Speaker by Various Artists


The purpose of science and its limits

by Nicola Gaston

Does anyone remember the Great New Zealand Science Project?

The year before last, you may have noticed some ads on tv.  Ads involving scientists and small children – and with an associated Facebook page that got 16885 likes.  Oh, and the small matter of $60 million for investment in science, in the form of the National Science Challenges.

The National Science Challenges, despite having been announced in May last year, are still a long way from being reality.  Meanwhile, one of the most significant outcomes of the process is the 'Science and Society' Project now being developed by our Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

Last weekend, scientists and non-scientists got together in Auckland to talk about what this 'Science and Society' Challenge is all about.  The occasion was the annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and the people in attendance came from a range of geographic and disciplinary places.  I wrote a blow-by-blow report of the day which can be found on the Association’s website.

You might well wonder why such a meeting should matter to anyone other than scientists.  On the other hand, if you were inclined to be cynical about the motivations of scientists, you might wonder why so many of them are willing to sit in a room for ten hours on a Saturday to be lectured about their privilege and their responsibilities to society.

One answer is that we have an increasing number of scientists passionate about communicating their research to a broad audience: Michelle Dickinson, Siouxsie Wiles, Rebecca Priestley and Shaun Hendy and others.  This is a relatively recent phenomenon, although its current practitioners owe the late Paul Callaghan a certain something.

There is something more to it than just this, though.  A clue is provided by the way we started the day: with a thorough education in the responsibilities of an academic under the Education Act, ranging from the definition of academic freedom, to the requirement laid upon universities that they accept a role as critic and conscience of society.  In the context of the current controversial proposal to change the governance structure of Universities in the name of business-like efficiency, this all struck a chord.

However, the current situation is more complex than that.  There have been extensive changes in the science sector over the last 3 years: the closure of a Crown Research Institute (CRI), the creation of a new government agency to fund science, the closure of a Ministry, the establishment and closure of a second, and the subsequent establishment of a third (with significant loss of institutional knowledge at each step).

Current changes include the proposed closure of a major campus at another CRI and the establishment of a new funding mechanism (the National Science Challenges), at the same time as funding for our Centres of Research Excellence is up for grabs – all while we wait for a promised funding strategy, a National Statement of Science Investment.

So it was fascinating to hear an audience of scientists debate their "critic and conscience" responsibilities in this context, and to ask questions about the extent to which these provisions extend to the role of scientists at our CRIs.  The commercial context that the CRIs operate in – being required to return a profit to the taxpayer – is at odds with such a role, but then again: one of the science award winners this year, Graham Nugent of Landcare Research, gave a wonderful demonstration of how he and his team perform research for the benefit of New Zealand.  Their work on the scientific validation of methods of pest control is a wonderful example of public good research, which doesn’t necessarily fit a commercial return-on-investment model, either.

There have been other reports on the extent to which commercial imperatives are colonising science: a recent article in North and South by Donna Chisholm looked in depth at our culture of "science for sale".  Does this matter to you?  Scientific research in New Zealand is predominantly funded by the taxpayer – so should you care what sort of research the money is spent on?  How do you feel about public money being used for private good?  

Whatever your reasons for caring (or not) about science, if I needed to summarise the meeting last weekend in a single statement, I’d go with this: scientists care about society too.

The ways in which science can impact on society are not all positive, and the answers to questions that are raised through scientific investigation cannot always be found in science.  We discussed the manifold implications of neuroscientific and genetic studies of criminal behaviour: should an enhanced propensity to violence (assuming that such a thing can be as clearly stated as the writers of some popular nonfiction would have it) reduce personal responsibility, and therefore sentencing, or serve as a reason for longer incarceration?  The answer to such a question is not found in the science alone.

A persistent theme of the meeting was the social response – or lack thereof - to climate change, prompted by the opening function at which Thin Ice was shown.  The science communication award winner and film director, Simon Lamb, described his own motivations simply, mirroring statements made by the scientists he interviewed in the film: "I wanted to be able to tell my daughter that I had done what I could".

It seems to be becoming increasingly well understood that simply telling people that they are wrong about climate change is no way to change behaviour.  How then do we make progress as a society, if the simple precepts of the deficit model are so wrong?  How do we scientists contribute effectively to society, if the knowledge we produce is not, in itself, enough?

There are many things about last weekend’s meeting that deserve to generate some optimism.  Scientists, grappling with questions about the public understanding of uncertainty.  Discussions of Mātauranga Māori, extended well beyond consideration of a box to be ticked on a funding application. Deliberation over the privilege inherent in the scientific world view!  And also, the rare apparition of a politician in defence of science, when Russel Norman, who joined us as a panelist, pointed out that science has little privilege in a country where the Prime Minister can claim that scientific opinions can be provided to order.

I don’t want to move too far into the territory of cynicism here: I worry that one of the most insidious effects of the constant changes in our funding of science is that it leads to the survival of the most cynical.

What I’m talking about, is not about privileging science. Not at all.  I’ve been known to have a rant about companies that claim their products are chemical-free, or the poor reporting of issues such as the dangers of wifi in schools.  But I do so not because I am angry that people don’t understand the science.  I get angry because I know that people don’t understand the science – and I think, actually, that’s got to be okay.  Scientific knowledge is increasing rapidly, and none of us can be experts on everything.  So we need resources to support accurate reporting of scientific issues, and we need to find ways to communicate the value, if not the infallibility, of scientific opinion based on scientific fact.

I have mixed emotions when I see the kind of cardboard mounted science fair project depicted on the Great New Zealand Science Fair Project. I judged a science fair once, and despite all the great projects in evidence, I left feeling a little sick at the huge divide between the kids who had obvious parental engagement and support, and those who didn’t.  That’s without making any sort of judgement about the scientific understanding of the parents.  At primary school, I entered the science fair once – with the topic of my investigation: biodynamics.  Yes, I am talking about cow horns filled with dung buried under a full moon.  As I recall, the secret is something to do with how you alternate between clockwise and anti-clockwise stirring.

A lack of knowledge needn’t be a barrier to learning.  But if we don’t understand what matters to people, what motivates them, and what they care about – we’re only paying the barest lip service to communication.  That is the real challenge of science in society.


Dr Nicola Gaston is President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

Her day job is Principal Investigator, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.


The changing world of drug policy

by Ross Bell, executive director, New Zealand Drug Foundation

What in the world is happening with global drug policy? For something that usually moves slower than a glacier we’ve seen some significant forward progress in the past year.

Colorado and Washington have signed off on the legal sale of cannabis with a slew of other states set to follow. Uruguay has become the first country to legalise cannabis, a charge lead by President Muijca. The UK public is calling loudly for reform and Poland is looking for alternatives for policing drugs. Portugal remains a shining beacon for others looking for effective health-focussed drug law. In a recent interview with Matters of Substance, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan joined in the chorus of international leaders calling for an end to the War on Drugs. Exciting times.

But where does New Zealand lie in the changing drug policy landscape?

While the Alcohol Reform Bill was a mixed bag, we have made a few steps forward in the area of evidence-based drug policy. We now have a pilot drug court, the government has its boot firmly on the neck of Big Tobacco, and we’ve just launched a big push for drug-free driving. More on the drug-free driving later.

The jewel in our drug policy crown, however, is the Psychoactive Substances Act which came into force last year. We have called the bluff of the legal highs industry and told them to prove their wares are low-risk before sale, through tight regulations. The cover story in the latest Matters of Substance shows why international eyes are on New Zealand regarding New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

Indeed those eyes will come into even sharper focus next week in Vienna when the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meets. The CND is the forum where diplomats meet to self-congratulate and chart a new direction for drug policy (sadly, a single direction has been locked in place for over 60 years). Senior New Zealand health and law enforcement officials will be there, accompanying our very own drug policy minister Peter Dunne. And the Drug Foundation is leading a delegation of four NGO representatives to observe and keep our diplomats on notice.

This year the CND includes a high level segment. This is United Nationsese for a really important meeting during which the eventual fate of international drug policy will be decided.

There are resolutions about things like international cooperation on identifying and sharing information on NPS, and this whacky one from Russia about cracking down on the biggest of all problems for Russia at the moment: poppy seeds used in food.

There are also a number of ‘side events’ happening around the CND. These are short presentations on topics like “Harm Reduction in Prisons” and “Protecting Youth with Drug Policy: Criminalization has Failed”. We are co-hosting a side event with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse about meeting the challenges of drug-impaired driving. This will focus on our work over the past three years on drug free driving and our new Steer Clear campaign.

All this talk is going towards setting the groundwork for a special session of the UN General Assembly in 2016 which will hopefully enshrine the changing landscape into a more health-first approach.

Already some interesting things have emerged in the lead-up to CND with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yury Fedatov saying

A health-centred approach to addressing illicit drug use and drug dependence is still not sufficiently implemented in all countries, even though significant progress in this direction has been made in several parts of the world over the last few decades. Some national drug control systems still rely too much on sanctions and imprisonment, instead of health care. (emphasis mine)

This extra attention means extra scrutiny. While we may well have taken a novel approach to reduce the sanctions and imprisonment with new psychoactive substances, what about the old ones?

New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act is celebrating (commiserating?) its 40th birthday next year. It was passed in response to international treaty obligations after the first conventions on drugs were passed through the UN. It’s patchwork of amendments do not fix the underlying problem that it is a sanctions and imprisonment focussed system. As the Law Commission pointed out in its recent review the law isn’t even consistent with the Government’s policy,

If the Law Commission isn’t cool enough for you, Obama is on board with ditching the faltering status quo. In a recent interview with the New Yorker he said about cannabis:

"Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do… and African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties… we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

New Zealand has an opportunity to make our own drug policies health-focussed and evidence-based and play a role on the world stage in doing the same. You know, lead the way on change that could positively affect hundreds of thousands of lives here in New Zealand alone. We’ve seen the glacier lurch forward, let’s keep moving it along.


The New Zealand NGO delegation will be keeping you informed of proceedings. The Drug Foundation’s Jackson Wood will be blogging for the IDPC’s CND blog for the duration of the meetings and side events. We’ll be tweeting and (if you happen to suffer from insomnia) you can follow the #CND2014 hashtag. Early Follow Friday to other drug policy people who will be tweeting from Vienna.


TPP: Error Correction

by Mark Harris

On Friday, Stuff published an opinion piece about the Trans Pacific Partnership by Pattrick Smellie headed Ten things TPP critics do not want you to grasp. I was appalled by it it and felt it warranted a rebuttal. This is that rebuttal.

1. The secrecy surrounding TPP negotiations is typical of any such exercise.

While bilateral trade agreements are generally held quietly between the negotiating teams, multi-lateral agreements that will impact the sovereignty of nations, require changes to legal structures and change the way international business is undertaken are not done secretly. The negotiations to set up the World Trade Organisation itself is the classic example, not to mention the various agreements that have been conducted under its aegis. Indeed, one has to ask why the WTO is not the place for this treaty process to be conducted. Perhaps the very openness of its processes is anathema to the country driving this treaty, the USA, as it was for its failed predecessor, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement - not so much a "trade agreement" as an attempt to push US "intellectual property" laws on other nations.

In addition, by this stage of the negotiations, many parts of the treaty should be agreed and concluded, while the remaining time is spent on the points of difference. Why aren't we being told the details of the stuff that is not under contention? Perhaps because of former US Trade Representative Ron Kirk's words “If people knew what was in the TPP it would be impossible to get it passed.” It's also important to note that even Obama's own party in the US Senate is concerned and refusing to give the President the "fast-track" authority he needs to approve this treaty without their oversight, traditionally required for international treaties.

2. The bogey of corporations being able to sue governments is not only overblown, but corporations can do that now, without a TPP.

No, they can't, unless a country has signed a trade agreement that allows it, such as the one that Australia signed with the US, or the NAFTA agreement, or the U.S.-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty by which Chevron Oil was awarded a payment of $US96.4 million by one of these private tribunals. Without such an agreement in place, corporations cannot sue for lost profits or any other thing, except under the laws of the country concerned.

3. Corporations might try to sue but they'll be whistling if the government is acting in the public interest. Raising new taxes, protecting the environment, or regulating for public-health reasons won't be excuses to mount court action.

See number 2. There is no activity, as far as we are aware, that is exempt from this. If there is, why won't they tell us about it. If they have nothing to hide, surely they have nothing to fear. That's the excuse that governments are using to apply more surveillance to civil society - it's just as validly applied to them.

4. United States corporate interests are obviously among those seeking influence on the TPP agenda, but that doesn't mean the US Senate and Congress are on board. That's why US President Barack Obama is having such trouble getting "fast-track" authority to negotiate TPP.

I'm pleased, if surprised, to find at least one point I can agree with. But Smellie doesn't bother to analyse this point in any detail. WHY is the US Senate against this "fast-track" authority? Because it's very much NOT how these processes are undertaken in the US. Obama and the USTR do not want the treaty to be properly analysed by the Legislature because they know that, if the Legislature disagrees with a single clause, the treaty is nullified, and negotiations have to start again. This is why you have open processes from the start, so that the approval is only technical at the end of the game, because everyone knows what has gone before.

5. US politicians know less about what's in the TPP negotiating documents than US corporate lobbies.

This is absolutely correct, though Smellie tries to dismiss it as irrelevant. It is telling that the USTR, in calling an emergency meeting to discuss issues with the "fast-track" approval process in January, only called in the US corporate advisors, not the elected representatives of the people and not (as far as we know) any non-US-based corporates -- if anyone from Fonterra was asked to the meeting, please let me know.

"So it must be a plot, right? Well, actually, no."

Well, actually, yes. From the beginning, ACTA and the TPP have been driven by the corporate interests and not by the governing structures. They have been attempting to enact treaties that would require legislative change signatory nations in order to comply with 'international obligations", that is to force nations to change their laws to allow the corporations to make more profit. While that may be "business as usual" in the US, it's also pretty much a definition of a plot.

Smellie can't (or won't) tell us how many NZ politicians have agreed to silence themselves to get a peek at something they can't do anything about, but he's sure they can, and somewhere along the line he's missed the fact that the party in the House is a subset of the party at large, which may or may not agree with this, and that the members in the House are representatives of the population at large.

6. No-one knows what the TPP could be worth to the New Zealand economy, so the Sustainability Council is right to question the $5.16 billion figure the Government has used.

Absolutely correct. But again, Smellie does not inquire into the relevance of this small fact -- the Government has used that figure to justify its involvement even while Groser admits it may bear no resemblance to reality. There may be a huge windfall, but we may just as easily be reduced to economic vassalage. Without the detail of the treaty before experienced and independent economists there is no way to know what we are getting into. It's the equivalent of buying a car from a salesman who insists that the 0000001 odometer reading is because it's just been driven off the boat but no, you can't lift the bonnet to look at the engine.

Groser and others are holding out the promise of untold potential wealth at having trade barriers whisked away, but they don't mention that NZ already has an export meat quota to the US, for example, that we have never come within a bull's roar of meeting, let alone exceeding, or that Fonterra is already exporting to and marketing in the US for cheese and other products. Just what are we going to be exporting there that's going to make so much money?

Crickets ...

7. The US is railroading its agenda because it's just a big bully. [...]]Wikileaks versions [...] show the US on the back-foot on many of the most contentious issues.

The fact that there's so much pushback shows that the US have indeed been the bullies pushing things along and shaping the agenda. The USTR is the driver for this process, and for the secrecy, and the conduit to the US corporate interests behind it, just as it was for ACTA. What little has become public knowledge leaves no doubt on this matter.

8. This is the end of Pharmac. Balderdash.

Without seeing what's in the treaty document, it is simply not possible to say what the impact on Pharmac will be. We've recently seen India criticised by Bayer for allowing a generic drug that mimics one of its own to be produced, threatening to take the Indian Intellectual Property Appellate Board to court, while Bayer's CEO was quoted (and controversially mis-quoted) as saying "we did not develop this product for the Indian market, let’s be honest. We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly. It is an expensive product, being an oncology product." John Key has stated, more than once, that "everything is on the table". As Key outranks Groser, it's a little naive of Smellie to think that Groser's protestations will be the last word. It's also instructive to note that Pharmac has been quietly restructured in recent months, with many of the people experienced in managing the Schedule no longer having jobs.

However, points for style in using "balderdash" in an article, though it would gain more gravitas with an exclamation mark or two. Definitely two.

9. The deal will be done behind closed doors. It can't be. Every Parliament of every country involved will have to ratify any deal signed by leaders. That could take years. It will ensure public scrutiny of the detail.

This really is the big error (I use the word advisedly) in the piece and shows that either Smellie doesn't know how to read the legislative requirements for ratifying treaties, or he's been told to spout this line precisely.

I quote Steven Joyce from the House on 11 December 2013:

Hon STEVEN JOYCE (Acting Minister of Trade) : The Minister for Economic Development, as Acting Minister of Trade yesterday, may have been a little imprecise in his phraseology on behalf of the said Minister of Trade. As a result, the Minister of Trade has asked the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment to act on his behalf and make the following clarification today: it was not, strictly speaking, correct to speak of Parliament ratifying the agreement per se. In fact, Parliament examines the treaty and then considers any subsequent legislation that may arise from the treaty, but it is the Government that finally ratifies the treaty once Parliament has given its consideration on the treaty and on treaty-related legislative matters.

(Note for the punctilious: Joyce was also the errant "acting Minister for Trade" referred to and has used the practice of multiple "hats" to avoid being accused of misleading the House, in my opinion).

Further, from Werewolf:

"Treaty making is a heritage, believe it or not, of the royal prerogative,” says Auckland University constitutional law expert law professor Bill Hodge.

“Indeed in the American Constitution it is expressly given to the President to sign treaties and declare war, but there is a check and balance and they have to be ratified [by Congress]. ” That’s not the case here. “It is a direct lineage of unfettered, totally discretionary royal prerogative to exercise treaty making power overseas, because that’s something the executive does, historically.” Ultimately that ability is based on holding a majority in Parliament. Parliament’s main role will be to subsequently bring laws into alignment with such treaties – whose provisions, Hodge adds, are increasingly being recognised by the courts as forming a part of the notional, common law, even without those provisions being explicitly embedded in domestic law. The level of degree of secrecy surrounding the TPP text and negotiations would….render any informed debate on the TPP in Parliament impossible. "

Other Parliaments will indeed be able to scrutinise the detail - ours will not. For Smellie not to understand this vital point is, quite simply, astounding.

No 10: It's a done deal.

The only reason it's not a done deal at this time is the reluctance of the US Legislature to hand over their constitutional authority to the President to commit the US to this treaty. If that had been possible, this would have been completed by Christmas 2013 as anticipated. Once other countries became aware that the US faced difficulties domestically, they stood firmer on the points of difference they had and it seems it is now the US who faces having to backtrack just to get the deal done. But that won't be the end of the process. There will be clauses allowing changes and adjustments to this matter and that and, in the end, the US will get the deal it wants and, more importantly, the control over the global economy that its corporations want.

Smellie notes the Doha failure to come to agreement as the rationale for the emergence of this type of secretive agreement. What happened at Doha is that the undeveloped world said "we want a share of the pie, too!" and the developed world didn't and doesn't want to give them one. It has nothing to do with global vs regional, because there are a number of countries in or bordering the Pacific that are not included in this "regional" agreement.

MFAT have been convinced of the "free trade" argument for years, holding it as holy writ, and have actively pursued any avenue that appears to lead there, under both National and Labour. On paper there's a good argument, but NZ opened its doors from the 80s on, and it hasn't served us well because our trading partners haven't opened theirs as wide. Free trade needs to be fair to both parties and a mouse is at a disadvantage "negotiating" with a gorilla.

There is no guarantee that this treaty will do anything to change that. I'm privately aware of the efforts of our non-political negotiators trying their hardest, and I applaud them for it, but ultimately it's a rigged game they're playing.

We don't have a manufacturing base anymore -- decades of government neglect in pursuit of the free trade kool-aid have ensured that we can't make enough of anything worth exporting, apart from electronics, which is quite a portable industry, and not one actively encouraged or assisted by government. Deliberate policy (I hesitate to call it planning) has ensured the only thing we produce enough of to sell overseas is stuff we grow and, really, we just are not big enough in land mass or people to do that sustainably into the future.

It is also intensely and increasingly risky to put all our eggs in Fonterra's milk crate, as the last 12-18 months have shown. To go blindly into a treaty that may or may not change that is insanity. The US, particularly, and the other parties involved are not doing this for NZ's benefit.

I'm pleased that Fairfax decided to label Smellie's piece as opinion, because it most definitely doesn't stack up as journalism.


Splore: Making art in nature's frame

by Ross Liew

If you have ever been to Splore it’s inevitable you would have had an encounter with what has become an art programme of some reputation: a passive experience that soothed, a chance encounter that surprised, or a moment of humour, wonder or nostalgia.

I’ve experienced all of that and more. I’ve also had the opportunity to see a range of audience responses to my own work that would never happen within a gallery, or even within the city perhaps. This year, I'm Splore Arts Coordinator.

The art of Splore is a feature of the festival for an 8000-strong audience that has come to terms with the experiential, tactile and often interactive nature of the projects that are exhibited in a stunning natural setting.

The sitelocated in the Firth Of Thames looking across to the Coromandel Peninsula and featuring rolling grass fields, classic east coast pohutakawas, a sandy beach and a fresh water lagoon, offers much in the way of a environment that wants to witness the remarkable.

But while it lends a hand to making the work look good, and provides the potential for more profound moments, it presents its own set of challenges. It's an hour from Auckland City, essentially on a beach, exposed to the elements and has no existing infrastructure. But that desn't stop the production of works that at times would be scarily tech heavy within a well resourced  gallery environment.

This contrast between bare feet and bits is evident in the work TV Tree, a collaborative media work making use of MIDI and physical triggers to feed six monitors and 12 speakers the work of video artists, musicians, designers, illustrators and animators. All of this is embedded into one of the rather grand pohutakawas overlooking the beach.

The integration of technology and art continues in Love Creatures, a work by Kim Newall and AUT’s COLAB that has been designed for the Splore community. An augmented reality project, it gives the audience an opportunity to interact with one another through art, digital technology, and smartphones. If you're heading to Splore you can attend their Pecha Kucha talk and roll straight in to their digital marker-making workshop at the Living Lounge on Saturday afternoon.

There is something inherently interesting about employing the devices often touted as causes of social fragmentation, within a work that is about shared intimate experiences within a physical space. And it’s an idea expanded by the piece Relatives of Long Ago Lovers.

The work of UK collective Circumstance looks to provide unexpected experiences and explores the role of site as an integral part of their projects.

Relatives Of Long Ago Lovers is an intimate trilogy of audio works that explore how our understanding of the world and ourselves changes as we age. Each piece is for two people to experience together, and contains a mixture of narrative, an evocative music score and instructions to follow, so that you become the performers creating a miniature cinematic experience. From the 10th of Feb, Splore attendees will be able to download the collection of pieces in mp3 form or do so on site via the Telecom wi-fi hot spots.

In contrast to the tech, Brydee Rood and Indian artist Chiman Dangi present their work Jaan Temple. On the back of a series of collaborative works, their performative piece looks towards the collective establishment of a cumulative tribute dedicated to the concept of Jaan. Jaan is an Indian word meaning love, air, life and energy. In the creation of a Jaan temple the audience is invited to pay an interactive tribute to the dedication of time, energy and object around the idea of love. Starting from scratch and drawing on the natural environment for found objects to establish their temple, it is a work that simply requires the presence and engagement of other people.

And for those who really just want their sense of perception tested, and an opportunity to simply buzz out, the work of Angus Muir and Alexandra Heaney from Out Of The Dark will tick this box.

Fresh from Sydney’s Art & About, their work Field offers hundreds of new perspectives on the truly beautiful site of Tapapakanga. Field is a meditation on the nature of perspective, asking us to reflect on ourselves, those around us, our past, and what is just around the corner. See it at night for special bonuses.

In addition to these works the programme features communal crafting projects like The Street Loves Nana and Sew Some Love. Performance and storytelling form a big part of Marcus McShane’s Nag, Raylene Beals’ Camp Curious and Ka Kitea - Pita Turei and Tracey Tawhiao’s project that incorporates oratory, song, dance and star charts.

With 29 projects in all, the programme covers a lot of territory and even includes a wee bit of painting.

In a location that really does quite well without any enhancement, the sensory and emotional layers that the art programme brings to Tapapakanga really makes for a special experience. If you never have, then make an effort to get along and see for yourself, there happens to be some pretty  good music happening too. And for those who have been before, try visiting when there aren't 8000 people on site and wonder at the magic of how this picturesque coastal retreat could possibly play host to such a party. 


Colour coding Jonestown

by Simon Grigg

There’s a never-ending surrealism about life in Bangkok – I'd say Thailand but the two are sometimes only marginally the same thing.

In central Bangkok, a city of close to 15 million, where futuristic skytrains zip past at rooftop level, where some 500 skyscraper classed buildings dominate the skyline, and an increasingly advanced and sophisticated economy has doubled the average income in the past two decades, tens of thousands of citizens now sit outside on the road at six intersections every evening chanting and whistling, hoping somehow to reverse the nation into its recently escaped semi-feudal state.

Four years back, in 2010, as we sat in our townhouse, a department store was aflame some 7 short kilometres away and around it a street battle between the army and parts of the population raged. A year later 16 billion litres of water poured south towards the city and we had – pointlessly – 1 metre walls around our ground floor. As with the street battles, it passed, but more than 1300 died.

However rare is the day in Bangkok where I don’t say myself “I love this city”, no matter how much it challenges you not to. And it does.

In 2010 92 people died, allegedly (the courts have yet to decide although charges have been laid) because a guy called Suthep Thaugsuban, then deputy PM, told the army to shoot to kill, to clear the streets after a 4 month occupation. Snipers, under somebody’s orders, were used against sheltering civilians, in a temple …

The history of representative government in Thailand since the 1932 coup that overthrew absolute monarchy, is both fascinating and unbelievably complex (for more I'd recommend this book, although please don’t try to bring it into Thailand). I won’t even try to explain the mix of brutal factional power struggles, heinous US backed totalitarianism during the Cold War, and intrigue that defined the nation’s body politic until the mid 1990s when democracy seemed to finally gain the upper hand, with a guy called Thaksin Shinawatra winning ballots decisively both in 2001 and 2006.

Thaksin was, and still is, an enigma – a self made multi-billionaire, he’s an odd mix of a self-serving old school despot with serious human rights issues on his slate, and a reforming socialist with policies that gave the long ignored poor but populous north and north eastern regions of the country schools, roads, healthcare and infrastructure. He multiplied expenditure in the regions some 250% in five years and the region is clearly grateful. Much of that gratitude was expressed via the ballot box, and continues to be so. He also treated Thailand as his personal fiefdom, but did so via – however imperfectly – elections.

His power base are loosely called The Red Shirts, or Reds, and their current party is Pheu Thai.

Political power in Thailand has always been centralised around Bangkok and, to a lesser degree, the surrounding southern provinces. It devolves out from the city in feudal manner, descending from the monarchy. Regional governors are appointed and the police and mechanisms of government have little local autonomy. The mind-blowingly wealthy old elite have been joined by a fast growing middle class who number well over 5 million in the city, and an upwardly mobile urban working class of similar size. Bangkok is awash in money and an increasing awareness of its place as one of the world’s great metropolises.

The other major political grouping, which broadly represents this old power elite and much of the Bangkok middle class, especially those over 30, are called the Yellow Shirts, or Yellows, and their party is the Democrats.

This power elite initially had time for Thaksin and tolerated his grand ideas of self, but increasingly balked when he seemed to be both offering up an alternative to the centrist world they had controlled for centuries and – so the meme goes - placed himself in the middle of this alternative as an aspiring “dictator”, although there was little evidence of this. In particular the empowerment he offered the North and North East threatened the Southern establishment and the conservative middle class, a grouping that has traditionally and derisively used the word “buffalos” for the rural and provincial masses who make up 70% of Thailand.

These “buffalos” now have schools, money and fast Internet - and Thaksin gave them more: a political voice.

In 2006 the establishment hit back, and Thaksin was thrown out in a military coup, which eventually saw a rewritten constitution, intended to control the rising red wave, and an appointed administration under Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrats. Thaksin – accused of every crime known to humanity by the new junta, with some fairly well substantiated charges of corruption amongst them – fled Thailand, eventually basing himself in Dubai where he still resides.

Following the 2010 blood, a traumatised nation held an election and Pheu Thai stormed into power, taking 48% of the valid votes, in an election hailed by observers and the UN as fair and clean by Thai standards. They were led by Yingluck Shinawatra, a businesswoman with two degrees in Political Science and Business Admin, including a masters from Kentucky State. The problem with this - according to the Democrats who were firmly trounced in the election, and the Bangkok establishment - is that she is Thaksin’s sister.

Fast-forward to mid-2013 (I’m keeping this as uncomplicated at I can) and Pheu Thai, headed by Yingluck, is still the elected government. The demonization of Thaksin by the Thai establishment has accelerated and now includes his sister. Large parts of the south and Bangkok are now convinced that a) Thaksin somehow controls his sister on a day to day basis from Dubai, b) both he and his sister’s parties only received the votes they needed to get in after massively bribing millions of northern voters (they are, after all “buffalos”), c) they have been and are still siphoning billions of dollars out of the country, d) they represent the most evil regime mankind has ever faced, and e) the Pheu Thai voters by and large are too uneducated to be trusted with one-man, one-vote – they need to guided by educated voters, who happen to live in the south. We will call these the “memes”.

History is largely not taught in Thailand, so awareness of past leaders is limited.

The biggest problem the Democrats – and by extension the established elite – now face is that they are simply unable to win an election. They do not have the numbers and they haven’t won an election since the early 1990s. Mild panic sets in, supported by the growing currency of the memes, but everything remains stable (relatively) until Yingluck badly miscalculates: she introduces a bill to create a general amnesty with the stated aim of reconciliation. The net is wide enough to allow Thaksin to walk away from his post-coup politicised convictions and return to Thailand.

Yellow Thailand erupts and the bill is eventually defeated in the upper house and withdrawn, but it's too late. Bangkok - or at least parts of it – is a-frenzied and the previous deputy PM, the aforementioned Suthep, sees his chance. A old school scoundrel with an appalling history of misbehaviour, thuggishness and corrupt practices – plus those hanging murder charges from the 2010 confrontations – he reinvents himself as the champion of reform and democracy and enters the fray.

It gets worse for Yingluck – another bill targets the upper house. 50% elected and 50% appointed (by the elite), she attempts to convert it to fully elected, something that logic steeped in democratic processes would deem to be the right thing to do if the country is to move on, but, supported by the growing currency of the memes, the yellows see it as an attempt to remove the checks and balances that restrain a deeply corrupt red regime.

From there everything has escalated, and if it wasn’t for the sporadic violence and the damage it’s now doing to Thailand’s still robust but threatened economy, it would be easy to paint the marches and so called shutdown as somewhat absurd.

In a city with some 13 million Facebook accounts and about a million twitter accounts, plus a range of hugely popular Thai language sites, social media has gone berserk in every language you can name (Bangkok has a population of expats and foreigners well into six figures) and it dips regularly into the insane and inane, with conspiracy theories whipping around the city at cyber speed. The memes – never questioned by the protesters – have become the tool Suthep and the others controlling this frenzy, use to demand not only Yingluck’s resignation but her and her family’s ‘eradication’ from the nation. The memes have become the Kool-Aid to Suthep’s Jim Jones.

Suthep and his grouping of old rogues, most ethically little better than Thaksin and with far worse democratic credentails, demand an appointed council – who will be appointed to this council is grey – to *reform* Thailand and run the place until such reforms can be enacted. That Suthep had years in parliament to do so and made little effort to do more than enrich himself is never mentioned. Nobody seems quite sure what these reforms look like.

Looking more and more like an ascendant Mussolini, Suthep stands in front of the faithful nightly and rages about Yingluck. Each day he wanders the streets, albeit with shrinking numbers of supporters. Women line up just to touch him and hand him money. He takes vast amounts of cash from the faithful, all of which is stuffed into plastic bags never to be seen again. He’s ringed by dozens of guards more and more reminiscent of an Iron Guard and as he walks he stops periodically, clenches his fists, raising them to the sky – whistles erupt, more women reach out at him and more wads of notes are transferred.

Polling puts his base at around 10% of Bangkok – less outside the city – and yet to the hypnotised he’s the undisputed voice of the people. A complicit media including the yellow’s own TV channel, routinely broadcasts his claims of millions of attendees – physics and independent analysis put the numbers more correctly in the low hundreds of thousands at their peak and now in the tens. The touted Bangkok shutdown is more a minor Bangkok inconvenience in most of the city.

Politically, though, the game is more complicated. The government are heading towards a new easily winnable election on February 2nd – supported by the mass of the electorate who want to be able to vote – however, with an overhanging fear that the military might stage yet another coup, an increasingly radicalised and violent element in Suthep’s mob doing everything it can to shut the country down and interfere with the electoral process, and an awareness the reds simply won't allow a yellow takeover, there are so many variables that it could go any way, and it could flip violently when it does.

We wait, and as I waited I took some photos.