Hard News by Russell Brown


These things we must now change

Wajahat Khan becomes a New Zealand citizen tomorrow. On Saturday, before leading the opening prayer at the vigil in Aotea Square, he told the thousands who had gathered there how happy and proud he was at the prospect.

The fact that a young man could express that happiness in the shadow of the previous day's atrocity tears me up even as I write this. But he wasn't alone. The gentleness of all the speakers from the Muslim community,  their entreaties against hate, their frequently-expressed commitment to being New Zealanders, all in a weave of English, te reo Māori and Arabic, was deeply affecting. I cried through much of it and I could see I wasn't alone in the crowd.

Yesterday, aware that my own composure was not matching theirs, I tried to follow their counsel against anger. But it wasn't easy: the whatabouttery had begun. There were the people who told everyone not to "politicise" the atrocity – out of respect for the victims, of course – when evidence of their own foul politics was still there in their timelines and blog comments. There were, horrifyingly, the unrepetant.

By Friday night, things were starting to disappear from the mainstream: Newstalk ZB apparently deleted a number of opinion pieces. The National Party quietly removed the petition that cynically sought to raise ire and fear about New Zealand signing up to the UN Global Migration Compact. These gestures would be more welcome if they came with any kind of explanation or apology.

Because the fact is that there has been an implicit acceptance of rhetoric directed at one group of people, a group defined by their faith, for a long time now. It must be 18 years since I first interviewed Winston Peters, as the new host of Mediawatch. Off-air and unprompted, Peters began telling me about the threatening passages in The Koran. I responded that there was some ropey stuff in The Bible too. Our very awkward conversation ended with Peters flashing that big smile, as if it might all have been a joke.

But Peters has more form here, as Thomas Coughlan notes in a roundup of political statements on Newsroom. He also identifies Labour's positions on immigration and housing at the last election. I think it should be possible, in principle, to debate immigration policy settings like any others, but something happened during the campaign that impressed on me how easy it is for that debate to spill over into something else.

At the Orcon IRL election event we ran at Golden Dawn, Labour MP Louisa Wall talked about "low-quality immigrants". I saw my co-host Jogai Bhatt flinch. I intended to deal with it in the plenary panel, but a rainstorm intervened, so I asked Jogai later if she wanted to write about it. She wrote this post, which also analyses The Opportunies Party's rhetoric on immigration, which was to welcome immigrants only if they directly benefited "our" standard of living. Ironically, she notes that the MP at the IRL event who pushed back against the language ("Immigration is about people, it’s not about numbers. These are human beings we’re talking about.") was New Zealand First's Tracey Martin.

It's an example of how utterly careless our language about immigration has become.

But there was something much worse going on. It has not been difficult to see the boundaries on race and hate being moved in the Trump era. Hateful, even genocidal, rhetoric has gone unmoderated in Kiwiblog comments for years, but it reaches further now, and has a more obvious connection to white-supremacist rabble-rousing in North America.

I think the members of the Free Speech Coalition need to seriously examine what they became part of after they assembled to defend the "rights" of the nakedly racist Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern last year. Their pathetic rally in Aotea Square (which was promoted in advance by the National Front) was principally a fan club for Tommy Robinson, a violent Islamophobe with an extensive criminal record; more speakers railed against "sharia law" than fettered speech.

The coalition had multiple opportunities to repudiate what their rally became, and they didn't take them. Coalition spokesman David Cumin expressed alarm earlier this year when skinheads with swastika tattoos turned up at a Christchurch rally against the UN migration compact, as if only dress-up Nazis were real. The coalition supported the protests on the basis that, as Cumin put it, it "prohibits all critical speech aimed at open-border migration". But the UN compact doesn't enforce "open border migration", it doesn't offer it as an aspiration and no political party has such a policy. The simple use of that phrase as if it describes a reality buys into organised hate.

I think Cumin will be capable of that reflection. I'm not so sure about his coalition colleague, perennial Act Party candidate Stephen Berry. Over the weekend on Twitter, Berry scolded that "trying to politicise this tragedy is disgraceful".

Yet in 2013, on Lindsay Perigo's wretched SOLO Passion website, he wrote a blog post decrying "a plague of Islamic poison spreading across Europe and the UK due to relatively liberal migration laws that allow conservative Muslims in" and described the growth of the Muslim population as a threat. In the comments underneath he professed to agree that "Islamic immigration is a real threat to individual liberties which have resulted from western civilisation" and pondered ways in which "sanctions against Islamic immigration" could be applied.

He stood happily with the people who brandished their Tommy Robinson iconograhy in Aotea Square. Those people will tell you that Islamist "hate preachers" have passed through Auckland and preached to audiences. This is absolutely true, and worrying. But it is dwarfed in every way by the volume, ubiquity and sheer mainstreaming of its mirror-image rhetoric about and against ordinary Muslims. Dodgy hate-preachers don't have national radio shows, or a place in widely-read blog discussions.

And yet, none of this is directly linked to the Christchurch atrocity. The killer's hate culture, as expressed in his pretentious manifesto (always, these people purport to be cleverer than they are, with their pseudoscience and idiot history) is an online one: it crosses national borders; it's everywhere and nowhere.

I got increasingly angry with Paul Buchanan's reckless commentary on the day of the attack; his waxing about Christchurch's culture of white supremacism and especially his baseless claim that the killer grew up in Christchurch and must be considered a product of it. Yes, Christchurch has that history and to some extent that present (although people who live there talk about how it's changed, especialy since the earthquakes, and it seems notable, for example, the the top four candidates in Christchurch East in 2017 were Māori or Pasifika women). But there are ethno-nationalist groups at the University of Auckland, and a gang of neo-Nazi twentysomethings plastering their filth on walls in Wellington. And, as we now know, the killer lived, when he was in New Zealand, in Dunedin and belonged to a creepy-sounding gun club. The killer's manifesto uses a symbol displayed by neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. None of us are innocent.

Perhaps, apart from having the stricter gun laws in place, nothing could have been done to prevent this mass murder. One of the problems with even identifying a likely far-right terrorist is simply picking out his hate rhetoric from the background din of bigotry. They can, to some extent, hide in plain sight.

But no more. This must end here. These ideas need to be called out and, where necessary, drawn to the attention of police. Politicians need to stop using bigotry as a lever, media organisations need to stop giving it air. Intelligence agencies must look where they, unaccountably, have not been looking. We may need to talk to our own family members about what they're reading. We can't change what happened on Friday, but we can do everything to prevent it happening again.

And we can do it so that members of the Muslim community, these people who are so proud and happy to be New Zealanders, don't have to live with the fear. Anjum Rahman has explained here about how she and other members of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand became so alarmed by "the rise of vitriol and the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand" that they compiled a report about it. Over five years, they met with civil servants, the SIS, ministers to talk about the way their community was being threatened – and nothing really happened.

We can read this likes of this, by Faisal Halabi, on the conflicting emotions of being a Muslim New Zealander. We can listen to this, by journalist and poet Mohamed Hassan, whose adeptness at describing his experience has never been more needed.

And tomorrow, we can all send Wajahat Khan a big, bold "kia ora" from our hearts.


Exporting panic and greed: the meth-testing industry crossing the Tasman

After the report of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor put to rest the disastrous and costly moral panic around supposed "methamphetamine contamination" nearly a year ago, the industry that had grown around unfounded claims about meth residues and health had a problem.

Its business hasn't wholly disappeared, but it has very sharply shrunk. And some of the figures in the industry have ventured into new territory. That is, Australia, where the practice of environmental testing is still barely regulated and the news media is as credulous on the matter as ours used to be.

It really is like watching a replay: people who have been convinced they have been poisoned, who have needlessly paid tens of thousands of dollars, who have been told to destroy their possessions. Calls for compulsory testing of all rental properties, backed up by "experts" making increasingly wild claims about the extent of "contamination".

One name crops up frequently: that of New Zealander Ryan Matthews, who founded the companies MethScreen and Decontamination Solutions here in 2016 and now operates MethScreen in Australia.

Matthews' LinkedIn profile shows a business history in construction, designer swimming pools, a payday loans company and a supplements business, but no technical or scientific qualifications in toxicology or environmental testing.

And yet here he is in the news, telling news.com.au that one in five rental homes in Victoria alone could contain dangerous meth residue. As the tester who told a Sydney family to flee their home and claimed that "at least one house in every street is contaminated and potentially uninhabitable". Falsely claiming that any house testing over Australia's extremely low 0.5 microgram lab cleanup guideline was uninhabitable, and reeling off more dubious claims about the extent of such "contamination".

Matthews and his company are at the centre of this new 45-minute report by ABC radio's Hagar Cohen. It builds into its story, but it becomes clear that what Cohen has done here is something I don't think anyone did in New Zealand – get inside the industry and its practices. MethScreen turns out to have reported concentrations that were not only thousands of times higher than the 0.5 guideline, but many, many times greater than subsequent expert testing was able to replicate.

When one woman resisted Matthews' urging to vacate her home and pay for further testing (she cited our Science Advisor's report) he offered her a second round of testing for free – on the condition that she speak to news media as a contamination victim.

It starts to become clear why MethScreen's results are so high, when Cohen talks to a former employee, who explains a testing process that seems designed to indicate high concentrations of residue, whether they're there or not.

It's a fascinating story. My only quibble would be the credence given to the ubiquitous Jackie Wright of Flinders University. The Chief Science Advisor's report was simply unable to stack up Wright's claims about the health impact of meth residues – and not for want of trying. But Cohen does repeatedly make the point that there is "no firm evidence" that links exposure to trace residues of methamphetamine to any health harm.

It should be noted that many of the news media reports in Australia do mention the Chief Science Advisor's report, but invariably as a footnote. There, as here, the most alarming claims are in the headlines – whether they have any basis or not.


The korero we've been waiting for

If you follow this blog at all, you will know that I have been in a state of some despair at the quality of the media "debate" on the forthcoming cannabis law reform referendum. So it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge someone finally doing it well.

The Hui's panel discussion on the referendum and reform is absolutely worth your 25 minutes. It features New Zealand Drug Foundation chair Tuari Potiki, psychiatrist Dr Hinemoa Elder, AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince and Dr Hirini Kaa, kaiārahi at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland. All have clearly thought about the issues and all had useful things to say about what they do and don't want from reform – and I absolutely include probable "no" voter Hirini in that.

We got a good discussion of important questions about reform: the right age of legal use, where any tax windfall should go, the proper nature of any heath and social services funded by that windfall, the right of local communities to both benefit from and locally control any new industry, whether legalisation will erase the racial imbalance in drug prosecutions (to general agreement, no, but it should help somewhat). There was a universal distaste for the prospect of "Big Cannabis" (if there is anything on which all sides agree, it is this). Khylee noted later on Facebook that she'd intended to raise home-growing, saying that "if there is no space in any reform to allow people to grow their own, discrimination against Māori will continue."

The discussion was also given structure by the results of a fascinating and well-designed poll, which found a striking 75% of Māori in favour of legalising and regulating cannabis. Notably, an even greater proportion of respondents – 78% – want to be voting in 2020 on a law already passed by Parliament. It's been said many times that this is an issue where Māori have a particular stake. On the evidence of the poll results, Māori voters have also earned a voice by actually understanding what's going on.

It's ironic that The Hui is broadcast by the same company that has been serving up Duncan Garner's clickbait bullshit, but this is a sphere replete with ironies.

What we got was the korero we've been waiting for. It doesn't need Bob McCoskrie or Duncan Garner; it needs people of good faith. We can only hope that as the referendum comes closer, the broader community will get the discussion it deserves.


Music: Milk & Honey

The first song to be written, record and released in New Zealand by a New Zealand label was sung by a woman.

Pixie Williams, by her own account, saw music as a means to happiness and never coveted a career. Other women who followed may have had more ambitious goals, but for decades they had no real route to controlling their own destinies.

But in the 1970s, Shona Laing and Sharon O'Neill not only wrote their own songs, but were signed because they did. Punk rock arrived and began to invalidate ideas about proper gender roles. The Flying Nun community emerged with women who played instruments, sang songs and eventually managed the label. Smart, pioneering women ran Virgin Records' New Zealand arm. My partner Fiona managed Dead Famous People, my friend Suzanne managed Fatal Jellyspace. Things did change and continued to change.

But obstruction, exclusion and bullshit didn't go away and in recent years there have been conscious efforts at inclusion: Apra undertook to redress the gender imbalance, financial and otherwise, in its sector, and Julia Deans devised a tour for which all support acts were female or non-binary fronted bands or solo artists, and the booking agent, promoter, publicist, and most of the band and crew were women. Girls Rock Camp has done an amazing job of introducing young women to playing music.

Less formally, the DJ scene has begun to diversify away from being a boys' club and perhaps one day a leader like Aroha Harawira won't have to worry about being groped and vomited on by men while she's trying to do her job. But what Aroha has done really matters: it says to young women watching her that they can do more than just make up the numbers on the dancefloor.

All of these developments should be seen as the industry speaking to itself, keeping itself honest, doing better. And that's how Chelsea Jade's online comment about the all-male lineup on Six60's Western Springs bill should have been heard. Chelsea wasn't the only female artist to make that observation, just the one who said it out loud, and she had a damn point (for comparison, Ladi6, Jess B and Silva MC provided a fair bit of the energy at Fat Freddy's Drop's Springs show earlier in the summer). Similar criticisms were actually made of other summer festival bills, most notably Homegrown, Unfortunately, blowhards like Sean Plunket weighed in on the "madness" of balanced bills and some Six60 fans felt it was okay to outright abuse Chelsea online.

But sometimes a celebration is due, and that's what Milk & Honey festival is. Next Friday, March 8, International Women's Day, will see five venues across four cities host shows featuring lineups led by women, produced by women. It's the brainchild of 25-year industry management veteran Teresa Patterson and Elemenop bass player and erstwhile SAE Institute staffer Lani Purkis.

"We kind of came up with the idea independently," says Teresa. "I thought about it when we were putting together the ideas for Julia Deans's tour last year and Julia said to me, gosh, there's so much talent around the country.

 "And I said, how come there's not a female festival, like Lilith? We should put together something for International Women's Day. We should put on a series of gigs. I booked the Powerstation and Lani got wind of the fact that I'd done that and she contacted me and said, I've been wanting to put on an all-female festival. So we decided we should do it together."

The idea took off and one gig became five. And they're really good gigs:

Powerstation, Auckland: Tami Neilson, Nadia Reid, Julia Deans, Ria Hall and DJ Sandy Mill.

Whammy/Wine Cellar, Auckland: carb on carb, CHAII, Cheshire Grimm, Dead Little Penny, HEX, LEXXA, Randa, October, Sami Sisters, Tooms, Wax Chattels, Valkyrie.

Club 121, Wellington: DJ Alexa Casino, Half Queen , Peach Milk , Amy Jean.

Blue Smoke, Christchurch: Bic Runga, French_concession.

Sherwood, Queenstown: Mel Parsons, Dana Sipos (Canada).

"We've really tried hard to have women working behind the scenes," says Teresa. "I'm looking after the Powerstation and all my crew but one are female. All of Lani's crew at Whammy are women. We just want to show young women that there are options out there – and that it can be a safe environment. That it's just normal."

It would be good to see Milk & Honey become an annual celebration – ideally one with the all-ages shows that this first year is missing.

"We would love for it to be a regular thing. We would love for it to grow, to become a proper festival. But most importantly, we would love for there not to be a need for it. For all festival lineups to be 50-50, and all crew and so on. That there is 'balance for better', as per the theme of International Women's Day."

On a personal level, I'm stoked to see my DJ buddy Sandy Mill involved. Sandy's more than a DJ, of course: she's been the guest vocalist on any number of dance tracks over the years and and has sung with everyone from Neil Finn to Basement Jaxx and Boy George. But it's only in the past year that she's been able to finally do her own thing (it's no accident that her new label and production compay is called She's the Boss). In similar vein, Caroline Easther, drummer for The Chills, Let's Planet, The Verlaines and others, has just stepped out from behind the kit and released Lucky, an album of warm, winning alt-country and indie pop. For both, it's been a long road to singing their own songs.

So anyway, tickets to all the Milk & Honey shows can be purchased here. And, thanks to Teresa and Lani, I have a double pass to give away to each of the shows. Just click the email reply button below this post and put the venue name of the show you want in the subject of your message.

I'm on the road working from next Monday, so I'll draw winners on Sunday.


New on Audioculture: Alan Perrott's great profile of one of the good guys of New Zealand music, Malcolm Black, my history of Splore and Chris Bourke's story of the infamous Neon Picnic.

And if you've ever done a gig, please do pour one out for Ross Lowell, the inventor of gaffer tape, died recently aged 92. Respect.

And I'm back playing records at Cupid bar in Point Chevalier tonight, along with Ben McNicoll (Ijebu Pleasure Club). Next Friday, it's Mark Graham and Jackson Perry. Come on down!



Peter McLennan, aka Dub Asylum, likes a bit of Carribean-style steel drums, and he's a longtime champion of local reggae. He brings the two together today with this remix of Herbs' 'French Letter'. It's really lovely, and it's available on Bandcamp at a price of your choosing.


Always asking the wrong questions about cannabis

"How many shops will there be? How many shops will there be? How many shops will there be? How many shops will there be? How many shops will there be?" Duncan Garner demanded of Chloe Swarbrick MP towards the end of his inept interview with her on the merits of cannabis legalisation.

It wasn't just that he chanted the question while Swarbrick was trying to answer his previous one. It's that it was a question she was in no position to answer. It was the wrong question. And only someone who had no idea what was actually going on would ask it. Sadly, this is where we're at with cannabis referendum "debate".

Swarbrick was eventually able to say that she wanted to a strict regime that would avoid the "Uberisation of cannabis" seen in some US states and prohibited commercial advertising. She subsequently explained that for her part she was communicating the Green Party position to the minister responsible for next year's referendum on cannabis legalisation, Andrew Little. Which was that there should be a law, debated and voted on by Parliament, which would contain a clause bringing it into force in the event of a positive vote in the referendum.

So the question – something else that Garner repeatedly demanded Swarbrick tell him – should be "Do you vote Yes or No to the Legalisation and Regulation of Cannabis Act?"

Some people have suggested a two-stage question, or even multiple choices. But this is the process recommended by constitutional lawyers. It has the virtues of simplicitly and clarity, and ensures that people know exactly what they're voting for if they vote "Yes". And it appears that this is the approach the government will take.

So the question to ask of any MP is not "How many shops will there be?" but "How many shops do you think there should be?"

Amid the banalities of some of the media coverage, this is the critical thing that is missed: we have choices here. Our elected representatives will draft a bill and they will hear what we have to say about it in a select committee process. What we have to say will influence the final bill that Parliament votes on. And then we vote on that.

There are relevant and important questions to ask about what the bill should look like. One of Garner's attempted zingers, for example, was to put it to Swarbrick that "this big tax revenue" everyone was expecting "didn't happen". This is, of course, nonsense. In Washington State, five years into legalisation, cannabis industry tax revenues are booming; running ahead of forecasts to the extent that they're debating what to do with the extra money.

But it is true that in legalisation's first year in California, legal sales (and thus tax revenues) have been lower than expected: $2.5bn versus an expected $3bn. That's $500m less than the year before, when California's fairly loose medicinal cannabis regime was the only way to legally buy weed. There is now a political bid to try and increase tax revenue by lowering the excise rate.

But it's complicated. On the face of it, Washington's cannabis sales tax is more than twice California's. So why are its revenues booming? Well, firstly because its tax is relatively simple, while California levies different amounts in different ways on different parts of the industry. Moreover, regulatory compliance costs in California are crippling suppliers who are trying to go legal.

That last part is really important. There are two key strategic reasons for legalising and regulating cannabis. One is to get a handle on public health issues. The other is to curb the black market. And the two goals may at times be in conflict. The standard public health response to a harmful substance is to tax it punitively and make it really hard to supply. We're going to need to ask ourselves whether that's the right thing to do with cannabis; to look for the sweet spot in tax and regulatory settings.

One other lesson might be available from Washington state: authorities strictly limited the number of licences available at the time of legalisation. California imposed no limit on either the number of producers and retailers or the size of farms, but made the regulatory burden incredibly high. The evidence is that we probably don't want to be like California.

There a lot of other things we could and should be talking about – from testing for cannabis in the workplace and on the road to permission for home-growing and what should be done about historic convictions – but we're not. Instead we're getting the kind of empty clickbait being dished up by Garner and the AM Show.

I'm also getting more than a bit tired of people declaring that "a referendum isn't the right way to do this" like they're dispensing some grand wisdom only they have thought of. No, it's not (although it does have the merit of offering a very clear mandate if change is chosen). But it's what was politically available at the time – there simply wasn't a Parliamentary majority for legalisation in its own right. And more to the point, it's what's actually underway.

There is also a responsibility among Parliamentarians from all parties – who will vote on the law that we vote on – to take this process seriously, to stop making it a partisan issue and to develop a considered position on the manifold choices to be made. The National Party – and hence its social media cheerleaders – have shown little sign of doing so. Last week, Paula Bennett posted this on Facebook.

It's a nice enough sentiment. But it's completely at odds with her party's endless tub-thumping on the limited and temporary statutory defence for people in palliative care in the government's medicinal cannabis bill, – the provision repeatedly attacked by Simon Bridges as "decriminalisation by stealth". The "most vulnerable" people Bennett is sorry about not getting their medicinal cannabis are the same people her party wanted to have no protection from criminal prosecution. It's just maddeningly incoherent and it's not fucking good enough.

It's also incumbent on the government to communicate what it's doing and to consider all the issues as it frames the proposed law. I don't think it's a complete disaster if Cabinet decides not go go with a fully-worked-through law, if there's still enough detail for people to know what they're voting for, but it would be disappointing. Also, they need to crack on with this. There needs to be provision for a process and communication of that process in May's Budget. We need to be serious here.

Finally, and returning to the AM Show, I'm appalled that the show's producers have refused to provide sources for most of the claims Garner hurled at Swarbrick from his list of 12 bullet points. It's the most basic element of having a discussion about evidence. I think I might have tracked down the source of Garner's claims about students in Los Angeles and their attitudes to cannabis. It may have come from the comments here by the lead author of a study of the different ways LA  16 year-olds who have tried cannabis have used it.

I think the study has some issues: the assumption that vaping is somehow automatically of more concern than smoking in particular seems hard to justify. But that's not the main problem with quoting it as an argument against legalisation. That would be that all the field research for the study was conducted before cannabis was legalised for adult use in California.


Anyway, that'll do for now, but I'm interested in your thoughts and commentary on the issues raised here, links welcome. 

And if you'd like to hear more from Chloe Swarbrick and you're going to Splore, come along to The Listening Lounge on Saturday morning.