit from the inner suburbs' gentrification was a generational one-off.

We do need property investors, large and small, because we need landlords prepared to rent property. But with the lamentable protections for tenants under New Zealand law, the near-wholesale transition of the city's most vulnerable populations to a lifetime of renting is deeply troubling.

We have relied more than we care to confess on capital gain on property in New Zealand. It was an important underlying factor in the relatively bountiful years of the last Labour government. Capital gain has sustained farming more than most people realise. But the current government has consistently opted for a minimal response to what has now clearly become an irreversible wealth transfer, a situation where investors benefit from leaving their residential properties empty in a city that desperately needs available dwellings.

The Prime Minister and his Finance minister are now basically sending up trial balloons on the problem. Perhaps we wouldn't be quite where we are if they and their  internet helpers had been more focused on the substantive issue than the politics these past five years.


The place where things happen strangely

Imagine if New Zealand's social, public health and judicial policy was subject to a veto from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. If those nations were in a position to dictate what our elected government could do or not do, how it could act on evidence, how it should regard the human rights of its citizens. Scary, huh? That's basically what's happening at UNGASS 2016, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

A month ago, in Vienna at the meeting of the quaintly-named Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the hardline countries basically outlasted the others to haul the UN consensus process their way. The result was the UNGASS 2016 "outcome document",  which is set to be adopted during the first couple of hours of the meeting tomorrow. This turgid document does make some new concessions to the idea of drugs as a health issue, but absent are both the concept of harm reduction (the subject of a perennial pissing contest at these events) and any condemnation of of the death penalty for drug offences.

After a fairly comical experience collecting my UN media pass (see my tweets), I arrived in time for an UNGASS side event called Getting Better Results: Aligning Drug Policy Objectives Within the Wider UN System, which was chaired genially and effectively by Peter Dunne. It was a reality check.

The nub of the discussion was the search for more meaningful metrics in assessing the actual outcomes of drug policy – and in particular whether such policy serves the objectives of the UN family, the Sustainable Development Goals or SGDs. Almost every speaker wrote off the chance of meaningful change at UNGASS – a meeting originally brought forward at the request of Latin American countries who sought meaningful change to global drug control policies.

Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, lamented a "critical missed opportunity" and declared that "the drug policy status quo will act as a barrier to attainment of the SGDs". Mike Trace, chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium, recalled being at UNGASS 1998 and signing off the fateful slogan ("and it was a slogan") about a "drug-free world". The outcome document in 2016 is full of talk about this drug-free world, 18 years on. Dunne diplomatically observed the "balance between traditional and newer approaches to drug policy".

Towards the end of the session we saw something I'm told will be a feature of the discussions: the Russian Derailment. A Russian delegate demanded that Maghsoudi tell him "one concrete example" of an indicator that could be used to measure. She pointed out the ICSDP had given an open letter listing many such indictators. He responded by essentially telling her he could read, she was a silly little girl and he wanted her to personally "just tell me one".

Okay, she said: "Counting overdose deaths."

The next side meeting I went to focused on the death penalty. The panelists noted that 160 countries have either abolished the death penalty or not longer use it in practice. But among the small number of countries who still practice capital punishment – principally Iran, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia – its use is increasing sharply. Canadian Rick Lines, the impressive executive director of Harm Reduction International, spoke of the half-dozen countries who execute their people for drug offences as "a very extreme fringe of the international community".

But it's a fringe whose ends are being quite well served by UN process. Next door to the room I'd been in, the Civil Society Forum was taking place in a room far too small for all those who wanted to participate. It was hot and it stank and Ann Fordham, chair of umbrella group the International Drug Policy Consortium, denounced civil society's treatment as "unacceptable" on Twitter.

The third side event I attended was, again, about aligning drug policy with the UN's own stated goals. Remarkably, represtatives of the Justice ministries of Thailand and Jamaica expressed horror about the outcomes of their own drug laws. The Jamaican, Kathy-Ann Brown, who  used the words "spliff" and "ganja" liberally in her presentation, was particularly impressive. I'll try and interview her for Media Take. (There was another Russian Derailer during the Q&A, although this one made a little more sense.)

But all of this is not to say that the reformers have lost hope for the ideas of human rights and evidence-based policy. At least half of them looked forward to 2019 – when the review of UNGASS 2016 is scheduled  – as the time for progress. That has become what 2016 is really about.

This week, Peter Dunne has been invited to dine with George Soros, Richard Branson and Nick Clegg at Soros' New York pad. They're all about 2019 and they're looking to win political hearts and minds. Dunne himself will give a speech to the General Assembly that – as I've been trying to tell people for a while now – places him firmly in the reform camp.

If even the small hopes of the reform community have been dashed this year – people had hoped that the words "harm" and "reduction" might finally appear together – what's now happening is actually pretty interesting. It could get very interesting, depending on what Barack Obama says when he rolls up later this week.

But tomorrow morning, UNGASS proper begins, UN process will happen and the lame outcome document will be adopted before anyone (including the New Zealand speakers) gets a chance to debate it.

It's a strange place, the United Nations, but a fascinating one. My media accreditation allows me a fair degree of freedom. This morning, I watched the Security Council perform a set-piece on on the terrible situations in the Middle East: the Israeli and Palestinian delegations both walked out in what seemed like some grim act of choreography. Later, I stood a few feet away from former British PM Gordon Brown as he continued discussion on his call for an international court to punish states which enslave and otherwise abuse children.

Things do happen here. But they often happen strangely.