Hard News by Russell Brown


Music: Avantdale is something special

There was a lot on last night in Auckland. Billy Bragg was in the middle of his three-night stand out in Avondale. Chelsea Jade flew in from LA and, by all accounts, played a stunner to a sellout crowd at Galatos. Images from three different end-of-year awards ceremonies shuttled across my social media. Me, I was at the Mercury Theatre.

Avantdale Bowling Club's self-titled debut album combines the fluidity of a live jazz band with the urgency of of hip hop – or, at least, it appears to. In reality, the produced sound is a tapestry of elements: the album's opening moment, the saxophone intro to 'Years Gone By', is actually notes from two different sax players, Ben McNicholl and JY Jong-Yun Lee, recorded at different times and blended together to say one thing. So I was interested to see what kind of stage performance would be spun out of it.

A truly remarkable one, it turns out. This is such a good band. But there's another element there. There were stretches when Julien Dyne was able to sit back and play around the rhythmic lead provided by Tom Scott's vocals. The drummer freestyling on the rapper, like some wicked inversion of hip hop.

But probably the most rewarding thing for me was being in a crowd that was so constantly with the music. It was a little awkward at first. Maybe Tom was having an artist moment when he chose a seated venue, but sitting was kind of a strain. That cracked when they played 'F(r)iends' and people just leapt to their feet and cheered at the conclusion. That song means something to people.

A couple of minutes later, Tom admitted he'd actually prefer it if everyone stood and, soon enough, people crowded to the stage, Tom relaxed on the mic and things just took off.

'Home' (the one from the Avantdale album, not the @Peace track of the same name) was a particular highight. They wove in the chorus from Gil Scott Heron's 'Home is Where the Hatred Is'. And again, the sheer engagement of the crowd was extraordinary. I can't recall the last time I was in a crowd that responded to a song that way.

Hunter Keane posted a little clip of the a capella section of 'Home'. I was far too into it myself to bother messing about with my phone, but if anyone has more any video from last night, link me up. I would like to relive it.

If you're in Tauranga tonight or Napier tomorrow, you can catch the final tour dates and you should go. (If you haven't heard the album, it's on your streaming service, or here on Bandcamp.) There are still a few rough edges to this live thing, and it would be good to hear them through a more expensive PA, but basically, there's something brilliant going on here and you want to hear it.


Audioculture has debuted a fascinating project that's been in the works for quite a while. Gareth Shute has interactively mapped Auckland's music venues, decade by decade, and the first two chapters, the 1950s and the 1960s, are up now. It's a different way to understand what was going on culturally at the time. Clubs that don't exist any more, some of them on streets that don't exist any more.


Real reggae fans will be hoping this doesn't take too long to get there. Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records tells story of the legendary label in a way that looks to go well beyond the customary assembly of library footage and interviews. There's a review here.


If you're the inner western suburbs any time this evening, there's something new going on. Every Friday night till Christmas (except for December 7, when there's a band playing), I and some of my friends will be playing records from 6pm to midnight at Point Chev's Cupid bar (in the front of the old Ambassador theatre. I explained what it's about in this Facebook post.

It starts tonight. See you after work or after hours, maybe? It'll be fun.



Nine-piece rap Auckland collective Fanau Spa have a self-titled mixtape up at a price of your choosing on Bandcamp. The project is marshalled by Coco Solid and some of the voices will be familiar from her own mixtape, Cokes, which has had a lot of play in this house. Here's the opening track, 'Breakfast':

This thing swings hard. (Mildly annoying free download via Artists Union.)

And a great afrobeat mix from the very funky Ronny Hammond:



When drug law gets so complicated we should rip it up and start again

Before, during and since the election that delivered it to power in 2017, the Labour Party has had a go-to slogan on drug policy: that it sees drug use as a health, not a criminal issue. It's an excellent philosophical foundation for drug policy reform. It's the foundation for good policy.

But saying something is not making it real, and Labour in government has struggled to give meaning to its slogan. Its most material action was effectively a rhetorical one: the Prime Minister's announcement that New Zealand would not sign up to President Trump's meaningless and regressive "Call to Action" on drugs. It was a correct and courageous decision, one in line with New Zealand's longtime stance on the world stage.

National Party leader Simon Bridges claimed otherwise, insisting that Trump's declaration was "very much under the auspices of the United Nations." It wasn't. It was an entirely redundant edit of the UNGASS 2016 outcome document. It had no official UN status and it has, predictably, sunk without trace. So we got that one right.

In explaining her government's decision, Ardern said:

"We have a number of challenges that are quite specific to New Zealand and the type of drugs that are present, but also I'm taking a health approach.

"We want to do what works, so we are using a strong evidence-base to do that."

Which, again, sounds very reasonable. But where's the policy? And what's the holdup?  The Prime Minister shed some light on that in an interview with Jack Tame on Breakfast this week.

She acknowledged that reclassifying synthetic cannabinoids under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which her government wants to do so that supply is subject to harsher penalties (the maximum penalty under the Psychoactive Substances Act is currently two years in jail), would also have the unhelpful effect of greatly increasing penalties for possession.

"We see that there are vulnerable people who are using synthetics, and so yes we need to address that side – but we need to find a way that we can decouple it from possession. And that's what taking us a little bit of time to work on."

She also acknowledged that the $200 million in this year's budget for mental health and addiction services was not being seen on the front line and that even given funding for new detox beds in Auckland, her government was in catch-up mode.

Then Tame hauled out a telling statistic from an earlier interview with Drug Foundation director Ross Bell: when synthetics were legally sold and somewhat imperfectly reglated, nobody died from taking them – but 45 to 50 people have died (most of them in the past 18 months) since the Psychoactive Substances Act was amended to ban them:

"So why don't we consider decriminalising them?"

"I don't think that that is necessarily the answer," she responded. 

And here we reach our old friend, the confusion between legalisation and decriminalisation. While it was being debated by Parliament, the Psychoactive Substances Act very nearly did the latter: Labour's Iain Lees-Galloway argued for there to be no penalty for possession or use of an unapproved product. That's what decriminalisation is. But that was a little too liberal for a National government, so the maximum penalty for possession went in as a $500 fine.

The maximum penalty is both trifling and unhelpful. It hampers any attempt to treat synthetics use as a health problem and deliver services appropriately. On one hand, it might as well not be there; on the other, it shouldn't be there. The government could remove it entirely – and make that a first step to decriminalising personal possession of all drugs, as Portugal has.

But what Tame was really asking about was legalisation: returning to a regime where synthetics could be sold under regulation and – largely because dosage could be regulated and it's dose that's killing people now – people didn't die. But that's way harder.

The synthetics currently in the black market (which are largely newer chemicals that were never regulated, and are more dangerous than those that were) have been pre-emptively banned since National's panic amendment foreclosed the act's interim licensing period. It's hard to see how they could meet the act's threshold of posing only "a low risk of harm."

It's possible that we could revisit and declassify some of the more benign synthetic cannabinoids that were banned before the Psychoactive Substances Act, but that would be tricky. The act requires a potential producer of an approved product to stump up for expensive clinical trials, and that is very unlikely to happen. And then there's the showstopping ban on animal testing added as part of the last government's amendment.

So without a major rework, the PSA isn't going to be anyone's friend here. And realistically, restarting retail sale of synthetic cannabinoid products is probably politically impossible. Apart from anything else, it would be difficult to explain why we'd be re-legalising synthetics but going to the bother of a big old referendum on legalising natural cannabis.

So let's focus on not criminalising users, who are supposed to be the victims, after all. That's made much more difficult if the government takes the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs and moves synthetics to the Misuse of Drugs Act, as Class A controlled drugs. But that seems to be what they're looking at. Ardern said that the government's view is that "penalising people for possession" doesn't help the problem, but:

"Supply is different for me, and actually a health-based approach does say, well, actually those who are supplying harmful drugs actually do need to be held to account."

That's a lot of "actuallys" – but the real problem is that there's not a tidy bright line between possession and supply, between victims and bad guys. Especially in the case of this kind of drug, which is used by the most marginalised, it's quite possible to have a health problem and engage in low-level social supply to support that habit.

Also, further criminalising supply fails to address the actual reason people are dying: unregulated and unreliable dosage, where synthetic cannabinoids pose a greater risk than most psychoactive drugs, because they're properly dosed at the microgram level. If selling synthetics at the mall isn't a starter, is there some scope for supplying reliably-dosed products as a form of maintenance therapy for users who can't quit? That would require real resourcing of frontline services and quite a degree of political courage.

It would also require legislative change, and change is the real issue here. If the government is to deal with synthetics under the Misuse of Drugs Act and increase penalties for supply without further criminalising users, that's actually quite a significant change to our 43 year-old drug law – and in itself, a welcome one that could be extended to other controlled drugs.

And while we're upgrading one class of drugs on the basis of risk, should we not be looking at downgrading others on the same basis? Does it really make sense for magic mushrooms to be in the same class as drugs that are actually killing people?

At some point, we're going to have to stop fiddling with existing laws and start the whole thing again from scratch. And given that, we might as well start now.


PS: I'm less annoyed by this now I've been through the substance of the interview, but in it, the Prime Minister told Jack Tame: "There are products being sold that are harmful in some cases, of course, you’ve got fly spray on some products." This as TVNZ's follow-up story notes, is bollocks. Fly spray is not what's killing users, assuming it appears at all in these products (which it doesn't). So it was absurd of Ardern's office to insist that: "The Government has received advice from police that household chemicals, including fly spray have been used in the production of synthetics." No, it hasn't. When you make an unhelpful blurt, just correct it rather than doubling down.


Getting serious about the cannabis referendum

The organisers of last Friday's Cannabis Referendum Conference had a specific aim: they wanted to demonstrate that they, as the Cannabis Referendum Coalition, represented a credible, serious and organised campaign for New Zealand's forthcoming vote on legalising cannabis.

They didn't have a lot of money to work with and for some time they weren't sure whether they could fill the room at Wellington's James Cook Hotel. They cut costs by bring their own baking for morning and afternoon tea (no, not that sort of baking). But by the end of the day, they had filled the room and they justifiably believed they'd achieved what they set out to do.

"There are a lot of new people in the room," said Norml New Zealand president Chris Fowlie in his opening remarks, and he was right.

There were Members of Parliament speaking and Ministry of Justice officials listening. There were people from the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which has a practice of putting a careful distance between itself and cannabis activists. There was an economist, academics and a friend of reform from the wine industry. And there were a lot of people who don't actually use cannabis.

Most notably, the coalition's coordinator, environmental consultant Sandra Murray, who told the crowd she's never used cannabis – and also that her first activism, in her early 20s, was for cannabis law reform. There were others – including a few names that might surprise – who no longer use cannabis. Conference organiser (and former Norml president) Phil Saxby is one. They were there for the principle.

There are, of course, others yet whose consumption would more than make up for the non-partakers. Cannabis activism in its familiar forms isn't going away. There was a protest a couple of days later on Armistice Day, to recall the victims of the War on Drugs (which didn't involve smoking but did feature e-bikes) and Dakta Green is set to shake things up again (which certainly will involve smoking).

But the fact that Hikurangi Enterprises founder Manu Caddie could declare  on the day's first panel that the importance of winning over "the most conservative voices" meant a different kind of advocacy, one not about  "big smokeups outside Parliament any more" and no one took any obvious offence said a lot about the underlying theme of unity in the coalition.

One decision by conference organisers had a strong bearing on the remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio of the proceedings. You know how sometimes a few people at public events tend to turn their questions from the floor into lengthy speeches, or get fractious with speakers on stage? Cannabis activism can be like that to a factor of 10. On Friday, delegates were asked to pop their written questions into a basket on the front table. It was a game-changer.

That first panel was about lessons learned from medicinal cannabis advocacy. Rebecca Reider, the first New Zealander to win the right to indiviually import prescribed cannabis products (it didn't last), noted the generally positive of media to her battle and observed that "finding ways to keep the media engaged is going to be important."

Shane Le Brun of Medical Cannabis Awareness NZ reported a less positive experience with the political process. The key lesson he'd learned, he said was: "Don't trust politicians."

"I agree with everything everyone's said," responded Chloe Swarbrick MP, "including that you can't trust politicians."

She, too, talked about mainstreaming the campaign and welcoming "voices that aren't usually heard in this space," including Grey Power.

She said that among politicians, "there's a presumption of conservatism" in the electorate "that I don't think really exists", and that she'd decided to wade into the broader issue of drug law reform because of the continuing surge of synthetics deaths. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't."

Shortly afterwards, she tweeted:

It’s grossly irresponsible to pretend cannabis doesn’t come with any harm, or that its legalisation will be some silver bullet. But we have to realise harm presently is increased under a prohibitionist model that shuns responsible regulation.

Let's talk about Chloe. Had she, in an alternative universe, won the Auckland mayoralty – or simply decided that politics wasn't for her – there would be a gaping Chloe-sized hole in the Parliament. Her discipline, frankness, networking and nerdy ability to absorb and articulate the detail is going to be critical to any kind of drug law reform for as long as she's an MP.

For the first, and not the last time, the question of a not-for-profit-at-retail regulatory model came up. Many longtime activists are much keener on this idea than is generally recognised. Or to put it another way, they're possibly more concerned about Big Cannabis than you are. Manu Caddie said that as a prospective producer, he would be happy with that – and also liked the Canadian move to allow for small producers.

There was general agreement that the Ministry of Health, which has handled the medical cannabis legislation, was under-resourced and sometimes obstructive.

"Labour," sighed Rebecca Reider, "have let the Ministry of Health run the show."

A Labour MP was up on the next panel: Greg O'Connor, along with New Zealand Initiative economist (and best-dressed man in the room) Eric Crampton.

O'Connor, a police sergeant before his 21-year tenure as president of the Police Association, said that in his experience, cannabis had never really been a big deal for police. (There were a few rumblings in the audience when he characterised the police approach in recent years as one of de facto decriminalisation, but more of that later.)

"You get to a stage where the illegality causes more harm than the drug," he said, concluding that "Whatever we do, it must deal with supply. If we're going to do this, let's do it properly."

Crampton fretted that an excess of caution in pursuit of a referendum question most likely to pass could result in result in a proposition that was "far too conservative".

He commended Canada's legalisation model, which defined "a national framework allowing for local variation." I wasn't so sure about his view that  regulation here would be as simple as crossing out the word "alcohol" in liquor regulations and substituting "cannabis". It would be nice to think we could do better than we've done with alcohol.

I put that to Chloe Swarbrick while we waited for another Labour MP, Ginny Anderson, to arrive (she'd been delayed helping a constituent) for the panel I was moderating and she agreed.

The Act Party, National's Chris Bishop and New Zealand First's Jenny Marcroft had all been invited and sent their apologies, so it was just me and the two MPs for the unusually long running time of 90 minutes. And it was great. They were frank, thoughtful and relaxed and I was able to sprinkle in some good questions from the floor. Their desire for an effective public engagement process and concerns about big business capture seemed widely shared in the room.

Both MPs believed there was still time to run the referendum along with next year's local body elections (the alternative is as part of the 2020 general election). I genuinely don't think so. No engagement and information process can start until it's funded in Budget 2020. There's certainly not the time for the optimum process – asking the public to vote up or down on a fully worked-up new bill – even given the Drug Foundation's useful contribution of a model cannabis law.

I suspect any affection for a 2019 date is more to do with the fact that a cannabis question on the ballot would dominate the general election campaign. As much as both MPs would like to see law reform, there are other things to campaign on at a general election. But that's the position the government has put itself in.

They both agreed that it would be nice to see the kind of decent, deliberative conscience politics we last saw with the marriage equality bill. That will take some doing, but there is a fledgling law reform caucus to build on.

We also talked about what I think is one of the key regulatory questions: price. We're used to using price as a public health lever with alcohol and tobacco. But if we're to see regulated natural cannabis as a tool in helping curb demand for synthetics (no one thinks it will actually end synthetics use), setting prices high won't help that. This stuff isn't simple.

It was the first time I've met Ginny Anderson and I was impressed. She has a long record of policy advisory experience, in ministerial offices and subsequently with the NewZealand Police, which I think makes her a good choice to be the point MP on drug reform issues that Labour currently lacks. Justice minister Andrew Little has plenty of other fish to fry and David Clark hasn't made anyone happy with his handling of medicinal cannabis reform as Minister of Health.

Proceedings after lunch were kicked off with a stirring video message from former Prime Minister Helen Clark, emphasising unity of purpose and concluding with the conference hashtag: "Make It Legal".

Manu Caddie returned with Will Ilolahia and Chris Wilson on a panel devoted to Māori and Pasifika perspectives on the referendum. Everyone agreed that the old people in their communities were wary and conservative and would need to respectfully consulted.

"They can see the damage that happens in Māori communities," said Chris.

Manu talked about his background in community work and how he'd helped set up the country's first cannabis cultivation course at EIT in Ruatoria, after Hikurangi got permission to produce hemp. And how his first investors were two kuia who'd pooled their pensions.

β€œIt was for their moko," he said quietly, choking up as he recalled it. "They knew they wouldn’t live to see this industry to fruition, but it was for their kids and grandkids."

He also made the interesting point that New Zealand already has a good brand for a regulated cannabis market – as evidenced by the Canadian producer Maricann's launch this year of its Kiwi brand, offering strains called White Feather (High CBD), Hawke’s Bay (Balanced), Nelson’s Blue (Mid THC) and Flightless Bird (Mid-High THC), described by the company as "playful takes on Kiwi’s New Zealand-inspired name."

It was time then for coalition representatives to talk. Sandra Murray explained the "networked campaign" model, with groups from different regions and communities under the coalition umbrella. The campaign need more people from rural communites and non-Pakeha, and 

"There's a shortage of women in the cannabis reform area."

She also emphaised the need for "focus and discipline". As I noted above, she's not a user herself, but she does know about advocacy. The pushback on single-use plastic bags? That was her campaign.

Chris Fowlie addressed a common question: what's Norml's role if cannabis is legalised? "Vigilance," he said, and upholding consumer rights.

Victoria University criminologst Dr Fiona Hutton was up next, and pulled no punches.

"The way we talk about people who use drugs needs to be changed," she declared. "We are all drug users."

Regulating cannabis would not solve the synthetic cannabis problem, she said. People using synthetics were a different kind of user, one that that actually seeks the dissociative effects of synthetic cannabinoids.

"There is no academic evidence for the gateway hypothesis," about cannabis, she continued.

Noting that most drug prosecutions in New Zealand are for cannabis possession, she addressed the "de facto decriminalisation" issue. Although the numbers say that cannabis prosecutions have dropped sharply in the past 10 years, the social and racial biases remain.

"De facto decriminalisation [by police] simply deepens the injustices in the system," she concluded.

I sat in on one of the campaign workshops that followed, which tended to emphasise the point about the diversity in the room. Sitting next to each other were Suzanne Kendrick, a Pakeha community organiser from Grey Lynn who works in the wine industry, and Tipene, who works at NorthTec and whose students had raised the money for him to attend. She's been to California to see what's going on with legalisation. He's been to prison for cannabis supply.

The final job of the conference was to amend as necessary and approve its resolutions (which I've posted in the comments below). For the first time all day, there was a bit of tetchiness, over the resolution proposing a two-part question (one on legalising use and possession, the other on regulated supply), which was retained, and one from the floor calling for the Police to  declare a moratorium on cannabis prosecutions, which was not included.

On the former, I find myself less of a conservative than the activists. I think it's too soon to allow for the possibility of decriminalisation without legalisation, which is what the two-part question would effectively do, and there is time yet to go for proposition (if not a bill) with enough detail to reassure voters who want reassuring. I'm personally leaning towards the non-profit-at-retail model, something like cannabis social clubs, which is difficult even for opponents to construe as weed on the high street.

Speaking of opponents – who are they? There will likely be some influential groups against legalisation, depending on the actual question, but the New Zealand Medical Association, for example, isn't going to campaign. The only thing that looks like a "No" campaign so far is Family First, and I'm not sure their brand is going to help. It seems possible that the Cannabis Referendum Coalition might find itself, to use a rugby analogy, in the position of an unopposed maul.

The final act of the day was an articulate and impassioned set of closing remarks from the first MP to actively champion cannabis law reform, and now Whakatane District councillor, NΓ‘ndor TΓ‘nczos. He smoothed any ruffled feathers from the resolution debate and and brought it all back to the key themes of unity, purpose, discipline and justice.

After that, organisers and delegates grinned for endless group photos to mark the day. They looked happy. And they had a right to.


Hi folks. It cost me a bit in travel and accommodation to attend the conference and while the organisers will cover some of that in return for my moderation work, it won't cover all my costs, let alone the time I've spent today writing this up. If you felt so moved, you could chip in a one-off koha, or a few bucks a month ongoing, via our Press Patron account.

I won't be joining the Cannabis Referendum Coalition or any other group, but it would be daft, given what I've written and said for the last 25 years, to deny than I am an advocate of cannabis law reform and evidence-based drug law reform in general. I expect I'll be writing quite a lot more in the next couple of years.


The Midterms

This week's US midterm elections are inescapably a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency, and would have been so even if he hadn't gone to such lengths to make it that way.

The closing campaign ad that was so racist and mendacious that even Fox News stopped airing it? It was made at Trump's order after he rejected a more conventional effort focusing on the economy. As RNZ's Tim Watkin observes of one of the final campaign rallies, the candidates for whom Trump was supposedly stumping were mere bit players in the production.

The expectation is that the Democratic Party will regain the House of Representatives and pick up some key governorships, but that there probably aren't enough seats in play for control of the Senate to change hands. But so polarised is the country and so broken its electoral system that according to Nate Silver, the Democrats will need to win between eight and nine per cent more votes nationally to be sure of taking the house.

Here's a guide to the various poll closing times. Turnout and America's broken voting machinery might make for a long wait for tallies to be delivered (everyone waiting in line at the time a polling place officially closes must be allowed to vote), but things should start getting interesting from about 1pm.

I'm taking the afternoon off my other work and a journalist buddy is coming over to watch things unfold with me. I'll make BLTs for lunch and we'll try and stay off the beers until later. We'll watch CNN and read the major newspaper sites, plus Talking Points Memo and FiveThirtyEight. I might have a look at an MSNBC stream and perhaps, later on, some Fox News for the lols.

If you do Twitter, I'll be tweeting a lot at @publicaddress. I'll also swing back here and update things through the day. Please do feel free to chip in with observations, updates and interesting links.

Meanwhile, my New Zealand-resident American friends have already voted, weeks ago – paradoxically, it's easier for them to do so from here than it will be for many people to vote at their local polling today – and are seriously considering just starting on the bourbon to ease their nerves. They feel what Barack Obama said this week: that the character of their nation is on the ballot.


The big vision and the small problems

It was always on the cards that Jacinda Ardern's first conference keynote as Labour Party leader would contain a significant policy announcement; a reward for the people in the room, an underlining of her government's brand. What's pleasing is that the promise of 600 new learning support coordinators in New Zealand schools not only addresses a critical need, it hasn't just been pulled from a hat.

The commitment was foreshadowed in the draft Disability and Learning Support Action Plan that was released by associate Education minister Tracey Martin in September. The basics of the co-called Learning Support Delivery Model are explained here. Essentially, the new coordinators will take the pressure off teaching staff – who have been obliged to load special education oversight onto their other duties – and provide a consistent point of contact for families.

The key will be in the execution – and particularly in actually finding 600 people with the necessary skills (these are not just teacher aides). But it's something that teacher unions have been calling for and it fulfills a commitment in the governing support agreement with the Green Party, as well as rightly validating Martin's longstanding and authentic engagement with special education issues. Ardern's Labour has sometimes contorted itself with the effort of making New Zealand First feel important, but this is something good and substantial.

Even Nikki Kaye, speaking on behalf of the National Party, welcomed the announcement, albeit with a bit of a side-eye about the commitment being made without formal Cabinet approval, perhaps to fend off the threat of more teacher strikes. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, one of Kaye's colleagues missed the moment by a long, long way.

There is so much wrong with this tweet. Business owners are not the only taxpayers – far from it – and not the only New Zealanders with a claim on policy. Some of them also have children who do need more than the education system has been able to provide. I'm one of them.

We got to see the best and worst of special education provision when our two autistic children passed through school. And we were lucky – our older son (on our very persuasive written appeal) was granted ORS funding, something he'd never get now. By contrast, we had to pull his younger brother out of formal education altogether, and to battle a bullying special education caseworker who simply had no grasp on his condition. The flexibility in approaches promised under the new plan might have kept him in school back then.

Responding to a speech with that education announcement as its centrepiece by making a false distinction between "risk takers" who pay the bills and the grasping recipients of the "largesse" was misleading, callous and petty.

Perhaps Woodhouse is just feeling unusually confident at the moment, having succeeded in torturing Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway over the decision to allow a Czech criminal to stay in New Zealand. The background story is complicated and it may be, as Tuariki Delamere suggested, that Karel Sroubek's case should never have come across Lees-Galloway's desk – because Woodhouse or one of the last government's other Immigration ministers should have deported him years ago. (Essentially, Woodhouse is insisting that Lees-Galloway should go because he didn't demand the right information from officials, while absolving himself because he ... didn't get the right information from officials.)

But here's the thing: National doesn't actually believe that Lees-Gallowway has committed a resigning offence, although it will be delighted that one or two of the more biddable commentators have taken the bait. So far as I know, no actual harm has occured as a result of Sroubek not being deported. That will likely remain the case until the decision is reversed on receipt of further information. For all the professed outrage at someone getting something they didn't deserve, it's petty.

Even when there was a major policy at stake in the Kiwibuild rollout, one Opposition MP, Judith Collins, managed to make it mean and petty. One of  the 20 couples to come out of the Kiwibuild lottery wound up being the subject of some quite nasty online bullying, with which she engaged, even though they had done nothing wrong and even though they met the eligibility criteria published months ago. But, again, the core of the narrative constructed out of their pillaged social media profiles was someone had got something they didn't deserve.

Perhaps the government shouldn't have offered up the couple to journalists, perhaps it should have seen that their past travel and their future earning prospects might have made them seem undeserving. I'm not sure about that. But I am quite sure that Lees-Galloway could have made a much better fist of his own situation. Hiding behind a pole to avoid reporters? Really? In the end, his evasiveness gave the story legs and has done him more political damage than the decision itself. It's been unlovely to watch.

If it couldn't find a way to stop the Immigration minister from self-harming, the government did know that the Prime Minister's star-power would wash away the story for a few days at least, and that's what we saw yesterday. But you can't do that every week. It may be that the secret to getting everyone to focus on the big vision for more of the time is some vastly better political management of the small things.