Hard News by Russell Brown

What are they smoking?

For sure, yesterday's poverty data were rushed out from the Social Report not due to land until next month. Along with the leaflet that arrived in our letterbox this week ("The 2005 Budget: securing your future … You're better off with Labour") they probably represent a hurried Plan B. But Labour must still be thinking they deserved more generous coverage than they got.

The real significance of the numbers is that they hark back to the promises Labour made when it took office in 1999 - to turn back the development of a permanent underclass and help the most vulnerable to regain a role in society -and which have rather disappeared from the debate since.

The "poverty line" is an odd measure, in that it's a moving target calibrated against median incomes, but the fact that a long trend has been turned back in the last three years is really remarkable. The marked improvement in outcomes for sole-parent and Maori families more so. (And anyway, those who believe income equality is a suffocating economic influence can still comfort themselves with the fact that the rich continue to get richer …)

There has been no political response so far from National, but there is this message from a strange woman claiming to be a New Zealand First MP. It claims, bizarrely, that "the statistics also fail to account for the increase in strikes from disgruntled workers seeking better wages and working conditions." Eh?

I didn't really understand Muriel Newman's 'Smarmy Maharey' press release either. And I was roughly as dumbfounded by Global Peace and Justice Auckland's Parasites on Poverty Campaign - 10 Most Guilty, which declared a string of MPs "guilty" of representing poor electorates - or, um, rich electorates …

But GPJA is, at least targeting loan sharks and pokie operators; both of them a blight on the poor. Unless you're in the United Future Party, of course: in which case, pokies are harmless fun that brightens up our lives. You may foolishly believe you'd rather be in a pub alongside a bunch of potheads, as opposed to a crowd of dead-eyed pokie junkies, but clearly, you are not a United Future MP.

I mean, their drug policywhat are they smoking?

But by means of introduction, let's start with UF's "role of government" policy, which leads their 2005 policy page.

United Future would undertake an immediate review of all legislation and regulations that impose coercive powers and administrative burdens on businesses to ensure the impact on business is minimised, consistent with the overall public interest.

So: sort of harm minimisation for business. But if you're just a private citizen, you can confidently expect to be coerced and burdened every whichway.

Most notably, anyone on a first-time drug offence would be "required to undergo treatment whether they receive a custodial sentence or not." Exactly what would "treatment" of a 20-year-old caught with a joint comprise? And by what public health reasoning would you justify "treatment" for as many as 10,000 people a year who overwhelmingly are not actually sick?

The obsession with poking, pricking and re-educating doesn't stop there. What do you make of "encourage comprehensive employee assistance programmes in return for reduced ACC levies, to ensure there are no barriers to implementing testing"? Does that mean financial incentives for employers to drug-test their staff? It would appear so.

Peter Dunne completely lost the plot on Checkpoint, telling Mary Wilson that teenagers caught with a joint could expect a prison sentence (as noted, the actual policy only mandates the dreaded compulsory re-education) if United Future got its way. It would, he maintained, teach people that drugs are bad. It is more likely to teach them that the law is an ass.

Here's the relevant part of the most recent Drug Use In New Zealand survey conducted by the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit at Auckland University. It demonstrates, as previous surveys have, that a little over half of New Zealanders will try marijuana, and that most of them will stop using it. By far the most common reason for people stopping is that they actually don't like it any more. By comparison, the law barely figures.

Other gems from the UF policy:

Regularly review the classification of drugs to ensure that they accurately reflect their health, behavioural and social effects, and only allow them to move upwards into more serious classes of drugs.

So, gather evidence, but only accept that which fits our pre-existing view. Not yer scientific types, then …

Alcohol does make the occasional appearance in the policy:

Institute a zero blood alcohol level for all drivers under the age of 25.

So the majority of New Zealand's rugby players won't be allowed to have a single beer after the game - even a light beer - and legally drive home. Gee, that'll go down well …

The total effect of UF's proposed policies is to establish them as the most interfering, censurious, morally prescriptive party ever to have a place in the New Zealand Parliament. And quite mad too: their hilarious proposal to fund tax cuts by "selling down" 40% of key SOEs completely ignores everything we have learned about privatisation. Propose selling an SOE altogether if you wish, but please, don't pretend that an attempt at a 40% privatisation would be anything other than a bloody debacle.

Nandor has a press release about the UF drug policy.

Staying with moral prescription, The Fundy Post has a substantial update on the Watchdog controversy - which concerns exactly who is governing what Internet content can be viewed in New Zealand schools, what they're blocking and, frankly, where the hell these people get off. File under "actually quite important".

With the entry of Sue Kedgley to the MeNZB debate we appear to have reached the red herring stage. Going ahead without Phase 3 trials - which demand either a very large sample or years of data collection - is the consequence of a fairly straightforward ethical decision.

There are no efficacy data on the MeNZB vaccine because the vaccine targets the New Zealand epidemic strain of meningococcal disease and thus has not been used anywhere else. But once you've decided to embark on an immunisation campaign, and you have data from your own clinical trials (which demonstrate an antibody response in about 75% of recipients) and evidence of the efficacy of similar vaccines in large campaigns overseas, do you actually wait another five years to roll it out - and accept that a number of people will die or be disfigured in the interim?

I think the efficacy information given on the MeNZB parental consent form is accurate and adequate. I don't buy the conflict-of-interest claims regarding the approval process made by some anti-vaccine campaigners, and the attempt - absent evidence - to link deaths to the vaccine is scurrilous.

But I also feel comfortable with the criticisms I have previously offered here of the vaccination campaign (and which have played some part in the present news cycle). The MoH's consumer advice has been bland and vague and has not prepared parents for the impact or frequency of adverse reactions. And if the campaign had to roll through the flu season, parents should have been better prepared for consequent issues.

Our 14 year-old - for whom a second MeNZB shot and a flu infection coincided, or nearly so - is nearing the end of his third week away from school and I don't have much confidence that he'll be back on Monday. The only other time I can recall him being so sick for so long is when he was about three and got food poisoning. His GP, who has seen quite a number of adverse reactions, recommended that he not have his third shot until he was back to full health.

Two more Daily show clips: on the Supreme Court's medical marijuana decision, and the Blair-Bush get-together.

And finally, I know it's just a big ol' Burger King promotion, but The Sith Sense is a pretty cool way to waste some Friday afternoon time. You play 20 questions with Darth Vader, and the results are really quite spooky

PS: Shame I didn't know earlier, but CNN (via Sky NZ anyway) is screening 'Blogging: The Fifth Estate' tomorrow night, Saturday the 11th, at 10pm (repeating on Sunday at 4pm and 10pm). It features a panel discussion with the leading lights of AmericaBlog and Power Line, among others, and looks quite good.