Hard News by Russell Brown


"Meth contamination": the making of a moral panic

The first time I half-heard a news report about Housing New Zealand tenants "contaminating" homes by smoking methamphetamine in them, I assumed it was a mistake. Clandestine labs, sure: they can leave behind some some hazardous chemicals, depending on the actual process employed. But a dwelling being rendered uninhabitable and needing to be torn apart simply because meth was consumed in it? It didn't seem possible.

It isn't possible.

I'm grateful to Matters of Substance, the magazine of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, for commissioning me to investigate the way this all got out of hand – and for making the decision to publish the story online today, rather than waiting until the end of the month for the printed version. In the story, I wrote this:

If the “meth contamination” mess can fairly be described as a moral panic, it has broader implications than most moral panics. Not only is it creating havoc in the property investment market, it is prompting Housing New Zealand to do precisely the wrong thing with vulnerable people. 

Early on in the process, I wondered how on earth we could get out of this self-sustaining disaster. I'm more optimistic now. Dr Nick Kim's willingness to go public with his criticism of the way the Ministry of Health's meth lab remediation guidelines had been misunderstood and misused has been crucial. And the sheer cost of the misapprehension – Housing New Zealand has budgeted $22 million for testing and remediation this year and will almost certainly blow past that – has finally gained the attention of the government.

When I asked Dr Kim whether he blamed journalists for the panic, he was charitable: they were simply following the official word, he thought. I'm less inclined to be charitable. This whole thing has been allowed to develop over two or three years as a consequence of weak and credulous reporting. Time and time again, "experts" who are not experts and who have have an obvious conflict of interest have been quoted by journalists who should have known better. Instead of revealing a grossly under-regulated industry, they consistently gave that industry credibility it did not deserve.

And the troublesome guidelines themselves? As I've sought to make clear in the story, when they were created in 2010 there was a paucity of information and almost nothing in the way of formal standards internationally. There was pressure to come up with a number and that number turned out to be very low.

I note in the story that the choice of the 0.5 microgram guideline (it could equally have been the statutory level of 1.5 that applies in California) was influenced by the peer reviewing of a team from Forensic and Industrial Science and noted that part of the argument there was that methamphetamine can be treated as a proxy for other, harder-to-test-for chemicals associated with manufacture. It does seem worth acknowledging that one of those reviewers, Elizabeth McKenzie, was also doing work on meth persistence that was later reflected in her PhD thesis, and which was relevant.

But she isn't a toxicologist, the published guidelines were not intended as a benchmark for human safety and the guidelines should never have been applied outside their purpose: which was to guide the remediation of places where meth had been manufactured.

Why did the Ministry of Health stay silent while all hell broke loose? It's hard to say, but this is the kind of issue where people keep their heads down. It's notable that after his initial commentary for the Science Media Centre, observing that "the concentrations will not be sufficiently high enough to cause either psychoactive or toxic effects", Dr Leo Schep of the National Poisons Centre referred subsequent press inquiries to Dr Kim.

The real victims of this debacle are the Housing NZ tenants who lost their homes, often on the basis of no more than suspicion or gossip. As I note in the story, the corporation's meth team went some  pretty grim places with this problem – even "talking about" the idea of making universal drug tests a precondition of tenancy. They seem to have lost touch with Housing NZ's role as a social agency.

I can't be sure, but I suspect Housing NZ's practice, at least as far as remediation goes, is already quietly changing. When I visited the Housing NZ flats in Greys Avenue a little over a month ago, I counted nine places boarded up up. There are only a couple now, and some of those opened have not been stripped out. Number 37, boarded up since March, is getting a paint job only. So needless cost may be being curbed now.

That will be of little comfort to those who have lost their homes and security. This is a story of how things get out of hand, and how moral panic and drug stigma lead us to make terrible decisions.

You can read the story here at Matters of Substance.


NB: An OIA response from Housing NZ arrived after the print deadline and I was only able to incorporate a couple of key points in the story – those being that Housing NZ has ruled out doing universal baseline tests for methamphetamine before its properties are occupied, and that it took no advice on the socal impact of evicting people who may have had drug problems. I've uploaded it and you're welcome to have a look through it.


All right, then – take me to Rio

It's been a while since I approached an Olympic Games with less anticipation than the current one. And that was before someone I know had to escape from Rio because her boyfriend got kidnapped and extorted by police and their lives were not safe anynmore. Basically, Brazil seemed to have way too many problems to be holding hands and playing handball.

The spat between the Olympic broadcast rights holder Sky Television and newspaper editors didn't help either. Unwilling to sign away their fair-dealing rights-in-law to show 90-second clips from the coverage in news reports, the papers were thus denied acccess and cancelled their own reporting from Rio. It all seemed to point to an Olympics that few people would care about.

But it was impossible to dislike Saturday's opening ceremony. The colours were bright, the art direction and design were strong and that Olympic flame sculpture was a sort of psychoactive substance unto itself. Even the endless parade of athletes was oddly mesmerising. (I would have mocked the uniforms of the teams from Norway and Sweden, but as a New Zealander I'm not in a position to mock anyone's kit.)

And there is something about watching sport in state-of-the-art bells-and-whistles HD. Sports you might not usually see – in particular, sports played by women. There is, for example, an internatonal women's Sevens circuit, but the coverage is average and generally tucked away where you won't see it. Sevens in Rio looks fab, the crowd is having a proper party and our team, the Sevens Sistas, look fast and fit; none more than Tyla Nathan-Wong, who seems perpetually poised to perform a handspring.

She also tweeted this lovely picture of her mum and dad:

Elsewhere, we have that most affirming thing, a legitimate refereeing grievance. Football Ferns captain Abby Erceg received a completely bizarre red card in the course of her team's 1-) win over Colombia:

Surely Erceg's red card should be rescinded and the Colombian player Tatiana Ariza should be disciplined for attempting to deceive officials? I dunno though. Football seems to take a different view of these things.

There has also been an expression of continuity with tradition. As ever, the horse-parking round proves to the New Zealand equestrian team's achilles heel. Er, hoof.

Further in keeping with tradition, a young Australian sportsman has been a bit of a dick, allowing us access to our our own perceived national virtue of being sporting good sorts. You can't moan.

So yeah, take me to Rio and its nine channels of pin-sharp colour and graphic gizmotronics. Let's see how it goes.


Friday Music: Just William

The week began for this blog with a close look at Radio New Zealand's boffo new survey results. And then on Tuesday evening, at the launch of Murray Cammick's Flash Cars exhibition – back in a gallery for the first time in 40 years – I bumped into an old friend of Murray's, William Dart.

William has been making New Horizons, a contemporary music programme on Concert FM, since roughly the dawn of recorded time. And throughout that time he has brought an openness to new music and an ability to perceive the roughness of pop with the ear of a classical critic. He has championed and taken seriously music that would otherwise never be heard on Concert. He doesn't claim to be down with the kids – he's 69 and the wrong side of heart surgery and a stroke – but what he does provides a unique complement to RNZ's other pop music programming.

I said as much to him as we inspected Murray's photographs. He noted with some satisfaction that in his most recent programme, reviewing Lawrence Arabia's new Absolute Truth album, he had detected the inspiration (coincidental or otherwise) for the album's lead track, 'A Lake' – which was an obscure Randy Newman song, 'Snow'. The programme includes a recording of the song by Nilsson to illustrate the point.

William goes on to make a comparison with Jacques Brel and then consider a couple of tracks from an earlier Lawrence Arabia, Chant Darling. He often does this: draws a continuity not only with an artist's previous work, but with other, older musical ideas. He also notes – how did I miss this? – the Philly disco intimations of another Absolute Truth track, 'Another Century'.

William did a similar job in considering Dave Dobbyn's Harmony House album at the beginning of the year. It is a most useful service. New Horizons is available as a podcast (although the podcast subscription button on the page seems to be broken – just me?).

Another musical treat on RNZ: last weekend's return of the occasional series The Mixtape, in which John Campbell played and discussed the music that moves him. Even if you've heard the song before, there's something really good about hearing someone else speak thoughtfully about what it means to them. I listened to it while I prepared a goat curry – a sort of weekend edition of the popular weekday listening game #cookingwithjohn – and it made me happy. The goat curry turned out bloody well too.


Lontalius' 'Light Shines Through Dust' has a pretty new video by production house Arty Films. It's made with a camera obscura:


If you're one of those people who like Pink Floyd but only the early stuff, there's a box set coming for you. The Early Years 1965 – 1972 runs to 27 discs and will set you back nearly $1000:

There's also a more conventionally-priced and substantially less deluxe version. It's not out till November, but there are details and pre-order links here.


When I worked at Rip It Up in the 1980s, I met and interviewed all manner of musicians, from Nick Cave to Nico, INXS to a particularly unhappy Andy Summers. Also: Patsy Riggir.

Strictly speaking, the interview was for Rip It Up's style sibling, ChaCha. But the main thing is, Patsy Riggir was bloody lovely company and I've never forgotten it.

As Glen Moffat explains in his new Audioculture profile of Patsy, she came from a deep country music heritage – her father Jack was recording with Eldred Stebbing in 1951. She was New Zealand's platinum-selling queen of country in the 80s.



Denver DJ Funk Hunk has a new clutch of edits available as a free download – the only catch is you have to sign up to Juno download to get 'em. It's worth the two minutes it'll take.


The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant


First Thursdays: Light on the Strip

Karangahape Road's First Thursdays events have never quite happened every month – there are probably too many moving parts for that. But every time they do, they underline what makes K Road different from anywhere else in Auckland.

Last night's event was no exception. We came and wandered along while the art wandered past us. We bought some knick-knacks, ran into friends at at Rebel Soul Records and ate excellent burgers from Burger Bar in St Kevins Arcade, which has reached a good equilirium under its new ownership and looks better than it has in many years. We didn't try the silent disco downstairs, although it was clearly very popular.

There were families and old people and it sometimes seemed that everyone who wasn't part of the art was taking pictures of the art. It's my favourite place to take photographs (all pics taken with my iPhone SE) and last night's "light" theme made it even better than usual.

Did I mention that I bloody love K Road?


On the Clark candidacy

Just me, or did yesterday's confirmation by the Māori Party that it will not endorse Helen Clark in her bid to be the next UN Secretary general flick some kind of switch? The not-unexpected announcement provoked a furious political response and some citizens were needlessly rude to Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox when she restated the party position on Twitter.

Social media abuse also flowed the other way, towards liberals who debated the stance ("shut the fuck up" was one of the less useful contributions). Others were moved to state their own misgivings about the Clark candidacy. After the whole thing had drifted on for months as a matter of vague patriotic duty, we seemed to finally be saying what we really thought. It seems worth considering in more than 140 characters.

I don't debate the Māori Party's right to withold its endorsement of Clark and I think the response to its decision has been excessive. The decision is not "treachery" or anything like it. I realise these things will be perceived differently in te ao Māori and I can't presume to to tell anyone what to think about that. And I have a high degree of respect for both Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell. I met Marama not long after she was elected and was hugely impressed by her.

But I do firmly believe that if you're going to expand the argument to the Secretary General candidates' "skills" or "knowledge" in the interests of indigenous peoples – as both party co-leaders have done – there is probably no stronger candidate than Clark. In part, that's simply a reflection of her role as head of the United Nations Development Programme, but it's true nonetheless.

But it's not that straighforward. In its troubled last term, Clark's government was one of only four (along with Canada, Australia and the US) that declined to sign the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Its ostensible reason for doing so – that the declaration was in conflict with New Zealand law and practice and the Treaty of Waitangi in particular – was not actually invalid.

But it could and should have done what National did three years later and reserved exceptions on that basis. It would not have won a Parliamentary vote to do so in 2007 – but it didn't need to. The declaration isn't a treaty or a convention and it requires no ratification. As a statement from John Key noted no fewer than four times when Pita Sharples eventually went to New York to affirm it in 2010, his goverment was accepting the declaration as an "aspirational" document.

New Zealand's relationship with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights was already uncomfortable in 2007, given that office's strong criticism of the way property rights were appropriated in Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. (It's worth noting that this was before National's 180-degree shift on the same issue: then-Māori Affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee urged Clark's goverment to "show this report the respect it deserves by throwing it straight into the dustbin".) This article for the New Zealand Yearbook of International law by Fleur Adcock (not the poet) offers an interesting perspective on what actually did and didn't change when the  Act was replaced. But Key's government was able to find a political way forward, Clark's wasn't. She has to wear that.

And yet, as administrator of UNDP, she signed and helped direct the creation of this handbook for the implentation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since taking up the role in 2009, she has consistently kept the interests of indigenous people in the conversation. Earlier this year she noted in a formal statement that:

At the global level, UNDP engaged last year with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples throughout the process of consultation and drafting of the UN System Wide Action Plan (SWAP) for the implementation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The SWAP will bring more coherence to UN interventions in support of indigenous peoples’ rights.

It's wordy and procedural but it does mean something. That same might be said of the big policy achievement of her UNDP tenure, the Sustainable Development Goals. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem. I was struck by the way the SDGs – which essentially define and test the reasons we make policies – provided almost the only overarching philosophical rigour at that big and sometimes bizarre meeting.

UNDP's submissions in advance of UNGASS were high-quality and influential and I spoke to a number of NGO representatives who were very excited by the prospect of her winning the post of UN Secretary general. I interacted with several UNDP people and that also reinforced the impression that this was a UN agency that was running well.

It's also a UN agency that Clark reformed, slashing management roles in a way that was virtually unprecedented. It cost her politically, but brought the agency within its means. Her style in doing so may also have been, as Colum Lynch's Foreign Policy article argued, vindictive and possibly driven by her ambition for the top UN job. But if Clark, as she has repeatedly indicated, sees herself as willing and able to carry out reform of the United Nations and make it "fit for purpose", there can be little doubt she has the ability.

There are other reasons to favour a Clark candidacy: it's long past time for a woman Secretary General, and it would be nice (and good for New Zealand) to have a New Zealander in the role. But I think more important are the specific reason of her engagement with indigenous peoples' interests over the past seven years and the general reason of her willingness and ability to reform the United Nations from the top.

So, I'm not telling anyone to get over anything and I think the Māori Party should be allowed to take its own position without its leaders being abused on social media or anywhere else. But I do think Helen Clark has a strong case to be the next United Nations Secretary General.


Anyway, there's one thing we can all get together and laugh about. And that is what happened with the Guardian column by Carl Ungerer, the former advisor to the unloved aspirant to the SG role, Kevin Rudd. In criticsing the Australian government's decision not to back Rudd, Ungerer wrote this:

Presumably the Turnbull government will now vote for Helen Clark from New Zealand.

But Clark is unacceptable in Washington, and is not well respected among the UN establishment. For Washington, she will always be the anti-nuclear campaigner that forced the split among the “Five Eyes” intelligence community.

Some Twitter friends drew my attention to the column, suggesting that this didn't seem right. It wasn't, of course: it was hilariously wrong. And then, overnight, Ungerer doubled down:

Carl Ungerer's Twitter bio describes him as Head of the Leadership, Crisis and Conflict Management Programme, Geneva Centre for Security Policy; former Senior Adviser to Australian Foreign Minister. The GCSP's motto is "Where knowledge meets experience". It charges actual money.