Hard News by Russell Brown


Rip It Up: A history of us, a history of me

I love the National's Library's Papers Past archive. I've used it many times for work and sometimes just for fun. The one thing I never thought I'd be able to do is vanity-search on it. And yet, here it is: the text and pages of Rip It Up, from 1977 to 1985, on Papers Past.

Those dates are significant in a couple of ways. It's by far the most recent commercial publication in the archive – you have to go back to to a handful of newspapers that ceased publishing in 1950 for the next one.

The other significance is personal to me: I arrived at the Rip It Up office in January 1983 as an up-for-it 20 year-old delighted to be free of my long year at the Timaru branch office of the Christchurch Star and, really, free of working in a straight newsroom. I would go on, as deputy editor, to write a fair portion of every issue of the mag, every month until May 1986.

So to that extent, this rescued Rip It Up is not only a history of us, but a history of me. I've known the project was in the works for a long time, but this fact didn't really hit me until I set down at the weekend to use my preview login, did my vanity search, and got a bit weepy.

It's all there, including my the very first thing I wrote for Rip It Up, in May 1982:

The Clean, Dance Exponents

Lincoln College, May 1.

Whatever else they may be, the Clean are not entertainers.

The Clean do not court favour. They are not sluts.

The Clean play pop music without smiling. The Clean don't like you. Why should they? They don't even know you.

They add-libbed ferociously, people danced and it was a hell of a lot of fun. Great boys, great. Whatever else they may be, the Clean are honest.

From Hamish Kilgour's nightmares come Mushroom Records' latest signing, the Dance Exponents.

The Dance Exponents are entertainers. They arrived, set up and the speeding began. The pace of the show was breathtaking

Jordan Luck is a face. So are all the others. In fact, we're all faces. Yippee!

Rock and roll cliches – Jordan's "cockney" accent, sits under them like platform heels. They could step down from them and still be the Dance Exponents.

The songs? I'm told they're quite good. Whatever else they may be, the Dance Exponents are gonna be stars.

The Agriculture students drank a lot of beer.

Russell Brown

It's a little ambitious style-wise – and there's quite a bit of that later in the archive. I was experimenting in the terms I'd learned from avidly reading NME for the preceding five years. Some of it makes me cringe a a bit now (or at least think that kid could have used a good sub), but I was stretching out and learning my boundaries and I'll always be grateful to Murray Cammick for giving me the room to do that.

After that review, Murray wrote back and observed that this wasn't the usual style for live reviews in Rip It Up, but I should feel free to keep contributing. The course of my life essentially changed from that point. By November I had applied for the new role of deputy editor (thanks to Debbie Harwood, then managing the Dance Exponents – I bumped into her one night at the Hillsborough and she told me Murray was hoping I'd apply, so I did). And in the new year I arrived in Auckland to a new life, working bang in the middle of the culture I identified with.

By then I'd written my first Rip It Up feature – an interview with Hunters and Collectors in Christchurch (exploring new styles again, but it pretty much works). In the February issue, there's the Siouxsie and the Banshees story, which includes a chat with their guitarist, a Mr Robert Smith, who explains that 'Let's Go to Bed' was meant to be a solo release and the record company put it out as a Cure single without his permission. Before the year was out, I'd duelled with John Cale and gone up to the Big I, where Malcolm McLaren was staying, and persuaded him (he didn't take much persuading) to give me an amazing interview.

Compared to the cadet reporter's life I'd left behind, it was wild and fulfilling. Rip It Up – 30,000 copies nationwide every month – was read by everyone, the centre of the scene. And I was part of it.

The following year I'm covering the show Split Enz put on for Te Awamutu's centenary and reviewing 'Pink Frost' on release (I had forgotten quite how many reviews I wrote), then going on tour with Motorhead. There are also interviews with Martin Phillipps and the Doublehappys (page one and page two).

There's plenty that I'd forgotten writing: like this recent-history look at post-punk Christchurch from 1985, which is full of things I'd forgotten doing and even things which may have escaped later histories.

And then there are the letters. In those pre-internet days, the Rip It Up letters column was a roiling, often creative place. The readers told us what they thought, as Hoss from St Heliers does here:

Your publication of the Doublehappys’ inane insults in reply to what was probably a genuine musical criticism I reckon is a form of editorial name-dropping. I think there are too many poseurs about wanting to become "personalities" with their names or faces in RIU without the music to back it up. I mean, what' do these people have to offer the man in the street (or pub, for that matter)? I don't want to read about the last party Russell Brown saw a few ex-Blams at or Jordan Luck’s fringe or Andrew Fagan's biceps. These things are irrelevant and boring. More live reviews, band files, letters, please.

They also told us when they liked us, as Charmaine Stewart of Wellington did here:

Your magazine seems to better itself with each new edition. I find nothing better than a hot bath, stretched out with a corned beef and hot English mustard sandwich in one hand a copy of RIU in the other. You should try it: it's a very satisfying experience.

I'd also forgotten the merry letters we used to get from Eric Android and Baine Huggett, in prison. If you wrote a letter to Rip It Up up till 1985, you can search for your own name and it'll be there. Unless, of course, you've forgotten the clever pseudonym you used at the time ...

One letter that's not there – in my memory, Murray published it, but evidently not – is one I wrote, in late 1981. I was one of those haughty correspondents telling Rip It Up what was what and that it was nothing more than "a paid advertisement for the music industry". When I sent in my first review six months later, Murray recognised my formatting and the imprint of my typewriter. He still ran my review and wrote to me inviting more.

Bless that man.


You may be wondering how this wonderful project came to be. How did Rip It Up's increasingly lacklustre later life under different owners produce this? Thank Simon Grigg. Simon bought the Rip It Up archive a couple of years ago and started talking to the National Library not long after. He did it, he tells me, for Murray – but we all get to benefit from it.

A lot of people have put in a lot of work since to make this happen; not least Audioculture editor (and former Rip It Up editor) Chris Bourke. This is an Audioculture partnership and I'm very proud of that too.

It should be noted that Rip It Up has provided some challenges for the National Library team. You'll notice that the original page images aren't in crisp black and white, but greyscale – a trade-off to preserve the photographs.

Rip It Up's layout also defeated the library's OCR system at times. Text is jumbled in some of the clippings – my coverage of the Queen Street riot, from December 1984, is all over the place – but you can always just go to the whole page view.

If you want to get to the page from a clip you've searched for, go to the "Research info" box at the top of the item and get the permalink – paste that in and you'll see the same clip, but with a "Back to page" link you can click to go directly to the whole page.

Anyway, here it is. Go wild. Do feel free to share the stuff you find (use those permalinks rather than the search URL) in the comments below.


Music: Some deep belief

There's a strange thing about having songwriters as longtime friends. On the one hand there are years when you're mates getting in the same scrapes; they're smoking your weed and you're drinking their riders; you're all  fitfully growing up, not yet getting old.

On the other, if they're good, they're creating art that reaches you emotionally, pieces of music that create a meter for your own life. There's actually nothing commensurate you can give back.

I've been thinking about that in a week that has provided two powerful sets of stories: the local premiere of The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps and Shayne Carter's memoir Dead People I Have Known. I was there or thereabouts for events described in both and I've known some of these stories a long time. I also wasn't there for some dark times.

I went with friends to the special Hollywood Avondale screening of the Chills film this weekend. There was a sense of event as befits a such a remarkable film – and after it had played, a genuine warmth expressed by the crowd towards Martin Phillipps himself. Almost the first thing we see in the film is the passing of a death sentence, so it's natural that we'd be pleased to see Martin walking and talking. But it's more than that.

The film is an accounting with the past and a settling of debts and relationships, most notably for Martin himself. By the time it concludes, it feels like the accounting has been done and the debts have largely been settled – with the notable and literal exception of the $US400,000-odd that Slash Records will grimly recoup from the Chills' ledger until 70 years after his now-considerably-postponed death.

Because of the kind of film it is, it can't dwell too long on the songs themselves for clues as to why band members might have stuck around and committed when they felt sometimes like spare parts. As Shayne observed in a fencing match of an interview with Kim Hill on Saturday, the film could have told more of the joyousness of what Martin has made.

Martin turns up in Shayne's book on page 112, at a Sunday afternoon show in 1980, as "a stoned boy genius, out of it on comics, garage rock 'n' roll, moons over water," who "sounded like he'd been driven all around Otago Peninsula while recovering from dental drugs, and now he was overwhelmed by this experience and bursting to express it."

More than most songwriters, Martin produces songs that are not only sometimes profoundly original, but seem to have a life, or a potential, of their own. It's as if there's an imperative to seeing them through to that potential. I think Martin has always felt the weight of that imperative more heavily than anyone.

My favourite Chills song, 'Oncoming Day', which plays over the film's credits, is an example. They had five tries at recording it and it eventually wound up on Submarine Bells, feeling out of place and and a little thin. I was thinking about that song a little while ago and realised that my affection for it is wholly based on the feeling, the exultant experience, of hearing it played live.

The closest thing I can find to that is this 1988 performance at The Gluepot. "We've been talking about putting this out as a single for years, but it's like ... I think we've given up really," Martin sighs before they kick in.

If 'Oncoming Day' is one long, defiant exhalation, many other great Chills songs seem to breathe. The most obvious one is the yogic in and out of 'Night of Chill Blue' – which I think actually was recorded to its potential on Brave Words, the major Chills album you can't, for some reason, hear on Spotify or Apple Music. Like 'Oncoming Day', it's a song that makes reference to writing songs. There's quite a bit of that in Martin's work, to this day.

I spent a lot of time around the band in London in the late 80s, tagged along on two European tours and had a couple of the best, wildest days of my life on a holiday in North Wales with Martin, Kate Tattersfield and Simon Alexander. I can confirm that the other members were frustrated by the experience of being penniless and mostly homeless, especially with Martin refusing to share the publishing on his songs.

But there was also a sense of excitement. It's common enough now for New Zealand artists to play in Europe – Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid played in Europe more often than they played Auckland early on – but it was huge in the 1980s. As I related in a somewhat wayward 1987 tour diary for Rip It Up, it wasn't only The Chills hitting London in search of glory, but Flying Nun Records itself. Craig Taylor eased away from his music publishing job to manage The Chills and run the label.

I recall a number of times when it seemed the big break was imminent. Like when 'Heavenly Pop Hit' was Record of the Week on BBC Radio One's breakfast show and almost, but not quite, made Top of the Pops. I seem to recall the offer of an Andy Weatherall remix being declined by Martin and I sometimes wonder how that might have changed things.

That's a really difficult narrative for songwriters to carry forward while the rest of us are getting jobs and mortgages and ticking off socially-sanctioned  steps to adulthood. And it's something Shayne deals with in Dead People I Have Known, largely by being his own most attentive critic. He can't afford to assess his life on the basis that things didn't work out when his band was trying to crack the US market on the same label as Kenny G.

Quite often, he measures himself against his heroes. It's part of the way he works: before writing his memoir, he prepared by reading all the best rock biographies to find out how they worked. He assesses 'Seed' like this:

'Seed' is a classic. Everyone likes 'Seed' ... 'Seed' has a train-like rhythm. Miles Davis liked train rhythms. He used them on his album Tribute to Jack Johnson, about the black American boxer. Miles Davis thought the movement of a boxer was a like train. One, two, three – pop; one, two three – pop. Boxing is another elemental rhythm, like breathing, walking or fucking.

I confess: for a long time I thought 'Seed' was about fucking.

"I Believe You Are a Star is my best record," he writes, in the course of describing the three challenging (and sometimes literally painful) years it took him to make the album.

I remember that. We'd started to joke about how perfectionist Shayne perhaps shouldn't have been let near ProTools and the endless scope for reworking and polishing that the software offered. He'd never leave the room, it seemed. But Shayne's account of what happened offers a map to it: one that began with him and Gary Sullivan setting themselves down some place away from years of rock band noise:

We swung all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum, and we'd play so quietly in our practuce room somerrimes that we could also hear each other breathing. It was a completely new dynamic for us ... We learned the true beauty of space, of silence, We learned there there can be an eloquence to shutting up. It was educational, refreshing, and against the code we were known for.

They also had a lot of fun with a fart they'd recorded.

As I was writing this, the sad news came through that Malcolm Black finally succumbed to his cancer this week. He was a thoroughly decent man and Shayne makes it amply clear that that Malcolm, in his A&R role at Sony Music, was a key reason that transformative record got made.

Malcolm became my main man, my ally, all through the making of Star. He was warming, encouraging and patient, which was just as well because if he hadn't been I would've thought he was just another record company wanker ... He never questioned my direction, which was important to me, because Arista and Mushroom always had.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. Because even at their most methodical, they're still trying to pluck something out of the ether, and they're often not quite sure what it is until it arrives. It's a strange gig, and not always in a good way.

Both the film and the book are unflinching about their respective subjects' dark times. Alcohol has not been Shayne's friend, a fact he had to confirm to himself several times over. Some of the best writing in his book – and this is a very well-written book – sees him exploring that fact via his parents' complicated stories.

The book is also often very funny. I wondered before picking it up whether he'd venture to tell that story about the b-Net awards. He does, on the first page. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves Helen Clark and it is tragically funny.

Both works end with their own forms of redemption and resolution. In the film, Martin's life is saved just in time by the modern miracle of direct-acting antiviral drugs for hepatitis C, and he can enjoy the fact that people all over the world still value his music, still want to hear it, still want to see him. He, too, has people who believe in him. Co-director Julia Parnell acknowledged in the Q&A after Saturday's screening that they'd been obliged to plan for the contingency of their subject dying before they finished. That's how close that was.

Shayne finds his path too. He's made peace with his background, his art, his Māori identity, with a lot of ghosts (the book's title isn't entirely a joke – its pages contain quite a body count). He has found new ways to stretch and apply himself, particularly in the arts world. He also reckons he's a writer now. On the strength of his first book, he has every right to.


I've been thinking more about songs and their deeper purpose since this year's Taite Prize ceremony. This year's Classic Record, Moana and the Moahunters' Tahi, and the 2019 Taite Prize winner, Avantdale Bowling Club, both have a cultural resonance that goes well beyond music.

And when the Prime Minister spoke, something she said really got into my head. When the memorial for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks was being planned, she said, her first thought was about what music would be right. And I thought, you're one of us.

Anyone who watched the memorial service will know how pivotal the music was. And something similar was true of the subsequent benefit concert, the first time in a long time that so many New Zealand songs have been played live on prime-time TV. I thought, aren't we lucky to have a modern canon, to have the shared understanding of songs we can convene over. To have the cultural tools when we need them. To have waiata.

Julia Parnell, the co-director of the Chills films and really the reason it got made, has also been doing her part there too with the Anthems series currently screening on Prime. The creators of the songs we all sing have turned out to be quite insightful on the works they've created: they've been closer to them than any of us. I know that catch-up viewing for Prime is a pain, but if you haven't caught any of the episodes, it really is worth the effort. I would like to hear more of ourselves on air.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. And that belief is its own reward.


Cabinet and the Reeferendum

Today, it has been reported, Cabinet will consider the government's approach to next year's cannabis legalisation referendum – including whether voters will be able to see a detailed bill before they vote "yes" or "no" and, crucially, whether such a bill will be passed by Parliament before the referendum.

My understanding is that half of that is likely: that there will be a detailed bill – because no one can look at Brexit without being aware of the folly of an open-ended referendum question – but that the governing parties will not attempt to pass that bill through Parliament before the referendum.

It has been suggested to me that the roadblock is New Zealand First, but other people have told me that's not the case, and that it's more likely that Labour simply doesn't back itself to complete such an exercise, which would inevitably stretch into election year.

It is true that there is no obvious champion within government for the project. As things stand, there is only one party with a clear policy on the matter. As the Greens' Chloe Swarbrick has repeatedly stated, her party strongly favours the option of an enacted law to be affirmed, or not, by the public vote. As I noted in a Matters of Substance story last year, this is also the position of constitutional lawyers.

Yesterday, the National Party added to the confusion by releasing parts of what it says is the Cabinet paper to be considered today. Chloe Swarbrick took to Twitter to say no, it's not that, but an older discussion document.

Whatever it is, the paper outlines four options: a general question around legalisation with no real detail (the Brexit option); a "specific policy framework document setting out the basic principles" for legalisation; a question relating to "draft legislation that outlines the regulatory model for cannabis"; or the full-service option, "legislation already enacted but conditional on an affirmative vote on the referendum."

In the case of all but the last, according to the paper, "a ‘yes’ vote would result in the duly elected government and Parliament having some moral imperative, but no obligation, to enact the legislation." To be honest, I can't see a government bucking a clear "yes" vote. I could see a post-2020 government (remember, that government will be elected on the same day as the referendum) messing with the detail. And I would certainly expect it to result in a delay of at least a year in getting legalisation done.

National, in the person of Paula Bennett, takes a different tack: that there is a disastrous lack of detail in the proposals and we need to know about things like tax rates and age of purchase. This a continuation of National's recent line of argument but it it's not going to be sustainable for much longer: if there is to be either a bill or an enacted law, and it will almost certainly be one of the two, it will contain that detail.

According to Derek Cheng's Herald story from Friday, this will be the level of detail before Cabinet today:

The Herald understands the option Cabinet will consider has been approved by the Green Party and the New Zealand First caucuses.

It will include some regulatory details including a legal age limit for purchase - likely to be at least 18 - strict limits on marketing and availability, a ban on consuming in public places, and allowing a "common sense" amount of cannabis to be home-grown.

The Herald understands there are plans for a public consultation process, and the proposed bill will aim to reduce drug-related harm, protect young people, and cripple the livelihood of gangs that benefit from the current prohibition model.

Not all details have been confirmed, and it is unclear if the paper to go before Cabinet will include proposed limits on THC potency or the types of products, such as edibles.

Using tax revenue from cannabis products to fund health services is also a possibility, although there are concerns that this would create a perverse incentive in a similar way that money from gambling is funnelled back into communities.

There has been a dedicated team at the Ministry of Justice working on a potential policy (much as there is such a team at the Ministry of Health writing the medicinal cannabis regulations due in their final form this December). This team is focused and has been engaging with stakeholders and discussing options for some time. The ways in which a non-profit-at-retail model might best work has been discussed, which I think is encouraging.

But – and I think the goverment can fairly be criticised here – the Justice team struggles with a lack of political impetus. Basically, things go quiet at ministerial level unless the issue is in the news. I think these last few days will have sorted that problem.

In Friday's story (but not, interestingly, in yesterday's release about theleaked paper), Bennett says that "legislation going through the House would give it the most scrutiny and be the most open and transparent process" and that there is still time for that to happen. I agree, and I look forward to National offering its support in the House for such a bill to proceed to first reading.

I don't actually expect that offer to be made. But it would be helpful for National to accept the standing invitation for it to join Parliament's cross-party working group on drug policy. Or, really, make any sign of its good faith on these issues. Because merely playing politics isn't going to help.

In conclusion, it bears noting that we have actually come a long way since that Matters of Substance story last year. Back in July 2018 (or, to be more accurate, in May when I actually wrote the story) Justice minister Andrew Little was far from sure we would go into the referendum with a draft law. That seems a certainty now.

Other things have happened in the interim. The new amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act guiding police discretion will mean that pretty much no one will be charged with cannabis possession. And at J Day at Albert Park on Saturday, raw cannabis and and range of edibles could be bought by anyone who cared to. The ground is shifting already, and quite quickly.

John Roughan has a column in the Herald today in which he offers the view that cannabis and all other drugs should be sold and marketed without restriction or regulation so that anyone (including children, it would appear) can "fry their brains", but that there should be no public heath response to any problems that ensue, because he "would sooner spend public health funds on illnesses sufferers had not brought upon themselves." Sellers of meth and synthetic cannabis should be free to wreak whatever harm on communities brings them the most profit, because those communities only have themselves to blame.

Roughan does not extend this prescription to the drug that causes by far the most social and medical harm, alcohol. Because, of course, that's different.

But Roughan is just a retired journalist with a newspaper column, so he can say whatever feckless nonsense he chooses. An actual government has clearer responsibilities. And it's incumbent on the present government to step up to those responsibilities and get this right. Please, stay focused.


What does the wastewater testing for drug use actually show?

The results from the first three months of national wastewater testing for for drug use were published yesterday by Police and they came with a pretty obvious headline: we're still consuming a lot of methamphetamine in New Zealand – probably even more than we were a couple of years ago.

The estimated 16kg of meth used each week dwarfs the 4kg of MDMA consumed nationwide. The "average proportion of drug use" – the release doesn't explain exactly what this measure is or how it was arrived at, but it relates to the frequency of detection in samples – was highest in Northland, with Whangarei coming in at 95%.

But Levin also came in at 95% followed by Masterton and Wanganui (94%), Central Auckland (93%) and a cluster of other centres not far behind. Meth use was lowest in Queenstown (25%), where use of cocaine and MDMA was high. (The only site that registered higher for cocaine use than Queenstown was Moa Point in Wellington, which is either people hoovering up the last of their coke before getting on a plane or some sort of Wellywood business.)

The figures for meth are inevitably shocking – but let's note right here that they don't mean meth is used by more New Zealanders than any other drug. The Police haven't published a figure that would paint a more useful picture. The main centres (Tier 1 sites) are tested for seven consecutive days each month, and pilot studies for the wastewater testing programme showed a consistent pattern: meth use remained constant across each day of the week, while MDMA, for example, showed distinct spikes at the weekends.

So meth use is habitual and MDMA use is recreational. The former is what we should really be worried about. I think it's quite possible that – bearing in mind the two-or-three-times-a-year middle class MDMA users – many more New Zealanders use MDMA annually than meth. But meth turns up in samples every day of the week, hence its high proportionality.

Also cautioning against a conclusion that everyone's on it: the per-capita figures, which suggest consumption of just over a gram a day per thousand people in Northland. (Per capita fentanyl use was also high in Northland, apparently mostly off the back of high results at the Keri Keri site. It's not really possible to know what this means: it could mean a single significant diversion of medical supplies, or just be an aberration.)

There are other things missing from the figures. When Police announced the national rollout of the programme, they said testing for cannabis would be introduced at Auckland and Northland sites. If it was, there's no sign of it in yesterday's releases. That may be because, as Massey University's Chris Wilkins explained to me in 2017, cannabis metabolites are tricky and expensive to test for – because they're fat-soluble, they tend to get stuck in solids and require a two-stage test.

Also missing: synthetic cannabinoids. They have been successfully tested for in wastewater studies elsewhere – but in this study for example, what was sought was metabolites of the JWH cannabimimetics – which are several generations back. The tests may simply not exist.

One new psychoactive substance (NPS), Alpha-PVP, was tested for, but wasn't mentioned in any of the published results. Perhaps, like heroin, none was found in samples. I'd be interested to know why Alpha-PVP was chosen for testing over other cathinones – which as a group made of 7% of substances discovered in Know Your Stuff's 2017-2018 drug-checking in the field.

Update after consulation with Know Your Stuff: As suspected, no, Alpha-PVP is not a big issue. It was found in one of 445 samples in the 2017-18 season and was one of 29 cathinones detected. They found n-ethyl pentylone far more often.

Their guess is that Alpha-PVP was the scary and newsworthy cathinone at the time the programme was set up. Things move fast in that world.

LSD – which, anecdotally, seems to have become more popular as quality and supply have improved in recent years – was also not tested for, although it's feasible, according to this comprehensive European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction review.

What it comes down to is who has claim on limited resources – and, like nearly all population drug use monitoring in New Zealand, this comes out of Police budgets. This study won't give you important harm reduction-related information like the proportion of psychoactive drugs that were presumed by the user to be something else – you need Know Your Stuff talking to people for that – and it's not really meant to. At this stage, it's really laying down baselines of use for drugs prioritised by Police and it will be some time before it starts showing trends in a useful way.

I know some people dislike this form of epidemiology, but I'm all for data and this is a non-intrusive way of getting it. If it's the Police who set the parameters, I guess that's the reality unless and until some other form of funding arrives. But if I had one request, it would be that Police stop quoting the results in terms of dollar harms per the nation Drug Harm Index. The index has improved somewhat in recent years (albeit from a baseline of being basically ridiculous), and I get that budgets need to be assessed against metrics, but it's not really a meaningful thing to report. 


Digital persuasion and the dark places of democracy

Last week, officially the first of Australia's 2019 federal election campaign, potential voters were subjected to a series of false claims about the Labor Party's policy on vehicle emissions reduction. But not everyone saw the ads, and of those who did, not everyone saw the same ad.

"[Labor leader] Bill Shorten wants to tax the Toyota Hilux. Sign up to help us stop him," read an ad seen by Hilux owners. Mitsubishi Triton owners, on the other hand, were told "Bill Shorten wants to tax the Mitsubishi Triton." These were targeted Facebook ads and using them isn't exactly rocket science. Car brands are an available "interest" category for Facebook targeting.

Labor responded by using Facebook targeting of the same potential voters ("If you're a fan of Mitsubishi you'll want to know about our plan to save you money"). This is a campaign in which both major parties are using social media targeting – in Labor's case, particularly geo-targeting – to reach particular voters. And the ads themselves are, so far, staying within Australian Electoral Commission party authorisation rules.

The same can't be said of the anonymous Facebook pages that are paying to amplify unsourced political ads to the benefit of the Liberals, according to The Guardian. The AEC told the Guardian that the lack of authorisation on these ads is a breach of the law and it would be contacting some of the page owners, but it doesn't, of course, know who their owners are. Facebook has temporarily banned political advertising booked by non-Australians, but declined to offer the transparency tools it has already deployed in some other countries.

So, much as our societal wellbeing relies on the "community standards" of giant companies that may not be totally focused on that wellbeing, we're reliant on platform owners for the health of our democracies. And even when the transparency tools are globally rolled out in June, it willl be Facebook that runs the approval process.

It seems worth noting that earlier this year, Facebook deliberately broke a ProPublica tool that let everyone see how ads were being targeted. The Guardian's appeal for its own readers to help its journalists understand what's actually going on by screenshotting any dodgy ads they may come across seems an inadequate form of oversight, but it's all we've got.

It all seems to signal a significant challange for our own electoral regulators next year. The Electoral Commission sets rules and decides what is or isn't election advertising, but hands off judgement on the actual content of advertising to the Advertising Standards Authority, via the Advertising Standards Complaints Board. The ASA is a sound organisation and a good example of industry self-regulation. But it's complaint-driven – and we seem to be entering an era where there can be multiple micro-targeted iterations of campaign advertising that concerned parties can't even see to complain about.

It has become easy in the social media age to mislead the public not only about what the other side is doing, but who "your" side even is. The Guardian revealed earlier this month that more than a dozen high-profile "grassroots" Brexit ad campaigns are in fact being run by staff at the office of lobbyist Lynton Crosby. The estimated £1m spent on targeted advertising for these campaigns all, it seems, flows through that office. Only Crosby and whoever's paying him knows where the money comes from.

Couldn't happen here? The paper's follow-up today further claims that the Crosby astroturfers have specifically sought to influence the public towards a hard Brexit and to undermine Theresa May. And it includes this passage:

There are also questions over how Crosby’s firm uses arm’s-length companies to run its digital campaigns. Since 2016 it has outsourced work to two rightwing New Zealand political activists called Ben Guerin and Sean Topham through their Auckland-based consultancy Topham Guerin, which bills CTF Partners for the work they do on behalf of Crosby’s company.

Guerin and Topham, both in their mid-20s, are regularly based in CTF’s Mayfair office. They also ran the digital campaign for New Zealand’s National party in the country’s 2017 general election, ultimately failing to stop the Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern, becoming prime minister.

Documents seen by the Guardian suggest Topham Guerin was also involved in running online pro-coal campaigns on behalf of mining giant Glencore to encourage the construction of coal-fired power stations, in addition to working in India and Malaysia.

Topham was previously the chair of the National party’s youth wing, while Guerin was a digital adviser to the office of the former New Zealand prime minister Bill English.

Topham Guerin told the Guardian it would not comment on “fundamentally inaccurate claims” made about its work with CTF Partners, but declined to say in which way the claims were inaccurate. It did not respond to further questions about its work with Crosby’s company or whether it had ever been involved in online Brexit campaigns.

Topham and Guerin, both young men making their way in the booming industry of digital persuasion, may not feel that they're doing anything wrong here; that it's all in the game, that working on contract for Darth Vader is just a hell of a career opportunity. But the rest of us might feel that the material involvement of politically-connected New Zealanders in such a deceptive and deeply cynical covert politics project brings things a little too close for comfort.

Anyway, if you've read this far, please do schedule an additional 15 minutes to watch Carole Cadwalladr's TED Talk about what happened in the Brexit campaign, the law broken and the lies told – and Facebook's role of the non-cooperating custodian of a crime scene – and what it means for democracy. Sean Topham himself retweeted Cadwalldr's hailing of the New York Times' report on Facebook's battle to avoid accountability for Russian "active measures". But as he says in his Twitter bio, "RTs ≠ Endorsements" ...