Hard News by Russell Brown


The Day After Tomorrow

The Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence index dipped marginally this week, but, said the bank's chief economist, "households remain in good spirits". In truth, our good spirits rely on us not looking too far ahead.

New Zealanders' perception of their current financial position is up by almost exactly the same amount over this time last year that their mood about their future fortune is down.

On the evidence of the survey, we're not rushing to address these concerns about the day after tomorrow. Although household debt is at an all-time high, we're not paying it down. We're keener on spending money to make ourselves feel better right now than even on long-term consumer goods like furniture or appliances. On average, if we came by a $10,000 windfall, we'd spend it in bars and restaurants.

Bank economists are not poets, but I wonder if the survey results have a metaphorical weight. On the same day that the consumer confidence results were released, the New Zealand Herald published Kirsty Johnston's shocking revelation that malnutrition is putting twice as many New Zealand children in hospital as it was 10 years ago. One researcher quoted by Kirsty said she had heard of people taking sleeping pills on a Friday in an attempt to sleep through the weekend and avoid needing to buy food.

Although food prices have risen and food takes up a high proportion of poor families' incomes, the background factor is probably housing costs. Three weeks ago, Kirsty (again) revealed data showing that damp, overcrowded homes are killing 20 New Zealand children a year and sending 30,000 to hospital with preventable housing-related diseases, including the "third-world" disease bronchiectasis, which causes permanent lung damage. The story quotes the Royal Australasian College of Physicians as saying: "Inequities in health outcomes will persist unless such stark social inequities are urgently addressed."

Hunger in the here and now is a moral indictment, but it's also a generational calamity. Hunger impairs health and learning, it has enduring social and economic consequences. I was furious and astonished earlier this month when Bill English responded to a Checkpoint story that found two thirds of kids at a South Auckland school were turning up without lunch by venturing that "our plan" would eventually lift people out of poverty.

You can't just respond to immediate need by saying things will be sweet later. It's like responding to a ruptured fuel pipeline with an assurance that in the future everyone will be driving electric cars.

On the same day as the consumer confidence survey and Kirsty's story, Health minister Jonathan Coleman declared that unacceptable waits for cancer surgery for patients under the Southern District Health Board were not the fault of the government. The SDHB is also struggling to provide mental health services – but it's not alone there. In the last two years the number of people seen by a GP for a diagnosed mental health illness has risen 22% and the system is simply not coping.

These stories and others are not appearing simply because there's an election campaign on. They're just the shit hitting the fan.

I've been working on a story of my own in the past couple of weeks – about the sudden crisis around "synthetic cannabis", which has claimed as many as 20 mostly young lives in recent months. I was glad to finish it – it was making me angry. The sudden crisis isn't really sudden: it's been developing for at least three years.

The current government got synthetics out of the headlines three years ago (during the last election campaign) with the retail ban, and then essentially lost interest. The two formal surveys that told us the problem had not in fact gone away were de-funded this year – and nothing has been budgeted for the early-warning system touted as a solution.

I interviewed a young, Māori woman from West Auckland who'd been using for three years and what she told me really shook me. But these are easy people to ignore.

The implications of this drift in "my" policy area continuing are alarming. As I've noted previously, the next Parliamentary term contains a once-in-two-generations opportunity in the compulsory review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1974.

My faith in anyone in the present goverment to get this right is roughly zero. National's belated campaign promise to put money into related health and rehab services came packaged with its pledge to ramp up beneficiary drug-testing, a policy for which it could not only not cite real evidence, but which the evidence contradicts. Like the synthetics ban three years ago, it's less policy than political marketing.

This isn't to say I'm over the moon with Labour's drug policy. Beyond welcome and appropriate sentiments about drug use being a health and a not a criminal issue, it doesn't really have one. But I'd trust a Labour-Green government to get a positive result out of the review infinitely more than I'd trust a National one, even with Kevin Hague out of the picture.

There is, of course, another policy area where Labour has welcome and appropriate sentiments but not a detailed policy – and that's the big rebalancing of the tax system, whose essential status quo has persisted despite being bluntly described by National's tax working group as "not viable" back in 2009.

Everyone knows deep down that we need to do something about the privileging of capital income and property in particular, and to broaden the tax base. The sooner the better, in fact. Which was probably what was on Jacinda Ardern's mind when she made her "captain's call" to drop Andrew Little's conservative promise to convene a working group, but delay any major reform for three more years, until the next general election.

In some ways, this made little difference. Convening the working group, letting it do its job and then getting legislation through would take most of three years anyway. Labour would still have to face the electorate with its policy.

But it had a profound effect on the campaign. National replaced its dire ad with the teal joggers – with its unnverving eugenicist undertones – with "Let's Tax This", a campaign in which any tax that could happen, would happen.

Changes which Labour had confirmed and costed – the $25 "tourist tax", for example – were presented alongside imaginary taxes, all of them at equal volume, with no context as to quantum or who they might actually impact. Labour not promising National's April 2018 tax cut became, against all logic, a "$1000 tax increase for the average New Zealander". A tax on the user of water resources that wouldn't even be paid by five out of six farmers was presented as pervasive and gargantuan.

It was brutally effective and flagrantly dishonest. I worry about the implications of the lesson here: that anything you say about changing the tax system will be weaponised and used against you.

Bill English came into the campaign with the burden of the Todd Barclay affair, a miserable business over which even his stoutest supporters would privately admit he had repeatedly lied. He then inherited the campaign's Big Lie: the alleged "$11.7 billion hole".

Even his back-up lie on that – that a Labour-led government had already promised everything and would have to run three years of "zero budgets" – was, well, a lie. The truth is that the unhappy PREFU made things very tight, but, as Dr Oliver Hartwich of the New Zealand Institute pointed out, $4.1 billion is not zero. The PREFU makes things tight for National too, of course – and it's probably the great failing of the coverage of this campaign that we've never actually found out out how tight. Labour and the Greens remain the only two parties with independent costings.

We're left with the paradox that English has on one level surrendered a huge amount of personal integrity – he told another barefaced lie in last night's debate, about the non-existent "constitutional convention" that would give him the first right to try and form a government – he has also run a very good campaign, in which he has actually earned people's trust. As Ben Uffindel noted on Twitter, English became Prime Minister in a way he hadn't been before in the course of the campaign. His party should be very, very grateful to him.

For her part, Ardern seized her destiny with that remarkable day-one press conference. She showed on that day and those that followed that she understood the principles of political leadership, and people responded to that. She has discovered in herself a rare ability to relate to people. She's been witty, authentic, a feminist.

But the big win in National's rejigged campaign has been to force her to talk about tax all the time, an area where she has constantly had to deny the wildest claims, doesn't have every fact, is always defending. Every hour she does that is one where she's not talking about poverty and need – an area where she has remained cogent and compelling, right up to her interview with John Campbell this week and last night's debate. I chanced on her maiden speech in Parliament recently: it's notably and impressively congruent with her platform now. She talks about and believes the same things.

But as the campaign's gone on, I've wondered whether even she's getting sick of the sound of her own voice. She's lost some of the sharpness of her early weeks as leader and resorts more often to blather. The death of her grandmother in the final week of the campaign can't have helped.

I've left the largest of the looming deficits facing New Zealand until last: climate change and the environment. It's another area where National has often refused to acknowledge the problem – English's claim that his party has led the way on the quality of our waterways and everyone else is a come-lately is bizarrely untrue.

But it's also one where National has resisted even acknowledging solutions.  Early in the campaign it was dragged into a light rail promise, but its transport policy has increasingly consisted of not only ignoring but actively trying to bury evidence. The East-West motorway, which Infrastructure New Zealand says is shaping up to be the most expensive road per kilometre in human history is being shepherded through with an economic analysis which says the benefits stack up if you just don't count the costs. There's a pattern to this: Transport minister Simon Bridges asked NZTA to delete the business case for the proposed Auckland-Whangarei motorway so no one could read it. The business case on a third (freight) rail main for Auckland had to be dragged out of Bridges office via the Ombudsman, and when it was finally released, it proved not only to be compelling, it destroyed the case for the East-West motorway, on NZTA's own modelling.

And still, the party that has lately promised to spend $10.5 billion on hazily-funded, poorly justified new Roads of National Significance can't find less than 1% of that sum to continue the Urban Cycleways programme.

The roads are, of course, the baby of Steven Joyce. As Joyce's predecessor as Finance minister, English had an aura of stewardship – Joyce just reeks of arrogance. He's a Muldoonist in the worst way. While I think English genuinely believes that his "social investment" strategy is a visionary intervention rather than an accounting system, I'm not sure Joyce even cares.

I'm not clear on how any of it addresses the reality of declining productivity and flat real wages in New Zealand, and in the short term at least both National and Labour are relying on the tax system and Working for Families as a kind of grand ATM (or, as Ben Thomas put it, "a cool dad who gives us money") to deliver personal gains that aren't coming in real incomes. That can't go on indefinitely.

One of the shames of this campaign is that the new party that could have made evidence-based policy an item, The Opportunities Party, has been kneecapped by the egos of Gareth Morgan and his frequently ridiculous communications advisor Sean Plunket. They've driven away the voters who might have delivered them and their ideas to Parliament. (If you're planning on voting TOP because you like their drug policy, consider the consequences of your wasted vote.)

Nearly everyone else has, in one way or another, had a good campaign. Ardern has galvanised her party and its its supporters and should stay on as leader whether or not she's Prime Minister. Green Party leader James Shaw has recovered from the disastrous political gamble that lost him his co-leader and been consistently impressive. He'll be back, whether in government or not. The same, sadly, can't be said for Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox, who has again demonstrated what an extraordinary politician she is.

It's been a wild, volatile campaign, one in which ordinary people have been engaged and journalists have largely done a very good job – take a particular bow Guyon Espiner and a collective curtsy everyone at The Spinoff. And I'm not alone in just wanting the bloody thing to be over.

In another giant lurch yesterday, the Colmar Brunton poll showed a dramatic reversal in fortune for the two big parties. One which, were it translated to to votes in the election, would produce a hung Parliament.

The stakes on which side of that line things go are very  high indeed.


Friday Music: Laneway, electric arts and awesome soul edits

Just a quickie today, what with there being an election on and everything, but the big music news this week was the announcement of the Laneway 2018 lineup, which includes Bonobo, The War on Drugs, The Internet and Canadian funk fusionists BADBADNOTGOOOD.

Locally, there are well-deserved slots for Aldous Harding and Connan Mockasin and a return to the stage for the three gentlemen of Unitone Hi-Fi.

Looking strong, Laneway.


Mermaidens have a new video and it's an op-shop tupperware party ...


Gig of the week looks to me to be Cardboard and Computers Rmxd, a reprise of Weston Frizzell's multimedia art show featuring sound and vision from an impressive crew of creators, at Neck of the Woods tomorrow night.

Or, for another vibe altogether, the final show of of Reb Fountain's Little Arrows launch tour, tonight at the Tuning Fork. You could call it Americana, but it's really Lyttelton calling.



I think I mentioned the new Nu Blends edit compilation a couple of weeks ago – well, it's out this week, its an absolute feast of rubbed-up soul specials and it's a free download for anyone who signs up here to the Nu Blends mailing list.

The version of Bill Withers' 'Use Me' is worth your click all on its own. It's tight.

From the forthcoming album Funkadelic – Reworked by Detroiters, which sees contemporary Detroit musicians get in and get down with the holy tunes of their forefathers (thanks to @MaxVO2 on twitter for the heads-up):

Renegade Soundwave were part of my life-in-London soundtrack in the late 80s, so I was pleased to see this grooved-up edit of their hulking single 'Cocaine Sex' turn up. Free download:

And finally, a totally cosmic riff on Bon Iver's 'Holocene' by Australians Beat & Path (free download):



Labour's RNZ+ plan: largely coherent

Labour announced its media and film industry policy yesterday – and inevitably most of the attention has focused on the proposal to develop RNZ into a full-service public broadcaster, television included, provisionally called RNZ+.

Labour would achieve this by making explicit the distinction between public funding for broadcast-style content and a public broadcaster. RNZ's funding is currently delivered via NZ On Air, even though it is set separately by government. Under Labour, RNZ's funding would be assessed and delivered by a new, independent Public Media Funding Commission, which would oversee both the enhanced RNZ+ and NZ On Air.

This might not have been viable three years ago, but RNZ has been making radio with pictures (and text) for several years now, on minimal budgets – most notably in the case of Checkpoint. CEO Paul Thompson's strategy of expanding the broadcaster's content to multiple platforms is starting to look mature.

The counter-argument is, of course, that the public already owns a television broadcaster – wouldn't it make more sense to orient TVNZ towards public broadcasting goals rather than invent a new one?

I honestly don't think so. TVNZ has been staffed, constructed and managed as a commercial broadcaster which does some public-good activity. Reversing that balance would be more than a culture change – it would mean laying off staff who, through no fault of their own, were hired to do a different job.

I'm also dubious about the economics of, say, turning TV1 into a public broadcast channel and funding that out of the commercial income from TV2 and TVNZ's other revenue-earning businesses. The truth is that most of TVNZ's revenue currently goes into sustaining itself. It declared an annual profit of $1 million recently. Granted, that followed a $12m write-down on its Disney output deal, but even the underlying profit of $13m wouldn't got very far towards supporting a non-commercial channel. Especially after you subtract the forgone commercial revenue from TV1.

By contrast, extending the scope of RNZ, which is already heading in that direction, seems far less disruptive. And it's not as if it needs to own all its facilities. TVNZ already operates a facilities business – Media Take is made at TVNZ Studio 3, as is TV3's The Cafe. And it's a kilometre away from RNZ. There is no impediment there.

RNZ has also learned to produce multi-platform content on the smell of the proverbial oily rag. That seems important, given that Labour's transformation budget is pretty modest – $38m, which would be shared with NZ On Air and the Public Media Funding Commission's other activities, including funding for public-good journalism. It's hard to see RNZ+ producing top-tier scripted drama, at least for a few years.

If Labour does get a chance to implement this policy, it will need to be careful to avoid stepping on NZ On Air, which has already given form to a lot of serious change thinking with the New Zealand Media Fund and already supports journalism – notably in the form of Stuff Circuit. A demarcation dispute would be a poor start.

There's also the option of selling TVNZ and using the proceeds – and Labour's decision not to do so was criticised yesterday by The Spinoff's Duncan Greive. But that, too, is disruptive – and frankly, the market for major media companies ain't that healthy right now. Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks have all readied themselves for trade sales that didn't come in recent years. Retaining a public ownership of TVNZ for the time being would also offer a degree of influence over the terms of a facilities relationship between the two broadcasters.

In the longer term? Well, TVNZ's land and buildings are valued at $118m. There's always that.

But I must object to this part of Duncan's column:

Lean too far toward online and it could create another TVNZ7 – the non-commercial channel launched in 2008 which had a lot of worthy but poorly-lit content that few watched (though all that did signed a petition afterwards).

As far as we could determine after unravelling the minister's maths, TVNZ 7 had a weekly cumulative audience of 600,000 at the time it was defunded by National – and that audience was growing. By comparison, Three states its reach as "1.19 million 25-54 year olds each week".

Those demographic numbers matter in another way. The task of commercial television is to deliver audiences in the demographics advertisers want to reach. It was people outside those demographics – largely older New Zealanders – who were disenfranchised when TVNZ 7 shut down. That's the argument for having a public broadcaster as well as funding public-good content on other platforms.

There's more in the Labour package, including a welcome revival of the PACE scheme and some fairly vague stuff about the film industry. Overall, I think it coheres in a way that previous attempts have not, and the latterday vitality and viability of RNZ is the key factor there. Labour and anyone else who thinks it's a good start will now have to wait and see whether a new goverment gets a chance to enact it.


Campaign 2017: Buy a journalist a drink today

Complaining about the news media at times of peak news is less a habit than an ingrained reflex for many of us. And sure, there have been things to complain about in coverage of this campaign. But in general the election media have been more attentive, more lively and more diverse in this campaign than any I can recall.

That's the case I made in the set-up video for this week's Media Take, which you can semi-exclusively preview here:

Part of the difference is undoubtedly the Jacinda effect. Two months ago, I was literally sitting around with the Orcon IRL crew wondering how on earth we were going to make this thing interesting. The surge behind the recently-minted Labour leader has not only provided the close race that seemed so unlikely, but generated scenes on the campaign trail that it's hard to think of a precedent for.

On tonight's show, Te Karere reporter Ripeka Timutimu, who followed Ardern along a string of campaign stops, frankly admits that it's very difficult not to get caught up in Jacindamania when it's happening around you.

New voices have also been a factor. Three years ago, The Spinoff was TV-themed millennial irony shop. This year, it's producing valuable work on a range of fronts. The old dogs in charge at Newsroom have provided quality commentary and broken stories on Bill English and his texts and Winston Peters and his superannuation that have played into the campaign narrative in influential ways.

You can feel the buzz in traditional media too. Who'd have thought that we'd be sharing video of Hilary Barry on Breakfast hammering Steven Joyce on fiscal matters? And the intensity with which mainstream journalists have followed the campaign – scooping their own bulletins with their mobile phones – is something new. Look at what the once-somnolent Fairfax community papers are doing with internet video too.

Along with Ripeka, we're joined by Māori Television's Election Aotearoa co-host Heta Gardiner, Breakfast and Newstalk ZB's Jack Tame, Spinoff Business Editor (and until recently editor of the Western Leader) Rebecca Stevenson, Radio Waatea news editor Adam Gifford – and Laura O'Connell Rapira, who's back (and better-funded) with the youth voter initiative Rock Enrol.

It's a good show and our guests are quite forthcoming. Have a look. And maybe consider buying a journalist a drink. We love that.

Thos week's Media Take can be viewed here on-demand. See also, the extended "open floor" korero with all the panelists together.


Friday Music: A genuine original

I sometimes have mixed feelings about leading these Friday posts with obituaries – it just seems to happen too often – but Celia Mancini's passing this week cannot go unremarked.

You may know Celia, or you may have seen or heard her with King Loser, the Axel Grinders and a number of other fine beat combos over the years. Or perhaps you recall her personal TV show, Slightly-Delic on Triangle TV in the late 90s.

I wasn't close friends with her, but I knew her a long time – since the 1980s, when this fearless kid called Celia Patel turned up on the scene. The same things that could make her maddening and difficult at times also made her brilliant company at others. She was a genuine original with a fertile mind, a penchant for trouble and a raging sense of style.

I feel glad that the last time I saw her was such a good time. Sandy Mill and I were DJing at Golden Dawn and none of our friends turned up – but Celia stuck around after playing in the band beforehand and hung out with us for hours. She was great company: funny, wise and full of words. It feels good that my last memory will be of dropping 'Get Into the Groove' and watching her show the kids how to dance.

One of my  favourite Celia stories was told to me by Matthew Crawley and also centres on Golden Dawn. King Loser were all set to play the bar – and she called off the gig because the bouncer offered her a glass of water! The nerve of the man!

Anyway, just to process the news, Stuart Page put together this tribute video.

Let's also throw in this 1998 clip from Slightly-Delic, with Celia and her band Mother Trucker playing her song 'Eric Estrada'.

And just for good measure, Cushla Dillon's video for King Loser's 'Comeback Special', in which Celia slays. A lot.

One consolation is is that Celia, no matter how chaotic her life was, was one of those people who kept everything. My friend Andrew Moore, who is well into his forthcoming King Loser documentary, You Cannot Kill What Does Not Live, posted this pic from from the big box of stuff Celia gave him ...


Chris Knox has a new batch of paintings for sale on his Tumblr. It went up on Wednesday and about two thirds of them are gone, but you might want to look at them anyway. I was lucky enough to see many of these works when I visited Chris, and they are very much his way of interpreting his experience since the stroke – after, that is, teaching himself to paint with his left hand. I was quite struck by how much one particular group of them reminded my of Smoke Signals, the gallery show that Askew One based on his own seizure.

Anyway, you can't have this one because we're picking it up tomorrow ...


There's a different flavour of rock 'n' roll art on show at Railway St Studios in New Market. New Zealand Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson has a show there at the moment and it includes depictions of Nick Cave, Leoard Cohen, David Bowie and, my favourite, this one.


The Others Way went off on K Road last Friday night – and again demonstrated that it's a festival unlike any other. It's like one big, long party, and the demographic must surely be more than four decades wide. I missed a lot of the stuff that other people raved about (this is inevitable) and still saw a bunch of performances I really loved.

The gloriously retro Arthur Ahbez and band at the Thirsty Dog (new album imminent), Don McGlashan stepping up to sing 'Not to Take Sides' with Sneaky Feelings, Hex getting a boogie-rock direction on, the party vibe of Disasteradio at Whammy, Lawrence Arabia in tremendous form – and deep into the night, Micronism, who did not disappoint.

Arthur Ahbez

Daily Keno


Lawrence Arabia



Wondergarden is back at Silo Park on New Year's Eve and the lineup is pretty spectacular: UMO, Nadia Reid, Swidt, Leisure and more.

Wellington's Lord Echo gets to stand in on a Bandcamp Weekly and stacks it with local tunes.

Stinky Jim and Joost Langveld – aka Unitone Hi-Fi – have established a Soundcloud page to showcase their discography on Bandcamp. And it includes this free download:

Robert Scott has done a Songwriters Choice for Audioculture and it's an interesting selection.



I've been exploring the considerable online presence of the Rotterdam-based DJ-producer Ronny Hammond and I believe I've found a new favourite. There are tracks like this slinky groover (free DL, just click through and hit the button marked "Magic Button"):

And this new funky mixtape (free DL):

And an older one, more on the fuzzy disco tip. Equally cool - and also a free download (just click that little down arrow).

A bangin' edit of Laneway 2018 headliner Anderson.Paak (free DL):

There's also this, from an incredible new three-hour compilation of edits – everything from Fela Kuti to Bobby Womack – from the Canadian label Speakeasy, which is free on Bandcamp.

A gorgeous techno remix of The Juan McLean's 'The Brighter the Light'...

Which comes from this very cool free La.Ga.Sta. compilation on Bandcamp. (Also includes a Dimitri from Paris rework of a Salsoul Orchestra oldie and an intriguing Marine Girls(!) edit.)


And that really is enough for your weekend kitchen-dancing requirements, I believe. See you next week when I'm not half-dead with a cold.