Hard News by Russell Brown


Splore Listening Lounge 2020: the road to a "yes" vote

As far as anyone can say, New Zeaand still has a general election scheduled for September 19 this year. The election will be accompanied by two referenda, one of which will ask voters:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

The official campaign period for the cannabis referendum begins three months out from the election date, but more or less formal campaigns have been operating since late 2018.

As part of the Listening Lounge programme at the Splore festival on February 22, I talked to representatives of the two major campaigns for a "Yes" vote: Renee Shingles of Health Not Handcuffs, the New Zealand Drug Foundation's campaign; and longtime weed warrior Chris Fowlie talking about Make It Legal (nb: although Chris was part of founding the campaign, he's not a Make It Legal spokesperson, those are Sandra Murray and Nandor Tanczos).

Renee, Health Not Handcuffs is the Drug Foundation's campaign. When did you join it and where are you at with it?

R: I joined mid-November, and I have been working ever since, not really stopping. We have been using this time to build the ground game, get out there, talk to people. We've done some research as well, to have an understanding where people's heads are at on this topic, and that was a 1600 sample with two focus groups in Auckland and two focus groups in Christchurch. That's just given us an idea of the level of knowledge people have, where our issues may be in the campaign, and also what they think about it. How they think about it. How they think about the policy.

So what's the short version of that, what do people know and what do they think at the moment? Because, let's be honest, the polls don't look terribly encouraging.

R: Public polls change as per media cycles, so one week you have Paula Bennett up there speaking to a certain bunch of people [giving] a bunch of misinformation. People might be, yeah, nah, I don't want to vote for that. You give them some actual information, which is what we did in our research, and people see that it's a really responsible piece of policy. I mean it's focused on harm reduction, not commercialisation like North America's done.

So this is a really beautiful piece of policy, and when people see that they see it's stronger than alcohol, it's stronger than alcohol and tobacco put together, and I think it gives people a bit of confidence. They understand that prohibition's not working. They know it's easy to access. So that's where people's heads are at the moment. They do have a few issues – what does this mean, what does this look like in my community – but when we actually speak to them about the policy, they actually look at it quite logically, and they're like, yeah, this actually makes sense.

So it can work to talk to people about policy? Because I often feel like such a wonk. Someone says, well I might be interested if there were proper safeguards. I'm like, have you read the draft bill? There's no advertising, no marketing, it's R20. Chris, does it matter that at the moment a lot of people don't really know what's going to happen?

C: Yeah, to an extent, yes, because if it was purely about facts and figures, we would have won this a long time ago. The evidence has been on the side of cannabis law reform forever. So clearly facts and figures alone aren't going to do it, and people kind of zone out. People are quite good, it's just human behaviour, if you don't believe the facts you just don't believe it.

So part of what we're trying to do with our campaign is recognising that we have a really solid core level of support that we see in all these polls, and that's possibly 30%, maybe more. Our role there is to really motivate people. Don't lose faith, make sure you're actually enrolled and voting is the key thing. Amongst our support a bigger influence is going to be the actual turnout, how many people are actually enrolled and voting on the day, as compared to how many people get talked out of it as such.

Make It Legal's been running for over a year now hasn't it?

C: Yeah and so we've done things like markets and things like that, and to an extent that is a bit preaching to the converted, and so we're trying, with the Drug Foundation, to reach more out into the mainstream, but we also see in our role that we have to maintain contact with our supporters so that they see there's activity going on and that we're motivating them and they're not getting, buying into any negativity.

And of course one of our roles is cajoling people that support law reform but for one reason or another there might be an aspect, a detail about the bill that they don't like, and like you say, they haven't even read it. It is a 69-page bill and it's only half-written. So there's these huge gaps in it, you think, when they fill that up it's going to be a 100-page bill, and no one's going to read that. It's kind of our job to explain these things.

I think what recent election campaigns have shown, Trump and Brexit and ScoMo in Aussie and things like that, is that it's not facts and figures, it's feelings. So yes, on the one hand we have to maintain our credibility, but it's a bit of a trap to get too hung up on facts and figures, cause we always want to say things that are correct and true, but the other side don't, and it seems to be working for them. They say really outrageous things and part of that tactic is that it's bait. The progressives and the Left take the bait and we spread their stories and we reply to their comments and we escalate them and we give them more coverage. And that's a definite strategy on their part, is to actually say completely wrong, incorrect things.

Trolling for reach, it's called. Renee, I'm interested in this idea of feelings over facts, because you have in the past worked for Crosby Textor, who are really good at determining and at times changing the public mood. What's the trick there?

R: I think it's understanding where people's heads are at. It's not about manipulating people, it's about leaning in to where the public perception and opinion already is. So both Chris and I, and you, will probably continue hammering that prohibition doesn't work. People know this. Most people in New Zealand have smoked weed at some point. And they've easily accessed it. They've started when they were 13, 14, 15, they went to their tinny house. It was much easier to access than it was anything else.

Everyone knows that, so leaning into that and really making that personal relevance, reminding people in that middle area of that personal relevance – because the thing is there's a group of people that are very passionate about this, it's probably more personally relevant to them than the people that did it a couple of times during uni and then went and got a job and had kids and all.

This issue, drug reform is an issue that touches everyone. So it's not about making this issue divisive, but it's about leaning into what other issues this touches in their life. So when you look at the top issues that most people have, it's job security, it's health services. So when you're talking about this, you need to find a way to link it to that, and make them look at it how that looks in their world. If you have children, what does this mean for them? Is there going to be coffee shops around the corner everywhere? Am I doing a responsible thing? Am I making a responsible decision for them? That is the decision. So when we're having conversations about this, we need to look at it not from our perspective but from their perspective, and that's what research does for us.

Chris, I actually talked to the people who helped design the successful propositions in California and Washington state, and what they discovered was that appeals to liberty went nowhere, even in America, but what people wanted was reassurance, and they wanted that in some detail. If you look at Proposition 64 in California, it's over 100,000 words, no one's read it, but they wanted to know it was there. So we've got an equivalent to that with this draft bill which is nearly completed. At the time I was talking to them, people here were saying Family First was irrelevant – but they've got money. How big a factor is money going to be in this referendum campaign?

C: It's going to be pretty big. We have a spending limit that I don't think we're in any danger of meeting. It's $300,000 in the three months leading up to the referendum. But we really are not getting much, so it's work over money and it's just sweat equity. There's a lot that people can do without money, but money would be awesome too, and especially now that we're in this phase where we really want to start rolling out signage and billboards even, little signs that people can put on their fences and bumper stickers and all these sorts of things, they all cost money. Money is going to be a thing. But it is interesting that the No campaign does seem to be so well funded. It's the opposite of how it's been in America, where the Yes campaigns and ballots in US states have had millions of dollars and usually a few billionaires putting it in, and the No campaign has been really underfunded. Here it seems the opposite.

How are your two campaigns going to work together, and are there other friendly campaigns likely to emerge?

C: I think there's going to be a whole bunch of grassroots ones. One of the issues I think for everyone in the Yes campaign is coordinating that and making sure that we're all on the same page and going in the same direction. We all come from this point of agreement, we all want the law to change, and that's what we're trying to get to the public as well.

R: I think the interesting thing about this particular issue, and it's what's relevant in most issues campaigning, is that you're not just looking at one group of people. This is relevant to a lot of different areas that we struggle with in social issues right now.

You're looking at youth, this is a massive issue for youth. Especially when you add in to the fact that this is actually going to be an opportunity to activate a group of people that historically are disenfranchised by the political system. They don't feel that there's anything that's relevant to them, they don't feel that it's an issue that's worth them getting out of bed and voting for. This is going to change that. If we get a Yes in October, cannabis is legalised.

It's something that's going to affect every single one of us. With uner-30s, it's very hard to go to the polling booth and look at all these issues like child education and go, 'This is relevant to me', because the fact is in three years' time you could get another government and that could be gone. Whereas this is not an issue that does that. You get a yes, it's legalised, and you know what? We voted on change.

C: I just want to really emphasise that too. I think that this, a cannabis referendum, it's not just of interest to policy wonks like us, but it really does have the potential to bring out a whole lot of people to vote who don't normally vote. For many of them it could be the first time ever. And once people get engaged in the political process, they're more likely to carry on and have those habits for the rest of their lives. And likewise if they start off by not voting they might continue not voting forever.

So this actually has this potential to really transform voter behaviour here. That's what it's done in American ballots. And in particular, cannabis law reform ballots in America have brought out supporters, non-voters, who tend to vote for progressive and left-leaning candidates in parties at the same time. And so if we think about this election, in my dream-land, it means that perhaps the next government is a Labour-Green government, that they actually get enough MPs because of the turnout from the cannabis referendum to govern alone. Under that situation we could see the sorts of reform that we were hearing about with the pill testing, you know, that could just happen. We could see a whole bunch of really good things. We could start to see psychedelic reform. Reform for MDMA. We could start to see therapeutic uses of other drugs. This is like the next stage after cannabis is legalised.

I don't want to freak people out and say that it's a wedge and we're just going to open up the door to everything, but let's face it, there are other issues that need reforming after this, and once we get cannabis law reform out of the way, if we have a more progressive government, partly as a result of that referendum, then we could see really good reforms in the next term of government

R: I just want to add as well that this is a recommendation that's been made by two pretty serious reports that have come out, the Justice and the Mental Health inquiry. Both of those came out and one of the recommendations was to legalise. So there are bodies behind this that are recognising that there is a lot of social issues that are happening and this particular piece of legislation could not only address some of those, it could fund resources that can help people that need support the most.

Chris, one thing that I did want to ask about, and you'll be acutely aware of this: there are a few old-school weed warriors who are all 'We don't need no stinking referendum', or are claiming they're going to vote no. What's going on with that?

C: This is I guess part of our internal campaigning I guess, is to bring all those people on side. This happens everywhere that cannabis law reform happens, is some people want it to be treated like a vegetable, with no rules whatsoever. But then again, even vegetables have rules around food safety and things.

Some people want no rules, or they want the government to – I was at a meeting with the Ministry of Health this week and people were demanding that the government guarantee their business: we'll only enter the medical cannabis industry if you guarantee I'll make profits. And they're like, we don't do that. People need to get realistic with what they want.

We all have to recognise that anything would be better than the current law, and so even if there's a part of the referendum that you think, I don't really like the way they're doing that, too bad. Hold your nose, vote for it. And if you've got people in your life that are still complaining, shut them up. And if you're on social media complaining about it, go away. We actually need to give people hope and motivation, not be turning people off. And so part of our thing is reassuring people that hey, there might be a detail about it that isn't perfect, but that's what we change afterwards. We get this through, then we keep working and we make it better. And that is going to happen regardless.

R: It's much easier to reform than it is to introduce.

Yes. Start low, go slow. One thing I wonder if is if it doesn't pass, what the environment will look like, because I think we're in an era where the police have decided they no longer want to prosecute cannabis – it's not a driver of other crime, there are better uses of their resources. And I wonder if we're going to get a messy, decriminalised space like some of the US states had. The thing about those periods is that that was when youth use did rise. As soon as legalisation came in, youth use either stopped rising or it decreased. I think that's quite a powerful thing to point out to people.

C: I think so. You do see the proper decreases in youth use when it's properly legalised, not done in a half-arsed way, and I think a lot of police, that's the position that they take, is to do it properly and not be half-arse. And police have a lot of credibility in this, so it's really important for us that we listen to their concerns, but we also get perhaps some retired police to start talking out on these issues.

But also, the other thing, you touched on it before, about where we can put the revenue from this. And this is one thing I just wanted to briefly mention, and that's that there's a part of the referendum bill that hasn't been written yet, and that's to do with how the licensing and how the market is actually set up and allocated.

Market allocation.

C: Market allocation, and it refers to it in one line and it says they shall have regard to social equity provisions, and they haven't been detailed. In my mind it's one of the best parts of the bill. Social equity when it applies to cannabis is talking about the fairness of the licensing regime and letting people in who have borne the brunt of the drug war, letting people in whose lives have been ruined, and rather than locking them out and saying no convictions and you can't have a license, doing the opposite.

In Illinois, they give you bonus points towards your license if you employ people with a drug record. If the owners of your business have drug convictions, you get bonus points as well. So if you don't have that conviction, you go and find someone who has and you employ them, and now you're ahead in the licensing. It's a really effective way to actually draw people in from the illicit market instead of shouting and complaining from the outside about being locked out, they're actually encouraged and supported to come in. And this is something I know the Ministry of Justice are really actively looking at, they're not just going to do lip service, I think we're actually going to get some really good things happening there.

Re: The tax redistribution into harm minimisation, education health and programs as well, like, this is a piece of policy worth frothing over. It's a great piece of policy.

So Chris, what's your impression, what are we looking at? There'll be full-profit licenses and non-profit licenses? 

C: Yeah, there's no restriction on your profit, but you can be a non-profit – you can be either. There'll be takeaway stores like bottle shops, and then there'll be licensed premises. There's a question mark over whether they can be next to each other or related or owned by the same people, they might want some separation. They've also put in a separation so you can't be a grower producer and a retailer. So you can't do the full vertical integration model where you get the really large corporates in America.

Which is what they've done in Mexico, and it makes sense. Because that's the other thing people are worried about, is Big Cannabis.

C: Yes, exactly. We're seeing it with medical, right? And medical's the opposite, medical, they want big cannabis. That's how the pharmaceutical industry works. And as I say, at this meeting we went to with the Ministry, someone said, how are you going to get the illicit people to get involved in this, and they said, that's not our job. It's not a goal of the medical scheme to involve the illicit economy. So all the green fairies and the people that are growing medical cannabis illicitly, they're locked out, they can't get in. Under the cannabis referendum, that is a goal. And so we will see parts of the policy that are actively trying to bring people in from the shadows and even give them compensation from the revenues and from the taxes.

Just to wrap, what can we expect to see between now and September? Renee, you're going to have TV advertising?

R: If we get funding, yeah.

If you get funding. Fingers crossed for that.

R: As Chris said, at the moment, we're both just working off the kindness of people donating. Our opposition is going to be doing that. Our opposition are already doing it and it's really, you guys have probably seen the gummy bears, which is just ridiculous. They're doing it, and we are going to have to respond but it's really going to come down to resources.

I talked to Sandra Murray, who's your coordinator. She seemed to have spent the past year setting up the networks. You're going to take quite a local grass-roots sort of approach, aren't you?

C: Yeah, we have local groups all around the country in at least a dozen cities now, and doing things every weekend. We're just trying to get the visibility up, getting people enrolled to vote, just keeping it in their mind. The Drug Foundation does very well focusing on the middle ground, middle New Zealand that is the key part. And I think our key part is focusing on the non-voters or the unenrolled people and really increasing our turnout there.

I had a little thought when you said how is this going to look, and I just wanted to paint a picture of what Splore could look like. Temporary special events licenses are possible under the referendum scheme. We had a little conversation before, they're not going to allow mobile licenses, I'm not quite sure, but assuming we get to the bottom of that, Splore potentially could have an actual cannabis license next year, and that's just an example of how things could change. So festivals and events that you go to, instead of revolving around alcohol sales, I'm not saying they all do or that this one does, but alcohol sponsorship's a very big part of paying the bills, and perhaps you might see that festivals could go alcohol-free and be cannabis festivals.

I wouldn't mind that.

C: And what I'm wondering here is how the drug squad is going to look in future. So this is the other thing you're voting for, is friendly police. The future drug squad, instead of taking your drugs, they'll be going, here have a joint, calm down, to the person that's a bit too full on, or, get that tested, make sure you're safe. So vote for friendly police.

Last word?

R: Our ground game's let's talk weed, because people really love to talk about cannabis. And they have a license to now, so I would say that we do have at the Drug Foundation, we're going to have a very balanced informed campaign. But Health Not Handcuffs is focused on telling people to talk about this. Because our biggest thing that we're up against right now is stigma. And if we continue hiding away from having this conversation, we're not going to get anywhere. We have a license to talk about this now. Let's do it.

[Audience question then audience show of hands on who would consume more or less cannabis if it was legalised. Most people indicate their consumption would remain about the same.]

The experience in the US has been that there has been a modest increase everywhere it's been legalised, and it's all old people. All the US states, and Canada, there's been a three to five percent bump in the number of people using cannabis – and it's all people over 40.

R: This week we got results from Canada that youth, 15-17, dropped by half. So it's official, weed is no longer cool in Canada.

That's maybe the most striking thing, if you're ever discussing it with someone – point out that in all the places that have legalised, youth use has either stabilised or decreased, and old people are getting high.

C: And the old people are often doing it for therapeutic reasons. And that's actually one of the main reasons, one of the best arguments you can have is to someone who's sitting on the fences, why they should vote yes, is that's the way most people will obtain medical cannabis. 

They actually won't get it through the medical cannabis scheme, cause it's going to be super-tight. I know this, because I'm intimately involved in it. I actually have a license to grow high-THC cannabis from the government. Shows you how far we've come, that I've got that license. But I tell you, it's going to be super-tough and most patients are actually not going to obtain medical cannabis through the medical cannabis scheme, especially for low-level things, aches and pains. But make cannabis legal, and that's how most people get it.

Thanks to Emma Hart for the transcript.


Michael Baker and the Big House

One of the key voices in this extraordinary time in which we live is that of University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker. Philip Matthews did an an excellent job this weekend of capturing the way he became the man for this moment in a profile for The Press.

But one part of Michael Baker's own story isn't covered in the profile – his stewardship across nearly 40 years of the remarkable institution that is The Big House in St George's Bay Road, Parnell.

I'm a former resident of The Big House and in 2006 I interviewed Michael for a Metro magazine story about the place, its people and its stories. It seemed like a good time to republish that story.


The opening sequence of the 1994 thriller Shallow Grave depicts a group of twentysomethings grilling applicants for a spare room in their Edinburgh house. They fire oddball questions ("Leveraged buy-outs - a good thing or a bad thing?") at squirming contenders until they find their perfect flatmate

The first time I was in this room, at 42 St George's Bay Road, Parnelwas a little like that. I was 20 years old, not long in Auckland, and I'd answered a flatmates-wanted ad in the paper – failing, I suspect, to pay much attention to advice about the process. I turned up on the appointed evening to be ushered down to the dark, warm basement kitchen of a huge old wooden house, where perhaps a dozen people were gathered.

The interview began: I was asked what I did, what I believed and what I might bring to the house. Some people, I thought, liked me, while others seemed positively suspicious. They debated amongst themselves. It was unexpected, and somewhat unnerving. The situation was made more acute by the fact that there were four or five applicants, and only two rooms going. I summoned all the charm I had. I didn't want to lose.

The kitchen's décor is no better this bright morning, but the mood is much lighter. Four young men are making breakfast: poached eggs simmer on a giant gas stove. They greet me casually, pleasantly, as if they're used to people turning up at the door.

Hi, I say, I'm Russell. I used to live here.

"Really?" asks one. "When was that?"


"Wow," he says. "That's the year I was born."


The house was built in the mid-1870s to house Mary Ellen Clayton's Melmerly Collegiate School for girls. Princess Te Puea Herangi and pioneer aviator Jean Batten took lessons in one of its 21 rooms; the big space on the ground floor later known as the ballroom.

The precise layout of the house has changed repeatedly in the years since the school's closure in 1920, but it sprawls across five levels, from the basement to the attic. Some bedrooms are grand, others no more than nooks and crannies. It has been a boarding house, may have been a brothel and was almost certainly the place that police long batons were first drawn in anger.

Bruno Lawrence lived there; a generation later so did Nandor Tanczos. Spookily enough, Kerry Fox, the star of Shallow Grave, came to the house a lot in the 1980s. It has been home to kids who became doctors, lawyers and consultants, and to a few people who wound up in the slammer and the looney bin. At any one time, around 20 people have lived there. For longer than anyone can remember, it has been The Big House.

The Big House makes the headlines every now and then: most recently in October last year, when a balcony crowded with nearly 200 partygoers collapsed onto 40 people below. It was something of a miracle that no one was killed, or even badly hurt.

Dr Michael Baker was lying in bed on a Saturday at home in Wellington when the news came on the radio, "and I heard 'party, Parnell, veranda, people in hospital, St George's Bay Road', and I knew that it was probably The Big House."

Baker also knew that reporters would be calling, because for the last quarter of a century he has owned The Big House. To call him the landlord is something of a disservice. Baker is the gentle father of an institution.

New Zealand was sharply politicised in 1981, waking up and taking sides over the tour, and Baker was a third-year medical student, living at the house, which had been owned and operated as a single tenancy for the past 10 years by the Mercep family trust. He missed the infamous party where police arrived and drew PR-24 batons. In the dark, people thought they were machine guns and ran for their lives.

Baker had been visiting the house since 1979, when it was home to 70s pop group the Crocodiles (for whom Lawrence played drums) and various former members of Lawrence's seminal hippie arts troupe BLERTA, including actor and broadcaster Ian Watkin. The inventor and photographer Robin White was there too, and the house was littered the debris of White's cottage industry - the Humdinger range of wooden children's toys.

"It was a big, communal arrangement," recalls Crocodiles member Fane Flaws. "I remember my kids and Robin's being there, and the huge room downstairs being the playroom, where we built big castles out of cardboard boxes, walkways and all sorts of stuff. We had a practice room for the band, and there was a sort of chaotic, communal life. The mothers would be cooking all the time and feeding kids. It was a bit like a marae, I suppose."

It all seemed set to end in 1981, when the Mercep family trust resolved to sell the house. Baker, who had recently moved into the house's vast attic, after his brother David moved out, figured the run-down house was "destined for demolition" under new ownership. So, 23 years old and "knowing nothing about property," he decided he would buy it.

Ivan Mercep, later the co-founder of the Jasmax architectural firm, had the duty of disposing of the property after his father died. He agreed to leave in some vendor finance, and Baker made up the difference with a bank loan and some assistance from his own family.

"We made it easier for Michael to purchase, because of the way he wanted to use it," says Mercep. "He wanted to retain it and develop it for student use, and that appealed to me. I thought it was going to a good parent."

As ambitious as the purchase itself was Baker's blueprint for the household. He has never had a tenancy agreement. Instead, he drew up a house constitution that runs to several pages.

"It sets out the obligations of people living there, and how decisions are to be made. In the end, the essential element is that people do have to meet, usually about every two weeks, to make decisions. It also sets out my obligations and describes the decision-making process," Baker explains.

"A friend of mine, Carol Cohen, was very experienced in organising direct action work and had spent a lot of time developing ideas around consensus decision-making. So we picked up her ideas, particularly on consensus decision-making, which is the opposite of majority rule. It's the only way to run a house like that, because if you have majority rule, you're going to have factions."

It sounds fanciful, but 25 years later, the residents still hold those fortnightly meetings. Although I'll lay odds that they're not as dramatic as they used to be when I moved in in 1983. Anything from ideology to dinner menus could spark long, emotional debates.

"The house meetings were unbelievable," recalls Phil Twyford, who lived at the house from 1982 to 1984. "It could be very fraught."

There could be tears and comforting at meetings. I don't actually recall the nature of the dispute that led to me one night comforting one of the tearful protagonists, in a wholly consensual fashion, all the way upstairs to my bedroom. There was probably a lot of that.

At one point, there was particularly heated argument over the fortnightly women-only nights, ordained by Fay, a kind but demanding lesbian, so that the radical lesbian separatists could come around without having to breathe the same air as men. I took those nights as an excuse to go out drinking with my mates (although I was horrified by a subsequent proposal for a parallel mens' group), but Oliver, an intense South African who played jazz on the piano in the ballroom, objected, both on principle and because he had nowhere else to go. I felt sorry for him.

The house minutes book records that shortly after I left in 1984, Oliver was sent packing on account of "referring to the women of the house as 'girls' on at least three occasions."

Baker continued to live in the house himself in the early years, but rarely sought to assert authority.

"Very much so," he agrees. "Partly just for practical and personal survival reasons. It just wouldn't have worked - being the landlord with 24 live-in flatmates. Obviously, with such a big group, it does favour the more vocal people. If you were passionate and articulate, it could have quite a big effect."

The joke then - and, it appears, to this day - was that Baker, now 48, had set up the house as some grand psychological experiment and was taking notes. He laughs.

"Well, particularly as I've gone into population medicine and epidemiology, I possibly wish I had set up a grand experiment - and now I could be analysing the results! But it never was. It was a happy accident."

Twyford, then a law student, later the director of international advocacy for Oxfam in New York and recently the Labour Party candidate for North Shore, remembers stumbling upon The Big House as an 18 year-old.

"I'd been travelling for a year in Asia and Europe and I came back in January 1982, and I was basically walking around looking at student flats in the inner city. I had no idea where I was and I walked up St George's Bay Road at twilight - and there was this kind of mystical Addams Family house, with music and marijuana clouds kind of wafting in equal proportions out into St George's Bay Road, and people lolling around out on the front balcony. And I just found myself irresistibly drawn in."

He stayed for dinner, later passed the audition ("much like the Nuremberg trials") and soon found himself facing the daunting prospect of his first turn on the cooking roster.

"I was a kid, I'd never lived in a flat before, I'd never cooked or anything. And they put me in charge of blending the pumpkin for the pumpkin soup. It was a lovely old blender with a glass jug, and I stuck a wooden spoon down in it when the blender was going. And glass and pumpkin was sprayed around the room … "

Every second Sunday night, there was something on in the ballroom. The Topp Twins played one night (it is a measure of changing times that these days the talent is more likely to be trash-rockers Deja Voodoo).

"It was kind of a paradise for anybody who was gregarious, because there was always someone to play with," says Twyford. "I'd come home from working in a pub on a Friday night and there'd be half a dozen people sitting around having a party."

A chap called Paul Stephenson slept in a tree house in the back yard. Back then, he was a street-theatre hippie with freaky hair. Now, he's a partner in consultancy group Synergia and a member of the Auckland District Health Board's public health advisory committee and has served as general manager of public health for both West Australia and the Auckland region.

"It was cheaper!" remembers Stephenson about the tree house. "One of the people who formerly lived there had put the back of his truck up the tree, so it had this little pot-belly stove, which made it quite warm in winter. And it enabled you to experience the large number of people at the Big House but also escape.

"I think it was a marvellous instruction in interpersonal relationships and complexity," says Stephenson. "Strangely enough, the theoretical basis to my consulting now is around complexity theory."

Although by no means everyone in the house was political, there was an undercurrent of activism. A former resident of the house came back and prepared there for his protest dive when the US Navy frigate Texas visited Auckland in 1983. Word came through that he'd been arrested and to "hide the drugs". One day, some of the flatmates painted a giant anti-nuclear symbol on the roof. It was visible for miles, and featured on the front page of the Auckland Star. Baker went to court to try and keep it, but eventually it had to be painted over.

Joanna Easingwood, who moved in aged 22 in mid-1982, says being there "honed my own identity in terms of what I believed in and what I didn't, because when I went in I had a very airy-fairy notion about community good and political correctness and feminism, and being in that place really challenged your thought processes, because you were constantly in debate with people. It was an amazing ferment of ideas - and often conflicting ideas. I went in with a raw mass of feelings and came out with a much clearer intellectual appreciation of the issues."

She also left with her life partner. She now manages oncology and related services for the Auckland District Health board – and she and Twyford are still together 23 years after they met on the house maintenance committee.

The large-group dynamic meant the tenor of the household could change quite rapidly. After I left in 1984, links strengthened with the Centrepoint community - but not without controversy ("Bert Potter came once on a Sunday night," says Twyford, "and a riot almost broke out when he suggested that women who were raped bore responsibility.").

Shortly after that, it lurched in another direction altogether. Punk rockers with sugared-up mohawks moved in, two junkies arrived and began making homebake in their rooms, and a pair of prostitutes lived there (one, rather memorably, granted another flatmate a freebie for his birthday). 

"It was anarchic," says Nat Curnow, the grandson of poet Allen Curnow, and then a musician, who lived there at the time, along with future tattooist-to-the-stars Inia Taylor, and poet and academic Catherine Dale.

He recalls the day one resident, a burly chap whose father was a regional police chief, got so drunk at the Windsor Castle pub on Parnell Road that he decided he shouldn't drive his Fiat Bambina home. Not on the road, anyway.

"So he drove his Bambina on the footpath all the way up Parnell Rise on a Saturday afternoon, poking his head out the window and saying 'Excuse me! Sorry!' All he had to do was turn left into St George's Bay Rd at the top, but he veered and hit a car coming up the street, panicked and drove straight down to the Big House, into the driveway and crashed into the front steps, then ran all the way up into the loft and hid. The police turned up - three vanloads of them - found him, and dragged him kicking and screaming all the way down the stairs and out of the house.

"There was a dramatic house meeting when people tried to kick out a guy called Rob, who referred to himself as 'Quail'. He decided one night to entertain himself by putting grease on all the door knobs, toilet latches, windows and everything someone might touch. He also used to sit outside people's rooms and go 'Quaaaiil' in the middle of the night. Then someone would shout 'Fuck off, Rob!' and he'd cackle 'Quaaiiil!' and run off down the hall. He used to turn up at the Windsor wearing nothing but a top hat and underpants.

"He had to leave in the end, but the irony of the story is that it turned he was the only living relative of a very wealthy Christchurch philanthropist, and inherited four million dollars and ended up in private psychiatric care in Dunedin.

"The Baker boys used to visit every now and then in their little Nash Rambler cars. They were extraordinarily laid-back about the whole thing - they didn't seem to be bothered by anything. They'd just say, how's it going, and there'd be drunk people falling around the place."

Michael Baker confesses he really wasn't as laid-back as he might have seemed during what he describes as a "dark period" from 1984 to 1986, when he was a trainee intern and then spent his first health surgeon year in Whangarei.

"I worked tremendous hours and I hardly ever got back to the house. I'd make it back for the odd weekend, and the house seemed to have gone over to the dark side a bit. It did get quite anarchic, and some of the organisation broke down. It was more than I could handle for a period - I'd come back and I'd sort of sprint from the front door up to the attic and close the trapdoor after me."

The house's peril was quite real. It was declared a "residential institution" by the council, which ordered a raft of health and safety improvements and the designation of a "housekeeper" - on pain of demolition. Baker, who had left for a job in Wellington as a Ministry of Health advisor in 1985, approached a friend, Edward Meyer, who he credits with turning the place around.

"The punks were quite sweet," says Meyer of the household he found. "It was more the skinhead and construction worker element that was the problem."

Meyer, who now practices as a psychotherapist, began inviting people to fill vacancies in this "pretty wild" environment, as "pioneers". He took over rent collection ("from the house heavy") and food-buying and started cooking by himself four or five nights a week, "to give people a sense of how it could be different.

"On the heels of that, I re-introduced the idea of a cleaning roster, the first one for a long time. It had all these tasks on it - and the last instruction was to say 'fuck' a lot. Little things like that seemed to work - it made it easier to clean the bathrooms if the instructions included saying 'fuck' a lot while you did it."

He left "quite quietly" in 1994, unable to sustain the "social energy" demanded by the house as his practice built up. By then, the Big House was saved.


The Big House is at ease these days. It is going through what Baker describes as "a very social phase" and it has continuity in the person of Logan Petley who has lived there for 15 of his 35 years and keeps an eye on things for Baker. Petley, who makes feijoa wine (yes, that feijoa wine) has run anti-GE and native forest campaigns from his room in the attic. It's been a while since anyone was asked to leave.

The ballroom has no piano now, but it does have lighting bars and mirror balls. The party I went to last year (my first time in the house for two decades) was big and lively, but there's still a slight sense of shock about November's balcony collapse. Baker carefully notes the irony of the collapse: it happened just as the present $400,000 upgrade began. Engineers who inspected it afterwards could find no fault - there were just too many people on the balcony.

"It was a very chaotic half-hour," says Petley. "There was a lighter moment. The fire alarms were going because the balcony cut through the cable, so four fire engines turned up. Then people on the phone got the ambulances here, and they came in force because it was a balcony collapse. Then the police turned up and there were people all over the street. And in the midst of it all there's this guy wandering around with his little pad trying to find a flatmate to give a noise abatement notice to."

The household, dominated by people in their early and mid-20s, now encompasses students in art, medicine, Maori studies and fashion design, a chef, a visitor from Sweden, a kindergarten teacher, a Youthline worker, a refrigeration engineer, and people who work in publishing, the music industry and the finance sector. Just for old times' sake, there's also a German anarchist.

The most recent arrival is 22 year-old Vera Wennekers, a final-year civil engineering student, who originally sublet a room (my old room, we discover) and became a full-time resident three months ago. She found the place on the recommendation of her mother's friend, who came to a 21st party "and thought, oh, what a cool place and what nice people."

She is gobsmacked by the story of the flatmate ejected for referring to women as "girls" ("are you serious?") and avers that it's different now.

"There are so many different people, from different walks of life," she says. "There's a good feel about the house. I've lived in flats where you do your own thing and no one really cares, but I really like the feeling of belonging. And it's also really easy - you don't have to worry about anything, you just do your cooking and your choring. And there's always someone to talk to."

Petley has overseen the clearing and replanting of the huge backyard (the section runs to nearly an acre) - it will be wonderful in 20 or 40 years, he says. We agree that it is remarkable in today's world that it's possible to look so far ahead into the Big House's future.

Baker's will provides for the house to pass into a charitable trust on his death, and continue indefinitely under its present status. Some measure of that gesture can be gained from the knowledge that the council valuation of the land nearly doubled to $2.68 million between 2002 and 2005 (ironically, the value of improvements was slashed by more than half to $180,000). Parnell has gentrified around it: the house across the road is now $400 a night boutique B&B.

He wants to organise a reunion of former residents, perhaps next year, after the renovation is completed. I'll be there. I may only have been a bit player in the long screenplay, but I'm grateful to have been in the movie.


Originally published in Metro magazine, April 2006

Photograph by Carlotta Arona, from Hopskipdive.


Poll Pot and the partisans

Yesterday's Horizon poll showing support for a "Yes" vote in this year's cannabis referendum sliding into the majority for the first time in a year looked like good news for reformers – and it probably is. But the result warrants some scrutiny.

The poll is the fifth in a series commissioned from Horizon by Helius Therapeutics, so it provides a reasonable picture of the way public sentiment has evolved over time – including the way support for reform slipped when reform became a concrete proposal.

But this fifth one is different. It's the first in which respondents have been forced to choose a prospective "Yes" or "No" vote in the referendum. The extent to which respondents are encouraged to make a decision can often help explain the difference between one company's poll and the next. It might be expected to have a significant influence here, given the substantial pool of undecided-but-persuadable voters detected in other research. (February's poll for the Drug Foundation and the Helen Clark Foundation, for instance, showed "Yes" and "No" effectively tied, with 10% of voters in the middle yet to decide.)

Another methodological feature that can influence an overall result is the order of questions in the polling script itself. In this new Horizon poll, that looks quite crucial.

As far as I can see, respondents were asked at least two questions before their prospect give voting intention was sought. The first was:

Currently, producing cannabis for personal or non-prescription use is prohibited in New Zealand, with the intention of limiting its availability and use. Do you think prohibition of cannabis is working in New Zealand society?

To answer "yes" to that question, it was necessary to agree, or purport to agree, with the following:

Yes, cannabis is hard to access and rarely used in New Zealand society.

In that light, the 83% who said prohibition wasn't working doesn't seem quite as striking.

 The second question was this:

Currently, growing cannabis for personal use is prohibited in New Zealand. Which one of the following options do you think will have a better outcome for New Zealand society?

The options for answer were as follows:

  • Continuing with no controls over growing and selling personal use. (26%)
  • Controls over growing and selling personal use. (72%)

This sets up the proposition in quite an obvious way, with legalisation and regulation implicitly presented as the prudent and responsible course of action: "controls" versus "no controls.

It's not dishonest: it's literally the argument most of us make for reform. But it has very probably had a bearing on responses, and was crafted with that in mind.

And yet, remarkably, not everyone who believes prohibtion is a failure and controls on cultivation and use would be better would actually vote to end prohibition and introduce those controls. How you would vote in the referendum depends a lot on which party you intend to vote for:

For National voters 82% say prohibition is not working, 79% believe controls would deliver a better outcome but only 27% will vote to legalise cannabis for personal use; for New Zealand First voters 89% say prohibition is not working, 79% believe controls would be better but 46% will vote to legalise; for Act voters 89% percent believe prohibition is not working, 71% believe controls would be better but 45% will vote to legalise; for Labour voters 90% believe prohibition is not working, 80% believe controls would be better but 64% will vote to legalise; and for Green voters 98% believe prohibition is not working, 66% believe controls would be better and 78% will vote to legalise.

Some of the gap voters possibly believe that legalisation is a step too far but would support decriminalisation (although the evidence is not that it is actually the better option). But it's hard to explain that National voter result as anything but blunt political partisanship. Half of those National voters intend to vote against their own judgement on the issue because they currently associate reform with the Left.

Sandra Murray, the co-ordinator of the Make It Legal campaign, told me yesterday it tallied with her experience:

From discussions with National supporters at stalls, what I see is a "team" mentality. Regardless of their personal feelings for a topic - they always 'root for their team' and see politics as a my team vs your team thing.

So this poll makes perfect sense to me: many older people think prohibition doesn't work and think we need better controls, but they won't vote Yes because that would be supporting the "other team". They will vote yes when its a National bill.

That's presumably the same reason that fewer than half of supporters of Act, the party of personal choice, would vote to continue to criminalise personal choice – even though party leader David Seymour has made it clear he supports a "Yes" vote.

It's possible that we saw the mirror image of that with National's flag referendum. Labour voters, even those of a republican bent, probably did oppose a new flag because John Key supported it. Personally, I told myself that I was all for a new flag, just not for getting stuck with that ghastly Lockwood one – which is only mostly true.

I honestly don't know how to navigate that – and in a way people like me, wittering about evidence and obsessing over market allocation rules, are part of the problem. It's just not how most normal people think.

Indeed, Drug Foundation director Ross Bell says that according to their research, "People agree that prohibition isn't working. But it tests poorly as a key message to win over persuadable voters."

When I spoke to the foundation's referendum campaign director Renee Shingles, she said that more successful messages tend to revolve around the social contract. I'll have more on that soon, from the Splore Listening Lounge panel with Renee and Make It Legal's Chris Fowlie, which is being transcribed at the moment.

For now, I think we can say two things. One is that while this new poll offers some reason for optimism among reformers, there are substantial caveats to that optimism. The other is that if the "Yes" vote does get over the line, opposition to legalisation and regulation will ebb away as the partisan politics around it does.


MUSIC: Lockdown Grooves

Kia ora! As I've watched nearly all my remaining work vanish over the past couple of days, it has occured to me that one good way to keep me away from arguing with fools on Twitter all the time (in the knowledge that all we're really doing is processing our respective anxieties in public) might be to devote more time to the old blog.

And I have noticed a few people saying they miss the old Music posts. So here we are.

We watched Netflix's Miles Davis documentary Birth of the Cool, taking the two hours in three bites. I agree with the New Yorker review that there's no jazz in the style of the film itself – it's formulaic documentary – and I found it both engaging and enraging.

One thing I came away wsith is that, repeatedly, the women in Davis's life steered his creative journey in pivotal ways – and repeatedly, he was violently abusive towards them. They gave and he took. And yet, yes, his music was beautiful and it mattered.

It did make me want to listen to more from my relatively modest jazz collection. I relate to music generally more on an emotional than a technical level, but that's partcularly the case with jazz. I don't really know what's going on musically most of the time, but I can feel the feeling. So after a prompt from Simon Grigg, I found the losseless files of Theo Parrish's Black Jazz Signature compilation on my hard drive and busied myself in the kitchen:

Theo's mix makes it feel like a long, wild jam; its busy-ness paradoxically soothing. The kashmiri curry turned out well.

Then I dug out one of the first jazz albums I ever bought: Charlie Mingus Live, one of those Affinity label reissues you could get for a pound or two at the markets in London 35 years ago. It was energising:

After that, I needed something a bit more chill. I reached for Dollar Brand's  'Mannenburg, Where It's Happening', which I have on the Voice of Africa compilation. I still sling this in my bag sometimes if I'm DJing – not only because it's a profoundly beautiful and hopeful piece of music, but because it seems to confer a sense of place on anywhere it is played. (More prosaically, it can be helpful to kick off with a 14-minute track while you get your shit together.)

Another night's lockdown dinner was prepared to a very different soundtrack. A couple of weeks ago Keegan Fepuleai put me onto this compilation of world music cover versions of pop and disco classics (with the odd strange version of a reggae classic). Do please try this on yourself if you're feeling glum – it's brilliantly cheering.

Another Simon Grigg tip:

Simon says:

I've long loved this mix. The story behind it goes like this: long before the Universal fire, back in 2002, the old Sugarhill Records studio burnt down in New Jersey and with it went the multi-tracks of much of hip-hop's early history. Steinski, who made some of the very best early hip-hop cut-ups and influenced generations of DJs and producers, was moved to make an album based around the music and the story, cutting up parts of the news story with what is still some of the most electric and thrilling music ever made. 

This CD is a powerful journey that drops in and out of familiar records (it opens with 'The Message') but the sequence that cuts between Flash's Wheels Of Steel, the West Street Mob, The Furious Five's Superrapping and Scorpio is a hell of a climax.

And one more mix: a local one, from Auckland's most madly-skilled DJ, Frank Booker. It's full of disco goodness and he'll be posting these every Friday for the duration of the lockdown:


If you're in my social media networks, you'll have seen me touting a few local albums on Bandcamp when the service waived its fees to help artists stuck without income thanks to the virus ending live music for the time being.

A number of New Zealand artists are stuck at home instead of on long-planned tours and you can help them a lot more by buying their music and merch directly than by just listening on the streaming services. Some of them have the special offer that lets you buy their whole catalogue for one price. Those artists include:

Nadia Reid

Tami Neilson

Lawrence Arabia

Anthonie Tonnon

In the process, I also found a record I might not have noticed otherwise. Kingsley Spargo is an unusual combination of sound artist and crooner and his album Chasing Spirits is all mood:

And there's also one of the most interesting local records in a while. LEAO's Ghost Roads is Pacific dream-pop, or Phoenix Foundation meets fa'a Samoa. Or something. Anyway, it's magic.

Also, bluesman Darren Watson is hosting a Facebook chat and watch party for his timely new single 'Getting Sober for the End of the World on Friday.

One thing I haven't been following – although I know there's a bit on – is live streaming performances from New Zealand artists. Do feel free to post advisories in the comments here. And also to share the music that's been getting you through. The easiest way to do that is with YouTube videos – just paste in the video link (not the embed code!) and it will embed automagically.

Righto, then. Time to think about creating dinner ...


Together Alone

We're about to do something unprecedented as a nation. We hope that by taking this extraordinary action before a single life in New Zealand has been lost to the deadly novel virus we will save tens of thousands of lives. Our  lives. We'll do it together, in households, in isolation from each other.

You'll have noticed that Public Address has been a quieter place in the past two or three years – and that's been more or less deliberate on my part. The site launched nearly 20 years ago and for most of that time it has hosted discussions for and by its reader community. Moderating those discussions has been very largely my job and frankly, a man gets tired.

But Ian Dalziel emailed this week to remind me of the comfort this place brought to many Christchurch people through the earthquake years. It created a community within a community – and a number of the people I "met" at the time I regard now as real-life friends. Could, he suggested, do that again?

Yes, we can. Consider yourself welcomed back to share your experience of the next few weeks. Talk about how it's going, help each other out. Know that those experiences will endure here – as far as I know, Public Address is still harvested by the National Library.

But pleased be restrained with your reckons. The country has no shortage of those. Be kind.

We're fortunate in our house to be relatively well set for a month of lockdown. The supermarkets will be open, but I've been quietly stocking the freezer and the pantry for a week or two and we'll aim to minimise shopping contact.

I've had to apply for the wage subsidy as various big jobs disappear, but I'll have some work to do from from home and Fiona will be here next to me creating her part of the New Zealand Listener (ironically, I'll be covering her job for part of the month because she'd aleady booked annual leave). Of our two adult autistic children, one has lost a job he really values for the foreseeable future – and the other is basically a pro at self-isolation.

We have good internet and we live in a small sreet where we know each other's names. Fiona and I also have e-bikes, and we'll be using those for no-contact exercise. I'll report on what I see from the roads and cycleways. 


You will still need to register to comment here. If you're returning after a while away, password restore should work, and the system will still take new registrations. But I can't guarantee I'll be able to help much with any glitches. People will help you out in the discussion with stuff like formatting and uploading photographers. Have fun. Be kind.