Hard News by Russell Brown


We are, at last, navigating out of the "meth contamination" debacle

"Testing for low levels of methamphetamine in residential properties in New Zealand has come at a very high cost," reads the report of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman into the national panic over the alleged meth contamination of thousands of properties, which was published today.

"Although promoted as being protective of human health, the actions taken in pursuit of zero risk (which is not achievable in any case) have been disproportionate to the actual health risks," the report finds.

The report validates, in some detail, the scientific critique laid out in a cover story I wrote for Matters of Substance nearly two years ago. It seems to offer a way out of a disastrous situation I had feared was intractable.

Gluckman says that New Zealand's approach seems "unique in the world" in its focus not only on sites where methamphetamine was manufactured but where it might simply have been consumed. He says that "the methamphetamine testing and decontamination industry has promoted the idea that all properties are potentially in danger from methamphetamine contamination."

As a consequence, "there have been huge costs to homeowners, landlords, and the state – not only of testing and remediation itself, but the unnecessary stigma of ‘contamination’ (for example on a LIM report), often based on little or no actual risk."

New Zealand's years of testing fever have come at a cost not only in dollars, but human well-being. Gluckman observes that in a social housing context, "the risk of being in an unstable housing situation is likely to be far greater than the risk of exposure to low levels of methamphetamine residues."

And yet, Housing New Zealand threw people out of their homes and sometimes issued triumphant press releases when the Tenancy Tribunal ordered former tenants to pay tens of thousands of dollars in costs for generally unnecessary remediation. The tribunal itself repeatedly ignored warnings that its apprehension of the science was faulty, often forbidding entry to dwellings that posed no risk to anyone.

This chaos developed gradually from the Ministry of Health's publication of cleanup guidelines for former meth labs in 2010, but really broke the surface in March 2016 with a flurry of stories about the way a new state housing development in Christchurch had been "contaminated". Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett lamented the "serious health effects" on "wee babies" and endorsed Housing NZ's get-tough approach. There was little doubt who the villains were.

It should be noted that Housing NZ did have a genuine problem with a more limited number of properties that had been used for manufacture (it's one that has been steadily diminishing as meth is increasingly trafficked into the country fully made). And no, no one wants a P house for a neighbour. But the women who were evicted, along with their children, in Christchurch may not even have been themselves consuming.

If the story turned when the minister weighed in, it turned back 21 months later when her successor, Phil Twyford, gave an extraordinary interview to RNZ Checkpoint, in which he offered an apology to Auckland man Robert Erueti, who had been evicted from the home where he had lived for 15 years and spent more than a year in emergency housing. Millions of dollars had been wasted, said the new minister, who followed up by commissioning the Gluckman report released today.

Change has been evident in the interim. In the March issue of Matters of Substance Housing NZ CEO Andrew McKenzie contributed a column outlining a fresh philosophy that he said was the result of  "a long, hard look at the way we work with our tenants, particularly how we keep them in housing."

McKenzie began his role in September 2016 and is thus accountable for the continuation of the agency's ill-advised policies for some time after that. But you can't read this paragraph without seeing Housing NZ reconnecting with a role it had long seemed deserate to shirk: its role as a social housing provider and not just a property manager.

Tenants will be provided with support that will ensure they have all the tools they need to sustain a successful tenancy for the time they need it. Achieving life skills and housing independence are key planks of this approach. That includes tenants who need a stable home to have the best chance of working through any addiction issues. While our tenants need us, we’ll be there for them.

Armed with Gluckman's report, Twyford will now apply its recommendation that the cleanup standard established last year (1.5 micrograms per 100cm) should only be applied to properties where meth manufacture or what Gluckman describes as "excessive smoking" are suspected. The standard will be treated as what it actually is – a sentinel value for the remediation of contamination by more harmful chemicals – and where there is no reason to suspect actual harm, we shouldn't be testing. It will be harder for the testing industry to distort the science.

Helpfully, the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill (No 2)originally designed to give landlords greater power to enter properties and test at will for supposed meth contamination, terminate tenancies on the basis of those tests and claim compensation from tenants – is yet to receive its second reading. The bill has already been somewhat reined in after select committee scrutiny (among other things, it no longer specifically refers to methamphetamine) and Twyford will incorporate the new recommendations in regulations to be attached to the act itself.

So much for the politics. But we also need to contemplate another reason the country got into this mess – the news media.

For years, reporters and interviewers simply nodded while self-proclaimed "experts" with a direct commercial interest in a meth panic made outlandish claims about health risks that did not exist. It was, we were repeatedly told, the new leaky homes crisis.

The influence of the testing industry was evident in more subtle ways too. This text appeared at the bottom of that Stuff story quoting Paula Bennett:

The problem with P

* It can cause breathing problems, respiratory irritation, skin and eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness.

* High exposures even for a short time can cause death or severe lung damage and skin or throat burns

* People can be exposed by breathing the air that may contain suspended contaminant particles as dust, by touching surfaces that are contaminated, by eating or drinking from contaminated dishes, or from eating or smoking after contact with contaminated areas.

It's presented as fact, but none of these things are true of methamphetamine itself. So where did this wording come from? You can find it in various versions on state government websites in the US like this one. But that US site refers solely to contaminants from meth manufacture. The same words appear on the websites of New Zealand testing and cleaning companies, but on those, the harms are attributed to the mere consumption of meth in a property. The information was altered for commercial gain – and the papers printed it.

There is a happier story too. The Science Media Centre demonstrated exactly why its role is so important by releasing this commentary from Dr Nick Kim at Massey University and Leo Schep at the National Poisons Centre, casting expert doubt on the claims that were all over the news. Schep said almost nothing thereafter, but Dr Kim (perhaps because he did not rely on Ministry of Health funding), was happy to explain it to anyone who would listen.

The first to listen – and I do love pointing this out to my journalistic peers – was The Panel on RNZ. Meanwhile, the daily news clamoured with absurd and irresponsible stories pushed by the testing industry.

As the story unfolded, a handful of journalists – RNZ's Benedict Collins deserves special mention here – did very good work. A strikingly uneven Fair Go report on the issue seemed to embody the wider  battle between hand-wringing sentiment and scientific scrutiny – the latter coming via Garth Bray, who worked with Dr Kim to demonstrate that the  level of meth "contamination" that had the Tenancy Tribunal ordering hazmat suits was in fact present in most of our banknotes.

And I think the  Matters of Substance story is one of the most important things I've done. Among other things, I was able to show that Housing NZ's "meth team" had openly countenanced forcing prospective tenants to undergo drug tests as a condition of shelter. (The idea was rejected as impractical, and not on account of its human rights implications.)

Again, there's credit due here – not least to former MBIE staffer Joanne Kearney, who became concerned about what she was seeing as far back as 2014 and started making OIA requests and looking up Tenancy Tribunal decisions. Her willingness to share that information with me made a difference. The same goes for the Housing NZ employees who talked to me. As one of them put it, "we're not monsters".

So good journalism practice won over bad, in the end – but the final cost of the moral panic the media helped foster was significant, in both dollars and wrecked lives. The easy stigmatisation of people with drug problems hurt them, hurt the communities they lived in, and hurt the economy. I truly hope some lessons have been learned in the course of this debacle.


Protecting privilege in Epsom

One of the Act Party's founding conceits was that its ideas represented a better way for everyone. Yes, its financial support might come from the very rich, but classical liberalism meant opportunity for all. Roger Douglas came not to uphold privilege but to bury it for good.

In truth, the dream was sullied from the beginning by the presence of punitive social conservatives in the party ranks, and the masses showed no great love for the party's ideas. Act began to look less like a party of visionaries and more like a party of weirdos and chancers.

But even when Rodney Hide became the MP for one of the country's wealthiest electorates, Epsom, in 2005, the party could claim a little of the dream. Hide was coarse, he went to school in Rangiora and had worked on oil rigs – he might represent the burghers of Epsom, but he was not of them. His successor, John Banks, could have have been the working-class hero the party dreamed of, but never really believed in what Act professed to stand for.

And then, in 2014, came David Seymour, the current holder of the electorate that is now Act's sole source of political oxygen. Seymour mght have touted freedom and opportunity, but he was almost immediately all about the protection of privilege. The leader of the party of property rights went to war to prevent developers in Epsom exercising theirs.

In an extraordinary 2015 interview with Interest.co.nz, Seymour railed against "freeloading developers" who sought to build on land they owned in his electorate. He suggested that the electorate's two sought-after state schools, Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls Grammar, should be able to exclude the children of apartment-dwellers as an alternative to the schools reining in their zones. Because, after all, existing residents had paid for their privilege. They were entitled to it:

Seymour said the risk was that the Grammar Schools may eventually have to restrict admissions, which could affect the entitlements of those who had already bought into the Grammar Zone for their children.

"That's the sort of investment that a lot of people have put in and you have to have some empathy for that," he said.

Owners and tenants of new apartment and townhouse developers in the zones were effectively free-riding on the benefits of being in the zones, which could ultimately hurt the rights of those already in the zones.

So that's the context for Seymour's recent odious letter to Epsom residents, fanning concern about a development planned by Housing New Zealand for a property it owns in Banff Avenue, Epsom – in-zone for  both Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls, where big backyard swimming pools lie limpid in the aerial photographs.

In the letter, he invited them to a public meeting about the plan, which he said would put pressure on parking and other infrastructure. And:

There is also a chance that some of the future residents will have social and mental health issues who will need to have special support measures in place.

Housing minister Phil Twyford has leapt on the letter, and rightly so. It's nasty, ignorant and stigmatising. Its message is that people living with mental health issues are not welcome in a wealthy suburb (where, presumably, such things are properly kept behind heavy curtains).

But the video from the meeting suggests that the local residents are quite capable of scaremongering themselves. Neighbour Clare Turner assails Housing NZ's Neil Adams with what she thinks she knows about "P contamination", as if methamphetamine consumed by future residents was likely to prowl along the street to her house. It's perfectly fearful.

The irony is that Epsom is not going to get crazed meth-heads living in its new social housing development. The 25 shiny, new apartments are, says Housing NZ, destined for occupation by retired people and small families. Of course they are. The agency isn't about to buy a fight and its more difficult tenants will be kept well clear of leafy suburbs.

But Auckland has a housing deficit and a social housing deficit. Housing NZ is building to address those, and it plans to more than double the number of properties it has under management in the city. As I wrote in The Spinoff earlier this year, that's what happening at the corner of our street in Point Chevalier, where an old bungalow and a 1950s duplex are making way for five new family dwellings being built by Housing NZ. The kids who move in will have access to a new kindergarten and excellent schools – the latter of which are also feeling the squeeze on capacity.

We've lived alongside social housing for nearly 20 years here, and once or twice over that time, it's been a bit hairy. – much as it was, presumably, in the now-derelict properties that Housing NZ wants to develop in Banff Avenue. A number of our neighbours have had long-term health issues, and fewer than a handful have been mentally ill, too much so, in the end, to sustain tenancies. But people need homes. We all deserve that chance.

If it wasn't already clear, it is amply so now that the leader of the Act Party's role in the electorate he was engineered into is to sustain entrenched privilege and validate fear and prejudice. Perhaps the party should just surrender its founding conceit and be done with it.


Budget 2018: The broadcasting shambles

During last year's election campaign, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern pledged an additional $38 million – annually, it appeared – for a public broadcasting sector whose budget had been frozen for nine years of a National-led government. It was welcome news and in keeping with past Labour rhetoric. It came packaged with a new, multimedia vision for Radio New Zealand.

"Public media, backed with sustainable funding, is essential to ensuring all New Zealanders are engaged and heard. However a commercial market cannot deliver all of this," she said. 

"RNZ has consistently provided an incredibly valuable service to New Zealanders, despite a nine-year funding freeze from the Government at a time of massive change to the media sector, Labour will build on RNZ's solid foundation and transform it into something closer to Australia's ABC."

A couple of months later she was Prime Minister Ardern and her new Broadcasting minister Clare Curran was the guest of honour at NZ On Air's annual Christmas function for stakeholders in Auckland. Curran fairly basked in the appreciation of the audience as she reiterated the promise that there would be $38 million in new funding, to be shared between RNZ and NZ On Air. But, she said, beaming as if it was a feature not a bug, she couldn't tell us what the split would be.

The kind explanation would be that, per the policy, funding was to be distributed by a new Public Media Funding Commission, whose shape and composition was yet unknown. But the minister's inability to say how much the two country's two major public broadcasting organisations would receive has meant that those two organisations have been unable to properly plan their year ahead.

As Duncan Greive noted in February, the nature of the split had significant implications for the whole broadcast sector. And it was understandable that the two organisations directly involved would be jousting for their share. Around the same time, the names of the people appointed to a an advisory group to advise on the formation of the Public Media Funding Commission were announced, in a messy execrcise involving redacted documents that hadn't been properly redacted.

In the past week or two, the buzz has been that perhaps the new funding wouldn't be $38 million at all – perhaps only $25 million – and maybe TVNZ would get a look in. Still, at least everyone would know what they had to work with after Budget day.

If only.

As delivered today, the Budget contains only $15 million in new funding for public broadcasting services – and it's still not clear where the money will go. Curran's press release today read in full:

The importance of well-resourced public media to inform our democracy has been acknowledged in Budget 2018, says Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Clare Curran.

“Quality New Zealand programming and journalism are crucial to our national identity and need ongoing, sustainable resourcing. In all democracies the media has a critical role in holding public and private institutions to account,” says Clare Curran.

“That is why we have set up a ministerial advisory group to advise on how to support the contribution of public media to an informed democracy,” says Clare Curran.

“Budget 2018 sets aside $15.0 million operating funds in 2018/19 to implement any of the advisory group’s recommendations that the Coalition Government accepts this year. There will be further funding allocated for full implementation in future Budgets.

“The ministerial advisory group may recommend increased Government investment in Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and NZ On Air to support public media and programming.

“Over time we want RNZ to have the ability to turn itself into a multi-platform provider dedicated to quality New Zealand programming and journalism, and we want NZ On Air to be able to better support content that is valued by Kiwis,” says Clare Curran.

Now, hold on. The advisory group is going to determine where the new funding will go? Wasn't the advisory group established to advise on the goals and composition of the Public Media Funding Commission, which was going to allocate the funding?

One problem here is that the advisory group quite evidently isn't constituted to allocate funding itself. Of its four members (industry stirrer William Earl having mysteriously dropped out as a fifth), two have those skills: Josh Easby, a former RNZ board deputy chair who has notably broad experience in various media sectors, and Irene Gardiner, who has pretty much the perfect cv. But why would former deputy state services commissioner Sandi Beatie and corporate receiver Michael Stiassny be making what are essentially operational decisions about broadcast funding?

The other problem is that you don't need a working group to decide, at some future point, that RNZ needs some more money to do the job it's tasked with. That information was made clear, via its board, to the last government and will have been made just as clear to the new one. As Jacinda Ardern herself said back in September when she announced the policy, RNZ "has been chronically under-funded since 2007."

I fully expected this Budget to be a relatively conservative one, and that Grant Robertson would use it to demonstrate his capacity for restraint and responsibility. So maybe we write off the missing $23 million to that. But offering RNZ nothing in rescue funding until an advisory group has decided something, some time in the next year, is not competent, prudent, fair or in keeping with Labour's rhetoric.

And suddenly, there's another wrinkle in there: the implication that this is not only a matter for Labour, but for the whole of the coalition government. Whose policy was this again?

I really don't know whether this is the upshot of Curran's chaotic interactions with RNZ in the past six months – and her consequent loss of sway – or simply a result of the minister's fixation with a particular model, but a Budget day should not leave the country's only public broadcaster unable to determine its own strategy.

In the circumstances, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson's public response was an impressive act of diplomacy:

RNZ welcomes the injection of $15m to the public media sector in Budget 2018, says chief executive Paul Thompson.

“This is good news and signals the Government’s commitment to investing in a stronger, multimedia RNZ that provides freely-available, high-quality journalism and programming.”

“While we have yet to receive detail of RNZ’s share of the funding we are preparing our plans to ensure the public benefit from any increase.

“RNZ is the nation’s commercial-free public broadcaster and we will play a growing role in ensuring New Zealand is a connected and informed democracy.”

“We are also encouraged by the indication that further funding will be allocated in future budgets for full implementation of the Government’s public media policy.”

NZ On Air will be miffed as well, but it is not in danger of not being able to carry out its statutory duties. The broadcasting element of this government's first Budget really is a shambles.


Budget 2018: The final tick

When Grant Robertson stands up to deliver his first Budget today, he will already have won a battle that's gone largely unremarked: the battle for his image as a credible Minister of Finance.

That might seem a low bar to meet. But when Robertson was appointed as Labour's Finance spokesperson in 2014, having lost a leadership contest to Andrew Little and then sworn off any future leadership ambitions, his qualifications for the role were a matter of debate. That was still the case going into last year's general election, when Steven Joyce loudly alleged an elementary $11 billion oversight that, had Joyce's claims been borne out, would have marked Robertson as an absolute buffoon.

But while Joyce may have been able to generate a short-term sense of uncertainty with all the shouting, his "fiscal hole" gambit had the effect of foreclosing the debate on Robertson's ability. It invited a chorus of denials from data nerds and economists that depleted the credibility not of the accused, but the accuser.

On the other hand, Joyce's fallback position: the considerably less dramatic assertion that Labour had left itself relatively little room to move in its first Budgets, was actually true. And the challenge of that fairly tight fiscal margin has been accentuated by the need to meet the demands of its coalition and support partners.

So Robertson will be bound to disappoint some of his own voters. Indeed, he has already disappointed them by repeatedly confirming his determination to adhere to the Budget Responsibility Rules Labour set itself going into last year's election. Doing so will be seen in other quarters as the last remaining tick for his credibility. He gives himself more room to move in 2020 by staying resolutely in his lane in 2018.

There's a well-worn template, established in the Clark years, for the run-up to a Budget: two months of Budget-related announcements leading up to the re-announcement of all of them on Budget day. Labour hasn't really done that – in part because it had already committed to a lot of big (and in some cases costly) policy initiatives in its first three months, and in part because it still seems to be working out its comms game.

Ironically, it's one announcement it hasn't made in advance that has become a clusterfuck. That being the ostensibly fairly straightforward information on how the $38 million in new spending for public broadcasting services will be divided between RNZ and NZ On Air. Clare Curran's games with RNZ have irretrievably politicised that decision, which is, to put it mildly, unfortunate for a Labour government. In recent days we've heard that it might only be $25 million, or that TVNZ could be a late beneficiary of the public broadcasting policy. Someone, somewhere will be howling by 3pm.

Still, after nine years of looking at the Budget line for public broadcasting services and seeing a whole lot of nothing happening, it certainly adds a bit of excitement.


Loops and Diamonds

So I wrote a guide to buying an e-bike (and a look at how the market is evolving) for The Spinoff and it was more than 2000 words and even then I left some things out. For instance, that the AA will offer roadside asssistance for members' stranded e-bikes, which is a good thing, because removing and replacing the rear wheel on a hub-drive bike is almost impossible at the roadside.

Something else I might have pointed out is that an e-bike will help you at the lights. Most light-controlled intersections have these cuttings which mark the location of the induction loops that detect motor vehicles.

If you're pulled up at the lights and there are no cars around to trigger the loops, what you need to is line up your bike along one of the cuttings and wait there.

In truth, this should work with most bikes, but the extra weight of metal in an e-bike makes it more reliable.

I've been doing this even since I learned the trick. If there's a cycle stop-box and no car in sight, I'll pull up short of the stop box so I can trigger the lights.

But then this happened recently: the engineering consultancy Tonkin + Taylor was running a little "ask the engineer" thing on social media and appeared to say that the stop-boxes themselves have sensors for bikes. I'd never heard this, so I checked that I'd understood:

This would be marvellous if it were true – but unfortunately, it isn't true.

This applies in Auckland. Things vary from city to city, but if you see a little strip of diamonds like this in your stop-box in Wellington (pic: Hayden East), you can line up along it and feel confident that your bike has been detected.

There are some diamonds used in Auckland, but they're different. Kit again:

Just to make it more confusing, there are some intersections in Auckland where the Wellington-style diamond symbols were used to indicate the presence of an induction loop. 

But everyone sort of forgot about them at some point. The symbols here, same lights, have since worn away, but the loop still exists.

Some diamonds are clearly not forever.

So, to be clear:

• If you're in Auckland, there very probably isn't a detector loop under your stop-box. Although there might be.

• If you're in Wellington and you see the diamonds, they are your friend.

• There are some diamonds in Auckland, but they're different. Although there used to be Wellington-style diamonds in some places but the paint wore off and you can't see them any more. But mostly, there are no diamonds.

This, of course, is not the only confusing thing about cycle infrastructure in the city. The conventions around bike lanes seem to change every year or so. It's hard not to conclude that if motorists were subjected to this sort of confusing inconsistency there would be stories in the paper about it.

PS: Tonkin + Taylor seem to have first changed the photograph accompaying the original article and then quietly deleted it altogether. But it's still here in the Google cache.


Hey one more thing: you may have gained the impression that the government's recent announcement of a bold new transport vision for Auckland will, along with the additional income from the regional fuel tax, lock in a great 10-year plan for walking and cycling infrastructure. (Yes, that's the business case put to the Auckland Transport board that the Occupy Garnet Road people insist is a UN conspiracy to dissolve sovereign governments and confiscate private wealth. That one.)

Turns out it ain't necessarily so. About half of the $640m cost of the business case is actually missing (or, rather, going to projects outside its scope). By Greater Auckland's assessment, that probably means a wait of as much as 20 years to get the Waitemata safe cycle route through to my suburb, Point Chevalier, and a similar wait in various other parts of the city.

You can do something to help, today. Bike Auckland has a post explaining the issue and linking to the feedback form for the Regional Land Transport plan. Feedback closes at 8pm tonight.