Cracker by Damian Christie


How Media Made me a Bad Person.

Working in media does bad things to people. 

 It’s probably not surprising, it can be a brutal industry.  Not only are you sometimes asked to do things no decent human should ever have to do – I’ve alluded to some of these before, and one day will say more, perhaps in the guise of fiction – but all the while, your entire output is being watched and judged. 

Every business has its competitors, but only in media – and especially in television – is every day’s efforts rated, and held up against the competition for comparison. Even sportspeople usually only play once a week, and political polls are monthly – ratings are published daily, and can be magnified down to minute-by-minute. They’re then analysed by other media, eager for stories of failure.

Think about that for a second.  If your shoe shop stops selling as many shoes as it once did, there are no articles in the national newspaper talking about your staggering decline, or how your arse is being kicked by the shoe shop down the road, predicting your inevitable demise.  But that’s what happens, if not every single day, then certainly a few times each week when you work on a primetime news or current affairs programme.

If ratings were used as designed, to put a price on advertising, it wouldn’t matter. But instead the media – both externally and within the programmes themselves – use them to judge the programmes’ worth, and by implication, the worth of those working on it.  The pressure to rate, and more particularly to out-rate the other channels creates fierce competition, and a general desire to see your opponent fail, so that you might win.

You’re expected to be loyal to your side. Yeah, you have friends who work across the fence, but when you get together you’ll argue about who’s got the best line up, the better interviews, the biggest scoop. When you’re out in the field together, you’ll hold on to key information in the hope their story ends up missing the angle. When the shows go to air you’ll watch them side by side, blow for blow, scoffing at story selection, talent choice, the lack of good pictures.

Your loyalty is as fierce as it is fleeting and fickle. Once you ‘defect’ to the other side – and that’s how it’s considered – it’s important to give your former employer a swift public kick in the shins before the door closes – there are at least a couple of recent high profile examples which spring to mind. And once over the fence, you speak of the bad old days, while your former colleagues now view you with suspicion.

It can turn you nasty, basically.

I’ve been guilty of this. Four years ago I wrote a post or two about murmurings around Campbell Live, and whether it was for the chopping block. I pointed to the relatively low ratings and said it didn’t seem sustainable for a prime time show. Campbell Live is clearly still here, even if my point was perversely proven when Close Up – which generally rated higher – was scrapped due to low ratings itself.

The posts I wrote weren’t inaccurate necessarily, but I regret that I felt the need to write them at all; to spread the gossip that was doing the rounds, to revel in what seemed to be the imminent demise of a competitor, under the thin veil of ‘media analysis’.

It wasn’t even because I didn’t like Campbell Live, or Mr Campbell himself. In fact one of my only experiences with John Campbell had come through this very blog – he’d read something I wrote, and taken the time to email me to say how much he enjoyed a particular turn of phrase. It was a lovely thing to do, and I was chuffed.

 It’s telling if not surprising then, that the sole example of magnanimity I can ever recall seeing on TV was Mr Campbell’s quite touching on-air farewell to Mark Sainsbury and the crew of Close Up on their last day. He turned up to the farewell drinks too. That was all class.

 The nastiness happens at an individual level too, where the competition is between colleagues for the best jobs, the chance to present, be an overseas correspondent, or even to get off the intern desk just once and do a story. It turns friends into rivals, even enemies, remarkably easily. Just this week I heard another case of a ‘friend’ betraying another’s confidence, effectively stomping on the fingers of their colleague as they climbed up the ladder.

I remember years ago a media friend of mine and I busted each other gossiping about the other. We genuinely liked each other – still do – so why? It was part envy, part mischief, and sometimes just going along with whatever the group might be saying.  We had it out one day over lunch, then made a pact. It’s one I’ve stuck to, and extended to others, never to criticise each other, and if someone else was to say “don’t you think so-and-so is awful?” to explicitly disagree and stick up for your friend – an act so uncommon and unexpected in media that it often elicits an immediate backdown.

None of this is particularly revelatory I’m sure, but I wanted to say it anyway. To point out that it’s bullshit, and it’s reinforced by the public perception – including in the comments on sites such as this – that those working in the media are deliberately stupid, lazy, corrupt or inept, or all of the above. That it’s okay to Tweet how such-and-such a reporter is rubbish; their day’s work a pile of crap.  That writing reviews which thinly veil your hatred and bitterness towards a medium you once inhabited yourself, is a productive way to earn a living.

I don’t want to write that, and I don’t want to read it.  Not because I don’t enjoy reading it, but precisely because I do enjoy it, and I don’t like that about myself. Like many, I struggle against those demons that want me to be nasty, bitchy, gossipy, to revel in the misfortunes of others, even if ‘misfortune’ in this case is that they didn’t get the weekend weather presenter job, or whatever it might be.

That’s not to say there isn’t merit it speaking out against the indefensible – I think public reaction to racist cartoons, Bob Jones and Michael Laws should be encouraged, and makes us better, not worse, as it strikes against exactly the sort of toxicity I’m speaking about.

I like to think becoming a dad has made me a better person, or at the very least made me want to be. It’s hard not to be upbeat, albeit constantly tired, when there’s this amazing giggling mass of energy running around you the whole time, dragging you outside to jump on the trampoline with him, or out back to water the garden. And I think that contrast with the somewhat toxic media environment has become even more stark.  At the same time, running (the site I set up last year for creative youth) has put me in touch with so many keen, positive young people, and likewise with my teaching at AUT (I started last semester, teaching journalism there part time), I hope things could possibly change. That the old, almost FPP-style of two main newspaper companies, two big TV news organisations, two radio networks might become less cutthroat as it evolves into numerous online platforms, each with a part to play.

None of which is to say I want to lose my bite entirely. There’s a lot of merit in satire, wit, and a well-timed put down, especially when leveled against authority. But I’d like to think that if you meet me this year, you might see a slightly different person. A tired one probably – there’s a new arrival due in May – but one that’s slightly nicer to be around. One who finds merit in the old "if you can't say anything nice..." adage. One day at a time.

A final note. There are good people in media – I wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone is toxic. There are some I could single out; anyone who’s met Wallace Chapman knows there’s no malice anywhere in that man, and every interaction I’ve ever had with the mighty Keith Quinn, who is always willing to help out. John Campbell, as I’ve mentioned (I’m sorry) – even that scamp Duncan Garner this week agreed to have coffee with one of my students, an aspiring political journo, just because it’s a decent thing to do. (by the way there’s a lovely piece by Steve Braunias on Duncan in this month’s Metro that had me welling up on the plane). There are many others, but I guess my point is, there could be many more – fundamentally decent, intelligent people who have allowed themselves to be consumed with bitterness, envy and naked ambition. I hope some of you are reading this and might have a think before you speak the next time someone disses a colleague, or the show on the other channel. 

Me, if I may borrow a phrase: I think you’re all bloody marvelous.

(Comments are open on this post. Go easy.)


Stoned in Charge

Like Russell, I will be attending the Drug Foundation's 2013 International Drug Policy Symposium - "Through the Maze: Cannabis and Health", not least of all because I'm MCing the three-day event.  It begins on Wednesday, if this is the first you're hearing about it and really need to be there, I suggest you click the link above and get yourself sorted.

In August I travelled to Queensland for a conference all about drugs and traffic safety, partly as research for a documentary, but also so I could write this groovy little piece for the Drug Foundation's magazine "Substance Matters".  Have a read.


Driving high

Cannabis and cars don’t mix. We know pot causes impairment, but just how much, and is it even that dangerous? Damian Christie looks at one of the emerging issues around cannabis harm.

“I drive better when I’ve been drinking” is not something you hear these days. Whether it’s down to personal experience, years of watching the horrific results of drunk driving on the news or the millions spent on a variety of advertising campaigns, the message – for most of us – has sunk in. Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot, Ghost Chips etc.

Despite the obvious logic – things that make our brain go funny don’t improve our driving – there seems to be something stopping people who regularly use cannabis from reaching the same conclusion. It’d be easy to attribute the disconnect straight back to their drug of choice, but the reality is more complex, as is how best to detect and deal with those who continue to drive under the influence. The answer to those questions is a source of debate not just in New Zealand but around the world, where even the experts disagree on some fundamentals.

Not surprisingly, in New Zealand, more people drive under the influence of cannabis than any other illegal drug. What is surprising, though, is that more people report driving while impaired by cannabis than over the limit for alcohol. The data isn’t perfect but would suggest at least one in five New Zealand drivers has driven under the influence of cannabis – within three hours of smoking – in the past year. Two-thirds of cannabis users report drug driving in the past year, and most rate it as far less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Among younger people, the problem is even greater – a Canadian study found 40 percent of people aged 15–24 had driven stoned – double the rate who said they’d driven under the influence of alcohol. More worryingly, they’d done it not just once, but on average 10 times in the past year – far higher than the same figure for alcohol.

The rhetoric around driving stoned will be familiar to many: “It makes me a safer driver.” “I drive slower when I’m stoned.” “I’m more careful.” Is it true? In a word: no. But exactly how dangerous is it? And if we were to set some sort of limit in the same way as we do with drink driving, how stoned is too stoned to drive?

There is no doubt cannabis impairs driving ability, says Dr Barry K Logan, “within limits”. Based at Philadelphia’s NMS Labs, Dr Logan is one of the world’s foremost experts in drug-impaired driving, although he says most cannabis users’ chosen level of impairment is not particularly high.

“A user-preferred dose produces a level of impairment equivalent to a moderate level of alcohol consumption, 0.04 percent to 0.05 percent [blood alcohol concentration or BAC] for about 2–4 hours. And then after that, the evidence is people pretty much return to the baseline.”

It’s worth noting New Zealand’s blood alcohol concentration for drink driving is – rather controversially – set even higher, at 0.08 percent. The upshot is most moderate cannabis users don’t get higher than the level we already deem acceptable for alcohol.

“People don’t enjoy it,” says Dr Logan, “there’s a certain level of cannabis use in periodic users where it’s not really fun any more, it’s almost self-regulating.”

Which is not to say it’s ‘safe’ – blood taken from Canadian drivers involved in fatal accidents shows drivers who test positive for cannabis are five times more likely to die than sober drivers. This is slightly lower than those found with alcohol in their system. But – and it’s a big but – when cannabis is combined with alcohol, the risk of a fatal accident jumps to 40 times more likely than a sober driver. And that risk is present even just with moderate levels of cannabis and blood alcohol under the drink-driving limit.

For regular smokers, the news is worse. A new study shows that chronic, heavy users of cannabis are not, as one might think, less impaired due to higher tolerance but in fact may be constantly impaired – even for some weeks after ceasing altogether.

So if driving under the influence of cannabis, with or without alcohol, always presents some level of danger and sometimes a very high one, the question is, how best to police it? Current enforcement differs from country to country, state to state.

In states where cannabis possession is illegal, it’s easy to impose a zero-tolerance approach. Having cannabis in your system might not necessarily mean you’re a danger on the roads, but it does show you were up to no good.

But for some experts working in this field, mixing drug enforcement with traffic safety is not the way to go, confusing two distinct purposes and creating a law people don’t respect. And in states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use – which is a growing number – another approach must be found. The options include requiring proof of impairment or setting a ‘per se’ limit. Like the system for drink driving, this establishes a defined limit of THC in the blood, over which a driver is considered legally impaired, regardless of whether they can stand on one leg or not.

Despite cannabis remaining illegal in New Zealand, rather than a zero-tolerance approach, our law does require proof of impairment – once alcohol is ruled out through roadside screening, drivers suspected of being impaired by drugs are subjected to a standardised field sobriety test (SFST).

To the untrained observer, the SFST might seem something like guesswork, but when performed by a trained officer, it’s surprisingly effective. Developed in the 1970s, before the advent of alcohol breathalyser technology, the SFST was originally used to detect drunk drivers but is now routinely used to test for drugs. Amy Porath-Waller from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has been studying the test and whether it’s fit for this new-found purpose. By comparing thousands of roadside SFST evaluations with the subsequent blood samples given, Porath-Waller says the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

“What our results are showing is that you are able to predict, from these four different classes of drugs we studied, the officer is able to detect if they’re impaired and the type of drug responsible for that impairment.”

In general, each of the common classes of drugs leaves its own ‘fingerprint’ under the SFST. So, for instance, cannabis-impaired drivers will have more difficulty with the ‘standing on one leg’ test than the ‘walk and turn’ test, where an alcohol-impaired driver would struggle with both. Similarly, the test for nystagmus (involuntary twitching of the eye) will pick up those affected by depressants but not cannabis.

If there’s an issue with the SFST, it’s the degree of training required and the time it takes to administer each test. For those enforcing the law, it doesn’t provide the ‘anywhere, any time’ sort of disincentive that people now associate with random roadside testing for alcohol.

New Zealand’s head of road policing, Superintendent Carey Griffiths, says, while drink driving remains the priority, next year will see further attention given to drug-impaired driver testing, including the best approach to take.

“My preference based on what I’ve seen and know so far is a saliva-based testing regime similar to what’s conducted in many of the Australian jurisdictions, because there is an element of general deterrence to that.”

Saliva testing might be quicker than a full SFST test but can still take up to eight minutes to administer, meaning it’s impractical to use the driftnet approach of alcohol checkpoints. The single-use disposable test kits aren’t cheap either, and overseas experience has shown widespread random testing isn’t particularly effective.

In 2009, Victorian Police randomly tested nearly 28,000 motorists and found just 300 tested positive for drugs – around 1 percent. Canadian research also shows that, despite having a high rate of drug-impaired driving, in 2011, just 1.4 percent of total impaired convictions were for drugs. On those numbers, an average driver could drive under the influence of drugs 16,500 times – or every day for 45 years – before being charged.

In Australian states such as Victoria and Queensland, they’ve moved away from random testing towards an intelligence-based approach, pinpointing neighbourhoods and locations where drug use is more likely. Queensland’s zero-tolerance legislation only requires the presence of cannabis – there’s no need for impairment. If New Zealand were to head in this direction, we’d need to legislate to remove impairment from the offence.

The other option, says Superintendent Griffiths, is to consider a per se limit.

“It would be possible to get a panel together to determine an impairment level under which you’re at a legal zero, so you’re not dealing with residual effects. And you can set impairment levels for different drugs and their analogues, so that’s a way around it.”

Much time and effort has gone in to studying the level of impairment caused by ingesting different quantities of illegal and legal drugs and trying to establish an equivalent to the 0.05 percent BAC level. On paper, it seems a sensible approach, and it’s been adopted in Washington and Colorado, where cannabis has recently been legalised.

“A per se limit for cannabis is particularly problematic,” says Dr Logan, who points out there’s a big difference between testing in a lab and real-world enforcement. The time between someone being stopped by Police and giving a blood sample can easily be two hours. The active element of THC in cannabis metabolises, at least initially, much faster than alcohol and other drugs. This means a driver who was over the limit when they were caught may be well under by the time they give blood.

The method Dr Logan prefers – regardless of whether cannabis is illegal – is very close to what we currently have in

New Zealand: proof of impairment followed by proof of cannabis in the driver’s system, whatever the level.

“It’s really going to have to come back to good investigative Police work, and if you get some objective evidence that the person is under the influence of the drug then you base the prosecution on that. You say on the one hand the observations show the person was impaired, and you have a chemical test saying cannabis was in their system, and the court can decide if one is related to the other.”

Rather than blood tests, Dr Logan prefers an evidential oral fluid sample, as it can be collected roadside, usually within 15 minutes of driving.

One further advantage the impairment approach has over setting per se limits is the complexity around people using more than one drug at a time, known as polydrug use. As mentioned, alcohol and cannabis combine with a potentially lethal effect, even at levels where individually they would be acceptable under a per se regime. Add other drugs to the mix, in endless possible combinations, and it could become a legislative and judicial mess, whereas impairment is impairment, regardless of the cause.

This approach might not offer much in the way of a general deterrent, however, and Superintendent Griffiths says, while New Zealand’s drink-drive policy has an impact on the whole range of drinkers, the current drug policy is only dealing with people “at the top end of the curve”.

“I think until we deal with behaviours across the board – and that’s where a lot of the advertising is targeted at the moment – until we get into that space in an enforcement sense, I think we’ll just keep chipping away at the problem long term without making massive gains.”

Research currently being done by the Ministry of Transport with ESR looking at blood taken from drivers in fatal crashes should shed some light on New Zealand’s particular problem. At present, if a driver tests positive for alcohol, no further tests are required, making it difficult to get a firm grasp on the prevalence of poly-drug use. The research should give a clearer idea of the risks, although Superintendent Griffiths says, even then, we should approach with caution.

“I call it the sausages argument. You get five drivers who’ve crashed, and they’ve got sausages in the boot of the car. It doesn’t mean the sausages have caused the crash. People who consume large amounts of cannabis may also exhibit other incivilities, which can include [unsafe] driving behaviours; it might be that the type of person who crashes is the type of person who has cannabis in their system. I’m very careful not to mix correlation with causation.”


Lundy and Me.

Some years ago, probably close to a decade now, I was working as a producer on Sunday. Somehow, a story ended up on my desk – the story that Mark Lundy was innocent.

The evidence was compelling. Almost nothing in the Crown case added up, especially as presented by Mark Lundy’s answer to Joe Karam – although perhaps that’s an unfair comparison to make about the quietly personable Geoff Levick – who's spent far too many hours delving through the minutiae of what did or didn’t happen that night in Palmerston North.

There is so much that doesn’t make sense about the police case, it’s actually scary it was not only put forward, but found compelling enough by a jury to find Mark Lundy guilty. For several weeks, months even, I read everything I could about every questionable aspect of the Lundy case, tracking down some of the most qualified experts I could find in New Zealand and overseas, engaging their services to re-examine scientific evidence, while applying my own mind to the non-specialist areas of dispute.

The drive to Palmerston North and back, for instance. The police could never replicate it in the time Lundy was supposed to have made, let alone leaving Petone at rush-hour. And why you’d be trying to break a land-speed record on your way back from committing a homicide defies even basic logic.

At the Lundy house, there’s odd things happening too. Both Christine and daughter Amber are apparently in bed asleep at 7pm, even though that’s never remotely the case for Christine, and the light’s on outside, and the computer doesn’t appear to be shut down until much later. The only conclusion the police can offer is that Lundy had tampered with the computer.

There’s an eyewitness though. It’s dark, but she sees a man who she identifies as Lundy, dressed in a blonde wig, running down the road where he’s obviously stashed his car. Ever better luck, she’s a psychic, and uses her powers to draw a picture of the murder weapon. Case closed.

You can go through the elements of the case one by one, and pull them to bits. We did. The story was looking good. We used the OIA to get full disclosure from ESR and other agencies including police notes and so forth, provided it all to our experts, and waited.

Problem was, every person we furnished with the information, every scientific opinion we sought, from a forensic pathologist to an expert in immunohistochemistry said they agreed with the findings presented by the prosecution. (We didn’t ask about the stomach contents evidence, and I agree it seems pretty weak).

I’m sure there are experts who’ll disagree. My point is, we didn’t find them, and with no real way forward the momentum petered out. We could’ve done a story on those proclaiming Lundy’s innocence – as Mike White did (and a very good job he did too) for North & South, but all the experts we had on tape said otherwise. I didn’t feel comfortable telling one side of the story and ignoring the others we’d interviewed, and “Mark Lundy may or may not be guilty, although our experts say he is, which is probably why he’s in jail” wasn’t the strong lead my boss was looking for.

I also wasn’t 100% convinced by Geoff Levick. He was a smart, genuine guy, but it seemed to me he’d spent so long looking for inconsistencies with every aspect of the case - we had a great conversation about paint flecks from a variety of tools -  that he’d started to see patterns where there was none. I can’t recall the precise details, but this is close enough to illustrate what I mean: Someone had anonymously posted in a newspaper clipping. There was a number written on the clipping, which corresponded closely to a license plate of a car which was registered to an address, just down the road (but completely unrelated) from the address of a business that had a connection to another possible suspect. To Geoff, that was something. He couldn't say what, but something.

Every journalist has probably experienced that moment – the moment when you realise the person you’re talking to isn’t quite making any sense at all, but you smile and nod, and try and turn the conversation back to more solid ground. And in Geoff’s case, most of what he said made perfect sense – the real shame for Mark Lundy was Geoff Levick wasn’t there for his first defence

Not long after I let the story go – I moved on to another show – I was out with a camera operator who’d been there at the funeral, who’d filmed Mark Lundy and claimed there were no tears behind those hysterical sobs. He’d sat through much of the trial, and had clearly spent a bit of time mulling over the same issues I’d been dealing with. He said one sentence to me that saw everything click into place.  “I reckon he just did it later.”

If it wasn’t for Margaret Dance, the psychic witness, maybe the police wouldn’t have had enough to convict Mark Lundy. But they wouldn’t have needed to construct the questionable timeline and evidence that came after – the stomach contents, the miraculous trip, the early bed-time, the lights on, the computer hacking and so forth. Mark Lundy might have slept with the prostitute – establishing something of an alibi – then driven in the wee small hours at a cautious pace to Palmerston North, where his wife and child had gone to bed at their normal time, after having shut the computer down and turned the lights off, as you do. They would have been fast asleep when they were killed in their beds, and Lundy, on those facts, could have been back by sunrise.

I’m not surprised at the decision by the Privy Council. Whatever happened that night, I’m just not convinced Mark Lundy did it the way the prosecution would have us believe. But not guilty is not innocent, and at the moment he’s neither – he’s accused of murder and awaiting retrial. But so was Bain when he and Karam emerged from court to a hero’s welcome from the waiting media. Here’s a few of my favourite questions [I transcribed them here at the time] courtesy of our supposed top broadcasters on that heartwarming occasion:

“No jersey David?

Are you guys going to live together?

Which one’s the tidy one?

Who’s going to do the cooking?

You don’t like prison food?"

Stunning. Let the circus begin.


We Haz Talent?

I probably don’t need to read anything more about Lorde, ever.

Not for any negative reason – I still haven’t listened to the whole EP, let alone the new album, pretty much only ‘Royals’ so I don't have much of a musical opinion either way – it’s just, to quote an old Irish God of Rock, “there’s been a lot of talk about this song, maybe, maybe too much talk.” 

With a flurry of recent articles, the good, the bad and the downright bizarre, I find myself in the position of knowing more about Lorde than I do about my own long-standing musical heroes.  I have no idea how many books Lennon & McCartney have read – Lorde had read 1000 by the time she was 12.  What did Ian Curtis’ dad do? Fuck knows, but Lorde’s dad’s an engineer.

I reiterate: I say this without any ill-feeling. In fact, having read the Sunday magazine piece by the prodigal singer herself, I’m pretty damn impressed by what I see. It would seem that Simon Sweetman’s “I’m sure she doesn’t even know what she wants” could be the least accurate sentence ever written in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Which is not to say that what Lorde wants right now will be what she always wants, and that’s as it should be for a 16 year old – or anyone of any age really. When I was 16 I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I was. Turned out it was nothing like Jimmy Smits had lead me to believe. I’m much happier now. And it seems Lorde is pretty happy right now, for now, and that’s a good thing.

ANYWAY. Having just added 250 words to the sum of Lorde-related writing, no more. Because I have other talented 16 year old musicians to write about.  I have no idea how many books they’ve read either, or what their parents do, but it in no way detracted from my being washed away on a wave of awesomeness.

On Saturday night I went to the Smokefreerockquest national finals. I’ve never been before, which considering it’s been going 25 years, is a bit like when you meet that guy everyone always says you “must know” because you’ve got a million friends in common. Smokefreerockquest is a bit like that.

But this year I’ve been working with SFRQ on a music video competition as part of my student media site  The idea was that bands would upload their songs, and young film makers would find a tune they liked and run off and make a video for it. And it worked – sort of – but we’re all happy and will make it bigger and better next year.

The winner, a Year 13 Auckland Grammar student by the name of John Bu, created an enchanting work for a song by North Shore act Ludo, all in his spare time, after school – although I’m reliably informed his teacher didn’t see him for a few days (oops). When creativity meets skill like this, I’m equal parts proud, impressed, and scared of my impending redundancy. Click on these, they work:

But back to the night.  Eight bands, and two solo acts, whittled down from hundreds. Winning a regional champs isn’t enough to guarantee you a spot at the finals, and it must be tough for the organisers to narrow it down to single figures. You only have to look at a great band that didn’t make the nationals – Nelson’s Paper City – to see how tough the competition is. [This was also an entry to our competition]

It’s proof that New Zealand’s Got Far More Talent than silly TV shows would have you believe.  I’m not sure what his juggling’s like, but Harry Parsons is definitely one to watch, and he took out the top prize in the solo/duo category with his performance.

It’s hard to compare his against his ‘competition’, Khona Va’aga-Gray from McAuley High in Manukau.  “I wrote this song for a dear friend of mine,” she began, “who just celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary.”  Her Nana? No, a primary school teacher, “and this is about the journey that love takes.”  I have chills remembering those words, followed as they were by a soulful, heart-felt original piece.

Of the bands, there was a great diversity, all of the highest quality: Aasha Will & Cullen had a touch of the Lumineers in their alt-folk stylings and with Dave Dobbyn’s manager Lorraine Barry now working behind the scenes for them, these 15 year olds won’t be disappearing soon.

Aftershock, from Rotorua, amused and delighted with their heavy metal stylings, complete with synchronised hair-twirl-moshing (I don’t know if there’s a better term, but you’ll know what I mean); while my personal favourites were Sunday Best and All of a Kind.

 Which is to take nothing away from the overall winners, A Bit Nigel. With a hint of Kings of Leon in the singer’s voice, the trio from Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and Rotorua Boys’ High have made the national finals three times – finally in Year 13, this was their last opportunity, and they took it out with a slick performance:


The funny thing is, when you look at these bands on stage, such as their talent, such is their swagger, you forget they’re just high school kids. Backstage with the finalists I’ve just seen perform, waiting to present the award for our music video competition, I don’t recognise many of them. They look so young, smaller, quieter; many with acne and braces and the other trappings of adolescence. This disconnect makes me even more admiring of them – full-strength talent in pint-sized containers.

I’m not naïve enough to equate talent and potential with eventual success, not in that industry, not now, not ever. It irks me when a TV talent show judge whose claim to fame is a 9-month marriage to J-Lo tells someone with a sweet voice “you’re going to sell a lot of albums”. It’s meant as a compliment I guess, but it’s basically a lie – or at best incredibly unlikely, even if that person does eventually win the TV talent show.

Whereas here’s the list of those who’ve tread the Smokefreerockquest stage before:

“Kimbra, Midnight Youth, Opshop, Evermore, Ladyhawke, Minuit, Kids of 88, Die!Die!Die!, Pistol Youth, Bang!Bang!Eche!, Ivy Lies, Cairo Knife Fight, Cut Off Your Hands, Luke Thompson, the Datsuns, Zed, Brooke Fraser, Anika Moa, Anna Coddington, The Electric Confectionaires, Steriogram, Aaradhna, Spacifix, Phoenix Foundation, The Feelers, The Black Seeds, Nesian Mystik, Bic Runga, The Checks, Julia Deans, Pine, King Kapisi, Kingston, The Naked and Famous, Autozamm, The Good Fun, The Peasants, and Elemeno P.”

It’s probably still literally ‘unlikely’ any given Smokefreerockquest entrant is going to crack the big time, but the hard work, originality, talent and perseverance it takes to make it to the national finals sets them in good stead. And I won’t be surprised if any of the ten acts I saw on Saturday night are added to the list of those who’ve ‘made it’ in a few years time.


Johnny Foreigner & the Auckland Property Market

A few weeks ago, in the make-up room above the pub for Back Benches, I asked each of the three MPs there for the show – Louise Upston (Nat), Jacinda Ardern (Lab) and Holly Walker (Green) – what they thought of restricting the sale of residential property to foreign investors.

I’m not claiming any kind of credit – it’s hardly an original idea, and it’s already Green policy – but the point is that it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a month or so, trying to find the upside, the downside, and most importantly, whether it would have any impact on the ever-escalating Auckland property prices.

I’m part of the problem.  Having bought a fairly modest house four years ago, which is now worth probably $200,000 more than we paid for it, there’s equity to spare. We’d been offered the option to purchase an investment property from relatives cashing out for retirement and we’d taken the opportunity to look at what else was out there for the same sort of money.

 A pre-approval from the bank had given us access to the QV site; a supposedly reliable tool based on recent sales data from the surrounding neighbourhood, factoring in house size, land size, sales history and so forth. It gives an expected sales price, and a lower and upper range. It's very different from the CV price, which we all know in Auckland is well removed from reality. 

We looked at three places. A brick and tile unit in Onehunga and a couple of small 3-bedroom places in New Lynn, both on half sites with some degree of cross-lease. They all returned approximately $400 in rent, the expected sales figure was around $380,000, the upper limit around $420,000.  Each went in excess of $460,000… one didn’t reach reserve at $470,000 and was re-listed for $499,000. The owner had bought it a year earlier for $330,000.

Were the new purchasers from overseas? In one case, no, another – hard to say. Because as a number of commentators have pointed out already, in a city where just under a third of residents are ‘Asian’, it’s very easy to get the impression that foreign ownership is a bigger issue than it actually is. No-one seems to have any accurate data on just how many houses are sold to, or owned by, overseas interests. Which you think might be a useful piece of information for a Government to know.

Notable exception to Labour’s new announcement - the biggest overseas group buying our houses, the Aussies. Can’t stop them doing it because it’s reciprocal, apparently. Which doesn’t seem to matter on issues like getting the benefit and other social services, where it’s not.

 Bill English’s reaction this morning was to say it wasn’t much of a problem, it’s a range of issues, building new houses was much more important, and yes, that might be so. But of course Labour has also announced a plan to build new houses (10,000 each year for 10 years, as David Parker repeatedly pointed out on the Nation), and has made the move on Capital Gains Tax – a move which one Government Minister told me made absolute sense, but was ‘political suicide’. So restricting foreign sales (or adding a stamp duty) is just another tool in the toolbox, along with LVR requirements, easing land restrictions and the like.

I must note Don Brash also on The Nation, clinging to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation on land restrictions. It’s a good one for the former Act leader – blame arbitrary council red tape for the problem, people should be able to build where they want, and Howard Roark should design whatever he wants. And yes, land inside the Auckland boundaries costs a great deal more than land immediately outside. But the answer – or at least the sole answer – to Auckland’s low-cost housing issues is not a series of disconnected ghettos out at the extremities.

I can’t see any downside to this announcement from Labour. We are not gaining anything from having overseas investors buying up existing housing stock and keeping out first home buyers. I realise the hypocrisy, coming from someone looking for a rental investment, and I’d happily look at other options if the returns were even in the same ballpark, and if I could leverage off my existing equity to do so – even commercial property is difficult to finance like that.

Also, I’m borrowing at the same rates, in the same market, as the other resident buyers – as compared with some foreign residents able to borrow at lower rates (I’m told this is the case in China, I’ve been unable to find any decent links to this, happy to be corrected or backed up).  What doesn’t make any sense as a rental property at 5%+ is far more manageable below that.

Is it xenophobic? Only in the same sense that all our border controls, immigration policy are xenophobic. Being a New Zealand resident or citizen gives you benefits in New Zealand over people who aren’t. That’s pretty much standard practice in every country in the world. And until we have a completely borderless world society, I’m okay with that.  Which is not to say there won't be some out there who respond to this announcement positively, for the wrong reasons. As we've seen just today thanks to that taxi footage, there are Dickheads Amongst Us.

 Happy to have the downsides explained, and my latent xenophobia unpacked… I for one hope that National comes around on this issue, sees the sense in it, not as a silver bullet, but as another tool in the box, and we can at least start to take some of the ridiculous heat out of the Auckland market without so much as lifting a hammer.