Hard News by Russell Brown

Boundless confidence

I can't help but wonder if the current atmosphere of moral panic has arisen partly because people don't have enough else to worry about: certainly not the economy, which is presently spewing out remarkably good news.

This week, it's trade figures (a " whopping increase in the value of goods exported in May" that "smacked economists' expectations clear out of the park" according to the Herald business section), last week it was quarterly GDP ("the economy grew an astounding 2.3 per cent in the March quarter" said the Herald). There's not much to complain about there, although that traditionally does not stop certain sectors complaining anyway. Seeing as someone has to, I hereby undertake to spend the end of this week expressing boundless economic confidence by my actions …

Anyway, Anthony Trenwith has read the omnibus bill that companies the Civil Unions Bill and finds more than a few problems as he explained in an email wittily titled 'Undermining the sanctity of civil unions':

The problem with Civil Unions is the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill. It doesn't just give Civil Union couples the same rights as Married couples - it also extends to de facto relationships too.

So given this, what's the point in Civil Unions and what's the point in the Civil Union Bill? Wasn't it supposed to be about eliminating discrimination by creating a statutory relationship parallel to marriage? Also, when is a de facto relationship (the 2 year limit doesn't apply)?

Sometimes people are going to want to be considered to be de factos and, other times they won't - depending on whether it's good or bad for them. As there's no hard and fast rules, proving or disproving the existence of a relationship could prove to be very difficult. Being able to have unlimited de facto partners complicates things further.

That's not to say there aren't benefits. Flatmates could become de facto partners to get more student allowances. Whole hostel floors could become harems! There's also a downside - de facto partner(s) can claim against your estate.

While some amendments are just anomalous - e.g. the Evidence Act amendment preventing Civil Union partners (as well as spouses but NOT de factos) from being forced to testify against each other. Ultimately, the government is undermining Civil Unions before they even exist, and their premise for the legislation is beginning to wear thin. Married and non-married couples should be treated equally, but not at the expense of creating confusion and uncertainty in the law - which is what will result from the inclusion of de facto relationships. This is meant to make life easier not make work for lawyers!

I had a feeling there might be this kind of problem with the omnibus bill. Oh well, that's what select committees are for …

Dr Matthew Andrews had further comment on the Sunday Star Times' editorial on liquor laws:

Until recently I worked on alcohol policy. I agree with you that the SST editorial is a badly considered rant. Light spirits (under 23%) were hit hard by the 'sherry tax' and are now virtually non-existent (I also remember drinking cheap port and sherry as an underage drinker in Australia - not because we liked the taste, but because it was cheap), and alcopops are not the chosen drink of underage drinkers (too expensive for the volume of alcohol).

However, the SST editorial did get one thing right - social marketing campaigns, like the 'Culture Change' campaign aren't likely to work unless they are well backed up by other measures. I don't believe that this is the case. I believe that it is most likely to end up as easily ignored as a number of other anti-alcohol and anti-drug social marketing campaigns. (The Ministry of Youth Development has put out guidelines for what makes drug education effective - see their website - and generally it includes things like targeting problem groups, providing credible messages - these don't easily gel with a mass social marketing campaign trying to persuade a wide range of populations to reduce their drinking.)

If New Zealand is going to seriously address harm caused by alcohol the measures that need to be taken are simple and clear; ban broadcast alcohol advertising, restrict adult supply to children (an amendment to the Sale of Liquor Act could do this), require mandatory ID for alcohol purchases, encourage local authorities to plan the placement of liquor retail outlets sensibly, raise the price of alcohol, and, maybe, change the age of purchase.

I believe that these measures would be far more effective and value for money than a potentially expensive social marketing campaign to change the culture of drinking in New Zealand.

On a related tip, Nandor Tanczos and United Future are back at loggerheads on drug issues: in this case, regarding the Angel Care Trust's plan to train more volunteers in first aid to take care of clubbers in Wellington and Christchurch and offer them advice on the risks of drugs. The trust, like the Social Tonics Association of New Zealand, is the brainchild of party pill entrepreneur Matt Bowden, who does genuinely seem to have his heart in the right place - he says he turned to the manufacture of the legal BZP-based pills after his cousin died after taking ecstasy, and is also behind a draft code of practice for dance pill suppliers.

But the Christian anti-drug group Drug Arm objected when it became clear that the angels looking out for club kids may have used illegal drugs in the past, or may still (but presumably not when on duty) do so occasionally. Nandor accused Drug Arm of mounting a turf war on the drug issue. In response, United Future MPs accused him of being "nothing more than an apologist for drug use, and he clearly considers wrecked lives and ruined futures to be acceptable collateral damage as long as he and his mates can light up."

Actually, Nandor's quite right: a well-meaning Christian soldier from Drug Arm isn't going to get the time of day (or, rather, night) wandering round advising kids to just-say-no in a busy nightclub - and he probably won't even know what he's looking for in an acute situation. He's in a different business, and if they really want fewer people being rushed to the emergency department, Drug Arm and United Future would be best advised to butt out on this one.

Now that Fahrenheit 9/11 is storming American box offices, some of Moore's more fervent fans should try and calm down (I don't hold out much hope of his enemies calming down, ever). Cursor is pointing to this site, whose author claims to have Googled the movie and "detected a disturbing trend that made little sense: an astonishing lack of sites in top rankings that expressed positive (or even neutral) view points on the Moore film."

He believes that Google is deliberately manipulating its own search results to ensure that Christopher Hitchens' "extremely biased article" about Moore and his movie on Slate repeatedly comes up as the first result. Other anti-Moore pages rank similarly strongly, he notes darkly, quoting unnamed search "experts" to back up his theory.

Trouble is, the sample results he quotes don't really bear out the conspiracy - pages bearing neutral and positive views of the film do appear on the first page. So why does Hitchens' fit of bile tend to rank top? Blame the blogosphere. Google is performing precisely as advertised and awarding a higher ranking to pages that are linked to by many other sites. The vast right-wing blog community has been frantically pointing to unflattering stories on Moore, and Hitchens' column in particular. Check out the lengthy Blogdex list of links to the Hitchens column.

I've been trying to download a copy of Fahrenheit 911 (with the full intention, of course, of subsequently paying for a ticket), but Gnutella was clogged up with fakes last week, and still doesn't seem to be offering viable sources. I tried BitTorrent this morning, but I think I'm too stupid to work out how that works. Whatever: looks like I have a preview ticket for July 20 anyway.

And on a similar theme, I thought I should obtain a copy of the Beastie Boys' To the Five Boroughs and check out this copy-protection flap for myself. Result? Same as last time I put a new EMI CD in my Mac - the copy control doesn't work. Track one, 'Ch-Check It Out' imported smoothly into iTunes, and played very nicely on my iPod. I actually tried to make it work, or at least launch the built-in music player on the CD, but no luck. There is, however, a warning on the packaging that it might not play in my car stereo. Anybody else think that EMI's policy is just a bit silly?