Hard News by Russell Brown


I Am: An authentic autism family experience

Watching this week's episode of TVNZ's new I Am strand, I Am Living With Aspergers, the story of David RS Greer and his family, pushed a lot of buttons for me.

To be clear, neither of our ASD sons has ever had contact with the police or the justice system, and certainly not in the way David did – although I know the statistics and that possibility is never lost on me.

But we, too, were forced to withdraw our younger son from school, and to find a way to keep clear of truancy services. We too were blamed as parents. We too had to repeatedly face down ignorant people in the system. We too sometimes cowered, awaiting the next violent, inexplicable meltdown. We too got through the tough times by being a loving family.

And we too came to understand that what our son did came down to a single fact: his experience of the world was profoundly different to ours.

Like David, our son couldn't cope with the human noise of a crowded classroom. He was excused assembly because the singing was unbearable, and a couple of times he took steps to extend his blissful silence: the class would come back from assembly to discover that he'd locked them out and was smiling happily inside. From his point of view it was a rational, resourceful response. I rather admired him for it.

A psychologist in the progamme explained that David's childhood meltdowns seemed to appear so suddenly because they were always just below a threshold of constant stress and anxiety. I remember that: I'd touch my son's skin and it would be hot. Hour after hour, day after day, stimuli he couldn't cope with had him in constant fight or flight mode. Can you imagine living that way?

That seems a long time ago and things are better now. They do get better. And in large part, that was down to our son learning to manage himself and his immediate environment. He knows he'll have to engage more with the world eventually, although not quite how yet. We'll get there. But for now the child who could be so hard to live with is intelligent and courteous, and he has a rich life online.

We're both pleased at how well his new thing, collecting and precisely painting Warhammer figurines, is working out – especially that it's not screen-based. And his no-filter experience of the world always has its benefits. Could you play a video game on one monitor and watch a movie on the other, at the same time? He does it as a matter of course. (He's also very handy for telling us when our water filters need replacing and deciphering ambiguous sounds.)

So yes, I'd recommend watching  I Am Living With Aspergers. Its rendering of an autism family experience is authentic, and I appreciated the details, like explaining that although it's not wrong or offensive to say "Aspergers", these days we generally talk about Autism Spectrum Disorder. I could have done without the wibble at the end about how we're all on the spectrum. It's true to some extent, but saying someone has multiple "quirks" instead of the one or two most of us do doesn't get near the profoundness of difference involved.

I think it's important to note that David Greer, who is highly intelligent and has learned to adapt his behaviour to social expectations, still has trouble keeping a job, in part because of stigma about who he is. Our older son, I am happy to say, recently began a job that for the first time, at age 27, feels like a real one. The difference in him, in his confidence and sense of identity, has been remarkable.

There's still a way to go. It feels like we've been parents a long time, and there's a way to go yet. We do get weary, and I still worry about the future, or feel like we've failed sometimes. But things do get better.

You can watch I Am Living with Aspergers here on TVNZ On Demand.


Friday Music: Radio With Pictures – communiques from the outside world

In Lee Borrie's oral history of Radio With Pictures, the first part of which is published this week on Audioculture, Bruce Russell recalls a Sunday night student ritual: you'd watch Radio With Pictures, and then you'd watch what everyone referred to as "the Sunday horrors".

If there wasn’t a television in the flat, then on Sunday night you would go to somebody’s house who had a television and you would watch Radio With Pictures.

You didn't have to be a student. Back then, when we consumed popular culture through a thin straw, rather than being drenched in it by a digital firehose, it seemed like everyone watched it. There had been music shows on New Zealand television since the early 1960s and, like those elsewhere, they almost all presented live (or mimed) performances. Radio With Pictures was born out of the unprecedented availability of a new medium: the promotional music video.

Strictly speaking, music promo clips had also been around since the 1960s: we can still watch the films the Beatles, the Stones and The Doors made to accompany their songs. But they were being made in much greater numbers by the late 70s and, crucially, they were free content. The first iteration of RWP was incredibly cheap television: just a whole of clips provided by record companies and strung together, without even a presenter.

But, especially after the show got a face – radio DJ Barry "Dr Rock" Jenkin – those clips weren't just advertisements for records, they were communiques from the outside world. And more particularly, news from the revolution. New Zealand's embrace of punk and what followed had a lot to do with the likes of The Stranglers' 'Get a Grip on Yourself' – a performance-style clip of the band playing in some low-ceilinged club – being played on Sunday nights. (I'd embed the clip, but it only seems to be available now on a weird Russian website.)

Unless you could hear Barry's radio show, you couldn't get this stuff anywhere else. Barry didn't always get it right: I recall him once grousing about having to play a particular clip. It was, he grumbed, "the bootom of the barrel". It was Labelle's 'Lady Marmalade', and I will fight any man who doesn't recognise the genius of that tune. But his was a bracing, disruptive presence. He was actually only the host for three season (1977-79), before Karyn Hay took over – and she, in quite a different way, was also not of the standard order of TV presenters.

Gradually, there were also the first stirrings of what would later become a vast catalogue of New Zealand music videos. Toy Love can take a bow there.

The programme's success was also down to something that would be unthinkable on modern broadcast TV: a bunch of weirdos basically being left to get on with it, so long as "it" didn't cost too much. That kind of freedom really exists only outside broadcast now.

Borrie's interview subjects traverse an oft-told story – that while touring New Zealand, Michael Nesmith happened to catch an episode of RWP and was inspired to create a show format called PopClips, which Warner picked up and turned into MTV – without reaching a firm conclusion as to whether it's actually true.

There is certainly one verfiable MTV link. When the record labels decided that music videos weren't ads that they'd give away, but works that should attract a public performance fee, RWP went off air for some time. And during that time, the show's producer, Brent Hansen, took off on a sabbatical from which he would not return. I recall having a coffee with him in London, the pair of us freshly arrived in 1986. He was about to go and interview for a job at a new venture setting up in Camden: MTV Europe. 

But that will doubtless be covered in the next part of Borrie's oral history, which is drawn from interviews for a research project on New Zealand video production. For now, this first part is a great read about a time when things were different.


Reading it did put me in mind of this: when I was interviewed on RWP in 1986 by my one-time flatmate Dick Driver (none of us, least of all Richard, could have expected that he'd become the TV production titan he is now). I seem sort of meek ...

And there is one other, less savoury memory: sitting down for the ritual every Sunday in our first-floor flat at the Ascot apartments on Newton Road, and, as the music gave way to some cheap horror flick, often hearing a scratching noise below the window. It was the sound of what we jokingly (if a little nervously) referred to as "the Phantom Sweeper" – who turned out to be Stewart Murray Wilson, so so-called "Beast of Blenheim". Shudder ...


I've been revisiting one of the great albums, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, in recent months, so I was immediately interested when I saw that Beninese soul singer Angélique Kidjo had remade it.

I was not disappointed. Remain in Light came from Africa and Kidjo takes it back there. David Byrne was quite clear at the time the Talking Heads album came out that reviewers who wanted to understand it should consult the afrobeat grooves of Fela Kuti. Kidjo brought in Tony Allen, Fela's longtime drummer and musical director, to play on her record, and it's infused with the warm blood of afrobeat.

But she does more than funk it up. In her hands, some of the original songs take on new meaning. 'Born Under Punches', she has said, read to her as a song about government corruption. That's how it's illustrated in the video:

'Once in a Lifetime', envisioned by Byrne as the existential lament of man lost in the modern world, comes up joyous and liberated in Kidjo's reading:

And she somehow turns 'The Listening Wind' – a song about an African terrorist – into what it was meant to be:

Kidjo has reinterpreted the work of male composers before – Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' and a fantastic version of Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile' – but this feels prodigious; not only a musical work, but a sophisticated commentary. (Her nuanced take on "cultural appropriation" in this recent Pitchfork interview is further testament to her awareness and intelligence.)

This record makes me dance, and it gives me chills. And I'm waiting for an enterprising promoter to get Angélique Kidjo here to play in this country next summer. Because that would be amazing.


And of course, David Byrne is touring this year. As is Suzanne Vega. I hear you can get their stuff on those new-fangled compact disc things.

Gareth Shute's adventures in Spotify data journalism continue with this look at lesser-known local artists who've cracked a million streams. You might be surprised – I certainly was.

The Guardian has the obituary of the the Fleetwood Mac guitarist we all forget – Danny Kirwan. It's a really sad story, and a reminder of how punishing the music business can be for the talented but vulnerable.

Janine – formerly Janine and the Mixtape – has rather dropped from view in New Zealand since she signed her deal with Atlantic Records and flew out to America, but it's been fascinating checking in on her. Her fanbase isn't star-level, but it's passionate, and she speaks really authentically to those fans. You can see that in the recap video of her North American tour that she posted this week:

Meanwhile, I checked in on the Twitter of another New Zealander making his way in America, Lontalius – and it wasn't there. Turns that after all that talk about his youthful precocity, it finally caught up on him now he's an adult. How utterly odd ...

He'll be wanting to get that fixed asap, given that he has his first new song in a year coming out soon.



Fanau Spa are a kind of Auckland rap supergroup (you'll hear Coco Solid in there) and this new jam is tuff and ominous:

It comes only three weeks after their debut:

I've got no idea where all this is headed, but I'm here for it.




The email record shows that I worked pretty keenly to get an interview with Anthony Bourdain in 2005. I had been wholly captured one summer holiday by Kitchen Confidential, then loved A Cook's Tour, the book and the TV series. Now, he was coming here to promote the Les Halles Cookbook and I really wanted to talk to him.

He was as you'd expect on the day: cool, lanky, extremely dedicated to cigarette breaks. I did sense there might be a limit to his patience, and I now know that at the  time he was at the sharp end of a divorce from his wife of two decades (their split was reported in the New York Times three or four weeks later). But he was a generous and thoughtful interview subject and the transcript below is only minimally edited. I gave him a copy of the then-new D4 album and he perked up noticeably when I explained that they were big in Japan.

I was shocked and saddened to wake up to the news today that he had died; apparently succumbing to a long-term depressive illness. I admired the snap of his writing, his attitude to food, his cutural habits (music and comics!) and, to be honest, his way of being a man. His globetrotting came rather late in life, and I've always loved the respect he showed to the people he met on his travels, and the way he increasingly began to use food as a way into the culture and politics of the places he visited.

This past week, I watched three episodes of his final CNN series, Parts Unknown (you can find them pirated on YouTube, with a bit of patience) and felt I was getting a perspective on those places, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uruguay (where he toked up large and legally), that I wasn't going to find anywhere else.

I'm not sure I ever actually cooked a dish from the Les Halles Cookbook, but one section left a lasting impression one me: the one dealing with stock. Why, I asked myself, was I not making stock like Bourdain did? It's something I love doing now; I find it meditative and satisfying. And therapeutic. I take stock while I make stock. Last weekend, I was tired and anxious, but I was vastly the better by the time I'd finished the chicken stock now crowding the freezer.

I'm very sad that Anthony Bourdain is no longer in the world. I'm glad I got to do the following interview.

So you got to taste some whitebait?

Yes. Some people bootlegged it into Australia for me. It was some of the sexiest food I've had in a while. Any resistance I might have to to putting in the extra flight time to come here evaporated at that moment.

The news is that Fox has picked up Kitchen Confidential for TV ...

They've ordered up a pilot with Darren Starr – I know they were talking to Robert Downey Jnr to play me.

How do you feel about that?

Well, we share such a similar CV that I think it's entirely appropriate. That would be great, but one learns very quickly that when it comes to Hollywood or television it's foolish to hope for anything. I've seen the script and it's pretty good. In the first episode there's hardcore drug use, oral sex and a dismemberment. So it's looking pretty good.

Is is strange to think of your life becoming the basis of a sitcom?

Is it any weirder than anything else that's happened to me over the last few years? I'm okay with it. You sell your baby to Hollywood and you don't end up as a Hasselhoff vehicle, you're way ahead of the game.

The Les Halles Cookbook – the thing that struck me was how easy to relate to it was, especially the introduction. Is there a sense in which none of this should seem forbidding?

I certainly was looking to take the intimidation factor out, and I wanted you to sense that there's actually someone standing next to you talking to you while you're trying to cook this stuff, rather than this disembodied, removed, authoritarian voice telling you "this is the recipe, you're on your own – waddaya mean it didn't work?"

People should know that you're probably going to screw up some of these things the first time out – and it's not big deal. I thought of the cover first: brown butcher paper. I want you to smear food on it and, and for it to be rude and utilitarian and useful. And not food porn. I just didn't want it to be bullshit.

Do you dislike food porn?

No, believe me: The French Laundry Cookbook, I take that to bed with a flashlight - it's beautiful. I'm not actually cooking from those books, but I like looking longingly at them.

Do you see cooking in some sense as something that you can either do or you can't?

I think it's a character issue. It's trial and error. All my cooks are Mexicans who've never cooked before. But they have good character. They come from a culture where they're predisposed to enjoy food, where food is an intimate and important event. They have good character and a sense of humour and a good work ethic. I think that's really all that's required. There are a few geniuses in cooking, a few artists – but not many. Chefs are generally the second or third smartest kid in the family – we're misfits and losers.

You talk a lot about Mexicans in the first two books …

God's people.

And then there's Jose from Les Halles. All these people are Catholics. Do Catholics make better cooks?

The greatest cooks I've ever met are Confucian, so no. But a history of poverty, oppression and struggle is always useful when you talk about good cooks. I think it's no accident that the best cooks on earth are the Basque and the Vietnamese. Where people are proud, food tends to be an expression of cultural identity, or even of a personality. That's when it's good.

Did doing A Cook's Tour make that clear to you? Because there's quite a respectful tone in both the book and the TV series.

I'm humbled by travel. And I was devastated by Vietnam. You realise how little you know and how great and how big the world is. I like being in a country where I don't speak the language, I don't know anybody, I don't even know how to order breakfast. Every little thing you learn to do is a triumph.

Cooking professionally is a dominant act - it's about control. Eating well is about total submission.

Is that the key to the difference in tone between Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour? That first book was so full of bravado …

Right. Chef mode. I'm talking to you as if you were in my kitchen. You are mine, I control things. It's about not just me controlling you and telling you to do things, but you controlling and dominating your area of responsibility. It's the same in a home kitchen: getting your shit together, organising your time, your space, your expectations, your plan. But eating is a whole different thing. It's time to let it all go, sit down and put your faith in a stranger.

How much do you miss cooking professionally?

I miss sitting at the bar after work, getting drunk with the cooks and feeling on top of the world. I miss the sense of elation, the sheer adrenalin rush of having pumped out 300 meals. On the other hand, my life now, everywhere I go in the world, I end up getting drunk with chefs at two in the morning.

Is there any comparison for you between cooking and writing?

Yeah. Show up on time and do the best job you can.

Can we talk about the first chapter in A Cook's Tour where you – the meat-eating guy, the anti-vegetarian – confess to being squeamish and disturbed at the sight of a pig being slaughtered?

I'm a city boy! I would pass out if I saw a cow being milked. Proximity to livestock is not something that really comes up. I've been a cook and a chef my whole qworking life, but meat was meat, it wasn't an animal. I'd never seen a 300-pound pig stabbed in the heart and spraying blood and struggling and wheezing for two solid minutes. That was pretty goddamn disturbing. I still don't like it – I'm a product of my environment."

And then there were the vegans you met …

I don't think much of them. They seem contemptuous of the world - and not curious. And that's just the enemy to me. Certainty and the lack of curiousity seem absolutely sinful to me. To be certain of anything.

Is there anything you won't eat on moral grounds?

I'm not going to eat a live monkey brain out of a screaming monkey's head. Because I don't think it's food. When I've been in Asia, people have offered it to me but it was clearly something where people were going to go out of their way for me. For shock value, I'm not going to torment the little monkey. Under any circumstances."

Would you eat the pulsing cobra heart again?

I wouldn't go looking. But if I was surprised by it at a party in Vietnam and people had spent a lot of money getting for me specially, I'm not going to offend my hosts.

I often got the impression that you were trying not be the Ugly American in those places.

I tried very, very hard. I'm blessed, I'm utterly humbled by how kind people were to me, and how generous. I will do almost anything to avoid being rude - but you can't help but rude anyway. American, I'm six foot four. My very gestures, the way I speak, is probably offensive in ways I don't even know. Eating a traditional Japanese meal: my god, I don't mind being clumsy and looking like an idiot and being the tall, ugly, hairy foreign devil. You're this big freak in their house anyway! But I'd like my offences to be forgiveable.

How different is it when you come somewhere like this? Because you are the celebrity chef here …

It's not something I'd like listed on my passport as an occupation. I think I'd rather have "arsonist" or "serial masturbator" written down. Those two words together - "celebrity" and "chef" – it's a such a working-class profession, it just seems like a bad fit. Like "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence".

I thought you were bit harsh on Jamie Oliver …

No, no. He was very nice actually. Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, both of whom I like and respect, like him. I don't think he's bad for the world, but on television he looks like a twat.

And yet on the other hand he's got young men thinking about cooking good food for their friends …

Yeah, he's good for the world. It's sheer mean-spiritedness on my part, I understand that and other people should too. I come from a culture of working chefs where's nobody's just that fucking adorable. I just hate all that mockney shite.

Did you ever go somewhere where the food was just awful? I thought you were pretty kind to Scotland.

Oh, I like Scotland. I love that. I could be in the chippy eating deep-fried crap all day. I love Glasgow over Edinburgh - it's one of the world's bullshit-free zones. If you're not enjoying a deep-fried Mars Bar, you're just not drunk enough.

The Hospitality Association here has recently proposed compulsory drug-testing for waiters and kitchen staff. What do you think of that?

It's a bad idea. This business attracts people who have drug problems, who have alcohol problems, who are dysfunctional who are misfits. And hopefully it corrects and weeds out on its own – it inspires people to reach their own personal crossroads and say "do I want to be good at this? Do I want to be the sort of person my colleagues can depend on?". It's the last meritocracy, where you are judged solely for your job performance. So to start imposing political correctness, meaning you can't say certain things, where the druggies are weeded out beforehand – where do they go? You're marginalising.

It's one of the last environments where people from completely different backgrounds who would never otherwise be able to work together do. My sauté man Manuel, who comes from the mountains of Mexico, not a sophisticated guy, not used to taking orders from women – yet he is forced into a situation where he has to rely on women cooking next to him and because she is as good as him, or even better, they will develop a respect and a relationship and a degree of intimacy that would be impossible in another workspace, where he'd probably get fired for speaking to her inappropriately.

It's so intimate that if you're talking shit about anything, you will be found out and exposed, so there is no pretence. And because at the end of the day you will be judged entirely for your performance. That's such a beautiful thing.

So when you start making it safe, clean, politically correct, inoffensive and drug-free – where's the fun? Where's the good? It's the last refuge for the underclass and the misfit, and to take that away is a really, really bad thing.

I presume you've had people working under you who were on a similar trajectory to yours when you were headed for rock bottom. How do you deal with that?

Once I became a chef, after I kicked heroin and crack, I became notoriously draconian on the subject. I'd say listen, I love the job you're doing, but if you're still doing heroin or crack, I don't care what you do after work – but the fact is I'm looking at you hard, and the first day you disappoint me, you show up late or steal from me or lie to be, I'm waiting and you're fired. You're through. You get zero strikes.

Were you treated that harshly?

Yes. When I worked for Bigfoot, it was you show up late, you get sent home. You show up late the second time, you're fired. I find that completely appropriate. There are two types of people in the world: the people who do what they say they're gonna do, and everybody else. That's all I care about. Unless you're my sous-chef – you always need one bad apple, there's always one guy you give allowances to. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Your job means you go to a lot of restaurants. Are they getting better or worse?

There's a terrible sameness to modern cooking right now. All the restaurants start emulating each other. You see the same dish. If I see another tuna tartar or something with truffle oil I'm going to kill myself. I'm not a fan of foamed sauces. So there are a lot of overrated restaurants, but particularly in the English-speaking world, it's a new and exploding scene, bubbling with possibility and enthusiasm. It's good to make mistakes and over-reach and fail and to make bad food for a while. There's a process where chefs eventually find out what they do well. When I tried to be a creative genius, people got hurt.

What's next for you?

More travel. I've got a crime novel I'm writing now, I have a collection kicking around somewhere. And I'm moving to Vietnam and I'm just going to write about living and eating in Vietnam for a while. I'm going to live there for a least a year.

What is it about Vietnam?

I don't know. I've described it as like meeting the woman of your dreams. It's a pheremonic x-factor. I don't believe in metaphysicals, but it is almost metaphysical. It smells right.


All or Nothing: Accidentally Great

Amazon Studios' first venture into the New Zealand market, All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks, keeps being described in New Zealand media as a documentary series about the All Blacks' 2017 season. It isn't. It's not even described that way on the page, where the genre line, lifted from IMDB, reads "Unscripted". That's a common industry term for a strain of reality television.

The three credited executive producers are Australian-born Eden Gaha, who worked with Mark Burnett on Survivor, The Apprentice, Masterchef and others; Greg Heathcote, EP on New Zealand versions of The Block, The Bachelor and Survivor and others; and Pango Productions co-founder Bailey Mackey. Remarkably, the guy who made The GC is the least reality TV-ish of the three.

The background of its principals is evident throughout the six episodes, most notably in the tightly-framed contemporaneous confessionals from key characters, as they rate their chances, rue their mistakes and contemplate their challenges. They're the same formulaic shots you'll see in Masterchef or The Bachelor.

But after binge-watching all six episodes on Monday – because yes, I really liked it – I'm wondering if the key contribution came from Bailey Mackey and his company. There's a warmth and yes, a Māoriness, that seems quite different to other series in the NFL-owned All or Nothing franchise – and it's more than getting Taika Waititi in as narrator. The All or Nothing series following the Dallas Cowboys' 2017 season (thus, made at the same time as the All Blacks one) is more documentarian, but positively frosty by comparison.

Perhaps that had something to do with Tom Pullar Strecker's report in January that New Zealand Rugby was unhappy with early work on the $20 million project. Perhaps they weren't getting the documentary they expected. But, having traded access for approval, did they really want a documentary anyway? At any rate, the series was cut from the usual eight episodes to six.

Certanly, All or Nothing won't tell international viewers much about the game of rugby. The producers opted, perhaps wisely, not to try and explain the rules of the game – or even, in the case of Sonny Bill Williams, the difference between union and league.

Moreover, almost all the gameplay is shot in tight, from ground level. This has the effect of focusing on the collisions and emphasising the gladitorial nature of test rugby. The gleefully OTT sound design characterises every clash and kick (and in one case, a hug) as a huge detonation. Every haka is sheer thunder. It's fun to watch, but it's impossible to see any tactical dimension – and it actually drains the genius out of many of the tries.

What saves the series is the people. Unscripted TV almost always relies on creating conflict, and doing it in the edit suite if it doesn't happen in real time. There's remarkably little of that here.

Instead, Steve Hansen emerges less as Head Coach than Empath in Chief, talking about the job being to know which players "need a cuddle and which ones need a boot up the bum". He swears quite readily, but his team-talks are more firm than ferocious – and yet his players look at him wide-eyed, like anxious schoolkids. There's a particularly good scene where he shuts up a cluster of established players urgently advising newbie Ngani Laumape at training.

The series follows a handful of players' stories closely: Sonny Bill owning up to that red-card tackle in the second Lions test; Ben Smith and his family worrying about another concussion (which turns out to be something else altogether); Ryan Crotty fighting his way back into the starting lineup, only to fall cruelly to a hamstring injury. These are all, necessarily, interrupted narratives and the characters fall in and out of the overall story a little awkwardly in places.

But the loveliest part of the series is the ascent of Reiko Ioane. The possibly-contrived conversation at training in which Wayne Smith is flabbergasted by Hansen's order at training for Julian Savea to switch wings to give Reiko a run on the left, with an eye to starting him there, is gold. But oh man, Reiko's proud family: I was pretty much crying with them.

(By contrast, the first real drama in the Cowboys series is the management team trying to make a domestic violence allegation against their top draft pick go away. It's a little hard to empathise.)

The players basically emerge as humble and genuine, and devoted to Hansen's vision of helping them to achieve things "they believed they couldn't achieve". If the actual rugby part isn't all that well conveyed, I think the producers, possibly a bit by accident, got to the heart of what makes the modern All Black team culture special.

Sky Television has bought All or Nothing for screening, or you can take advantage of a seven-day free trial and stream it on Prime Video. (If you have a smart TV, it probably has the Prime Video app – you just need to log in to Amazon and enable Prime Video.)


The miserable archive

UPDATE: Henry Cooke has been on it (and, unlike me, got a response from ADHB) and both ADHB and Waitemata DHB (which is the one that actually handles detox services) insist they didn't tell Housing NZ. In which case, what the hell went on here?


In June 2015, Jesse B became one of the hundreds of Housing New Zealand tenants to have an order made against them at the Tenancy Tribunal over alleged methamphetamine contamination. Like most such tenants, he did not attend the hearing and the process ground on without him.

As was the case in many cases at the time, the flat B was living in had not been subject to a baseline test for meth "contamination" – that is, tested before he lived there. There is no testing information noted in the decision beyond a note that "the evidence presented today shows that the premises were indeed contaminated". Nonetheless, the tribunal decided that "the contamination more than likely occurred during Mr [B]'s tenancy and that he ought therefore to pay for the cost of testing."

What's notable – and on the face of it, shocking – is the means by which the tribunal arrived at that decision:

During Mr [B]'s tenancy Housing New Zealand were advised by the Auckland District Health Board to test his tenanted premises for methamphetamine contamination. This was because Mr [B] was attending drug and alcohol detoxification at the Auckland District Health Board.

It appears that Jesse B sought help for his drug and alcohol problem – and that the consequence of seeking help was that he was reported to his landlord and thrown out of his home.

There is little other information in the decision, and no documentation of the DHB advice to Housing NZ. It is possible Housing NZ was merely advised that its tenant was in care, and not specifically that it should enter and test his flat.

But as described, the actions of ADHB were an alarming breach of B's privacy. And they were a disastrous way to approach alcohol and drug services. Very few people are going to seek help if seeking help means losing their home. 

Was this a common practice? And if it wasn't, why did it happen in this case? Sam Warburton, who turned up the decision yesterday, tells me he hasn't found another obvious case, but the decisions database isn't easy to search effectively.

But they are searchable, and you don't need to spend long searching historical decisions to get a feel for the bleakness of the whole things. A tenant who says he cleaned up and stopped using some time ago but was nonetheless stuck with a $20,000 bill for remediation because, according to the decision the "level of contamination left in the house exceeded the Ministry of Health guidelines for safe living within the premises." The 2010 Ministry of Health guidelines, as we know, said no such thing. This false assumption is the basis for many, if not most, of the tribunal's decisions in this area.

An elderly man whose Greys Avenue bedsit was invaded by gang members who tagged the walls and, allegedly, consumed meth. By Housing NZ's own account, the old man feared for his safety and eventually gave notice he was leaving. He was rehoused elsewhere, but Housing NZ was still claiming the $2233 cost of the testing – which the tribunal granted against the tenant. Housing NZ also sought an adjournment while it prepared a claim for $30,000 to $50,000 in remediation costs – against a tenant it had acknowledged didn't have control of his own property and was unsafe there. Fortunately, it appears that this claim was not pursued.

The dismissal of an application for damages based on information provided to Housing NZ by the police that a resident of the property (not the tenant) had been charged with cannabis possession and a visitor with possession of "illegal drugs". The decision doesn't say so, but it's reasonable to assume that the tenant lost his home of eight years because someone else was busted for drug possession there.

A woman chucked out of the home she'd lived in since 1989 on the basis that meth traces had made the property "uninhabitable". Again, this is extremely unlikely.

A woman evicted on seven days' notice because meth "contamination" had been detected– she told the the tribunal she had not used meth but a boarder may have – and then stuck with $20,000 in damages. "Under section 41 of the Act Ms T is responsible for her boarder's actions as she permitted him to be in the premises," the decision reads.

But tenants, even where they can contest damages, had a hard job keeping their homes. Section 40 (2) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1986 puts them in breach if they're responsible for "damage" or for even knowing that someone else smoked a joint.

The tenant shall not—

(a) intentionally or carelessly damage, or permit any other person to damage, the premises; or

(ab) cause or permit any interference with, or render inoperative, any means of escape from fire within the meaning of the Building Act 2004; or

(b) use the premises, or permit the premises to be used, for any unlawful purpose; or

(c) cause or permit any interference with the reasonable peace, comfort, or privacy of any of the landlord’s other tenants in the use of the premises occupied by those other tenants, or with the reasonable peace, comfort, or privacy of any other person residing in the neighbourhood.

Section 41 says that if any tenant permits another person to be on the premises and they do something wrong, the tenant is as liable as if they'd done that thing themselves.

I realise that many people won't have a problem with that and will believe  that any drug use in public housing is fair grounds for loss of shelter. But that has terrible implications for addressing drug and alcohol issues on a public health level.

We know that the key factor in helping people beat their problems is a secure and stable environment. This is the opposite of that. As I noted last week, it's also not what Housing NZ is doing now. Current CEO Andrew Mckenzie, who took up the role in September 2016, has outlined a philosophy which commits it to supporting "tenants who need a stable home to have the best chance of working through any addiction issues."

Tenancy Tribunal decisions can be searched here. Feel free to do so, but I'd ask you to note what I've done with the case that leads this post. Jesse B's name is public in the text of the decision, but that publication will expire soon (they're only up for three years, which itself lends some urgency to the identification of particularly egregious cases). I don't want his full name to be Google-searchable thereafter, the more so given that I have reason to believe he's making a go of it. This is a story of a class of people who were often unreasonably punished for human failures. And we want people to be well, not to be punished in perpetuity.