Speaker by Various Artists


The economics of shit speech

by Joshua Drummond

It’s time we fixed the New Zealand news media’s problem with shit speech.

First, let’s put together a working definition. Shit speech is the stuff that might not necessarily be described as hate speech, but it occupies much of the same spectrum. It’s speech that presses the buttons of prejudice, bigotry and outrage, but isn’t necessarily hateful per se; that isn’t (always) lies, but is most often inaccurate, skewed, or otherwise misleading. It’s the floating turd in gutter journalism.

To paraphrase the Broadcasting Standards Authority decision on Heather du Plessis-Allan’s foul commentary about Pasifika nations, it’s speech that is “inflammatory ...and [has] the potential to cause widespread harm.” It’s the foundation the Pyramid of Hate is built on.

In New Zealand, common topics that shit speech explores include, but are not limited to, immigrants and refugees, the “entitlement” of Maori, LGBTQI issues, the “Treaty grievance industry,” and the full spectrum of climate change denial. (Anti-Islam rhetoric usually features prominently, but for some reason, it hasn’t much lately. I wonder why.)

Notably, shit speech is often almost completely devoid of style, substance, wit, or even basic legibility. Mike Hosking’s blithe strawmen frequently contain so little substance that they barely qualify as brain-farts. Leighton Smith is a frequent climate change denier whose only saving grace is writing so inane it’s indistinguishable from the output of an AI trained to generate meaningless text.

So who’s talking shit? As well as the names already checked, and an array of occasional op-ed contributors, it’s Duncan Garner with racist takes on immigrants. It’s Sean Plunket with misogynist references to “feminazis.”

Those are just the ones that come immediately to my mind, but there are plenty more, and not all of them are on the right of politics. I’d also count Chris Trotter and Bomber Bradbury among our stable of shit-talkers, as well as other voices on the Left who seem to glory in stoking conflict. If I’m being honest, I should sometimes include myself among those, from back when I had a regular-ish column.

But the voices on the left don’t tend to have the platform the others do. Not at all coincidentally, many of these personalities overlap with the talk radio and TV broadcasting stable. They are powerful media personalities, with their own shows, who occupy very special safe spaces in New Zealand’s news infrastructure.

This is because these personalities are engineered to generate attention through outrage. Which is ironic, seeing as they’re often accusing others of being outraged snowflakes or virtue-signallers (and I think it’s telling how quickly and enthusiastically some people adopted the creepy, hateful language of Gamergate and the alt-right) People who love this behaviour signal-boost. So do people who hate it. The behaviour exists because we enable it - and the media personalities’ bosses love them for the attention that we all give out. The feedback loop looks like this:

  1. Get people to talk shit

  2. Shit gets engagement

  3. Profit! (Sort of, as we’ll see.)

  4. Go to 1

NZME has just implemented a paywall, where they’ll hide their premium content – presumably the excellent work done by the likes of David Fisher, Keith Ng, Kirsty Johnston, Matt Nippert and many more - behind a $5 a week subscription. When this was first announced, the words “Mike Hosking” started trending on Twitter – spurred mostly by people begging the Herald to install him behind the paywall, so they didn’t have to hear from him any more.

This won’t happen. I’ll bet any amount of money that while quality investigative journalism will tend to disappear behind the paywall, shit speech will continue to dominate the free pages. The many people who can’t afford five bucks a week on news will continue to get Mike Hosking & Friends for free, along with all the Daily Mail re-skins they can stomach. So it’s more important than ever that their audience makes it clear that this isn’t actually acceptable. 

I’ll get to how this might be done in a bit, but first, some context.

Why shit speech is so compelling to publishers

For news media, it all went comprehensively to shit when advertising became quantifiable. Before online marketing, you couldn’t say for sure if things like TV commercials and newspaper advertising - what we’d now think of as “traditional” advertising - actually worked. The old approach is the equivalent of carpet bombing. A business would spend a great deal of money at an agency, who would produce creative, that would then get placed at further enormous cost as a billboard or full-page ad in the New Zealand Herald or in the ad breaks for One News with John Hawkesby.

I hope you heard that last bit in the announcer’s voice, and if you did, it means you are as old or older than I am. Sorry. Ideally, following the media placement, sales would ensue. But you couldn’t always directly attribute the sales to the campaign.

Then Google AdWords and others came along and it became clear quite quickly that, for the most part, the traditional approach was (and mostly still is) total balls. Businesses, large and small, flocked to advertising media that could give them a tangible return on investment, and the vehicles of traditional advertising started their long, slow crash.

Which brings us to the present day. Now that big-ticket ad spend and the even more reliable income stream of classified ads is mostly gone – and for all the wailing about Google and Facebook, this is how newspapers used to make most of their money, and that lunch got cut first by eBay and TradeMe – one of the last things that online news media has left to sell to advertisers is a flimsy, flawed measure of attention called “engagement.”

In online attention economics, you have a few key metrics that add up to a broader definition of “engagement.” Clicked on a link for the first time? Congrats, you are now a Unique Visitor, and that fact has been recorded somewhere in analytics software. Hung around on the page reading? That’ll clock up your on-page time. Scrolled past a certain point on a page? Clicked a “continue reading” button? That’s measured too. Read the comments? Left a comment? That definitely counts as engagement, and that’s why many news sites cling to comment sections despite overwhelming evidence that, without extensive moderation, they are toxic cesspits comprehensively dominated by cranks and extremists, who drive out moderate voices. It’s also a reason news sites have autoplaying videos, despite the fact that audiences hate them. You scrolling past a video as it starts to play and continues to babble away on mute still counts as engagement.

The other thing that can be easily tracked and counts towards engagement scores is social media interactions, which, in a sad irony, tend to take place on the same platforms that have so comprehensively bankrupted the news media.

Where that leaves us: Beat journalists are ridiculously overworked, and the meagre funds that publishers set aside to do investigative or otherwise valuable, society-enriching work – like Stuff Circuit, or the Herald’s investigative team – are constantly under threat. But that’s not all; there’s another, even more insidiously perverse incentive at work, and it’s called the conflict narrative.

The conflict narrative is something that gets hammered into you at journalism school. It goes something like this:

  • Good stories have conflict.

  • Good stories get read.

  • Therefore, stories should have conflict.

On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but once you dig into the concept a bit you discover a midden of toxic bullshit. This simplistic formula is an excuse for all manner of media evils, the main one of which is false objectivity, or Telling Both Sides Of The Story. And it gets worse, because while the impulse to tell good stories or to provide balance comes from a place of good intentions, it’s very easily hacked by bad actors who take advantage of dwindling journalist resources to do their jobs for them.

This is why we so often see the Taxpayer’s Union, which is a laughably obvious front for industry and corporate interests, one that exists solely for the purpose of anti-democratic malfeasance, quoted to provide “balance” to a hard news story about, say, cigarettes or cycleways.

It’s why it’s deemed acceptable to print commentary featuring Both Sides of an issue like climate change, even when one “side” is demonstrably wrong and, very often, intentionally lying.

It’s why, in politics reporting, we get opposing sound-bites instead of policy discussion. It’s why Duncan Garner hounds Chloe Swarbrick for a scalp instead of having a proper discussion about the nuances of cannabis law reform.

It’s why we have the press gallery offering sage reckons about some political happening or other being a “bad look”, offering Machiavellian commentary as if politics was nothing more than an episode of Game of Thrones, instead of the vital mechanism through which government delivers for the people it represents.

The conflict narrative is also a big part of the reason why it’s deemed acceptable for talking heads to intentionally stoke conflict in their op-eds and on the air.

I want to make the point that narrative conflict is not always bad. In many ways, it’s inevitable. Any unpopular truth-telling will incite some conflict, no matter how well-intentioned or carefully put. So will satire and other hard-hitting commentary, punching up to the powerful. All these things are essential.

But there’s a difference between conflict caused from telling the truth, and allowing (or encouraging) your staff to lie, prevaricate, promulgate bigotry, and otherwise stir shit on vital topics in the name of audience engagement. Racist commentary serves no good purpose. Misogynist commentary serves no good purpose. Ignorant takes and lying about climate change serves no good purpose.

Making news, instead of reporting it

There’s another feedback loop in the shit-speech ecosystem: the news media having their cake and eating it too. Or, rather, making the news and reporting it too. Here’s a working example: Mike Hosking hates bikes. He hates cyclists. He hates cycleways, and he’s not shy about expressing it in many, many radio rants and (loosely transcribed from radio) columns in the Herald. But the Herald has other columnists and writers, like the excellent Simon Wilson, who use the garbage Hosking produces as fuel for far more considered pieces that politely present the hard evidence for why bikes are actually a bloody good thing in cities.

Now, Simon Wilson’s sort of writing is a good thing, and we need more of it. But it’d be better if he didn’t need to use Mike’s shit, in the same publication, as the launchpad. (Another, more recent example of this cynical content factory in action: Sean Plunket, speaking on Mediaworks’ Magic Talk, on how “woke feminazis” are going to ban rugby. His words are repeated verbatim, with no counter-speech, as clickbait news on Mediaworks’ Newshub website. This then is counterproductively signal boosted – often by people who oppose or seek to mock this sort of misogynistic, paranoid bullshit but just end up smearing it around. When I saw it, it was because some leftie had angrily retweeted it.)

In the Hosking example above, I’ve used cycling as an example, but it if you substitute “cycling” for “climate change” it all gets a bit more fraught. Much of the news media is constantly trying to have it both ways on this, and other important topics; keeping the deniers and cranks onside, but also presenting the science.

The result is not any kind of balance; it’s a net loss for audiences. The NZME ecosystem is particularly awful for this. The could easily create an editorial line on climate change, as Stuff has laudably done, but instead they allow at least two of their headline columnists to deny and cast doubt on this vitally important matter at every opportunity.

The biggest of all these problems is that shit speech is cheap and it sells. As a product, it’s a no-brainer. For the people trained in producing shit speech, it comes as naturally as pooing. Why spend money on expensive investigative journalism when you could get 10 times the engagement and attention by just throwing a few fresh turds on Facebook?

How we can get rid of shit speech

Many of the views espoused by the shit-talkers shouldn’t be on the air. They shouldn’t be in our nationally-syndicated newspaper columns. They are poisoning the well of our discourse, and our society is about ready to die of dysentery. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. To cause conflict is what shit speech is for. It’s a disgrace. And it’s not even the shit-talkers’ fault. 

This isn’t so much about media personalities or even their politics as much it is about perverse incentives. Most of the people I’ve mentioned are gifted communicators who could do so much better if they tried, or if the incentives supported them to.

The blame for shit speech sits entirely with the people who publish it.

I’ll say it as plainly as I can: if media publishers and editors gave the merest fuck about ethics, we’d wouldn’t have this issue. But we do, and audiences are dealing with it in the wrong way. Every time some new, horrible reckon arrives, instead of ignoring it, we draw attention to it. Well, that’s exactly what publishers want us to do. We won’t rein in Mike Hosking et al’s claim to the shit-speech throne by furiously tweeting their columns everytime they say something offensively stupid. Instead, shit speech needs to be deplatformed and ignored. Here’s how that can be done.

  1. Lay complaints with regulators

  2. Note your concerns with advertisers and sponsors

  3. Hold the editors and publishers accountable

1. Instead of angry-tweeting or rage-posting on Reddit about the latest debacle (including, of course, a link to the offending screed), use your energy to complain to the relevant authorities. First, complain to the editor or producer of the shit-speech in question. If the response is insufficient, then take it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (for radio and TV) or the New Zealand Media Council (for print and websites.) While a rebuke from either authority still holds some weight in the media, it doesn’t always count for much, which is why I recommend also doing step 2: 

2. More effective still is to express your displeasure to the people who sponsor or advertise on the content in question. This is publishing’s Achilles heel. Sure, complain to the harried marketing coordinators running corporate Twitter accounts if you feel like it, but it’s always best to vote with your wallet. You know how many departing customers it would take to make BNZ’s sponsorship of the Mike Hosking Breakfast profoundly unprofitable? Not bloody many.

So if, like me, you are furious at NZME encouraging Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith’s endless prevarication on climate change, you might want to take it up with the sponsors, and make sure that people who feel the same way are ready to do the same thing. If their scant margins are threatened, publishers will drop shit-stirring broadcasters like hot turds. We’ve seen this happen many times before, not least with John Tamihere during the Roastbusters scandal. (Of course, he’s running for Auckland Mayor now, which to me is just another example of the shit-speech Ouroboros in action.) In fact, that’s actually a neat summary of the issue: the personalities themselves are not really the problem. The platforms are. If Mike Hosking was drummed out of his media tomorrow, another shit-stirrer would pop up to take his place, because that’s how the incentives are set up. So, to me, step 3 is the most important:

3. Hold publishers and editors accountable. Don’t ever complain to the news personalities who generate the awful opinions you hate so much, because that’s what they’re paid to do. Ignore them. Go straight to the publishers. Complain to the editor. Tweet at the publishers. Make sure you’re letting them know that you know what they’re up to, and that it’s not good enough. Inform them that you’re talking to their sponsors, that you’re calling advertisers. For some reason, a lot of people who set themselves up as free speech defenders for foreign fascists hate this sort of behaviour, but sadly for them, this is free speech and freedom of choice in action, and you should wield this powerful weapon as best you can. Oh, and if you absolutely must link to examples of shit speech to make a point, don’t reward the sites hosting it with a direct link. Take a screenshot, or use a service like Pastebin instead.

And here’s my final suggestion for defeating shit speech: pay for news. If you can afford it, sign up for the Herald’s new paywall. Donate to the Guardian. Click the Press Patron button on The Spinoff and Public Address.

“Wait,” I can imagine you thinking, “you’ve just shelled out around 2000 overwrought words telling us what a shitshow the news media is through the powerful medium of poo metaphors. Now you want me to literally give them money?”

Yes, and here’s why.

For all the gross excesses of conflict-milking and shit speech promotion by media companies, going after “engagement” is a losing game. News publishers are fighting over the scraps left by megatech companies, and unless they can figure out a way to monetise effectively, they are quite properly fucked. Like democracy in The Simpsons (and, increasingly, real life), the economics of ad-supported publishing Simply Don’t Work, and the news media extinction vortex is spinning ever-faster around the plughole of doom.

Proper journalism doesn’t have much of a place in this economy. Of course, it never really did. Excepting the extremely weird and endangered animal of state-owned media in liberal democracies, a lot of the news only ever really existed as a reason for customers to purchase reams of classified ads. Clickbait and shit speech has always been with us. The incentives were perverse from the start, and now they’re just more so.

However, if you pay for your news with real money rather than nebulous “engagement”, you become an actual customer, a true stakeholder. This is important. For all the pitfalls of the news media, and despite the best efforts of unethical publishers, journalism - real journalism - is more important than ever before.

We need people who will find important things out and tell us the truth about what is happening in the world. In my opinion, while I think it’s far better for society for real news to be available for free, paying directly for good journalism is what might secure its future. It removes some of the pressure to create cheap engagement through outrage. Instead, you can show that you value real news, and a diversity of well-framed opinion that doesn’t cause conflict simply for the sake of engagement. And if you don’t like what your paid news source is up to, well, opting to withdraw your custom speaks much louder than an angry retweet.

This whole long thing has been an exhortation to stop signal-boosting shit speech, but I'd like to end it with a call to promote well-considered, positive speech from new, diverse voices that might otherwise get drowned out by all the shouting.

If we, the audience, can show news publishers that shit speech isn't what we want, it increases the odds that they'll start serving up some proper good shit instead.


An attempt at demystifying Sharia

by Felix Geiringer

I have written this piece, at this time, in the hope that I can contribute to removing the mystery, and therefore fear, associated with Sharia.  It is intended to be my answer to the Islamophobic dog whistle of “they’re trying to bring Sharia over here”.

I am no Islamic jurist.  So, apologies to everyone out there who knows this stuff much better than I do.  My relevant background is that I (briefly) studied Sharia at University.  I then worked (briefly) as a lawyer in the field of Islamic finance.  What follows are therefore the fumblings of an amateur.  Yet, I hope that this perspective of an outsider is still a useful contribution. 

Sharia is a legal system which seeks to extend the religious principles of Islam into a legal structure applicable to daily life.  You could think of it as the Islamic counterpart to Judaism’s Halakha or Catholicism’s Canon Law.  However, there are differences between them.

Catholicism has a well-defined hierarchy, and senior office holders have the power to make law.  Sharia doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also heard it said that Sharia and Halakha seek to extend into every part of a devotee’s life in a way that Canon does not.   There are also significant differences between Sharia and Halakha, but that seems to be a particularly controversial topic and I do not address it here. 

Sharia law is mostly derived by analogy from the two foundation texts: the Quran (God’s revelations to Muhammad) and the Sunnah (a record of Muhammad’s life).

Like common law judges, there are people in the Islamic world who are respected as being able to apply this reasoning and make decisions on new issues as they arise.  And, like the common law, there is scope for different people to reach different conclusions.  The decisions such people reach can have authoritative weight outside of the issues before them – more so if a consensus has arisen between multiple such decisions from different jurists. 

As an aside, I believe I saw some Sharia law reasoning in action when I heard Yasser Arafat speak in Oxford in 1996. A student challenged Arafat on Palestinians forcing women to wear head scarves.  Arafat replied by telling a story of Muhammad visiting a friend and remarking that his friend’s wife had beautiful hair.  The student was angry, saying that Arafat hadn’t answered her question.

I believe Arafat was expressing his view in accordance with the principles of Sharia law.  Arafat described the Prophet seeing a woman’s uncovered hair and clearly not being offended. Arafat left his audience with the obvious inference and therefore his view on how he would interpret the relevant Sharia.

There are acts of violence described in the foundation texts which are antithetical to modern civilised society – just like there are in the Bible.  But, also just like the Bible, there are many passages extolling virtues like love and kindness, and urging people to look after their neighbours and those less fortunate than them. 

The obviously outmoded nature of all historic religious texts is one of many reasons why I am an atheist.  However, it is obviously untrue to suggest that people can only follow a religion by strictly adhering to every anachronistic aspect of it.  

Modern Muslims living in accordance with Sharia derive workable rules for living in the modern world from fundamental principles taken from the foundation texts.  Modern Muslims do not think Sharia requires them to pretend it is still the 7th Century in the same way that modern Christians do not kill all people who work on Sundays (Exodus 35:2).

There are Islamic states that have, for example, criminal justice systems that do not conform to New Zealand’s standards of fairness or proportionality.  They implement those systems in the name of Sharia. Yet, there are other people who consider themselves devout Muslims and who argue that that is a misapplication of Sharia.  Indeed, there are also many non-Islamic states with criminal justice systems that fall well below our standards.  

In Islamic finance, I dealt, in particular, with two fundamental principles: the prohibition of usury; and the prohibition of gambling.  

That is usury in its original meaning – charging interest.  You know, the thing that annoyed Jesus so much he drove everyone out of a Temple with whips.  Despite Jesus’ low opinion of money lenders, usury in the Christian world went from prohibiting any interest, to prohibiting too much interest, to payday lenders advertising on television. 

Equally, the problems with gambling are well known in our society.  At one end, it persuades some of our least well paid to put everything they earn into pokies.  At the other, it crashed the world economy in 2007. 

Islamic finance finds ways to allow financing that depend on neither interest nor speculation.  It is a difficult, but not impossible, task.  The financing structures that are created are, at the least, useful alternatives to mainstream finance.  For example, contracts have been devised which enable someone to buy a house without unaffordable mortgage payments by instead sharing the house value growth. 

Should we fear the arrival of Sharia?  Actually, it is already here and has been for a very long time.  It will have arrived with the first Muslims to settle here in the middle of the 19thCentury.  It is still here with those who chose to arrange their affairs in accordance with it.  Just like there are people in New Zeland who follow Halakha or Canon.

What about Sharia becoming part of the mainstream law of New Zealand?  Again, arguably it already is to at least a limited extent.  In recognising the applicability of principles of tikanga, our courts have noted that the common law method has always taken account of the common traditions of subcultures within society.   I am not aware of a case that has done this, but, notwithstanding the relative importance of tikanga to New Zealand, I would expect that weight would also be given to Sharia in a case that appropriately raised it. 

While there is plenty of room to improve, I would also argue that our general laws, public institutions, and major private institutions, have been steadily moving away from an assumption that we are all Pakeha Christians.  Gradually our laws have been shifting to ones that seek to genuinely accommodate people of all cultural backgrounds, including Islam. 

No doubt there are people who think that (their interpretation of) Sharia should be universally imposed, just as there will be people who think that way about Halakha and Canon and many other ideologies. Heck, I think the laws should be reformed to better fit with my ideas of what is fair and right.  But Muslims are no different to the rest of us.  The vast majority either just want to be left alone or are happy to argue for the social changes they believe in through our political process. 

In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury gave a speech about how this inclusion of parts of Sharia in our mainstream legal structures was a good thing.  This was for two reasons.  First, Muslims in our society would be grateful of the availability of Sharia compliant alternatives that allow them to both follow their faith and fully participate in society. 

And secondly, the rest of us might find that some of those Sharia compliant alternatives are good alternatives for us regardless of our faith (bring on more availability of interest free home loans!). 

It is a cheap (but frighteningly ubiquitous) trick for people to compare the best of their preferred system with the worst of someone else’s.  The truth, of course, is that the world is diverse.  Islam is no more inherently bad than Christianity. 

I am not advocating for New Zealand to become an Islamic state, far from it.  New Zealand must remain a free and democratic country. But an essential component of that is pluralism.  We need not fear people expressing views merely because those views are drawn from Sharia.  Indeed, there are fundamental principles of Sharia to which we would all relate. 


We shouldn’t have to look back on those moments and think: I was lucky

by Amberleigh Jack

“It’s not a gender issue.”

If you’ve read any online comments since Grace Millane’s horrific murder, you’ve no doubt seen that one.

“And don’t meet Tinder dates alone.”

“But it’s not a gender issue.”

Only, it is.

It’s tragic and it’s horrifying and every person I know has been hit incredibly hard by the unnecessary and awful death of a young woman that none of us knew.

Every woman I know has been hit, it seems, even harder.

Are we experiencing some kind of collective survivor guilt? Maybe. Because I’m sure I don’t know a single female who hasn’t, at least once, found themselves in a situation where they’ve had that gut-wrenching realisation that, “this could go horribly wrong.”

And this week we’re all thinking of those moments. And we’re thinking of the times that we were truly scared. And we’re shedding tears for a beautiful young woman because, despite having considered the possibilities and the what if’s over the years, we can’t fathom what she went through.

And we feel guilty for comparing our own moments. Because they pale in comparison. But they all add up to a massive, real problem.

So, yes, these crimes are a gender issue. 

Because male violence against women is a very real, very specific thing. And it happens far too often.

And I’m tired. I’m angry. And this week alone we’ve had very public, very violent, very real crimes against women. And they’re a few of many.

It’s disheartening to look back over your own run-ins with violent men over the years and consider yourself lucky.

I’ve been thinking about mine all week, like I think most women have. Because they’re not rare. You’re not so much lucky to avoid physical or sexual violence as a woman. You’re lucky if you escape them unharmed.

When I was 16 I was lucky. An older man approached me and told me he liked to sit outside my school to watch the girls. He told me he wanted to get some beers so he and I could go somewhere quiet. I declined, he bought beer and then followed me onto my bus, sat directly behind me and followed me as I got off at my stop. I was lucky. I was able to run into a dairy. And I was lucky. Because the lovely couple that owned it sat me behind the counter and called my dad.

I was lucky, as an adult, that my rapist chose to get up and leave after. That my only physical harm was a few bruises.

I was lucky that the man I stood up to after he was extremely violent to a woman close to me, chose not to act on his threat against me. After calmly promising me that I’d pay. He told me, “never let your guard down. Because years from now, when you least expect it, I’ll get you.” It took a couple of years before I stopped thinking of him whenever something unnerving happened. But I was lucky. He simply threatened me. He never acted on it.

I’ve been told many times that I’m very lucky that the man I took to court for abuse never went to jail because, “if he had you’d never be safe again.” He’s a free man, I guess I’m lucky.

I was lucky when, years ago, a man tried to get in my car, yelling and banging on the window and trying to force the door open when I managed to shut it. He let go when I drove off. I was lucky.

I’ve been followed. I’ve been groped. I’ve met people online that seriously creeped me out. I’ve literally had someone joke, with a smile on his face, while we were in bed, that he could “do anything” and I’d be completely helpless. 

And none of these are all that rare. My experiences aren’t extraordinary. Far too many women have far too many similar recollections.

And I’m lucky. Because they’re simply memories and lessons learned. And when you’re a woman there are so many lessons to be learned. I’ve been told them all, by both men and women.

“You let him into your house, what did you expect?”

“You can’t lead a guy on and then change your mind. You don’t want to wind him up.”

“What were you doing out on your own anyway?”

“You’re asking for trouble wearing that.”

“That’s just part of being a woman. You can’t let that bother you.”

“If you were that scared why didn’t you scream?”

“Surely you gave him some reason to believe you were interested.”

“You probably shouldn’t have antagonised him when he was already angry.”

Grace Millane did nothing wrong. The multitude of women who have been brutally attacked and murdered in our country at the hands of men did nothing wrong.

We’ve all been in unfamiliar countries or places on our own, and we should be able to do so and feel safe.

We’ve all chatted to strangers in bars or online - sometimes we’ve gone home with them. Sometimes we’ve been drunk, or high. Sometimes we’ve been wearing short skirts and high heels. Sometimes we’ve flirted. Sometimes we’ve turned guys down. Sometimes we’ve been out, late at night, on our own. Sometimes we’ve been obviously drunk in the back of taxis.

We shouldn’t have to look back on those moments and think: I was lucky.

Am I accusing all men of being rapists and murderers? Fuck no. I have a plethora of wonderful, protective, kind-hearted men in my life who I love and adore.

But I’ve also known enough men with the potential to snap, or who simply have deeply ingrained ideas when it comes to women to know that we have a major problem.

And the responsibility to change our culture falls on all of us, collectively.

I don’t know the answer. But it has to start somewhere. Respect boundaries. Stand up to jokes that just aren’t funny anymore. Realise that not travelling alone or avoiding Tinder isn’t any real solution. 

Teach our boys to keep girls safe as much as we teach girls to keep themselves safe.

But it’s not a gender issue, right?

To Grace - I’m so sorry. And may you Rest In Peace.


Cannabis: make it legal but don’t let anyone make money from it

by Nic Beets

I don’t want big business marketing marijuana to my kids.  This is what will happen in Canada with the recent purchase of a market-leading marijuana business by a major tobacco company. In Aotearoa, right now, we have a chance to do something different.

I’m very much in favour of legalizing pot; like the majority of kiwis, I think the hypocrisy of criminalising people who use a drug that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco must end.  The need is made more urgent by the fact that it is young people and Maori and Pasifika whose lives are blighted by this inequity.    

I want to challenge the assumption that legalisation is synonymous with commercialisation.  We have a unique opportunity to avoid the mistake that was made with alcohol and tobacco: we should not allow businesses, and the government through taxes, to profit from the sale of harmful substances and hence have every incentive to market them aggressively.

Using pot has risks, although significantly less than alcohol or tobacco, so the primary aim of any legislation should be to minimise harm.  For a government to pass legislation with any other aim is unacceptable.  The most effective way to minimise harm is to minimise consumption.  

Taking away the profit motive is key.  Without profit, there is no marketing.  The purpose of marketing is to increase profit by increasing sales.   In the case of drugs like alcohol or cannabis "increasing sales" equates to increasing harm.  

This is the opinion of Dr Benedikt Fischer, a professor of  addiction research at the University of Auckland. He was a scientific advisor to the Canadian Government in developing its cannabis legalisation framework.  In a recent Herald opinion piece he advised:

Keep the cannabis industry at bay… any commercial industry's overarching objective is to sell as much product as possible… Such dynamics have resulted in extensive public health harms with alcohol and tobacco – and should not be repeated for a newly legal cannabis industry.

The solution is simple: make it legal but don’t let anyone make money from it. 

Cannabis is an easy plant to grow.  It needs minimal soil and care.  You can grow enough to keep the average user supplied in a planter on a balcony.   There is already a strong culture of sharing amongst pot smokers.   All of this means that it is possible to legalise the growing and use of marijuana and yet keep it illegal to sell it for profit.  

Here is a proposal taken from a draft of a forthcoming paper to be presented at an international law conference:

That the law should be amended so that: (a) there is no law against the possession or consumption of cannabis; and (b) there is no law against cultivating cannabis, and no legal limit on the quantity that a person can cultivate; and (c) there is no law against giving cannabis away (except to children); but (d) selling cannabis is a criminal offence and there is no licensed industry (other than for medical purposes).

I’m putting this out there because the debate that will shape the referendum about the legal status of cannabis has started and it will take public pressure to prevent the government from going down the commercialisation route.  No-one seems to be considering this possibility (apart from my mate Simon who was the first one to suggest this solution to me).  Some organisations tasked with harm minimisation seem fixated on getting more funding for their education campaigns rather than coming up with proposals to minimise harm.  

The government is unlikely to take the lead on this. We know from the USA and Canadian experiences that governments find new sources of tax revenue irresistible. The public health benefits of preventing another recreational drug being added to the list of products being marketed to us are obvious. The state, always under fiscal pressure,  finds itself conflicted between minimising harm by discouraging usage and its appetite for potential revenue.   If it gives in to greed, then once again the state places itself in a hypocritical position regarding cannabis and undermines its own credibility – not a good outcome for any legislation.  

 A law that allows a commercial market creates spaces for a black market.  Established criminals with existing distribution networks will find ways to undercut legal suppliers. However if we legalise the growing but not the sale, we undercut everybody.  It’s a pretty safe bet that there isn’t going to be much profit if you can grow it yourself for free.   

The exception to the ban on commercial marijuana sale should be for medicines.  It is an outrageous anomaly that someone in pain can easily get a relatively dangerous opioid medication but not a significantly safer one derived from cannabis.  Cannabis based medicine should be dealt with like any medicine – it requires careful testing, quality control, standardised dosages etc.  Medicines should be taken under medical direction with care taken that the right kind of active ingredients are given to treat the right kinds of conditions, interactions with other drugs are monitored etc.

Coming back to the recreational drug – we are a nation that still has a strong DIY spirit.     It’s too late for alcohol and tobacco.  We have a chance to do something different with cannabis.   Let’s do it ourselves, grow our own, share it with our friends and keep the kinds of people who have no qualms about making money from doing harm (e.g. big tobacco or gangs) well away from this drug at least.

Nic Beets is a clinical psychologist in private practice specialising in couple therapy who has spent far too much of the last 25 years addressing the impact of drug abuse.


What almost everyone is missing about KiwiBuild

by Barnaby Bennett

Many people are ripping into KiwiBuild at the moment. A lot of these criticisms have a strong whiff of partisan heckling – this is politics after all – some of them are fair and others are just looking for trouble.

One complaint, largely coming from the left, is that the houses are not affordable in any meaningful sense (ie, they are too expensive) and a second is that the market should just be left to supply housing and government shouldn’t subsidise this (ie, they are too cheap). But almost all of them, so far, are missing the real and important medium and long-term value of the KiwiBuild programme.

I’ll discuss this below, but firstly to address three legitimate claims about KiwiBuild: 

1. KiwiBuild is not really about building affordable houses in the short-term. Labour’s framing of KiwiBuild is about building lots of affordable housing, and this makes a clear, easy-to-understand sell. This probably was the plan when KiwiBuild was first announced years ago under the leadership of David Shearer, but the programme has morphed a bit since then.

National made big changes to housing between the original development and now. The sale price is not especially affordable in any meaningful sense of the word in relation to incomes, but in the medium and long-term the programme will have a cumulative effect of making housing across the country more affordable.

Also, the alternative models led by the former government in Auckland (in which special housing areas made housing more expensive) and in Christchurch (which gave a development monopoly to a company which led to very slow development) did not work. But I guess criticism about the affordability of the houses is fair in this regard. The problem is that changing this in either direction would seriously endanger the viability of the whole programme. 

2. Kiwibuild isn’t state housing. Saying the government should build more state housing is fair, but this isn’t a criticism of KiwiBuild. They are separate programmes. The $2 billion being spent on creating 100,000 houses would only buy 3,500 state houses. Indeed, the current government is expanding the existing state housing stock, has organised large scale emergency housing for the homeless, and has reversed both National's appalling dividend and the large-scale sell-off of the housing to private and non-profit agencies.

Kiwibuild isn’t meant to be state housing, but is being integrated with state housing on lots of sites, as I’ll explain below. A parallel programme to build thousands of new state houses exists, but it is expensive, and the real value of KiwiBuild, as explained below, would not be addressed by transferring the money to state housing construction. KiwiBuild is not subsidised housing like state housing and is more similar to the original state housing, which was government-built housing for workers, not housing for the country's most vulnerable. 

Further, this is not the first government to get involved in land-use sub-divisions for the benefit of ballot winning young couples and families. 33,000 family farms were created by the state and allocated by ballot in the 19th and 20th century.

3. KiwiBuild is probably not going to add a huge extra supply to the total housing stock. The 100,000 houses can easily be misunderstood as being a total addition to what would have been built if it didn’t exist. Several people have argued, probably fairly, that it is instead largely replacing housing that would have otherwise happened anyway. Alternatively, the Reserve Bank recently announced that many of the buildings will add to the supply. New Zealand is building lots of houses, and regardless of the government would have built at close to our capacity anyway. Kiwibuild doesn’t change this much in terms of numbers. There is some debate about this. But in the long run this is less important than it might seem.

The real issue, in the medium and long term, is the location and size of the houses. The legacy of KiwiBuild will be to address these two major problems. There are three reasons KiwiBuild houses will have an important and valuable medium and long-term benefit for New Zealand. 

To explain this, some historical context is needed. There is a big gap between 1989 and 2008 in which national government stopped being involved in land use. Interestingly, this corresponds with the explosion of suburbia, infrastructure deficits, and the huge increases in house prices.

The last National government intervened into this with the huge motorways/RONS that pumped billions into roading and subsequent associated rural/outer suburban development. The new government is continuing an interventionist approach (which all infrastructure is, ultimately), but shifting the main modes to different forms of public transport.

KiwiBuild needs to be understood as a partner to this broader shift away from greenfield development and associated high cost (for both economic and environmental objectives) development and towards intensive development (infill and along growth corridors) Alongside the big state housing programme, and the 100,000 KiwiBuild houses is a new $4 billion rapid transit fund. This all means smaller houses and more efficient use of land.

So ...

1. KiwiBuild will add a big supply of smalller, better designed houses to the New Zealand stock. A lot of the land for the KiwiBuild programmes is either surplus land close to cities, or land that has been generated by the demolition of old state houses. In both cases newer, denser and higher-quality state housing is being produced alongside the KiwiBuild houses and new private sector housing. Some, such as Vanessa Cole, have argued this is a privatisation of public land, but I think this misunderstands the value of creating lots of smaller, better located and better designed housing.

The state housing supply is being increased by this government, and unlike developments in Australia (which often have as little as 5% of ‘affordable’ or public housing)  the New Zealand developments are being based on a ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ model, which means the state gets to positively influence the kinds of development, while also creating downward pressure and opportunities on the open market.

The main legacy of KiwiBuild is to create a ‘new’ type of housing stock of small, good quality houses. Early buyers might own these for 5 or 10 years, but these houses will provide access into the market for 50 or 100 years. The focus on the first buyer misses their bigger value over the long run. New Zealand has around 1,500,000 households, so KiwiBuild will add another 6-7%. If KiwiBuild lasts ten years and hits its targets it will add a significant new kind of housing type to the country's stock, possibly more if private developers follow suit. 

2. Kiwibuild is a key part of redesigning big parts of New Zealand cities to be better integrated into transport, and commercial development and other public institutions. The inner-city developments in Mangere, Mt. Albert and other locations in Queenstown, Porirua and Wellington are being integrated with new public transport lines, access to public amenity including schools and working alongside council long-term plans.

This is the first government in New Zealand history (or at least in 100 years)  to show any real awareness of how to influence the long-term growth of our cities, and while it's early days and it’s far from perfect, this is again a vastly different set of priorities to the building of large motorways and the associated construction of large and expensive houses on the outskirts of cities.

KiwiBuild gives the government the ability to use smaller and more compact houses to drive these larger urban moves that will make our cities more walkable, more affordable, more environmentally robust. If you disagree with these things, or the efficacy of this approach, then great, let's debate that, but the cost price at sale is a red herring. 

3. KiwiBuild is creating new delivery infrastructures for housing, and thus enabling new systems, for more sustainable, warm, safe, dry, and affordable housing that the broader market will be able to access. (ie, prefab housing made in factories out of New Zealand wood).

In June this year KiwiBuild put out public info on the building of large off-site factories to construct the houses. This is exactly the kind of large scale investment that is only possible with a surety of supply. Many attempts to get these kinds of processes going in New Zealand have failed in recent years because the market, by itself its too small and unpredictable. Creating a steady supply stream also raises exciting possibilities for larger-scale vertical integration with growing and harvesting of trees, milling in New Zealand, and transformation into high quality housing, possibly by the same or nested companies or iwi. 

It is perhaps the possibility of sustained, long-term economic and urban transformation of industry and our cities that most scares the opposition at the moment. The experiments of the last 30 years have failed and major policy shift is needed. It’s long overdue. 

With thanks to Brendon Harre for stats and critique of this.