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You won’t BELIEVE what Corrections is spending your money on NOW
You won’t BELIEVE what Corrections is spending your money on NOW

MediaMay 3, 2024

The prison slushy story is back, baby, and it’s less nutritious than ever

You won’t BELIEVE what Corrections is spending your money on NOW
You won’t BELIEVE what Corrections is spending your money on NOW

What’s more wasteful than spending $315k on syrup and machine maintenance? Trying to drum up a controversy about it.

Cast your mind back to the pre-pandemic idylls of 2019. A “rat” was a disgusting rodent and not a self-administered plague test; the sixth Labour government was in power; and the summers were hot. So hot, in fact, that the Department of Corrections installed 193 slushy machines at the end of 2018 as a “health and safety” measure to keep prison guards cool during the sweltering summer months. (Prisoners, they were careful to clarify, wouldn’t get their lips around them.) 

Do you expect us to believe that horse shit!?, opposition leader Simon Bridges fumed under his breath when he heard the news. “This kind of spending shows the government doesn’t need to be taxing Kiwis more,” he told the media in April, “as they clearly don’t know how to spend what they’re already taking.” By May, his rage had boiled over in parliament. “What has the government delivered? Nothing!”, he yelled across the debating chamber, before shrieking out a linguistic nail in his political coffin: “Slushies!”

It was a spectacle to feast on, and the nation ate its fill. But like the slushy itself, it was full of empty calories. The whole fiasco concerned a taxpayer expense amounting to a whopping 0.0009% of the government’s total spend that year, and it was an outgoing nobody but the most hardline NZTU stalwarts really begrudged the prison guards, a group of people most voters have some sympathy for given their challenging job, practically boiling alive inside their heavy, stab-proof vests. 

As Alex Braae wrote for The Spinoff at the time, Bridges exposed himself as being “utterly ridiculous”, and the story went from political outrage porn to absurdist theatre in a matter of days, before fizzing out like a spent firework. 

Until yesterday morning, when the NZ Herald tried to reignite the fuse. 

“Controversial prison slushies rack up $315k bill for syrup and maintenance,” read the article’s headline, a figure the Herald extracted from the Department of Corrections via the Official Information Act. Turns out Corrections still uses and maintains 160 of the 193 slushy machines installed in 2018, and this has cost the department “$217,273 on syrups to flavour the ice mixes, and $81,598 on maintenance” to date. (That adds up to $298,871. It’s not clear to me where the figure in the headline comes from.) 

So, we’re talking about an average of around $50k a year, a rounding error in government expenditure terms – something like 0.00004%, if we use the 2023 spend as a benchmark. This ~big reveal~ about how your taxpayer dollars are being spent? A total non-story. “An entirely justifiable drop in the bucket for people doing a difficult, dangerous and vital job,” reads a representative comment from the comments section. 

Why bother producing a story like this? There were clear signs the taxpayer outrage angle would flop, despite being the easiest political rage-bait in the book (see also: KFC, hair straighteners); chief among them the fact that we already litigated this issue in the court of public opinion five years ago, Simon Bridges shrill enough to shatter crystal the whole time, and the verdict was “ehhhhhh, who cares”. 

Listen: unlike some people in my Greens-sticker-on-the-MacBook-Air milieu, I think reporting about wasteful taxpayer expenditure can be important and newsworthy, including when a Labour government is at the helm. In fact, I hate waste in all its forms. That’s why I hate this rage-bait approach. 

It’s a waste! It’s a waste of journalistic resources (thin on the ground right now); it’s a waste of time for the government worker who had to respond to the OIA; it’s a waste of brain cells to read (and, yes, write about). Think of the groundbreaking stories a well-worded and directed OIA request can uncover. This is what you expend your Carl Bernstein energy on? 

It’s not that a slushy story in 2024 couldn’t be great. I’d read a 3,000-word essay mulling what the slushy fiasco said about Aotearoa’s political arena and national psyche pre-pandemic; a real “simpler times” cultural retrospective that you could pore over next to a steaming cup of tea.

But trying to drum up outrage about the cost? In this economy? Fix yourself a beverage, and get back to the drawing board.

Keep going!