Hard News by Russell Brown


Family Matters: a post about 2020

My sense of recent history is a mess; sometimes I can't rightly say what happened, when. I tell people about something I did two years ago and it turns out it was late last year. And still, like all of us, I'm still effectively in the moment that unfolded in March.

I recall realising even before we went into our pandemic lockdown that what a lot of what people – including me – were doing was a matter of processing anxiety in public. It was evident, vividly, on social media, where sometimes we expressed it by policing each other, shouting at each other , drawing lines, letting fly. Heartbreakingly, I found myself shouting desperately at old friends who began a descent into malignant conspiracy theories.

By contrast, when, in the first week of lockdown, Bauer Media took the opportunity to shut down its New Zealand operation, removing our household's last reliable source of income, what should have been really alarming seemed to almost get lost in the overall roar of dread.

The wage subsidy helped there, in a way that went beyond mere finance. It was money that had turned up in the bank in a way that didn't rely on the unknowables of the virus economy. It said: there's a backstop. A few weeks later, when some work actually did turn up, making an online series for Spark Lab called The Pivot Reports from my kitchen table, I discovered that had been a widely-shared sensation among small business people. It was room to breathe and it was available swiftly and with few questions asked. The subsidy was an $11 billion chill-pill and worth every cent.

We now know that New Zealand wasn't very well prepared for a global pandemic, and that it took a succession of decisive actions, rapid responses and lessons learned to get us where we are, for now. It's a trusim to say it now, but the government's communications mattered hugely. They worked with the anxiety I mentoned above, as much as against it, in getting us to do the right things. And they invoked a historical national tradition of working for the common good. That card works a little less well every time it's played, so you'd best play it well first time.

In sum, I've thought a lot about this tweet I sent in February. There were screwups and the shine went off a few things, but we have been well-governed at a truly critical time.

There were personal challenges amid it all. During the first Level 3 lockdown, my mother suffered a fall and a stroke – it's still not quite clear which came first – and I flew down to Wellington to spend my days with her and my nights in a hotel room in a locked-down central city. She suffered failures of care that have led me to formally complain to three different organisations. Dealing with ACC was endless and exhausting. Responsibility for Mum's emotional health weighed heavily on me and I had some moments of real despair.

But Mum's home, where she always wanted to be, and she's making a go of it. Since she was young, she's repeatedly had to fall back on her own resources, find personal strength. It's what she knows. I asked her recently how she'd been that week: "I'm boxing on," she said.

There's no question of her joining us for Christmas, but I'm greatly comforted by the care she's getting from the local Nurse Maude organisation. Those women are lovely. They were also good enough to let me know that Mum had asked them to cancel her midday visits over the Christmas break, apparently to give the nurse worker a break ("I can make myself a sandwich"). To be fair to Mum, she did back down more or less immediately on that one.

And then, because there wasn't enough on in 2020, I got myself involved in a campaign for the cannabis referendum. I've written about the subject of the referendum at length elsewhere, so let's just say I'm proud of what we did with We Do. It was a big, exhausting, fascinating experience.

I had watched the polls long enough to know that a win for "Yes" was the less likely outcome, but as the weeks passed I did think we'd get close. We got very close. As I've been telling people, I was ready for a narrow loss – but I wasn't ready for Andrew Little to jump up and declare an end to all drug reform for the foreseeable future. That's not a sustainable or responsible position and it won't stand.

Indeed, it stood only until Jacinda Ardern's government did the right thing and fulfilled a commitment to legalise drug-checking services at events. It was such a relatively uncontroversial move in the end that it's easy to lose sight of how far we've come on this. The idea that we would have High Alert, a drug early warning system that brings together the police, government and science agencies and the community, would have seemed a long shot five years ago.

Wendy Allison, Jez Weston and the other people at KnowYourStuffNZ deserve huge credit for that. They've been ethical and organised, been taken seriously by everyone they've had to deal with, without surrendering the peer-to-peer philosophy at the core of what they're doing. It's still the tribe looking after itself. That's a remarkable achievement.

Things are changing. Most notably, they're changing in America, where the conversation about cannabis reform is tilting significantly towards acknowledging and addressing the damage done by the drug war. I wrote about that last week for the NZ Drug Foundation. Everything's fringe until it's mainstream. Some of us will just keep poking at the parts that look like they might move.

There has been other cause for cheer on the work front. What looked like an extinction event for New Zealand media in March has resolved surprisingly well. Most of the magazines shut down by Bauer are back in some form. Stuff is now independently-owned (this is another one of those things it's hard to believe only happened a few months ago), newly invigorated and paying its staff Christmas bonuses. Editorial commissioning budgets are back and there's work about. But oh, it would be nice if freelance journalism paid better. There's a part of me that loves doing several different jobs about quite different things at once, and a part of me that's just exhausted by it.

There's been another job lately. I'm looking to get our 26 year-old son back into education, for the first time since we had to withdraw him from school when he was 12. He has such a quick, interesting mind. It's going pretty well so far, but we've had false starts before and I know it's not going to be easy. I do occasionally remind myself I generally keep it together fairly well. Maybe I'm boxing on a bit like Mum.

I value the part of my life that's out there with the tribe. I missed my friends during lockdown, I missed talking and dancing. I relished the sense of everyone valuing those things extra hard after lockdown. You felt it at gigs and parties. At one particularly busy and brilliant party this year, the birthday host's wife stood up and spoke about how lucky we all were to be able to do this. Auckland went back into Level 3 lockdown four days later.

But that, in truth, wasn't like the first one. Level 3 isn't Level 4, we knew the drill, and when every small retailer in our suburb had the table out the front with the hand sanitiser it felt oddly like some sort of street fair. The family who took over Point Chev Fresh just before the first lockdown and  looked terrified when you went in (I remember thinking they should just close up and go home) had it all down by August.

Allow me to put in a plug for Point Chev Fresh, by the way. They've been steadily developing the shop and it's a top place not only for produce, but both Indian and Mediterranean food supplies – and they're also just really nice people.

The same is true of various other businesses in our community, not least, Cupid, that little bar I always bang on about. In a horrific year for hospitality businesses, Alix McEntegart and her crew have maintained their composure and their standards, and they've given a lot of us a place to play. The Mum 'n' Dad Disco Christmas party at the bar last Friday, where Sandy Mill and I played our records, was great because it was fun. We need fun in our lives.

For those of us with access to some form of it, family matters too. One of the things that brightened lockdown for us was seeing our next door neighbours come out every day and play with their little kids. As a family, we ourselves are very used to each other's company and that helped too. I also bless the day in January we got Fiona an e-bike. Riding together during lockdown and since has added another great element to our long, loving relatinship. It's one more way we know each other well.

Best wishes, everyone. Stay safe, be well.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: Doomscrolling

The Public Address Word of the Year 2020 is "doomscrolling", which narrowly beat out "bubble". But in a shocking turn of events, Public Address founder Russell Brown was unable to complete his traditional mock press release announcing the results of the vote.

"There has just been far too much 2020," Brown told reporters, "and quite frankly, it's used up my sense of irony. I'm at a point where I can't even do sarcasm, let alone satire. I mean, how do you even start to process that?"

After his brief remarks to journalists, Brown excused himself, explaining that "I just need to go and check Sweden's daily case numbers. Well, that and make sure Trump hasn't pulled another fully depraved stunt since I checked an hour ago. There's probably a new existential climate threat too – it's important to keep up with those and stare impotently at the screen for a while before breaking free and tweeting about Baby Yoda or some shit."

Brown did leave a brief statement confirming the Top 10 Words voted by readers were:

1. Doomscrolling

2. Bubble

3. #NZHellhole

4. Covid-19

5. You're on mute

6. Lockdown

7. Covidiot

8. Unprecedented

9. Bloomfield

10. Go hard, go early

The statement also confirmed that the winners of amazing Nuraloop earphones are Andrew Carr and ChrisB, who should get in touch if they have not already been contacted.

Brown's family said he was improving on a new diet of pre-lockdown Antiques Roadshow episodes and a high-potency supplement of seasons of Two Fat Ladies.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: The Vote!

It's that time again! You can now vote for the Word of the Year 2020. Thanks very much to all the people who nominated for the long list in the form below, and to Hadyn Green for his good work in getting the voting form together for another year. As he has noted on the form, there has been a hell of a lot of 2020 to be thinking about.

As previously noted, thanks go to Nura for our prizes this year. There's a pair of the amazing Nuraloop earphones for one lucky voter, and I'll give another pair to the nominee of one of the Top 10 words in the final vote. All you need to do is vote – and tell your friends!

NB: You may find that the "submit" button is obscured at the bottom of the embedded voting form. Just scroll down within the form to show it. If that doesn't work for you, or if the embed isn't displaying well on your phone, here's a direct link to the voting form itself.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: Discussion and nomination

In the normal course of things, I launch the Public Address Word of the Year with a post looking back at all the previous winners. But 2020 patently has not been a normal year, so I'll skip that part. (You can still check the record here if you like.)

I've made a change to this, the korero phase, too. It's a given that our thoughts will revolve around a particular global phenomenon this year, so  you'll only be able to nominate one word per post. And three in total.

For the same reason, I've tweaked the prize criteria. Traditionally, the first person to nominate the winning word has won one of our prizes. This year, I'll draw the nomination prize from the top 10 words in the final vote, so you'll have a chance to win even if you're not in in the first few minutes of nominating. It's a bit like how they changed the four-try bonus point in rugby to make it worth continuing to chuck the ball around.

So you, the readers, nominate words in this discussion. After two or three days of the korero, I'll cull the nominations into a long list for the public vote. As ever, there will be a prize drawn at random from everyone who votes.

Regarding those prizes, I'm delighted to say that Nura has come to the party again and we'll have two pairs of the new Nuraloop in-ear earphones to give away. They're the on-the-go version of the original Nuraphone smart headphones. They really are the thing for briefly, mercifully blocking out the news of the day and embracing the healing power of music. Although you could also listen to podcasts.

Righto, I'm wearied by the effort of writing a whole blog post without using any potential nominee words, so it's over to you all now. Give it heaps.


The long road to "Yes"

One day in 1985, I came down from the loft where I was working as deputy editor of Rip It Up magazine, looking for lunch, and walked into a scene. There, on the corner of Queen and Darby Streets, a man was in the process of getting two kids to sign a petition against homosexual law reform.

I was incensed. I knew all about the petition, which had been founded by two Labour and two National MPs, taken up by the Salvation Army and then by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a conservative lobby group that also railed against biculturalism and the alleged communist threat to New Zealand. (As a measure of quite how bigoted this organisation was, it might help to know that its more moderate, left-leaning members eventually split away and formed the Christian Heritage Party.)

I knew about  the way the petition had been brought into workplaces, where men signed it to avoid losing face. And here, in front of me, was someone gathering fraudulent signatures from children.

I strode up and told the man with the petition to stop. He smirked and the two boys he was soliciting indicated they were up for signing. A police officer walked past and I called him over, urgently. Here, I told the policeman, was someone gathering illegal signatures, and he needed to do something. He looked bemused. Eventually, our odd little cluster broke up without the signatures being secured. Many months later, after the Coalition had presented its 800,000-strong petition to Parliament, it was determined that a great many of the signatures it bore were invalid.

It would be another 16 years before the Salvation Army reflected on its role in this unethical enterprise – and on its appalling submission on Fran Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Bill – via a paper by Ian Hutson. Whether or not you think Hutson's paper was the mea culpa it needed to be, it's a worthwhile read.

Hutson places homosexual law reform in the context of social turmoil. The 1981 Springbok tour had torn the country apart and now the fourth Labour government was turning it upside down. After a vicious battle in the 1970s, access to abortion had been made possible, if not exactly legalised. The Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act passed in 1985. And now, this drive to legalise homosexuality. The world of conservative Christians, including those in a growing evangelical movement, had come unmoored and it was time to make a stand against all this change.

In 2020, we again find ourselves in interesting times. Nature and its pandemic have forced change on us, made us anxious and sometimes angry. We've worked out that anxiety and anger in different ways and some of us have embraced conspiracy theories and bizarre beliefs. American evangelicism has been a noxious influence, again. A government led by a woman finally legalised women's fertilty choices – and it seemed so inevitable a step that the opponents of change looked right through it and focused instead on another change: legalising and regulating cannabis.

Three years ago, in the closing panel of an Orcon IRL event looking back at 2017, I asked National MP Chris Bishop what he thought about the just-announced cannabis referendum – putting it to him that he was a law reformer and wondering how many of his caucus would be with him if actually passing the law came down to a conscience vote.

He said he hoped it would be a conscience vote (as we now know, things didn't work that way for National MPs) and then he said something very interesting.

I'm a bit worried about the referendum proposal. You know, be careful what you wish for. I'm not sure a referendum is the right place to conduct a sensible, evidence-based, informed debate about drug law. Because I'm telling you now, there are a lot of people out there whose last wish is an evidence-based, informed debate about drug law reform. And they will have voices and they will spend a lot of money and they will ... not monopolise, but they will put their view into the public domain and they will toxify the debate.

And actually, I may be wrong, but i think we will come to regret the referendum proposal. It seems elegant and it seems clever, but actually referenda are the wrong place to decide finely-grained public policy questions like drug reform. Particularly a debate where there's so many different elements and people will impute their own interpretation about what each word means.

So the debate around decriminalisation versus legalisation – there's a lot in that, like a lot, and even finding the wording of the referendum question is going to be massively politically contentious. You know, it sounds good, but be careful what you wish for if you're a drug law reformer.

Since then, many others have echoed Chris's thoughts on the desirability of a referendum. I'm more philosophical about that. A referendum is what was politically possible at the time – and referenda, in the form of the ballot initiatves in American states, are main reason we're even able to talk confidently about legalisation as a policy initiative, after decades of political roadblock.

But the parts about voices, money and "fine-grained policy"? Yes. It feels like one side in this referendum has been trying to talk about policy points and the other wants a culture war.

That's why I was interested three months ago when Cleve Cameron bought me a beer and asked if I'd be interested in getting involved with an idea he had for a campaign focused on normalising a "Yes" vote. It wasn't my usual style – which is basically shouting nerd facts at people – but the "No" campaigners had focused on making an evidence-based choice for "Yes" look deviant. That needed addressing. We needed to say that this was something that good people could support. The campaign would be called "We Do".

Cleve had been offered a three-week nationwide billposter campaign by Phantom Billstickers, who have a history of helping out on these issues. My friends, graphic designer Roxanne Hawthorne (the one who originally pointed Cleve my way) and festival production maestro Fred Kublikowski came aboard too. Kieran Scott agreed to photograph our volunteers for the posters. About an hour after I announced our plans on Twitter, my old friend Tim Wood came through with $5000 donation that all but covered our main initial cost – the printing of the posters themselves.

A PledgeMe campaign brought in another $5000-odd, which meant we could also do a campaign with A3 "retail" posters to go in cafes, bars, bakeries and the odd church. That cost money to execute because Phantom contracts out that part of its business, but Stuart Shepherd and Fred Soar at Soar Print did the posters for free for us.

Part of their decision, I'm sure, came down to a shared memory of our dear, lost friend Grant Fell, who I was able to help through his last, precious days with a green fairy oil. My feelings about Grant – and my strong sense of offence that the people who helped me help him were classed as criminals – has a lot to do with why I've been doing this too.

Later in the piece, we were offered digital billboard inventory by MBM, Lumo, Locky Docks and Go! Media and, with multiple national outdoor campaigns, we've wound up looking quite a lot bigger than the four or five munters trying to keep up with their day jobs that we actually are.

The campaign evolved as we rolled it out. The plan to generate most of our campaign material in a single day – by photographing our 60-odd volunteers and asking most of them of why they were voting "Yes" – turned out to be a good one. Our volunteers, a really lovely and diverse bunch, from students to seniors, gave us a lot to work with. And it was work: Roxanne in particular has done an unbelievable amount, not only in generating the visual collateral but guiding what we'd do next.

Most of the words have been me. People wanted more detail, so I wrote up more detail for our website. We also did something I hadn't initially anticipated: we started telling people who the other side was. It turned out that in 2020, people aren't very good at parsing information and where it comes from. So I wrote a page with some background on SAM-NZ, Say Nope to Dope and Family First. It covered the involvement of Scientology front organisations in SAM-NZ and the fringe religious conservatism of its principals.

We didn't really want to get involved in a culture war, but that's what happened. Since I wrote that page, other parts of the picture have emerged.

New Zealand-born researcher Brent Allpress spoke last week to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. Allpress did some of the key research for the new documentary People You May Know, which exposes a network based around what he characterised as "oil interests, large extractive industries and evangelical activists and dominionists who seek to end the separation of Church and State". Part of the network is a software company called Gloo, which uses masses of personal data to help evangelical churches target vulnerable people for conversion, an activity which is at least unethical and possibly illegal.

He also thought he'd identified a link between this network and our referendum campaign. Gloo also works for the US opioid rehab industry, which makes many millions from the country's opioid addiction crisis, and has helped with campaigns against cannabis legalisation in various US jurisdictions. Gloo's recovery services director, Steve Millette, is on the board of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which this year bestowed its name on SAM-NZ, bringing together Family First and its offshoot Say Nope to Dope, the Scientologists and others.

Allpress says there is a lot of "dark money" flowing through this network, which already has a presence in Australia. Is that what we're seeing here? We can't really tell. The fact that Family First's income from donations has doubled in the past two years, and is triple what it was four years ago, may be material.

This isn't a quarrel with faith: I am friends with many believers and I respect, even envy, what they have in their communities. But it feels unnerving. Our campaign hasn't really had much grief (there's a silly ASA complaint waiting on publication of a decision) but I know the New Zealand Drug Foundation has been harassed and that the Make It Legal campaign had to roster moderators for 18 hours a day on its Facebook page in the face of a tide of aggressive commentary, much of it from American evangelicals. Everyone's pretty exhausted.

Will the referendum pass? I don't know. But there has been a mood shift in the past two or three weeks. It would have helped if the Public Health Association and the public health experts who published their emphatic call for a "Yes" vote in the New Zealand Medical Journal had come along sooner. It would have helped if the whole thing hadn't become a matter of partisan politics and MPs like Chris Bishop had been allowed to speak honestly. It would have helped if the chair of the NZMA had displayed even a minimal sense of responsibility, instead of creating this debacle. It would have helped if the popular Prime Minister had expressed a view – although in a year when protesters have carried signs likening her to Hitler, there could also have been undesirable impacts. But, again, there has been a shift and I'm a lot more optimisic than I was even three weeks ago.

The Ministry of Justice team which has done most of the work on the Cannabis Legalisation and Controll draft bill has done a remarkable job – this is thoughtful, careful legislation that takes on board the lessons of other jurisdictions and places public health and harm reduction at its centre.

If "Yes" prevails and it goes to select committee, I wouldn't want to make it any more onerous to provide and purchase cannabis legally: it's extremely tight as it is. But I'd get behind working on the already world-leading market allocation and licensing provisions to make it even harder for "Big Cannabis" to appear. I've thought all along that these are the most important parts of the the bill.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a respectful and useful debate on the referendum. Our opponents were good people, but they barely engaged with a policy point and leaned far too heavily on the idea that it's fine to carry on with the "soft decriminalisation" of the past decade.

But if it's no longer acceptable to prohibit, to prosecute and punish thousands of people over cannabis – and, in truth, I think even most "No" voters accept that – then the solution is not to keep on selectively applying the law. It's wrong and unfair and it produces racist and harmful outcomes. Let's do this honestly and properly.

A "No" vote in this referendum would be a vote for no solution in an environment where the need for sensible, honest law is becoming more acute. The cannabis market isn't standing still and voting to just keep doing what we're doing won't stop or change anything about it. It is, in the end, just a vote against change.

To return to where we started, there was a famously noisy debate on homosexual law reform in 1985. It wasn't the only such event around that time. The year before saw The Great Marijuana Debate, which was chaired by the late Peter Williams QC. The two events even had an antagonist in common – Invercargill MP Norman Jones, who predicted that homosexual law reform would make New Zealand "the sodomy capital of the South Pacific".

One law reform soon found its way to success; the other has drifted for decades since. I'm hopeful that on Saturday we will finally signal we're ready to deal with that unfinished business.

Please vote "Yes" to say you do support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control draft buill and, if you feel able, talk to friends and family about it. If you need more to read on why, visit the We Do website.