As I said the other day...

PR hack, dog walker, nature lover, dharma student, community builder. I live in a small village in a small country on the edge of a big ocean.

GIB board crisis is more than it's held out to be

Situation exposes fundamental economic issues

The so-called 'GIB crisis' in New Zealand is significant because discussion of it ignores a fundamental economic issue; far from being simply a supply issue, it is actually a demand issue created by activity in a sector that is outstripping the economy's ability to support it.

Anyone who works in the construction sector knows it has been going gang-busters since early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years ago, tradies were getting more work than they could handle; some I know were turning work down and asking suppliers to stop recommending them to customers. And it seemed to be across the board; I knew builders, electricians, roofers, and painters & plasterers in this situation. The 'joke' was that the people who would normally spend thousands of dollars on overseas holidays were spending it doing up their houses, although it probably wasn't a joke.

So, the news in February this year that wall board supplies were becoming harder to get and were going to be rationed came as no surprise. Ordering times were longer and not every builder could get it when they wanted. Now, it has become a political crisis for the government, with everyone suddenly an expert of construction supply chains and monopoly economics.

I know we are supposed to hate monopolies like plaster board manufacturer Winstone Wallboards, which has allegedly used its market dominance to keep competing manufacturers and importers out of the market. This was fine, up to a point, when the supply and demand were in balance; but demand has now considerably outstripped domestic supply. According to Winstone, they are working at maximum production capacity and will add more capacity in July, with a new plant in Tauranga starting production mid-next year. But, they still can't keep up with demand that is a result of record building activity, both new builds and renovations.

In an elastic market, supply would match demand to maintain generally stable prices. But a near-monopoly manufacturer operating at full capacity is not an elastic market and never will be. So, is this simply a matter of market failure? To some extent it is, and that is largely the way it is being discussed in the media, although I haven't yet heard anyone use that term. Of course, it's also portrayed as a political failure because New Zealanders still have the naive belief that the government both controls the economy and can easily fix it when things go wrong.

Supply chain problems with imports being disrupted by the ongoing effects of the pandemic are also significant. Getting all sorts of supplies, including plant and machinery, into New Zealand is a real challenge.

In New Zealand, we have relied for many years on a range of low cost inputs to our economy; virtually free credit, cheap renewable energy and a ready supply of immigrant labour being three big ones. Credit is still relatively cheap; there is plenty of it around, it just costs a bit more. Energy in the form of hydrocarbons is more expensive because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And labour is in short supply. Unemployment is very low and immigration policy settings and processing capacity mean employers are finding it hard to import workers. This is also affecting the construction sector. Many construction workers, particularly on large projects, came from overseas, and a lot of them went home at the start of the pandemic and haven't returned. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine how overcooked the construction sector would be if labour was not a limiting factor!

(As an aside, you would think the demand for labour would put up the price of it in the form of higher wages and salaries, but it appears employers can manage to suppress labour costs at a time of high inflation, at least in the short-term.)

What the public discussion doesn't include is any focus on this being a demand-driven problem, and therefore partly the responsibility of customers. And there's a good reason for that; it doesn't suit the orthodox approach to economics in which the world operates. In orthodox economics, increasing demand is good because it can be matched with increasing supply, which leads to economic growth, which increases wealth. So, everybody wins; in theory.

Therefore, increasing demand should be a good thing, except when it's not, and at the moment it is causing both supply-side problems and inflation (partially, at least). However, it appears to be impossible to talk about demand being a problem. To do so is to challenge the orthodoxy that growth is always good. Look at the alarm people display at the suggestion we might have a 'technical recession' in the form of two quarters of negative GDP (i.e. shrinking of the economy). This is unthinkable and seen as a sign of massive failure by any government.

However, as low/no-growth proponents (and I'm one) would say, continuous growth is a bad thing because it is unsustainable. Our economy is heavily based on consumption and waste, and uses the environment as a free good to take our waste and to supply resources at no more than the cost of extraction. It is unsustainable because there is a limit to both the supply of resources and the ability of the environment to act as a sink for our waste. This will only become worse as the rest of the world catches up with the developed countries and tries to match our rate of consumption.

The current crisis should be a warning that the orthodox approach to economics is flawed. It might have served us well in the earlier stages of capitalism, but it cannot continue indefinitely in late-stage capitalism. The question is, do enough people recognise that? It's pretty obvious that our current leaders do not, and until we have leaders who do so, we are condemned to continuing on the current path to economic and environmental collapse.

As another aside, I know housing possibly isn't the ideal example of this issue, as we have a shortage of affordable modern housing and need to build more, but it serves to illustrate the general point.

Transparency with the media?

We need to ensure we continue to get it as citizens

Thirty years ago I was a radio journalist. I wasn't great at it; competent but no award winner. I enjoyed being a broadcaster more and the whole process of making radio. But the shortness of the news cycle, the brevity of radio stories and the limited opportunities to dig into issues and stories and explore them in depth was not very satisfying. I lasted five years before going into government PR as a Ministerial press secretary, which was new and interesting and paid more than journalism.

As a press secretary you spend a lot of time dealing with reporters. Relationships with the press gallery and reporters who cover your minister's portfolios are very important for getting the minister's views into the news. At the time, most of us were ex-journos who took a fairly objective approach to what we were doing, and there weren't many of what you could call political appointees or party people. Communications graduates were non-existent in Parliament.

That's changed since, especially for the senior ministers or those in the more politically sensitive portfolios, and in the smaller parties, but that isn't the point of this blog.

I've always believed that strong and independent news media are a cornerstone of a democratic society. I know the concept isn't perfect and media can have an editorial position on issues, which they are perfectly entitled to. The idea of pure journalistic objectivity has been exposed over many years as an ideal that few of us could achieve, even if we aspired to. But, at least as journalists we could honestly report people's view and actions. We didn't make things up, or report opinions as fact, and if we got it wrong, we tried to put it right. There was no place for our opinions in a story. However, we could still bring our values to the job in the stories we chose to cover and the angles we took.

The people and organisations we reported on would try to influence our reporting so it was favourable to them, and to minimise any negative coverage, if that's what was coming their way. That's understandable and a natural reaction to criticism. And they often paid PR people to help do that for them.

However, the relationship between media and organisations has changed in recent decades. I can only speak for public sector organisations because that's where I've spent most of my career. I saw it starting to happen in the 2000s as email became ubiquitous, the use of the Official Information Act became more widespread, and organisations adopted a more defensive stance towards the media.

There was a time when a reporter could ring you and ask you their questions, and you would answer them to the best of your ability, or get the answers if you needed to do some research. I've been in the position as the spokesperson for organisations in some fairly tricky and sensitive issues. Conversations with journalists were an important part of informing and influencing them, while keeping communication channels open.

This required managers, particularly the chief executive, to have a high degree of trust in the spokesperson. I've been given a lot of freedom when I was trusted, and no freedom when I wasn't trusted. (Trust is a tricky issue and probably deserves a blog to itself.)

Nowadays, it is very rare for a media adviser to talk directly to reporters. The common practice is to ask them to email the questions to the organisation. In fact, most reporters are so well trained by the organisations they report on that they email questions as a standard practice. If they can't answer it themselves, the media adviser sends the questions to a subject matter expert in the organisation. The answers get edited by the communications team to remove anything risky that could be inferred as a criticism of the organisation, or misinterpreted by the reporter, and then it's sent to a senior manager to approve. This is a mixed blessing. Some of them are very good at making sure questions are answered and will challenge the proposed response if they think it is inadequate, while others are very risk averse and edit them to a state of blandness. Then they're sent to the reporter.

If the query is a bit complicated, we can declare that it is an Official Information Act request and put it into that process. In practice, that often means it can be three to four weeks before the reporter gets their answers, depending on how busy the OIA team is and how big their backlog is. This is also a convenient way of delaying a story, particularly if the minister's office insists on seeing them all before they go out, which many of them do, even for routine departmental OIAs.

However, this can mean reporters wait weeks to get data and statistics that might take an analyst a hour to extract from the database and check they are correct.

Some of these processes are necessary for administrative efficiency. Media teams can be much busier these days than they were years ago, and advisers don't have time to spend long on each query. There are many media outlets and you can even get requests from several reporters from different arms of the same organisation who are doing their own stories on an issue. The print or broadcast journalist is doing their story, and the online reporter is doing another one — each asking different questions.

It's one thing for private organisations and companies to avoid answering questions, but the public service is a different matter. We ought to be accountable to the public, and honestly answering questions the media ask is an important way of doing that. Evasion and dissembling should have no place in government media relations. We need to give them the information they ask for as quickly as possible, and not be so risk averse or concerned about the reaction from the minister's office when there is a negative story. Sometimes we deserve to get blasted in the media and we should front up and take it. It's called accountability, and as public servants we need to make sure we're providing as much of it as we deserve as citizens.

Alternative society

I often try to imagine what an alternative society might look like. A system-wide improvement on what we currently have: a pluralist, multi-cultural, post-colonial society; with a modern, resource-intensive capitalist economy and a welfare state; extensive export-focused pastoral agriculture; and a parliamentary democracy. Looking backwards doesn't really help as historical systems were the products of conditions we can't, and wouldn't want to, replicate.

It's not hard to imagine something for a community or village, but that just tweaks what we've got, always depends on lots of external inputs, particularly of food and energy, and breaks down when it gets bigger than a few thousand people in one area. Any major change needs some significant disruption to the existing system, which would result in plenty of misery (for some) as changes bite.

A lot of people much cleverer than me have thought about this, and some of the ideas I've read over the years have been interesting, but there's normally a big gap at the implementation phase. Without some sort of revolution or system-wide collapse to precipitate change, it's hard to see how it can happen peacefully. Revolution seems unlikely, but a system-wide calamity driven by climate change and ecosystem collapse is not so hard to imagine.

I've been accused of exaggerating the possibility of ecological collapse. Years ago, I read Beyond The Limits written by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. It focused on how the world was heading to overshoot the Earth's resource and environmental limits, driven by exponential growth. This was before climate change was identified as large a risk it is now (although it was an emerging issue). I thought the book was great because it confirmed my fears we were heading to hell in a handcart. When I talked to one of my young colleagues about it, he rejected the premise that collapse was a real likelihood because we would always be able to find a technological solution to the problems of overusing resources and producing too much waste. This was, and still is, typical of many who find it hard to accept that humans wouldn't be clever enough to respond to a threat before it became irreversible.

In recent years, the belief has grown that it would be wrong to stop the developing economies of the world from trying to create the sort of wealth for their citizens that us in the 'West' take for granted. There are still plenty of people who think that China and India should be stopped from growing their economies so that the rest of us don't have to make too many sacrifices to prevent a climate change catastrophe. If that is going to happen, then the global 'haves' are going to have to share with global 'have nots' if we are going to keep within the Earth's limits and have any equity in the world. The idea that the developed world can keep its wealth and consume resources at the level it is now, and the rest of the world will be content to let us do that and do without what we have, is simply deluded. The flood of desperate people from Africa and the Middle East heading to Europe — the much-derided 'economic refugees' — are evidence that people from Europe's former colonies aren't prepared to sit patiently as Europe consumes. In the same way that liberal capitalist societies in the early- to mid-20th Century realised that if they wanted to prevent revolution like that in Russia or China they needed a social welfare system that redistributed enough wealth to stop the poor revolting, the rich countries of the world will have to share some of the wealth they have to stop the rest of the world revolting against us. Equity aside, self-interest should be enough to drive a change like this.

So, what could our society look like then? A low-growth (or no growth) economy, with an equitable distribution of wealth and resources and much less impact on the environment. Less consumption, less demand for goods, with fewer jobs that produce things that people don't really need. Technology that serves individuals and communities, rather than the people who own the technology, and builds up communities instead of creating divisions in them. A massive change to the food production system, with less intensive animal production, less waste, and universal availability of basic foods in all countries. We would still need a global food system as not every country can produce all the food it needs. The impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the world's wheat trade, and how that is affecting countries across north Africa and the Middle East, is proof of that.

Work would be different, and the rich countries wouldn't be as rich as they are now. (That will a huge barrier to any meaningful change.)

One thing is for sure; our current politicians and business leaders are not the people who will lead a change like this. They still believe we can change the economy to respond to climate change without really giving much up. We go along with them because we want to believe that and hope that it will be as easy as we wish it to be.

I don't really have any easy solutions for the transition. As I said at the beginning, these predictions or models tend to break down at the implementation stage if you exclude disaster or revolution forcing us to change because there isn't the mass of people who are willing to change their lifestyles now. So, we're left with the hard solutions. The ones that take work, committed action by many people across the world, and hard slog to convince enough people that we can and should adapt to an unprecedented situation, and create a new world. My hope is we will be wise enough to change before disaster hits, but history shows us the chance of enough people joining in to do that before it is too late is not high.

Whose voices are heard about development?

I was reading an article in The Atlantic a couple of days ago Community Input is Bad, Actually by Jerusalem Demsas. In it she argues that the process of community input to development projects is fundamentally flawed because:

"It’s biased toward the status quo and privileges a small group of residents who for reasons that range from the sympathetic to the selfish don’t want to allow projects that are broadly useful."

She describes how the American legal and planning system is full of points where communities can object to development of many types: housing, rapid mass transit (public transport), renewable energy, and others. Environmental and planning regulations result in extensive and expensive reports and mitigations, delays and sometimes the cancellation of projects that are in line with government's priorities for more renewable power, better public transport and more affordable or social housing — all desirable social goods.

However, public bodies, such as government agencies and local government, are required to consult with the public to get their views on proposals that affect communities, and to take those views into account. In my experience, councillors take this responsibility seriously. They are committed to representing their communities, to know what those communities think about issues, and to make decisions that take those views into account. Whenever our local council is consulting on its annual or long-term plans, councillors encourage us to make submissions to help guide their decision-making.

The big flaw, in my view, is the lack of 'reach' into the community during consultations. As Jerusalem Demsas says, one of the problems is we are only talking to those who are here now.

"The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of an affected local community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries."

We also tend to talk only to adults, and children are very much an afterthought, or considered too hard, or not serious enough, to seriously consider. The current debate over whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be allowed to vote in New Zealand shows that many opinionated adults don't respect the views and decisions of young people. We also have many other people in our communities who are very disengaged from public or civic life, and are largely powerless

"...the fundamental problem wasn’t lack of community input; it was a lack of political power among disadvantaged groups. Making it easier for people to lodge their disagreements doesn’t change the distribution of power; it only amplifies the voices of people who already have it."

Unfortunately, we see this in our local community. The council is working with some developers to rezone some land on the outskirts of our village to allow up to 1000 new houses to be built. This will have a huge impact on our community, and many residents see it as bad. There is no doubt that there are serious environmental, social and transport challenges with developments this size. Everyone agrees that we need to make sure any changes do as little harm as possible.

There seems to be an acceptance that what we have now is an acceptable baseline, possibly optimal, state. We have just the right number of houses, streets, facilities and people. But our community has gone through several phases of change over the decades. In the 1970s, hundreds of houses were built on a big street running along the top of a ridge. Older residents can remember it being built and the disruption it caused. In the time we've lived here, there has been another development of 40 houses, which was very controversial. People living nearby were worried about many more cars on their road into the new development. The developer was taken to the Environment Court over the impact on neighbouring wetlands and provision of reserves. These are all reasonable concerns, in my view.

However, there are people who go beyond that. Some of them don't want the character of the village to change, and like it just the way it is. I spoke to a few at a recent community workshop we organised to provide feedback into a structure plan for the District Plan variation to allow rezoning for these new developments. They couldn't see why people would want houses that were different to what we have now. Most of the houses here, like in most suburbs in New Zealand towns, are family-sized houses. Three or four bedroom, single-storied houses on separate sections with lawns and garages. But, not everyone wants that. The latest edition of our community newsletter included a story from a young couple living in a small house with a small garden that they loved. I spoke to someone at the workshop who couldn't understand why anyone would want a house like that. To them, the only type of house anyone would want and need is the standard family home.

An unfortunate consequence of typical subdivisions is a lack of diversity and options for people living in them. We see this already with older people, empty nesters, who have lived in the family home for decades, but there is only one or two of them there now and they would like a smaller house. There are very few small houses in Pukerua Bay. If you're lucky enough to be able to build your own, as we have been, then you can downsize and stay living here. If not, your only options are to stay living in a house you don't want, or move away. The same with childless couples or single people who only need a small house. There are slim pickings here.

So, new housing developments could be a welcome introduction of diversity into our community. It could inspire us to create social connections between people who don't have young children (the main way to meet new people here if you're in your 30s), or older people with few old friends living here (or anywhere).

But, these are the voices that are not heard in the community discussions. Typically, discussions are dominated by people who don't like the changes, and who already live here. Future residents have no voice.

We know from surveys of the community that many people accept that more housing, and more intensive housing, are inevitable. They want it to be sustainably built and environmentally-neutral, with safe ways of moving around the community, and ready access to public transport. So, it's not all negative — in fact, far from it.

I agree with Jerusalem Demsas to a certain extent — that public consultation is dominated by the self-interested existing residents, who often work against the interests of future residents. But, I don't believe it's a hopeless cause. We are lucky that our community representatives are generally open-minded about change, and take a positive approach to making sure change works well for everyone.

Our challenge is to ensure that everyone has a voice. It won't be easy (partly because we don't know who future residents might be), and there will be times we are accused to not representing the community's wishes. But, if we take a broad view of 'community', we will try our best to consider and represent everyone, and amplify the voices of those without political power.

Local development agitates locals

Our council is one that government policy is forcing to allow more intensive development, which I generally think is a good thing. We already have two developments planned for the outskirts of the village, which will more than double the number of houses. This isn’t popular. We’ve organised a public workshop with the council to look at their structure plan for the area. However, a few residents have got pretty wound up on social media, and I’m worried locals will turn up with pitchforks and burning torches and the workshop will be a schemozzle and a waste of time.

The last thing we need is people who come along to harangue council employees who are just enacting what the government is making them do. The council has to prepare and notify a District Plan variation rezoning the land to Residential, including the structure plan they want to talk to the community about, by August this year, whether we like it or not. Our choice in this is to either engage constructively to try to influence the outcome for everyone's benefit or be ignored.

You can’t lament high rents and the difficulties young families have in buying their own homes and then oppose plans to build more houses. Short of regulations to limit private rental house ownership, which no government would ever enact, flooding the market with reasonably priced, good quality, new houses is one of the few ways of breaking the stranglehold landlords have on a substantial part of the housing stock.

Although the emphasis is on 'reasonably-priced' housing, we still have to insist developments are done well. In our area, there are lots of sensitive ecological areas that need to be protected. People don’t trust developers not to cut corners to save money, and they’re right to distrust them.

We know from surveying the community on our wider, long-term Village Plan that attitudes towards new houses are more nuanced than the social media NIMBYs would make you think. Many people accept it's going to happen, but they want to make sure there is much more consideration of environmental and social impacts. No more car-dominated subdivisions, factoring in public transport, water-sensitive designs, safe walking and cycling were common demands. Attitudes are changing.

One new development in our neighbourhood is about 30 per cent Sensitive Natural Areas (native bush and wetlands) that can’t be built on. The rest of that land is pine plantations, and many of us would be happy to see the back of them. But the other development is nearly all pasture with plenty of space for houses. One fear is that we will get more of the traditional spread-out suburbs based around cars, especially from the second one.

More houses will increase the traffic by thousands of vehicle movements each day. One development is walking distance to the train station, but the other one (up to 1000 houses) is further than most people would walk. We need buses that can pick people up from near their houses and take them to the train. There aren’t enough car parks at the station anyway, and no room for more without demolishing neighbouring houses.

Discouraging walking or cycling is not a good climate change response. There is another serious proposal to build multi-storey buildings close to the train station. Kainga Ora (state housing agency) proposed that the new District Plan should allow 6-storied buildings within 400 metres of the train station. People hate the idea, but you could make an argument that it’s a better climate change response than separate single-storey houses spread out along new streets in the traditional subdivision.

For context, our village currently has about 750 houses and just under 2000 residents. The two new developments will add another 1000–1500 houses onto a contiguous urban area. We have one primary school that is just big enough for the current population, but not enough open green spaces for recreation and no sports or playing areas.

As we’ve seen down the road at the next village, where another large development has got the go-ahead, the change has irresistible momentum. We can’t stop it; the best we can do is mitigate the environmental and social damage.

Taking responsibility for saving the world

One of the big problems I often come back to is how to convert campaigns into individual action, and vice versa. Or, even more commonly, how do we make good intentions into actions that have a public benefit?

This can be simple when looking at local things, like picking up litter or clearing weeds from a local native plant reserve. We can just go and do that, normally without too much effort. We can even invite some friends to join us. When we come to issues like climate change, the oceans filling up with plastic waste and killing marine animals, or ecosystem collapses, it's a different story. They seem so big and we are so small. What can we do by ourself? So, we get behind campaigns designed to make someone more powerful than us take action, such as the government committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, getting rid of single use plastic bags, or preventing farmers from using sprays that kill bees.

I've been reading a collection of writing by the American agrarian writer, Wendel Berry, and this passage jumped out at me the moment I read it.

To me, one of the most important aspects of the environmental movement is that it brings us not just to another public crisis, but to a crisis of the protest movement itself. For the environmental crisis should make it dramatically clear, as perhaps it has not always been before, that there is no public crisis that is not also private. To most advocates of civil rights, racism has seemed mostly the fault of someone else. For most advocates of peace the war has been a remote reality, and the burden of the blame has seemed to rest mostly on the government.

But the environmental crisis rises closer to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy—and our economy’s first principle is waste—we are causing the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet. A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty. That realization ought to clear the smog of self-righteousness that has almost conventionally hovered over these occasions, and let us see the work that is to be done.

Wendel Berry, 'Think Little', 1970.

Many years ago I worked for our Regional Council on an environmental action campaign we called 'Be The Difference' where we promoted environmentally-positive actions people could take without inconveniencing themselves too much. Recycling is a classic example of this. It takes little effort to put recyclable items into separate containers instead of the normal rubbish bin. However, this gets us only so far. As Berry says, "our economy's first principle is waste" so putting recyclable items into a different waste stream isn't enough; we have to greatly reduce the amount of waste in our homes, and that involves significant changes in how and what we buy and use.

This is not to minimise the benefits of these sorts of consumer-level actions. However, we can take them without greatly affecting the industries that produce waste.

The problem with change is that it is often inconvenient; even changing to doing something that is better than at present. We get used to our ways, and new ways are unfamiliar; they are work and we try to avoid unnecessary work if we can. Mostly, we hate to do without something we rely on or are attached to.

In the case of climate change, for typical urban consumers, we will need to drastically alter the way we move around the place. That means eliminating or minimising the use of cars and using other transport instead, such as trains, buses, and bikes. That's fine if those alternatives exist; they are uncommon in smaller towns and completely absent in the country. Even then, most of us only use them if it's convenient. Tens of thousands of people travel into the city every day on the trains and buses to go to work in the city or go to school. Very few of the same people, apart from the students, use the train in the weekend if they go into town with their family to go shopping or to some entertainment. No, we drive our cars because they are more convenient. The same with going shopping or taking the kids to sport on Saturday morning. We live next to the main state highway in the region and I know that traffic past our house is as heavy—often heavier—in the weekend.

International travel is almost as bad. So many of us expect to be able to do it and the tourism industry, which employs millions around the world, depends on it. We've seen from the complaints from people who can't freely move across the border into New Zealand during the pandemic that many of us see it as a right—to be able to see family members every couple of years at Christmas, to visit every new grandchild overseas, and to go on regular overseas holidays. This is made possible by airlines that operate at the margin of profitability and offer cheap travel. One good thing from the pandemic for the environment is the reduction in this.

But, it's not only travel. It's good for the businesses involved, but is the world really a better place (socially and environmentally) because someone can cut flowers on a farm in New Zealand and have them flown to Asia so they can be in a florist's shop in just over 24 hours? I think not.

As Berry says, "there is no public crisis that is not also private." The public approach is relatively clear; there are many theories of change and lots of people willing to be involved in campaigns to change someone else's behaviour. Taking effective private action and responsibility is harder—at least as hard as changing institutions. How much is each of us prepared to give up to make the change we need? I can only speak for myself, but I bet it's not enough. Our capitalist economy is based on convenience, consumption and waste. We've come to expect it, and base our lifestyles around it.

This gets to the crux of a problem; political campaigns are designed to change the behaviour of governments and organisations, while social marketing or community-based campaigns are designed to change the behaviour of individuals. We need to be involved in both if we are to fix the problems of the world.

'Burning' brings home the horror of climate change bush fires

We've just watched the documentary Burning on the Black Summer bushfires in Australia. It was a terrible reminder of what we saw in person and in the media in the summer of 2019–2020 — Black Summer.

We were in Australia on holiday with friends in mid-November 2019 and spent some time in Leura in the Blue Mountains. On one of the days (12 November 2019), as we were walking between the villages of Katoomba and Leura, a fire started in the huge gully below the towns and spread up the hill towards the road we were walking along. It had been coming all day, starting with a bit of smoke in the distance, and ending with the villages smothered in smoke and flames at the side of the road. It was pretty scary because we were not used to fires like this. The large white cockatoos came out of the trees and perched on the roofs of the houses and garden fences.

Later, after we'd got back to New Zealand, we were in Auckland around New Year when the smoke blew across the Tasman Sea and turned the sky orange brown. By that time they had lockdowns in Sydney — shops were closed and people were told to stay home. In total, 54 million hectares of bush burned and an estimated three billion animals were killed by the fires. That was twenty one per cent of the forest cover burnt, including ancient rainforest that had never had fires because it was too cold and wet in them. The bush-filled gully we had walked through on our holiday in the Blue Mountains was completely burnt out.

What was annoying about the coverage was the disgusting propagandising by the likes of the commentators on the Murdock media. The short clips of them talking — I had forgotten about the lies they told about the fires being started by arsonists and not the result of the drought — got my goat. They are a pack of lying shills for the people and companies that have pushed the use of fossil fuels like coal and gas, and denied the reality of climate change, backed by the Morrison government. They might be on the worng side of history, but they have the real power at the moment.

Not that our government is much better. It talks a better game than the Australian government but doesn't do much more than it does.

It's hard not to be depressed by the whole thing.

Back on the drugs

Well, I'm back onto the chemo for my myeloma, after almost 6½ years remission.

I can't say I'm not a little disappointed, but I'm not surprised. As myeloma is basically incurable — the best you can hope for is a long remission — I always knew it would be back. I have been very lucky. I haven't had to take any drugs since October 2013. Some of my friends who went through treatment at the same time as me did not achieve the deep remission I had and have been on what is called 'maintenance therapy'. This normally involves taking thalidomide or one of its substitutes or close relatives. Yes, that thalidomide; the one we all feared years ago. It turns out it is brilliant at killing tumours in the bone marrow of humans and dogs.

I am repeating the same programme I was on in 2012–2013 — dexamethasone, bortezomib and cyclophosphamide (CyBorD). Nine months of that with a bone marrow stem cell transplant (SCT) in the middle. It worked brilliantly last time, and we expect it will be effective again.

What am I looking forward to? My bone pain disappearing, having successful treatment, not being too miserably sick, meeting new and interesting people during my time at hospital, learning to inject myself with one of the drugs (yes, seriously) to take it at a more convenient time at home, and working on my dharma practice about happily accepting difficulties without wishing things were any different.

What am I not looking forward to? Having to go through the tedious process of harvesting bone marrow stem cells again, getting sick following the SCT and going into hospital for a few days until the inevitable fever abates, and having a month or more off work. It's not terrible suffering, but I'd prefer to not have to do it. It's not exactly fun.

I didn't write about this the first time around because I didn't want to be a miserable person pouring out my sad feelings on screen. I'm not like that generally and I didn't want that to be all people knew of me. And I don't like sympathy. I now know it's unlikely to be a miserable experience, and I know I can be pretty objective about the whole experience. I promise I won't talk about it much or make a bit deal about it because, frankly, it shouldn't be a big deal. It's just a disease I'm taking some drugs for and having some medical procedures to treat. Lots of people do that every day, and many of them are a lot worse off than me.

I have a lot to be grateful for, and I am. I can go to work every day and stay active. I have people who love me, a warm dry place to live, food on the table, and pleasureable activities to occupy my spare time. What more does a man need?

White supremacist vs Islamist murderers

I wrote this shortly after the horrific murders of 51 innocent people and wounding of another 40 at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March 2019. I didn't publish it at the time, but I think it is still apposite.

What do you think the public reaction would have been if, instead of a white supremacist murdering 51 Muslims on 15 March 2019, a radical Islamist had murdered 51 Christians in a church?

The days after those murders were almost free of revenge talk from Muslims, apart from ISIS, deep in defeat in Syria. The government deliberately did not give much attention to the terrorist, but instead focused on the victims. Quite correctly.

But, if a Muslim had murdered 51 Christians, how safe would it have been for Muslims to be out on the streets? Would people have attacked mosques? Who would the Police have defended mosques from? Would there have been calls to step up surveillance of Muslims to detect any hints of radicalisation? Would we have had a nasty public debate about immigration?

Would there have been opinion pieces like the ones at the time about how we shouldn't have a debate about racism that might create divisions in our society, and instead of blaming each other, be looking for positive solutions? Who would have written them? The same conservative people who wrote columns in the weeks after the massacres saying just that?

Who would have said, "We told you so?" Who would have made a distinction between this hypothetical Muslim terrorist and the rest of the Muslims in New Zealand, who would have been horrified and condemned this attack? The same people who say white supremacists don't have anything in common with Pākehā who complain about immigration and worry about Muslims?

Still think we aren't a racist country?

Floating in the Fediverse

I've been pretty keen on the idea of social media ever since I first started dabbling in it. I admit that the first social media account I got was on Bebo, and that was to keep an eye on my kids when they were young teenagers so they didn't get into trouble. I didn't care if they got up to the usual young kids' silliness, and there was plenty of that, but I wanted to make sure they didn't get into any creepy situations (they didn't, fortunately).

Facebook was very seductive initially and I was able to connect with family members I didn't see from one year to the next. I got a Twitter account to check it out, but it seemed too random and feral for my liking.

But, my main social media activity at the time was on the old My Opera network. The Opera browser company set up a social network, which linked strangers from all around the world. I found some interesting people on there and would share things with them. One pair even hooked up in real life and got married, which I'm sure neither of them had expected at the start. I met a man from Dundee who went to the same high school as my father, many decades after Dad. Sadly, Opera decided that wasn't its core business and canned it. Many of us transferred to Wordpress, but there's no community there — it's just a publishing system. I already had my own blog that I hosted myself, but that was a lonely experience.

So, I stuck with Facebook, although it became less and less interesting. Until last year, when one of the few things I used it for — keeping in touch with community events and discussions — went completely feral and our small village page split in two as we were coming out of our COVID-19 lockdown. Some of the adults in the village thought they should be able to swear online and be rude to other people, and the page admins were being a bit heavy-handed in their moderation. What the hell were they thinking? I became completely disillusioned with it and walked away, apart from checking out the odd notification from family. Sadly, I'll have to stick with it just for some family convenience.

I went back to check out Twitter and found there were some interesting people from areas I'm interested in, mostly sustainable agriculture and urban and community development, posting from overseas and locally. I learned some interesting things, but never really connected with people. Twitter in New Zealand seems a lot like that group of kids at school or university who were cooler than you and clever in a slightly mean way, who you secretly admired and wanted to be liked by. There's a lot of political posturing, and New Zealand is a small place, so people carry real-life enmities and grudges into Twitter. Apart from posting a bit, and interacting with people I knew, I've never felt at home there, although I'm happy to lurk. I suppose I could curate my timeline better, but I don't know whether I can be bothered.

I read about Mastodon last year, and instantly liked the idea of it. The two things I really like about it are that it's not run out of the USA by a money-making enterprise, and it's easy to meet strangers who you have something in common with. I've been a strong supporter of things like open-source software ever since I learnt about it 20 years ago, and this has a similar philosophy, which I like. Give back what you can if you get something out of it. It aligns with my ideas about real life communities and tweaks the not quite dormant remnants of my university anarchism. So, I've connected with people I don't know, but think I like. It seems easier with strangers, as opposed to people on Twitter who you might meet in the street. Perhaps that's just the introvert in me being more extroverted with strangers who are at a distance. Either way, I feel comfortable. The fact that people seem to be nice to people they like and agree with, and ignore people they don't, makes it pleasant. There are plenty of people who would normally get treated badly by bigots in real life and who don't get bullied there (that I've seen, anyway), which makes it look as thought it's a fairly tolerant, safe place for people to be themselves. I like that. It's how life should be.

And, now I've found the Fediverse. I love the name and the concept. I don't care about the usual objections to things like Mastodon and the like, such as there not being a big-enough audience to make it worthwhile. I'm not trying to make money off this or become famous, so who cares if nobody reads what I write? I have two places to publish ( and — both convenient and not part of some evil empire.

I think it might be time to retire the Wordpress blog and stay with these two.

Acceptance first, problem-solving next

The most crucial step in dealing with any problem that crops up is accepting that it’s happened, and nothing's going to change that fact. That might sound obvious, but we spend a lot of time when difficulties arise or bad things happen wishing things were different. We're stuck listening to that internal voice that says, “No, I don’t like this. I want it to stop. I wish it hadn’t happened and that everything would go back to how it was before.”

We’ve all been there; I certainly have. You lose your job, a relationship ends, a parent dies, your cat dies, you break some treasured family heirloom, you are hurt in an accident. It’s not long before you start to regret it, feel sorry for yourself, look back to the time before the incident, and think, “If only...” This seems to be a universal human reaction to bad thing happening. From what I’ve read and heard, people in most cultures experience it — I haven’t heard of any that don’t as a general reaction.

From my experience, there are two basic types of bad situations — ones your actions contributed to in some way, and ones that were out of your control. How you react to these in the sense of who you blame and how much responsibility you take seems to depend on your sense of self (ego) and individual agency. In other words, how much control you think you have over what happens to you and how you react to it.

I’ve generally found the bad situations that I have contributed to, especially if they were the direct result of my actions, the hardest to accept. That's when I really go overboard on the recriminations — “Why did I do that?” If they also affect someone else, it’s much, much worse than if it affects just me. For example, if I went to prison it would be bad for me, but possibly worse for my family. What could I possibly do that would result in a stretch in prison? Whatever it would be, it would be shameful for my honest, law-abiding family. The separation could also be difficult for them. However, I think this is a situation where my acceptance of my situation could be made more difficult by their involvement. They could be angry or sad or ashamed, and dealing with their emotional needs would keep the focus on the acts that got me into this situation, rather than dealing with the actual situation.

I’m more sanguine about situations that I have little or no control over. Two serious medical conditions — emergency surgery to stop an aneurysm haemorrhaging and killing me, and being diagnosed with incurable cancer — took very little effort on my part to accept the reality of. In the case of the surgery, I didn’t have time to fret about the situation, and I had my normal reaction of going with the flow of what was happening. Despite ending up in intensive care for 24 hours, I wasn’t bothered by the experience. I just accepted it and went along with it.

In the case of the cancer, my doctor initially told me I possibly had another serious disease, which was a bit of a shock, although I came to accept it fairly quickly. When he confirmed the actual diagnosis of something equally incurable and more likely to result in my death, I think I was well prepared for it by having dealt with the reality of just how serious it could be.

Dealing with the emotional fallout from my family was not as easy. When my wife and I told our children, we knew they would be upset, and they were — but not as upset as we feared. They had a lot of questions, and came back with many more, and being able to have them answered helped them understand what was happening. It also helped them accept it, although they still wish I didn't have it. In fact, throughout my treatment, I found myself sometimes tending to other people's emotional needs when they became upset with the situation. I found this odd because it’s not what I expected to happen, but I imagine it’s not unusual.

As a result of me accepting the situation, I found my treatments generally went smoothly and I was unconcerned with what was happening to me. In fact, the only time it got to me was when I was in hospital one time feeling particularly shitty, and got a bit down. After a couple of days I told myself to stop feeling sorry for myself and get a grip. This actually worked and I started feel less unhappy quite quickly. Of course, it could also have been because I was starting to feel better physically.

Other people I know who have had serious illnesses have found it harder to accept and they have struggled emotionally. The strongest feeling many of them have is the sense of being a victim of something deeply unfair. The other is fear. It’s a terrible combination that can crush a person’s spirit, making it so much harder to deal with the reality.

I believe at the core of the feeling many people have of being trapped as a victim is the lack of acceptance of their situation. “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “It's unfair.” Unfortunately, some people stay trapped in that way of thinking for a long time. For some people, it’s their default way of viewing the world and they are caught, emotionally helpless, their whole lives.

I’m not making any claims to being anyone special when it comes to this — these are just my experiences and the reactions I had without really analysing why I was having them, or making any conscious decisions to accept the situation and not fight it emotionally. I have, on many occasions, resisted the existence of a situation — both big and small. For all of us, resisting what has happened is a well ingrained habit we have learned from birth, which is reinforced by the society around us.

I know terrible things happen to innocent people. But, as long as we stay in that mode of non-acceptance, we cannot move onto a proper solution or resolution. Acceptance doesn’t mean passively accepting that the situation is OK, and not doing anything about it. Of course, we take action. But, until we still that little voice that keeps saying “No,” we can’t switch our thinking to what we can do about it. Only when we openly accept what has happened, without wishing things were any different, can we focus fully on a solution.

Local authority funding response to COVID-19

Like many local politicians, Porirua City councillors are considering the impact of the looming global recession on the council's finances and how they should react. I knew they would be getting lots of advice — requested and unsolicited — and decided to add my voice to the noise. I sent this last weekend for them to consider.

Economic forecast for recession

New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is heading into what is projected to be the severest recession since the 1930s.

This recession will be different to the two previous ones, which were largely demand-side recessions, where people did not have as much money to buy good and services. There is likely to be a substantive supply side aspect to this recession, i.e. it will affect the ability of producers to supply the goods other businesses need as raw materials.

On 20 March 2020, 4.9% of the population over 15 years old (145,000 people) were on the Job Seeker allowance (it had been steady until then). A mere four weeks later, on 17 April, this had increased to 5.8% (174,600 people), an extra 28,624 people, a 20.4% increase on 20 March. This will get worse as more businesses fail as the recession takes hold and the job subsidy runs out. In its least-impact scenario, Treasury is predicting 13% unemployment and a drop in GDP of 13% during the March 2021 year, with real quarterly GDP 5% lower than forecast in June 2021. GDP doesn’t return to its projected growth path until June 2024, resulting in a 6% drop across the entire period-that’s a $124 billion loss across the economy. Inflation is projected to stay under 2%. (These growth figures are compared to Treasury’s Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update 2019.)

According to Treasury, “The protracted recovery reflects the deep and widespread disruption caused to the economy. Deep falls in international tourism, for example, are assumed to lead to services exports still being around 10% below previously forecast levels at the end of our forecast period [June 2024].”1

To put these figures in the context of other recent recessions, the global financial crisis of 2009 resulted in a 0.1% drop in real GDP growth worldwide, while the IMF is forecasting a 3% drop in real GDP growth worldwide from this recession.


Porirua City Council, like all local authorities, is governed by the Local Government Act 2002, which states that one of the two main purposes of local government is to: “promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future.”

Council is still required to spend most of its planned budget, and has extra costs looming in the form of large infrastructure spending that will be a considerable financial burden to the organisation and community. However, there is no simple solution to this problem and councils, like central government, will need a range of smaller interventions to support communities, rate payers, and the local economy.

There will be a strong temptation, and pressure on council, to reduce the financial pressure on property owners across the board by not increasing or by cutting rates, along with planned expenditure.

Council should introduce measures to reduce the rates burden on property owners suffering genuine financial hardship.

Using debt to pay current expenses or services consumed now, rather than building or repairing long-term assets, can be unfair to future generations. However, given the incredibly low interest rates at the moment, council should consider the judicious use of debt funding provided the loans are very short-term and can be paid off by current property owners.

Overseas experience has shown that austerity during recessions leads to worse social and economic outcomes and you should not go down this route. You may have to trim expenditure this year to balance a lower than expected income by pushing work into later years in your Long-Term Plan, but if you delay dealing with too many issues now, you could compound them in later years, adding to the financial burden.

Council’s procurement should be directed towards supporting local businesses to protect the local economy and jobs.

Your decisions must be based on the benefit principle (i.e. defined as, those who benefit from (or cause the need for) a service should pay for its costs), along with a consideration of people’s ability to pay2.

Rates relief

Council should resist the temptation to implement blanket changes that will benefit everyone, regardless of their situation. Any rates relief should be on the grounds of genuine financial hardship. At the moment, PCC’s Rates Remission and Postponement Policy does not allow you to do that-hardship is not one of the criteria or conditions for postponement or remission-so you would have to amend the policy to formalise this to go beyond considering requests on an emergency case-by-case basis. Currently, applications for rates remission or postponement for a rating year must be made to council by the end of June, barely two months away. This puts pressure on you in two ways:

  1. The time it will take to amend the policy and for ratepayers to collect the relevant information and make an application. Two months might not be enough time to do that, especially if you have to consult with the community.
  2. Ratepayers’ financial situation could change drastically after the start of the June financial year, leaving them unable to pay their full rates without an extra, unreasonable financial burden that leads to greater hardship. If PCC did not consider applications received after the start of the June year, this would be unreasonable and unfair to people whose financial situation is out of their control during the recession.

You must liberally apply the policy for remitting penalties added to unpaid rates. Anyone who can prove they are in genuine financial hardship should be exempted from any such penalties during the 2020–2021 financial year.

You should review any changes to these policies or mechanisms for the 2021–2022 financial year.

Providing rates relief on hardship grounds will benefit property owners whose incomes have fallen through job losses or business failures, or superannuitants who rely on investments for their retirement incomes. These investments have fallen considerably in value in many cases, as have the (growth) returns from them, and many of them will not be able to supplement their superannuation to any great extent, if at all.

Rates are fundamentally a cost of property ownership and many ratepayers want to reduce that, even at the best of times. While there will be people in genuine financial hardship, there will also be opportunists who will use this recession as an opportunity to reduce the cost of owning property. Council should resist these moves and apply any rates relief on the grounds of genuine financial hardship. Council should not provide a windfall benefit to people whose incomes have not been reduced by the recession, and whose ability to pay their rates has not changed.

Rates relief to private landlords will not benefit all low-paid tenants who have lost their jobs, as many landlords will pocket the savings, rather than pass them on by reducing rents, unless it is made a condition of receiving rates relief. Many landlords will be under financial pressure as well, and will be tempted to use this as an opportunity to shore up their own financial positions. There are limits to the accommodation supplement, but landlords should not be able to benefit through the twin subsidies of the accommodation supplement and rates relief.

Interest rates are extremely low and are projected to stay low throughout the coming recession, which means the costs of servicing mortgages is low for many property owners. The size of mortgage payments are largely the result of paying high prices in a booming market, which is a calculated risk investors and buyers have made based on the expectation of a substantial untaxed capital gain. They should be prepared to bear any losses if the market moves in the other direction.

Supporting local businesses and community

Many people, particularly in lower-paying, more insecure industries (retail, tourism and hospitality, in particular) have lost or will lose their jobs. This will increase financial, social and personal/family pressures and increase the need for support in the community. Some of this will come from central government, but local government has a critical role at a local level to support the people who make up their communities.

Council should be using its buying power to support local businesses at this time (as it should anyway). The temptation is to go for the lowest price to be prudent spenders of public money in times of constraint. However, buying local will not only support local business, but will support local people who work for them. If there is an increased cost from this, council could offset it from parts of the economic development budget that it would have spent on activities that are impossible during the pandemic, such as trade tours, international marketing, shows, events, etc.

Supporting the demand side of the local economy by purchasing goods and services locally also gives businesses the confidence to keep going so they can meet the supply side of the economy (goods and services to other businesses), which supports other parts of the local economy. This will help meet the supply-side driven aspect of the downturn that would lead to declines in production and bottlenecks that harm other businesses and consumers. Many small and medium-sized businesses have little in the way of cash reserves that will let them weather several months with low or no income, and will be in a dire situation even before people are able to start spending again. Public sector spending, whether by local or central government, can be a real boost to local businesses. This is not money that is lost to the community as it circulates around local residents and businesses. Research in the UK in 20133 showed that, following the 2009 GFC, the multiplier effect of money spent by councils with locally-owned small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) was more than 50% greater than that spent with large local or national businesses.

The idea of cutting PCC grants to community groups on the grounds that there was money available from other charitable sources was proposed during the council elections last year. This would disadvantage community groups even in normal times because the money not given out by council was not being replaced from any other source and would have resulted in the same number of groups competing for a smaller pool of money. However, community groups will now have a greater need for support and it is essential to maintain that funding as much as possible, as part of council’s support for the community.

New projects

Council should continue with new or proposed infrastructure projects as much as possible. There is currently new funding available for them from central government, which you should explore. There should be an emphasis on using local businesses on these projects, including opportunities for trade training for local workers in conjunction with Whitireia Polytecnic.

During a severe recession, there are likely to be fewer residential developments by commercial developers. However, the demand for new housing will continue and council should boost its support for greater intensification of housing as a solution. To encourage this, you should review the development contributions for infill housing to reduce the barriers to individual property owners wanting to develop their existing land. This would support local construction firms, and any loss in development contributions would be offset by permanent extra rates income.

You can do this at a local level within your own powers, but you must also work with other local authorities and Local Government New Zealand to create new funding mechanisms for local government that tap into central government’s tax revenue. This will include special purpose vehicles and growth zones, which the government had previously indicated it was interested in exploring.

Paying the living wage

This was adopted by council last year and supported by many current councilors. Backtracking on this will be identified as a possible way of saving expenditure. You should continue with your intention to pay this. A substantial proportion of your staff earn below the living wage, and their incomes will be essential in supporting their households, many of which will already be vulnerable to hardship during the recession.

Wider rates reform

Council should consider wider rates reform for the future. A number of sound proposals have been made over many years, which, in normal times, with the inevitable inertia and self-interested opposition, would be hard to adopt. Times have changed and local government has the opportunity to adopt new ways of working and funding its work to adapt to a different future.

  1. New Zealand Treasury. 2020. Treasury report T2020/973: Economic scenarios. Retrieved from 16 April 2020. 

  2. New Zealand Productivity Commission. 2019. Local government funding and financing. Retrieved from 27 April 2020. 

  3. Federation of Small Business. (2013). Local Procurement: Making the most of small business, one year on. Retrieved from 27 April 2020. 

Morality of a Covid-19 lockdown

What is often presented as a binary 'jobs versus lives' choice in debates on the appropriate response for the Covid-19 pandemic is anything but. It's really a moral choice, although both sides can often present it as a conflict between their competing expertise. However, as a society, we appear incapable of having these debates in public in a reasonable manner.

There is no shortage of people pushing their opinions on the right response to Covid-19 that New Zealand should follow. We've been in a hard lockdown for just over three weeks (four days to go until the initial end date given), and the government is likely to ease out slowly from the end of next week. Our Prime Minister told us last week that 'level three' would still have many of the restrictions on freedom of movement and activity in our current 'level four'.

An economist in yesterday's paper described the government's approach so far as a

"...least-regret strategy based on the assumption that people may get their jobs back, but lost lives cannot be recovered. This approach is favoured in extreme uncertainty where there are irreversible outcomes." 1

I thought that was a pretty good description of the choices the government had made.

The world is probably going into a deep recession whichever way our government chooses to respond. However, there have been some insistent voices that are pushing for the faster easing of restrictions because the economic and social costs of a deep recession are too high, as though that largely hinges on the actions of our government. On the other hand, their critics claim the proponents of easing are willing to sacrifice people for jobs and to protect the economy, and an understanding of the science shows us the correct way to proceed.

This misrepresents the true nature of the debate. This is, at its heart, a debate about values and morals and the right way to act in certain situations, which both medicine and economics can inform but not rule on. We shouldn't shy away from a debate about the relative value of people's lives compared with the long-term impact of decisions on our society, economy and communities. Within that debate, there's nothing inherently wrong with advancing the sort of utilitarian moral argument some of these people are making. You can choose to accept it or not. But critics of the lockdown don't present it that way because it looks too hard-hearted and most people reject that sort of analysis.

So, instead, they present it as some well-founded judgement based on specialist knowledge and expertise that gives them insights that normal people don't have. Or on logic. Or the conservative's traditional refuge, 'common sense'. They fudge it to make it look as though they aren't making that comparison because they know that when it comes to people's lives, explicit utilitarian arguments and tradeoffs can offend many people.

We make utilitarian moral decisions all the time, even if we don't think we do. Governments certainly do and many of their policies are based on some interpretation of it. In health funding in New Zealand, the drug-buying agency Pharmac gets good deals with manufacturers by driving hard bargains on behalf of our state-funded health system. It also has to ration access to the most expensive drugs in order to maximise the benefit it can get for the greatest number of people from the budget it gets from the government. It's been the target of well-run campaigns by doctors and cancer support groups to get funding for some very expensive drugs. These campaigns have been emotional and the media have willingly featured individuals who would die in a short while without the drugs — many of them will die soon anyway, even with the drugs, but their lives could be extended by months or possibly a year or so.

However, many people will accept that the greater good is served by letting some people die sooner than they might so that a larger number of people can get a greater benefit from Pharmac's limited funding. That's a blunt way of saying it, but these are the trade-offs we make, even if we feel uncomfortable with them.

When we are faced with a serious and sudden crisis that we think we might have a chance of influencing, we tend to go for moral absolutes, such as 'You can't put a price on a life.' Of course, we do put a price on a life, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly, as the Pharmac example shows. But, that's a situation we've become used to. A global pandemic caused by an unknown and unpredictable agent that could kill millions of people in a few weeks or months is not something we have had time to become used to, so we react strongly and tend to take morally absolute positions on it. Our humanity and compassion drives us to take drastic action — the 'least regret' strategy mentioned earlier.

"Tradeoffs involving health, mortality and money are uncomfortable to discuss, but it's the reality of public health." 2

The medical experts advising the government are also taking a moral stance on this, even if they don't necessarily present it as that. They also justify their stance on the basis of their expertise and on the science of the disease. But, there are a lot of value judgements that underpin their practice, e.g. 'do what ever is possible using the resources you have to save someone's life'. Things have to be pretty bad before doctors triage incoming patients and decide which ones they will try to save and which ones they will let die (although doctors in Italy had to do this because they didn't have enough equipment to treat everyone).

I don't have a problem with people making these utilitarian moral arguments about which decisions will cause the least harm, even though I would reject their conclusions to ease restrictions at this stage in the pandemic. However, the negative reaction to a proposal earlier this week to reduce the lockdown was swift and strong, and you would have to be brave or stupid or both to advance it at this time. The people making the proposal could have presented a better argument, but they didn't, and it was never going to fly with a government that has such strong public support for its approach. It's a shame that we aren't able to have deep discussions about these important matters of principle, even when we're in the midst of a crisis. The channels we have for doing so — the news media and social media — don't encourage it, or even make it possible. And, sadly, I'm not confident we will be able to have a public debate on them even after the crisis is over.

  1. Sarah Hogan, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in the Dominion-Post, Saturday 18 April, 2020 

  2. Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health, AUT, in the Sunday-Star Times, Sunday 19 April 2020 

Wendell Berry on community

"A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves."

Wendell Berry (2012). The Long-Legged House, p.71, Counterpoint Press

Living differently in a modern city

Closer community, more efficient transport, better recreation

With Porirua's population expected to grow by at least 50 per cent in the next 30 years, we are going to have to look at ways of redesigning our suburbs — new and existing — if we want to avoid continued sprawl over neighbouring farmland. But, to do so, we are going to have to change our psyche and our quarter acre suburban culture to foster closer connections between neighbours, make better use of more efficient public transport systems, and create better recreation opportunities.

I've often thought, as I've looked along wide suburban streets with no people in them, that if we took from the houses all the front lawns or grassy berms, which are virtually unused apart from being mown every week or two, and amalgamated them, we would have far more parks than we have now. Or maybe community food producing spaces like Te Rito Gardens and the food forest we're developing in Pukerua Bay. That would give us more space to gather as communities, more places for our kids to play together safely, and provide oases of green to break up the monotony of many of our streets.

That's a big thing for someone trained in landscaping and garden design to say. Getting rid of the inviting front yard, with the welcoming path that leads visitors to the house entrance, and the shrubs that provide a buffer between the house and the road, particularly in a suburban area, really goes against the grain. Waikato Times columnist Nicola Martin discussed different city living in a column a few weeks ago (Kiwis and Nimbyism when it comes to living in high-rise, high-density developments). The thing that struck me the most was her statement that 95 per cent of the people of the Norwegian capital, Olso, live no more than 300 metres from a green space. How many of us can say that?

But, it wouldn't be easy to convince councils to create more of these green spaces. Grass needs to be mown, gardens need to be weeded, trees and shubs need pruning, and rubbish needs to be picked up. Currently, residents do that for free on their own land or the council's road berm, and councils would not be keen to ask them to pay for that through their rates if the council became responsible for maintaining many more parks.

This is not just a planning change; it's a big cultural change. Many of us are still wedded to the quarter acre paradise, our own detached home on a section with room for a vege garden, space to park the boat trailer and both cars, and room for the kids to run around or ride their bikes. However, with land such a large component of the price of a residential section (60 per cent on average across the country and 70 per cent in Auckland) for many of us, that is becoming a luxury we struggle to afford.

But there's a cost to not having spaces to gather in. Communities like Pukerua Bay, where I have lived for 30 years, expose how what appear to be close communities can be fractured by their structure (in our case, State Highway 1 cutting the village in half) and lack of common spaces. Pukerua Bay has what seems to be a fairly tight community, but once you dig into it, you discover that it is almost entirely based around our local school and kindergarten. At any time, they have 150–200 families with children attending. However, we have more than 700 households in Pukerua Bay. If you don't have young children, then you aren't part of that kindy/school community. Once your children leave primary school, that community starts to drift away and all you are left with is some smaller, established friend groups. The only reason I know so many younger families here is because I have stayed involving in running the local junior soccer club for the past 14 years. Without that, I would know virtually none of them.

Loneliness is one of our fastest growing social problems, particularly as society ages, and the way communities are designed to keep people apart will continue to make this a growing problem. We can see how many elderly people, who may have been quite isolated when living in their own self-contained homes, suddenly find themselves part of a community of new friends and acquaintances when they sell up and move to a retirement village. There is a strong cultural urge for privacy in New Zealand pākehā society, and I don't think the influence of other cultures, particularly Māori and Pacific, has reduced that by much.

We can start to break down this isolating privacy and make a change to closer communities. However, tackling this isn't something that local councils can do on their own, and we shouldn't expect them to. The problems don't belong to them; they belong to all of us, so it's something we all should be involved in. And the beauty of it is that it can include everyone and anyone — from the youngest children to the oldest people in our communities. Just like a real family.

Candidates' meeting stump speech notes

We had our second-to-last 'meet the candidates' community meetings tonight in Paremata. We got three to five minutes to talk at each one. If you weren't able to get along to any of them, here's my campaign stump speech.

Tēnā koutou katoa. Ko Iain MacLean ahau.

What sort of community do you want to live in?

Infrastructure and how much it costs is critically important. But that's only part of what council does. It also helps build communities.

I'm focused on three, closely related areas. The first is sustainable development.

I want all our communities — new and existing — to work well for everyone. Porirua's population is expected to grow by about 50 per cent over the next 30 years. And many of these people will be living in the northern growth area, between Pukerua Bay and Plimmerton/Camborne, as well as in Porirua east.

This growth is going to affect all of us and have huge impacts on our environment, the surrounding communities and infrastructure, and ratepayers — that's most of us — will pay many of the bills. Growth can create opportunities, but it needs to be affordable.

And it needs to be sustainable — socially and economically — and environmentally, so we can protect precious places like Taupō Swamp and the inlet, and not contribute to climate change.

We need to reduce the impacts on local traffic, and ensure we all have good access to high quality public transport, and services such as new schools.

My second focus area is strong communities.

Our Village Planning Programme has seen an explosion in community democracy, and we've gone from four residents associations to 14. We can expand on that incredible growth.

Council should empower all our communities so they can build on their strengths, based on principles of social equity and equal opportunities for everybody. And we need to give all our young people more say about the future of their communities, and get them involved in creating the communities they want.

My third focus area is a healthy environment.

It's under stress — and growth and climate change will make it worse.

Council has the power to do a lot of good here. It can choose sustainable and low carbon options in its work, and take strong action to protect our environment. This includes working with rural landowners and developers to support them to reduce the environmental impacts of farming and forestry, and residential developments. Householders need to play their part in this, too.

I'm encouraged by the proposed district plan, which seems to be on the right track with this.

The erosion we've already seen around our coast recently is only going to get worse with sea level rise, and we need to prepare for the impacts of climate change. That's going to be one of the most important functions of future councils.

We all know how high our rates are. Prudent management of the council's finances is essential, and you will hear many suggestions for that tonight. But tweaking our current budget won't tackle the big issue of how we pay for growth.

Our current system of funding local government, with its heavy reliance on a property tax, won’t cope with the high growth we are experiencing in Porirua, and it needs to change.

The government is looking at this now — in a small way through the Productivity Commission — and we have to strongly support any opportunity for real reform, and work with others in the sector to make it happen.

I've been involved in our Pukerua Bay community for many years, and I've been the chair of the Residents Association for the past nine.

I've been a strong advocate for our community with the city and regional councils, and the likes of NZTA and KiwiRail. The people in these organisations generally like working with me — not because I'm a pushover, but because I have established good, productive, working relationships with them and focus on the solutions, rather than the problems.

I've seen council up close from working there, and I know being effective takes a team effort.

That's how I have worked for Pukerua Bay for many years. And that's how I would work on council, for the good of all our local communities.