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.

'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 (Fediverse.blog and Listed.to) — 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.

Proposal

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 https://treasury.govt.nz/publications/tr/treasury-report-t2020-973-economic-scenarios-13-april-2020 16 April 2020. 

  2. New Zealand Productivity Commission. 2019. Local government funding and financing. Retrieved from https://www.productivity.govt.nz/inquiries/local-government-funding-and-financing/ 27 April 2020. 

  3. Federation of Small Business. (2013). Local Procurement: Making the most of small business, one year on. Retrieved from https://cles.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/FSB-procurement-2013.pdf 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.

Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet

The Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet asked me about what I saw as the challenges and my priorities for the inlet, and what I would do about them if I were elected to Porirua City Council. This is what I told them.

What are the challenges facing the inlet?
The inlet is facing multiple challenges from the impacts of development in the catchments, both existing and planned. The large earthworks from Transmission Gully, existing subdivisions in Whitby/Pauatahanui, and farming activities all add to the burden on the inlet. There has been plenty of research by Regional Council and others into the impacts human activites are having. Sediment buildup is clogging the harbour and harming the ecosystems and creatures that live there, and destroying biodiversity.

The poor state of much of our wastewater and stormwater infrastucture means the harbour and inlet regularly suffer pollution in heavy rain.

The topography of Porirua means most of the planned urban and industrial development is in harbour catchments, and it all present a risk to the health of the harbour.

What are your priorities for the inlet?
Reduce sedimentation and stormwater runoff from earthworks and developments.

Reduce impact of farming (stock effluent and other landuse activities) and forestry on waterways that feed into the harbour.

Minimise impact of roading and transport activities (e.g. heavy metals and fuel discharges from vehicles, etc) running into harbour. Good road design to prevent harm caused by vehicles.

What would you do about these challenges and priorities if you're elected?
There are rules and plans galore around the harbour. Everyone agrees that we need to take action to protect and improve the state of the harbour and Pauatahanui Inlet.

Stormwater and wastewater infrastucture needs to be upgraded urgently. Council has allocated funding in the LTP, and it's crucial it sticks to these intentions.

We need public education on how residents can protect the harbour, with simple steps we can all take to help clean it up.

Ensure the proposed District Plan includes strict enough measures to minimise the impact of development.

Work closely with Regional Council so both councils support each other's monitoring and compliance of activities in harbour catchments. Support implementation of Porirua Whaitua committee recommendations into regional plans and strategies.

Work with rural landowners to help them minimise the impacts of their activities on the harbour and catchments.

Ensure council allocates longterm funding for remediation and protection activities.

Common Climate Network survey

Here are the answers I provided to the Common Climate Network survey of candidates on climate change (one of several surveys on climate change).

Vision for future in one tweet

(If you were looking back at the decisions the council made about climate change, what would you like to say in a tweet?)
We had made sure that new developments were climate change resilient and reduced emissions, council had chosen low emission operational options, and we had minimised the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities.

Inclusive transition

Transition to low carbon economy
Council has a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of its policy decisions and actions on climate change. PCC will soon prepare a climate change response strategy, which it will include in its next long term plan. This would be a suitable place for the council to be involved in groups working across the economy and community regarding training and infrastructure that supports or enables a low carbon economy. It can use its procurement policies to support businesses working like this. However, individual business opportunities should be left to the market to take advantage of.

Tangata whenua
Council appears to have a good relationship with tangata whenua, who have opportunities for influence at the highest levels of council. Everything the council does on behalf of communities should be done in partnership with them. It should use its relationships to be empowering communities to develop their resources and strengths. Those relationships should ensure that tangata whenua are able to influence the council's decisions and actions. This should just be part of the council's culture and why it does things the way it does.

Pacific involvement
Council should be working closely with Pacific communities and networks so they have equal opportunities to influence decisions and get the outcomes their communities want. I think PCC generally does this, but we can always do better.

Diversity & social equity
The council's work with different communities should not be in a top-down manner, where council is 'in charge' of the city and runs it in the way it thinks is best. Council should be working with its communities to help them develop into the types of communities the members want them to be. These will differ for different communities, but the council should operate under some basic principles of social equity and universal opportunity for everyone. We're such a diverse community here in Porirua, so it should just be a natural part of how council operates to involved everyone in its work, planning and decisions. It's really important that the young people from right across all of our communities are involved in decision-making and community-building. Once again, I believe council needs to empower different communities to build on their strengths in order to become what they want, with the same opportunities for everyone.

Working constructively

Change can be hard and can take longer than we want. Plans, coalitions and policies are important, but to make change stick, we have to involve everyone who can bring their strengths and enthusiasm to it. A meaningful and lasting response to climate change will involve changing habits and entrenched interests that have developed over generations. Councils have to make it easy for people to 'do the right thing' and provide incentives for them to do so. I don't have any vested interests beyond a desire for people and communities to work together to create the solutions that will work for them. That has to include everyone. Many people from all parts of our communities are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and want to be part of the solution. Council needs to help them find the ones that works for them. You nearly always get a better result when everyone is involved constructively.

Actions to support clean transport

We know that people in Porirua are enthusiastic public transport users. If we build park & ride opportunities, people will use them. The new developments planned for our city are excellent opportunities to develop clean transport systems based around public transport hubs (normally train stations) with feeder bus routes from nearby communities. New developments should also be build around cycling and walking as the main means for short trips (to the shops, school, public transport or visiting friends). Council should be investing in electric or hybrid cars as it replaces its fleet vehicles and removing any impediments to electric charging stations in the city. We shouldn't be encouraging new big box retail developments that encourage people to drive long distances to go shopping in the weekends.

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency pays for itself, and council should always default to energy efficient options. Project planning and return on investment calculations should include the long-run operating costs (with efficient options) so council doesn't chose the cheapest initial option that costs more to run in the long-term. That might require some changes to financial policies and the way project managers operate their budgets, and I would support changes to result in long-term savings.

Waste reduction emissions

I don't know enough about this to give a considered answer.

Urban development

I believe all future urban development should be compact and based around existing transport hubs as much as possible. More compact development can satisfy both environmental concerns and housing affordability, and help create closer and stronger communities. PCC has a growth strategy that favours compact development, but it ought to be the preferred option for all developments. However, it does assume significant population growth (50 per cent in 30 years) and that will inevitably result in more greenfields developments. All new developments must satisfy high standards of water containment and sediment run-off, and include a diverse mixture of recreation opportunities that protect vegetation and waterways as much as possible.

Governance experience

I take a very collaborative approach to getting things done, and finding solutions to issues. I'm used to working in teams, both in my jobs and in community groups I've been involved in. I've been the chair of the Pukerua Bay Residents Association for nine years, and have developed a reputation as someone who focuses on finding solutions, rather then escalating or continuing problems.

Government's urban development intentions laudable, but funding is still a problem

There's a lot to like about the government's National Policy Statement on Urban Development, released yesterday. Its intentions to allow cities to grow up around city centres and transport connections take advantage of the efficiencies you can get from more compact growth. And the desire to create "high and medium density communities with good urban design and open spaces" while avoiding all the downsides of sprawl at urban margins is right on the money as far as I'm concerned.

This is exactly what we should be promoting in Porirua as the city grows. But, there are funding problems we need to deal with now.

It correctly identifies that the current planning failures include urban land markets not enabling developments to keep up with growth and ensure land is affordable (and the price of land is the killer for housing affordability), and poorly integrated transport systems that don't reduce our dependency on travelling by car. Its objectives are good, "...ways to make our urban markets perform better by making room for growth, making sure growth pays for itself, investing in transport to drive more efficient and liveable urban forms, and ensuring healthy and active travel is more attractive." These are all good from an environmental, social and fiscal point of view.

Everybody seems to be on the same page about more intensive urban development. The proposals are totally in line with PCC's Growth Strategy on more compact development around transport hubs and in greenfields developments. It also suggests doing away with the restrictions on car parks in intensively developed areas, which I suggested in a recent blog — insisting on two off-road car parks for new houses larger than 75m2 is a disincentive to more compact housing.

I like that the proposed NPS extends its coverage to include the amenity, environmental and cultural aspects of development and "quality urban environments." This can give the existing community and council better opportunities to plan for future change, and get away from the current bias towards the status quo, which represents the interests of current residents to the detriment of future residents, who don't have a voice until after development has happened (by which time, it's often too late or too hard to change).

I haven't had time to analyse this NPS in detail and compare it to PCC's 30-year Growth Strategy, but it seems to be along the same lines. However, the Growth Strategy was prepared under the 2016 National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, which this new NPS replaces and adds to. Cities like Porirua would be required to prepare new Future Development Strategies (FDS) under the NPS. These have to set minimum bottom lines for residential development capacity and enable intensification — both of which the PCC Growth Strategy does. I hope this does not mean PCC has to prepare a whole new growth Strategy/Future Development Strategy — that would be a real waste of time, effort and money to have to redo all the work developing it last year.

However, it looks like councils would have to prepare a new FDS every three years that look out over the medium to long term. Sounds like the current Long Term Plan process, which is very time consuming — more cost for councils!

Infrastructure funding is still a problem

However, there's still a gaping hole in this, which is paying for new infrastructure. Councils are having to pick up the tab for a lot of this, despite getting development contributions to reduce the impact on current residents. PCC's new Development Contributions Policy (approved by Council yesterday) is an attempt to get developers to pick up more of the cost of this. That's only fair — they should pay the marginal cost of adding each new house to the existing networks (even if they just pass it onto the buyers).

But that doesn't cover all the cost to the existing community. This is a huge problem for all growth councils, and the government isn't doing enough to help. Successive governments have encourage immigration because it boosts economic growth and provides skills New Zealand hasn't been able to provide locally. I generally support that. Central government benefits through the increased income taxes and GST it receives, but councils have to pick up most of the bill for infrastructure. The government pays for some, such as transport, but as the Auckland, Wellington City and Greater Wellington Regional Councils know, getting money from the government to fund new transport capacity is hard work.

This growth, which Porirua is now facing, needs better funding from the government. The only way to do this is through a major overhaul of how local government is funded. Central government isn't keen on doing that because it doesn't want to share the tax booty from population growth, and existing ratepayers don't want to pay because they don't see why they should when many of the benefits of growth go to central government. Bernard Hickey discusses this on Newsroom.

Without major reform of local government funding, we're just fiddling at the edges, and these good ideas will not be as effective as we need them to be. We need central government to come to the party, and local politicians to face up to the size of the problem and realise that we can't fix the problems by ourselves (which will lead to failure if we attempt it), or just shift the costs onto the next generation (which is completely unfair).

With Porirua's population expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 25–30 years from developments already well into the planning phases, we need to tackle this now.

New schools for northern ward

We need schools in new developments before existing local schools run out of room

As our population grows in Porirua, we’ll need more of the social services we expect in our city. One of them is new schools.

The Plimmerton Farm development will add another 5,000 people to that part of town, which will included a few hundred school-aged children. What schools will they go to? The surrounding primary schools — Plimmerton, St Theresa’s, Pukerua Bay and Paremata — don’t have the room to take another couple of classrooms each without giving up even more space on their grounds.

It takes the Ministry of Education two years from the time it decides to build a school until it hands the keys to the community. And it takes a few years to make the decision to build the school. So, the sooner the community can start to plan for new schools, the better. The Council has a role in this — bringing the community, Ministry of Education and other people together to start the process. So, when the community has grown to a size that it needs a new school, it has one.

Council should push urban intensification

Most of the growth we're expecting in Porirua is in greenfields developments, however I think we should also be encouraging intensification of existing built-up ares.

When the council was developing its Growth Strategy last year, I made a submission on the benefits of intensification versus greenfields development.

If cities can accommodate population growth at higher densities, or within existing urban areas, or both, then you need less greenfield land for new housing. Under the government's National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, PCC has to make available enough land for the projected growth. The availability of suitable land is an issue in the Wellington region and is a limit to growth.

Research shows that when density increases beyond a certain level, car use declines in favour of public transport, walking, and cycling. That means fewer car parks needed in commercial areas, and fewer CO2 emissions. Spreading out over greenfields developments increases the number of cars driven and the distance they're driven, with more CO2 emissions.

If you have surplus infrastructure capacity in urbanised areas, adding more people to these areas makes more efficient use of public urban infrastructure such as the three waters, as well as “soft” infrastructure such as schools and social services.

There is less water runoff than there would be from new roads and paths in new subdivisions, which is an important issue for Porirua, where a lot of the water from new developments will go into the harbour or possibly threaten Taupō Swamp.

There is a greater choice in housing — size, style and cost — and increased security for residents, with greater opportunities for social interaction and support.

It's also a lot cheaper. According to research from Curtin University, quoted in a presentation to a Planning Institute conference in 2013 comparing infrastructure costs (services, transport & health) for 1,000 dwellings (in $AUD):

  • Infill housing infrastructure costs = $309m
  • Expansion housing infrastructure costs = $653m

Development in already urbanised areas would play to our city’s strengths rather than spreading our resources over an ever-wider territory.

I know it's not universally popular — not everyone wants more neighbours living closer to them — but I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of both intensification and its alternatives.

PCC is intending to make intensification easier in the new District Plan, which is great. However, PCC needs to actively encourage intensification. The District Plan can remove barriers and restrictions, but it's disappointing the Growth Strategy didn't make intensification the preferred option over greenfields developments (or at least equal to it). It does assume there will be more intensification around public transport hubs, and I think PCC should look at incentives for people wanting to subdivide that would encourage them. Forget about a level playing field — it should skew the field in favour in higher density housing in existing urban areas.

For instance, the District Plan insists on two off-road car parks for every dwelling larger than 75m2, which is based on an assumption all households have two cars and don’t use other means of transport, e.g. train or bus. This means many subdivided sections will have to provide four off-road carparks and might mean intensification is not feasible. Is that sensible around public transport hubs? If intensification is going to be encouraged around these hubs, that requirement should be relaxed to also encourage intensification.

Intensification should also be encouraged in new developments. This should be a condition of new developments because many of the benefits of intensification of existing urban areas, especially the social and environmental ones, can come from more intensive new developments. The first stage of Plimmerton Farm is fairly intensive, and PCC should be looking at this as a model for further developments.

Sportfields for all

I went to Ngati Toa Domain to watch the Pukerua Bay 10th grade Orcas play today, and it made me think about how important it is for new developments in Porirua to cater for all the people who will want to play sport here. The City Council needs to plan for future demand and make sure it's in everyone's plans early.