Hard News by Russell Brown


Masters of Reality

It's a week since the Prime Minister's statement, the annual opening act of Parliamentary politics, when the leader traditionally sets out the governing party's plan for the year.

This year, the statement was prefaced with a look at the government's new messaging strategy on Opposition leader Andrew Little. Having presumably despaired of finding anything significant that Little has done wrong, the Prime Ministerial comms team has settled on declaring that he has done nothing and is, in the words of the execrable pun my taxes paid someone to write, "Andrew Do-Little". (Expect the more suck-up ministers to to start including that into their speeches, the way they dutifully prefixed David Cunliffe's name with "tricky".)

Key expanded on his theme by marvelling at how little Labour (the Opposition) had lately achieved compared to his government (the government). His first example, remarkably, was the progress on the Waterview tunnel project. Which was odd, because John Key's government did nearly everything it could to avoid building the project we see taking shape now.

In 2009, Steven Joyce even declared the tunnel cancelled in favour of a cheaper surface road:

A planned five kilometre long tunnel under Auckland's Mount Albert electorate has been cancelled by the Government, which says it is too expensive and will instead build on the surface.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said the Waterview Tunnel would have cost $2.77 billion while a surface road will cost up to $1.4 billion ...

What emerged after Joyce's announcement was a new clutch of options from NZTA, all involving more road and less tunnel, and more and cheaper cut-and-over tunnelling (the surface option was never going to be entirely on the surface, if only for the need to cross railway lines). Part of the previous tunnel route would instead be an open trench and NZTA was even considering building a new motorway interchange on New North Road, right on top of a residential area.  That was still enough to stitch up poor Melissa Lee, who, as National's candidate in the Mt Albert by-election, had been loyally promoting what would have been an even more ruinous surface road.

The views of interest groups fell as might have been expected, but the New Zealand Herald's editorial response was notable. It said that the government "now runs the risk that the Waterview decision will damage the Government not just in the affected neighbourhood, but more generally. Motorways have divided many older Auckland communities, obliterating some. In most cases the damage was unavoidable; not this time."

Like its original surface-road preference, the government's cost-saving solutions didn't endure. By December 2009, NZTA, which must have been feeling like a political football, announced a reversion to continuous tunnels and a plan that looked much more like what had been on the cards under Labour than the solutions touted in May. Which is what is now being built.

After I had tweeted a comment on the ironies of the Prime Minister's claim, I received a reply from none other than Steve Joyce:

I replied:

The minister said:

What really happened was that the government initially touted a surface road, floated several half-pie solutions and wound up with something not so far from the original tunnel proposal. They backed down in the face of political risk.

All of this is a long way of getting to what happened yesterday around the controversial SkyCity convention centre proposal. Already, David Farrar is enthusing about how the government "held firm" and forced SkyCity to "back down" from its demand for a further cash subsidy (on top of the huge regulatory subsidies already granted) for the convention centre.

What actually happened is a little different. In December, after SkyCity made its bid for public money, Joyce proposed, outrageously, that Auckland ratepayers should provide it. After that idea went down very poorly, John Key warned that a failure to hand more money to SkyCity could result in "an eyesore" in the central city.

In the end, of course, the decision was made that there would be no cash subsidy (apart from the $34 million taxpayers will spend promoting the convention centre, which everyone seems to have forgotten about), and that SkyCity would simply deliver less for the value of the remarkable regulatory subsidies that were supposed to cover the construction of the convention centre. This is being sold as a win.

But SkyCity has already pocketed benefits that were not supposed to be part of the original deal. This section of David Fisher's special report last month on the unusual deal is particularly notable:

After two years hammering out the agreement, SkyCity and the Government have yet to agree a design.

The original timetable shows a final "detailed design" to be completed by July.

The documents the Herald obtained show SkyCity started making changes almost immediately after it secured land from TVNZ in September 2013.

The most significant was the placement of a 300-room hotel on the TVNZ land. SkyCity had said for years the land was needed for the convention centre.

It was one of two "major initial concerns" held by officials. It meant "none of the convention centre is actually built on ex-TVNZ land".

In a briefing document a month later, officials said the change in hotel location made use of land that was "more valuable" and the "value proposition needs to be adjusted".

They drafted "suggested draft terms of reference" for the convention centre "evaluation" but no new valuation was conducted.

So the government ordered TVNZ, a crown-owned company, to sell land to SkyCity – actually making the offer to SkyCity without consulting the TVNZ board. And now SkyCity is to use the land for a hotel that was not part of the original agreement. The land was probably substantially undervalued, so it's quite a steal for the casino. (It's worth noting that a similar thing happened around one of other sweeteners in the deal – the extension of SkyCity's licence. An independent valuation from Korda Mentha found that the licence extension was worth as much as $115 million. SkyCity got it for a value of $75 million.)

But we wouldn't be done without one last act of reality-warping from the Pirme Minister, speaking to Mike Hosking this morning:

Mr Key said there was nothing unusual in the controversial original deal in which the Government agreed to let SkyCity install more pokies and gambling tables in return for the company building the convention centre.

"Helen Clark did the same thing actually, Labour forget that. That's how we got the first convention centre," he said. SkyCity opened its first convention centre in Federal St in 2004, eight years after the casino opened in 1996.

This is a lie, one I covered when it was was first deployed by Farrar in 2013. It is true that SkyCity was granted an additional 230 pokies in 2001 (yes, the same number it got in the current deal, and I don't think that's a coincidence). But the claim that "Helen Clark did the same thing" is simply and demonstrably false.

In 2001 there were no private dinners with the Prime Minister, no preferential treatment for SkyCity, no critical report from the Auditor-General. And, most importantly, the government did not make the decision. That was done by the five-member Casino Control Authority – which was chaired at the time by soon-to-be MP Judith Collins.

What Labour did do was amend the Gambling Act to prevent such a thing happening again.

 Much like the Prime Minister's claim that his government had been "vindicated" by the Auditor-General (who was then obliged to tell a select committe this was not in fact the case), this is simply an invention.

Danyl McLachlan recently wrote a blog post about this phenomenon, titled Key and reality, which concluded:

The same thing is happening with the Sabin scandal. Key’s line is that Helen Clark didn’t stand down as Prime Minister during ‘painter-gate’, so why should Sabin have stood down as Chair of the Law and Order Select Committee while he was being investigated for assault? Of course, assault is a bit more serious than Clark signing a painting. But also, during ‘painter-gate’ and for many years subsequent National screamed that Clark should resign, and that she was our most corrupt Prime Minister ever. Key’s constant refrain that he’s only as bad as, or not much worse than the PM his party denounced as ‘quite simply the most corrupt in New Zealand history’ is a bad, nonsensical argument, and members of the ‘reality based community’ wonder aloud at how he can say such things and remain popular. But it works because the reality-based community is not the important audience, what’s important is that he gets to make it on infotainment shows where he enjoys good relationships with the hosts and there’s no balance or right of reply.

That's what they're betting on here.


Friday Music: Love Unknown Orchestra

It's been quite a week for Ruban Nielson. Firstly, a new Unknown Mortal Orchestra tune, the title track from a forthcoming album, has been rapturously received. Secondly, he has a hand in the new track from Wu Tang Clan founder GZA. I mean, what did you get out the door this week?

The new UMO single, 'Multi-Love', is wonderful. It takes UMO's mystery pop into the electronic realm. It's fluid and beguiling. It reminds me a bit of Hot Chip, and not only for the falsetto vocal:

You can buy that on iTunes, and read Stereogum's interview with Ruban.

Meanwhile, Pitchfork has the lowdown on the GZA single, a collaboration with Tom Morello, UMO and Hanni El Khatib, which is also pretty fine (and is a free download!):


When the great Frankie Knuckles passed away last year, DJs, producers and dance music fans alike expressed their debt to the man and his work. Now, in advance of the first anniversary of his death, March 31, several of Britain's most prominent beatmongers have made that debt material – and the result is is wonderful in more than one way.

Underworld, Junior Boys Own founders Pete Heller and Terry Farley, and the Mysterons have re-recorded 1987's 'Baby Wants to Ride', the second single Frankie wrote with Jamie Principle. Money raised from the sale of a limited-edition 12" and a digital download will go direct to the Frankie Knuckles Fund (part of the Elton John AIDS Foundation).

And furthermore, it's a banger:

You can go here to buy a four-track download or (while stocks last) the limited-edition 12". I liked it so much I bought both. Hey, it's for charity!


Back in the old days, when horseless carriages were a novelty and hardly anyone had tattoos, we used to write each other letters. Long, mad letters full of news, ironic abuse and typing errors (yes, typing – we weren't cave people!). And some of the letters I most enjoyed receiving were those from legendary Dunedin record store owner and sports columnist Roi Colbert, not least because these contained even more ironic abuse than was usual for the times.

It was fortunate for all of us that Roi's love for music and way with words outstripped his frankly diminutive physical stature. And those two gifts are with him still in a new Otago Daily Times column that addresses one of the enduring questions in New Zealand music: what exactly is Shayne Carter singing in 'She Speeds'?

Love the opening lines, Shayne,'' I wrote.

''And I quietly bound with the dawn, hey man, a number that is bounding beyond.''

After a lengthy silence during which I could almost smell his incredulity, he replied - ''And I quietly count with her gone, name any number and I'm counting beyond.''

Really? I quickly countered with ''Caress without a neigh''.

I had always loved that seamless slide into horse metaphor.

''Caress one night away,'' replied Shayne.

The occasion for the column – as if a man like Colbert needs one to write his tosh – is Southern Sinfonia presents: Tally Ho! Dunedin Sound Songs & Singers on February 28, where the likes of Shayne, Martin Phillipps, David Kilgour and Graeme Downes will share the Dunedin Town hall stage with the Sinfonia's performers.

Speaking of Dunedin, there's a new Flying Nun compilation of the brilliantly brattish The Stones on the way,  curated by Bruce Russell with design and illustrations by Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox, and liner notes from Shayne Carter. You can pre-order it and listen to a previously-unreleased track here.


Over at Dubdotdash, Peter Mac has news of a new video of Auckland in the 1970s, with a soundtrack by Scratch 22. Cool.

If you haven't seen the rundown of the talk content I'm producing at Splore next weekend, it's here.


How ya like this Zeitgeist, Kanye? A few hours ago, Cousin Cole posted a remix of of Beyonce's 'Partition' that is basically a mashup with Beck's 'Loser'. (I can't believe I had to explain this one to my darling. We play in different parts of the culture.)

Meanwhile, Chelsea Jade has posted an a capella (strictly, it's the vocal stem from what, I presume, is a full cover version) of Rihanna's 'You Da One', with an invitation to use and re-use:

In a wholly different vein, Christchurch's Devilish Swing and the Holy Rollers have this delightful 50s pastiche on TheAudience. It's a free download if you click the fan button on their profile:

See Hannah McGowan's profile of the band here.

And, finally, the first new tune from Pikachunes in a while. It's about love and communication ...


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Talking @Splore

As I've noted here already, I'm curating and presenting a talk programme at this year's Splore festival, February 20-22. It's diverse and busy and I'm very happy with how it has come together. The programme will run on Saturday and Sunday from 10.30am at two different venues on the festival site.

(I talked about it with the excellent Esther Macintyre on 95bFM and I'm happy to say she liked it so much she signed on as stage manager.)

The two days have respective themes. The Listening Lounge on Saturday is basically news-you-can-use; and my starting point for Art & Soul on the Sunday was "secular church". In Art & Soul, I'll be talking to people not only about their work, but about the things around that work. For instance, Sam Scott from the Phoenix Foundation will muse on having a normal family life while being in a band, artist Marcus McShane and I will enthuse about creative cycling and Tourettes will talk about old Grey Lynn and living and working with a chronic illness.

If you're coming to Splore, do come by and visit. If you're thinking about coming to Splore, you still can!



SATURDAY at the Living Lounge

10.30 - 11.00 KNOW WHERE YOU STAND

Tapapakanga Regional Park, the home of Splore, is part of an area with a long and significant history. The multi-talented Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal will open The Listening Lounge. Charles’ family owns the farm immediately to the south of the Splore site and he will tell the stories of the land and its people (Ngati Paoa and Ngati Whanaunga) – and look forward to the future of a “new indigeneity” and the “deep identification” with the land that should be key all New Zealanders’ identity.


Splorers talk about their enterprises and making a better world in lightning Pecha Kucha format.

- Dave Watson, Greenshoot Pacific

- Ryan Everton, Globelet.com

- Sam Gribben, ex Serato, now various music-tech startups

- Patrick Reynolds, TransportBlog


What's the state of music? And where is mix culture at? Moderator Russell Brown, Serato co-founder Sam Gribben and Splore headliner Mr Scruff go looking for the love.


New Zealand's biggest city is emerging from decades of poor planning and low imagination. But as the city gets its head up, it's a good time to talk about what Auckland could be.

- Patrick Reynolds, TransportBlog

- Zoe Lenzie-Smith, Generation Zero

- Ross Liew, Cut Collective and Auckland Council public art advisory committee

- Amanda Wright, Greenshoot Pacific



SUNDAY at The Splace, far end of the beach by the lagoon, past The Beach House.

10.30 - 10.50  Samuel Flynn Scott, the Phoenix Foundation

10.50 - 11.20 Hilary Ord, secular celebrant

11.20 - 11.40 Marcus McShane, artist and cyclist

11.40 - 12.00 Eddie Johnston aka Race Banyon aka Lontalius, musician

12.00 - 12.20 Dominic "Tourettes" Hoey, poet and musician


There's a whole lot more on, of course, including Roy Ayers on Friday evening and a four-hour set by Mr Scruff on Sunday. Come along!


Stella and the Fun Palaces

This is an extended version of an interview with Stella Duffy, conducted in mid-November while I was in London and originally published in Fairfax's Saturday Your Weekend magazine. Since the interview, Stella has made her trip to Nigeria (and written beautifully about it on Facebook), got married to Shelley for the fourth time, seen her Doctor Who book published, summed up her year and, earlier this month, had remedial surgery for the problematic breast reconstruction that had left her in pain and discomfort for months. Uncharacteristically, she is reported to have brifely listened to entreaties for her to take a damn rest afterwards. She is now back talking about Fun Palaces to anyone who will listen. You can follow Stella on Twitter

Many thanks to Your Weekend editor Sarah Daniell, who originally commissioned the story, for permission to post this here.


"I'm such an idiot," laments Stella Duffy. "I should have known better."

It's been an interesting week for Stella Duffy, novelist, playwright, theatre director, actor, occasional cancer patient, New Zealander. Yesterday, the Independent newspaper named her and her wife, playwright Shelley Silas, as one of Britain's "rainbow power couples". Today, she's being lambasted as an ungrateful wretch by Guardian readers.

It began the week before, when she wrote a laser-focus blog post about a consultation on the surgery that had addressed her second breast cancer (the first was in 1999, when she was 36). About standing semi-naked in front of a young, male breast reconstruction surgeon who seemed concerned only with how her breasts, including the one "that has, brilliantly, not had cancer," looked to him, rather than felt to her.

The British Medical Journal approached her to ask if it could run a shortened version, but The Guardian's Comment is Free editor was keen to re-publish it in full, where it would reach a bigger audience. She agreed. Now, the site's moderators can barely keep up with comments that don't "abide by our community standards". Her wife is away and she's been working at home all day, unable not to look at the comments.

She will end the week by flying to Lagos for the British Council, to lead workshops around her retrospective anthology of short stories, Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined. She's realistic about the need to tread carefully around "the sex and the lesbian stuff" in the collection, but otherwise has little idea of what to expect.

Although she grew up in Tokoroa and got her degree at Victoria, Duffy is far less well-known in New Zealand than she is in the land she left as a four year-old and has once again made home.

The journeys between London and Tokoroa are, to her, the story of her life and work. She tells the story in long, elliptical loops: her father, who came from New Zealand "to fight the fascists" in 1939, flew with the RAF's 75th Squadron, was a Nazi prisoner of war for four years, settled in London, had one failed marriage, met and wed her mother. And then, momentously, in 1967, boarded a vessel to New Zealand with Stella, her mother and her older sister Veronica, leaving five grown kids behind.

Pic: Four year-old Stella crosses the equator on her way to New Zealand.

"Two times in my life I saw my dad cry," she says. "Once, when I said I wasn't going to be a lawyer or a teacher. The other, when I was nearly five years old and the ship came into Wellington Harbour and my dad said 'I never thought I'd see this again' …"

She has to let a sob escape before she can carry on.

On landing, her penniless father found a job at Kinleith Mill and the family settled in Tokoroa. She was in all the school plays, wrote half of them. And one day, two young men from Theatre Corporate came to town with a shortened, two-handed Hamlet. One of them, her friends marvelled, looked like Paul Michael Glaser from Starsky and Hutch. She looked closer and realised that Starsky was Johnny Givens, from Tokoroa.

"I went to talk to him afterwards and said 'how do you do this?'. There was somebody like me in the arts. The scales fell from my eyes. I suddenly knew I could do what I wanted to do."

After taking a scholarship to Sacred Heart in Hamilton so she could study languages, she landed in Wellington to study at Victoria.

"First week at university, the week of my 18th birthday and I knew one other person who'd gone to Victoria. I was utterly scared. And on the second night there was a sort of cabaret night and I was sitting on the floor and the Topp Twins came on …"

She sighs theatrically.

"And Linda was funny and Jools was lovely and they sang beautifully. And they were clearly out. They weren't using the word 'lesbian' but it was obvious who and what they were. And they were brilliant. The Topp Twins were so important in my life.

"It all goes to this. All of it leads to what I'm doing now."

What's she's doing now, what all these stories tumble out and lead to, is the biggest project of her life.

That project is Fun Palaces, a nationwide arts-and-sciences festival that revives an idea championed by the stage director Joan Littlewood in 1961. The concept is that communities convene to gather, share and celebrate their own knowledge and skills; and that magic happens in the juxtaposition. The Tokoroa girl with the British class-consciousness is delighted that two thirds of Fun Palaces activity took place outside London. 

"What Joan wanted was that ordinary people would feel empowered and capable," she explains. "In 1961, the Arts Council sent her a letter that said 'Unfortunately, the Arts Council is interested in something Miss Littlewood isn't: art'."

In 2014, the British Arts Council gave Duffy and her collaborators £200,000 for costs as an "extraordinary award".

It was work she had personally held to through the year of her second cancer, and through the traumatic death of Silas's father. After her mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she looked out her window at St Thomas's hospital at the Royal Festival Hall, vowing that she would turn up there in three weeks' time to give a speech about Fun Palaces.

"We were prepared for me to do it in a wheelchair."

Duty, she says, was part of the family culture. Her father was president of the Tokoroa RSA for years ("a pisshead too, of course") and her mother president of the women's section.

I put it to her that she seems to understand her own motivations as clearly as if she was a character she'd written. She cackles.

"Well, I have written me. I've done two solo shows about me. Two cancers, where I have really looked at where I am and what I'm doing. So I've had to think about it a lot."

To suggest that she's a public intellectual would be to invite a slap, but she grants that she wants to be a good citizen.

"Yes. I still want to change the world, Russell. I haven't stopped wanting to change the world."

Is she always this busy?

"Yes. I am always this busy."

Today she's been working on the second draft of a commissioned play and looking forward to another dream realised -- the publication of The Anti-Hero, her first official Doctor Who novella. She picked the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, "because he's my Doctor. The slightly grumpy twinkle-in-the-eye flute and recorder player. Brilliant. And you get to have Zoe.

"It was a really different process than anything else. I had a long conversation then gave them three potential ideas. Those ideas then had to be checked with two people -- the editor, and the Doctor Who geek who works for the BBC. So I got things back that said 'At this period in the Doctor's life, Zoe wouldn't be able to be saying this'. They compare it to every episode, all the books, everything the BBC has ever endorsed and say yes, you can have that, that and that, but you can't have this piece of the idea because it was done differently there. It was so interesting."

It's illustrative of both Duffy's remarkable range and her unsqueamish embrace of what snobs call "genre fiction". Alongside her "literary" work, she has written five crime novels starring lesbian detective Saz Martin and two reimaginings of Theodora, the empress of Constantinople, which went down a storm in Eastern Europe and have been optioned by HBO.

I have been friends with Stella Duffy since she arrived in London in the mid-80s, along with the rest of us; freed of the political strictures of eighties Wellington and growing back her sensuous red curls.

"In Wellington in 1984, it was considered inappropriate to be a lesbian and have the long red curly hair that I had. I was told that many, many times by the extreme wing of how-to-be-a-lesbian in New Zealand. It … wasn't me."

She came to be an actor, "but also because Wellington was too small. The only parts anyone wanted to see me for were the lesbian in the play. No one was ever going to see me for the sexy female girl lead, no matter what fucking haircut I had."

She says she never expected to stay, but even then she always seemed more purposeful than her peers, if no less up for fun. She kept house for the rich, saved money, embraced Buddhist practice, found acting work. She never forgets Tokoroa, or misses an All Black test. Did she even then have a vision for what she wanted to be?

"Yeah. Lady Macbeth at Stratford. I still do. And there's still time. I really believe that people play the Macbeths too young. Lady Macbeth should be in her sixties, it should be her fucking last-ditch attempt.

"There's still 10 years for that. That's why I came."


Stella Duffy dances by the Thames. Photo credit: Nadia Nervo.


CWC 2015: Contains graphic horror

If you happened to see Australia thump India in the last of their Cricket World Cup warm-up games last night, then you got a first look at the coverage you will see throughout the tournament. And you quite probably thought something along the lines what in the name of all that is holy am I watching?

The coverage is being produced by the Indian-based, Murdoch-owned channel Star Sports, which has paid millions of dollars to be the Cricket World Cup 2015 "host broadcaster". The ICC is billing it like this:

It won’t be possible for all cricket fans to be in the venues to watch the action first-hand so the next best thing will be ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 broadcast’s array of on-air enhancements and compelling and new graphic presentation to accompany the insightful and trusted voices of its expert group of commentators.

What that long and unlovely sentence actually means is this. Some version of this video game-like status bar, bobbleheads and all, takes up the bottom of the screen though most of the live action, including when deliveries are bowled ...

And when shots are played ...

Cuts between replays are stuffed with pointless, ugly visual garbage. The "on-air enhancements and compelling and new graphic presentation" look, frankly, like something the eighties called to say it didn't want back.

But it's not just the ugly graphic bling. On the highlights video here, look at Mitchell Johnson's dismissal from 02:21. He skies one and the cameraman and director are flailing first to get a shot that isn't obscured by the bar, then to find the ball, and end up with a crash zoom on the catcher. It's all over the place, like neither of them know the ground. There were other such wobbly moments in last night's coverage.

That's presumably because the "host" broadcaster has shipped in as many as 200 production staff for the Australian games and an unknown, but presumably large number to run coverage at New Zealand grounds. The Australian's "security fear" angle today is silly, but the rest of the story is interesting:

The mass of foreign workers for the World Cup has upset ­unions, crew and local broad­casters for a number of reasons, including job security, safety, the degradation of wages, and the possible outcome the event will not even provide a net economic benefit to the local broadcast sector.

Safety is a particular concern. Workers needing to be inducted to work at the SCG, for instance, are doing so via computer link rather than face-to-face. It is believed the ICC’s document on safety for broadcast crew is three pages long; its document concerning the protection of image and ICC branding rights is 60 pages long.

There are doubts foreign workers are doing the induction themselves, with fears that they have also had their visa applications completed for them in such a way to bypass normal visa ­restrictions.

Indeed, it is not even known what class of visa the inter­national broadcast crews are using to enter Australia, meaning they will be paid below the required pay rates and not subject to local employment terms and ­conditions.

The paper says production call sheets indicate that 85% of crew on the four teams Star Sports has assembled to deliver coverage here and in Australia will be flown in. On the evidence of last night's game – which at times was genuinely hard to watch – it would seem that we're in for significantly poorer coverage than we're used to.

This is all about money. Star Sports has paid millions to the ICC so it can embed adverising and sponsorship IPL-style into the coverage. With India playing poorly and the more reliable commercial opportunities of the IPL lined up directly after this tournament, that plan appears not to be going too well, but you can expect in-game advertising to be normalised like it never has been before in an internatonal cricket tournament.

Maybe last night's match was a rough dress rehearsal. Maybe we'll grudgingly get used to the bling. Or maybe we'll find ourselves thinking that WASP wasn't so bad after all.

There, in all this, one small but unalloyed mercy. The "blended" commentary teams have been announced. And amongst the 30-odd former players lined up to talk over the pictures, one name is missing. There will be no Danny Morrison.