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PoliticsAugust 13, 2021

Live updates, August 13: MediaWorks chair resigns; Amazon’s Lord of the Rings quits NZ


Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 13, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day.  Get in touch at

3.00pm: Mental Health Foundation boss ‘gutted’ at ministry departure

Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson has expressed disappointment at the departure of the Ministry of Health’s top mental health executive, despite their differences. Alex Braae reports:

Shaun Robinson said he was “really gutted” to hear that Ministry of Health deputy director for mental health Toni Gutschlag would be moving on after 10 months in the job. Gutschlag and Robinson had previously clashed over what Robinson said was an attempt to “gag” his criticisms of the government’s performance on mental health. Gutschlag, who is being moved to another role in the ministry, had also been involved in the controversial editing down of a key mental health report, reported Stuff.

But speaking to The Spinoff, Robinson said the departure was symptomatic of the ministry churn holding back addressing the state of mental health. “I actually feel we had been starting to make some progress, and now she’s moved on,” said Robinson, noting that it was almost exactly what happened with the last two people in the job too. “We’re up to four people in that role in the space of three years.”

He added: “The machinery of the bureaucracy … is significantly broken. And when you have a revolving door of senior leadership in a key area that you’re trying to change, you can’t expect to get positive change. I can understand minister [Andrew] Little has been very frustrated with the Ministry of Health – I’ve been frustrated with the Ministry of Health too. But I think there’s a real danger in scapegoating the officials, and not actually getting a solution to the problem.”

Robinson said he understood Little had an unreleased strategic plan for mental health “sitting on his desk”, and while he personally still had confidence in the minister, Robinson said planning has been lacking from the recent approach. “What is very important is the political leadership to make this happen, and that political leadership has to understand what the mental health and addictions inquiry was saying,” said Robinson, who rated the government’s performance in response to that inquiry “underwhelming”. The ministry is currently facing a massive shakeup, with the establishment of a new Health NZ agency, and the abolition of the DHB system.

1.50pm: Record high 390 new community cases in NSW

The grim news continues from Australia’s most populous state. Today there are 390 new community-transmitted cases of Covid-19, with two people dying with the infection. Of the 390, a new record, at least 60 people were infectious while in the community, state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. “I anticipate, given the large number of cases we have had in the last few days, unfortunately this trend will continue for at least the next few days,” she added.

Last night ACT went into lockdown after new cases emerged, joining parts of New South Wales and Victoria.

1.30pm: MediaWorks chair quits ‘with immediate effect’

Jack Matthews, chair of the MediaWorks board, has resigned following the release last week of a report which identified “a culture of acceptance of misconduct”.

In a statement, Matthews said: “After nearly five years as chair of Mediaworks, I have decided to resign with immediate effect. I am proud of the work we have done at MediaWorks, however, it is clear from the recent culture review completed by Maria Dew QC that there are systemic, longstanding cultural issues that need to be urgently and proactively addressed. Part of that action must include bringing new leadership that can bring a fresh perspective to the challenges we face and address the issues identified in the Maria Dew report.”

Matthews expressed his confidence in the chief executive, Cam Wallace, who took up the role at the start of the year, and his ability to “drive the changes needed to make Mediaworks the company we all want it to be”. The Mediaworks board of directors has accepted Matthews’ resignation.

1.15pm: No new community cases; wastewater tested in Tauranga

For the 166th day on the trot, there are no cases of Covid-19 in the community in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has announced. There is one new case detected in MIQ, a close contact of another case already in quarantine. It brings the active case count to 44. There were 6,060 tests processed yesterday.

Some more good news: Wastewater testing has been carried out in Tauranga and Mt Maunganui on Monday and Tuesday found no trace of Covid-19 virus. Results from samples collected on Wednesday are expected today. The testing follows unvaccinated port workers visiting a ship whose crew later tested positive for the virus.

On the vaccination count, 48,612 doses were administered yesterday, bringing the total dose number to 2.39m. Just over 1.5 million of those are first doses and a smidge under 883,000 are second doses.

Yesterday Jacinda Ardern announced that vaccine bookings will be open to everyone over 16 as of September 1. The gap between doses, in accordance with international research, will also be increased.

There were 612,614 scans in the 24 hours to midday yesterday, which is a decent increase on the 455,000ish for the 24 hours before, but still (if you’ll forgive the technical jargon) pisspoor.

12.30pm: National blames Nash for loss of Amazon cash

The Amazon decision to uproot the world’s most expensive television production ever and put Middle-earth back in Middle England was caused by a government “blunder” that would “cost New Zealand $4.5bn”, according to the National Party spokesperson for economic development, Todd McClay. Stuart Nash, he said, should have negotiated the 5% top-up rebate with a requirement that more just the first season, which wrapped shooting last week, take place in New Zealand. Instead he was “asleep at the wheel”, said McClay.

“Stuart Nash didn’t even bother to ask the company to commit to filming a second season, if there was to be one, in New Zealand,” said McClay in a statemet. “Nash’s excuse is that he would ‘never get a commitment from a studio to film season two’. This is a departure from past screen production negotiations, James Cameron’s team committed to filming three Avatar sequels in New Zealand when receiving their 5% rebate increase.

He added: “Nash said himself that Amazon could film up to seven more seasons here in New Zealand. Losing out on this means New Zealand misses out on more than $4.5bn worth of spending and 2000 jobs have been put at risk. “The film scheme set up by the previous National government has worked well over the years.”

Separately, I’ve spoken to a couple of people involved in the production, which had two massive units shooting in the Auckland region, and the word both used: “gutted”. It seems that the first most people on the crew, which numbered over 1,000, heard of the decision was when it was reported in media this morning.

11.30am: House prices up 25% in a year

Five months after the government presented a long-awaited package designed to “tilt the balance” in a housing market in crisis, prices continue to travel in the same direction: dramatically up. New figures from the Real Estate Institute of NZ show a year on year increase to July 2021 of 25% across the country. The median New Zealand house price increased over 12 months from $659,500 to $826,000 last month.

The data, released yesterday, shows Auckland rose 28% to a median price of $1.18m. Wellington was up by more than 23% to $861,500. Canterbury saw an increase of 24.7% to $595,000.

REINZ, year-on-year to July 2021

REINZ noted however that the number of sales across the country was down by almost 12% to 7,187, and detected some indications that the rate of inflation may be slowing. “With a 5.3% decrease in the number of sales from June 2021, we may be starting to see purchasers being impacted by the return of LVRs and talk of interest rates looking to rise. We need a few more months of data before we can see the impact of these changes and whether or not they are a long-term trend,” said a spokesperson.

11am: NZDF workers in Afghanistan may get government reprieve

Thirty-eight people in Afghanistan who worked for the NZ Defence Force will have their pleas to be allowed into New Zealand reconsidered by the government. Stuff reports immigration minister Kris Faafoi said the government was no longer ruling such a move out, despite being pretty explicit it wouldn’t happen as recently as July.

However, in the intervening weeks the Taliban has been on a rapid advance through Afghanistan, which means those who worked for coalition forces are in increasing danger. The Taliban gains have been taking place against a backdrop of US forces pulling out. Basir Ahmad, a former NZDF interpreter in Bamiyan province, said he would be killed if the area fell to the Taliban. Reprisal attacks have been a common feature of the conflict.

A succession of cities and districts have recently been captured by the Taliban, including the major city of Herat in the last day. Afghan government forces have been surrendering in droves in order to avoid being killed in battle or executed. Recent estimates from US government officials are that the capital Kabul could be under siege within 30 days, and fall within three months. However even that may be a conservative prediction, given Taliban gains have taken place much more swiftly than expected.

Overnight, the UK government announced it would be sending 600 soldiers to Afghanistan, in order to evacuate citizens and the British embassy in Kabul. The move is reminiscent of the last flights out of the American embassy in Saigon, when the South Vietnamese government was on the brink of collapsing to North Vietnamese forces.

10.35am: Ministry of Health responds to lockdown rumours

In a post on its Facebook page, the Ministry of Health has noted an upsurge in reports from Healthline of “many rumours relating to Covid-19 and lockdowns circulating”. It adds: “None of the reported rumours are true. There are currently no community cases of Covid-19 or any imminent lockdowns.”

We’ve seen some of these rumours, too, popping up across social media, including a wave of nonsense on TikTok. Scroller beware.

Earlier this week, Covid response minister Chris Hipkins attributed the dismal vaccination rate among port workers to widespread misinformation.

10.10am: ‘Business as usual’, says Film Commission

A bit of a puzzling headline on a press statement from the New Zealand Film Commission, when the portcullis has slammed down on a production that generated, by their own estimate, a couple of thousand jobs: “It’s Business as Usual says Film Commission CEO”.

David Strong, who was named the CEO of the Film Commission in June, said New Zealand’s international reputation remained robust. “We’re an easy country to do business in and New Zealanders have a reputation for being highly skilled, innovative and creative. Our locations are legendary, and we have competitive incentives and infrastructure. This coupled with the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic positions us as an attractive partner for international productions,” he said in a statement.

“In a year of Covid they brought in around $650m and employed nearly 2000 New Zealanders. It’s a shame and I feel for everyone who has put their hearts into this production. Season two was expected to begin later in 2022, so our role now is to work hard to keep the Kiwi screen sector employed,” he said. “Other internationals have interest in shooting here, and that is an acknowledgement of our strengths.”

9.50am: Government ‘incredibly disappointed’ by Amazon decision

In a statement headlined simply “The Lord of the Rings season two”, economic development minister Stuart Nash, a champion of the deal to date, has lamented the relocation of Middle-earth (see 9.40am) and announced that a previously agreed rebate top-up, thought to be worth around $33m, will be withdrawn. “The government was informed of the decision yesterday … I am enormously proud of the New Zealand screen sector. The Amazon Studios’ decision in no way reflects the capabilities of our local film industry or the talents of the people who work in it. This is a multinational company that has made a commercial choice,” he said.

“With Season One, the New Zealand screen sector has proven its reputation for offering a world-class workforce, globally competitive sound stages and post-production facilities, and a safe destination with outstanding scenery and friendly and welcoming people. The previously agreed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Amazon Studios will no longer proceed in its current form. The 5% incentive previously offered on top of the standard 20% rebate for all international film productions is withdrawn.”

What would that standard rebate mean for the crown accounts?  “It is estimated that Amazon Studios’ qualifying local expenditure totals around NZD $663.74 million so it could potentially be eligible for a NZD $132 million rebate under the 20% rule.”

Nash added: “The international film sector is incredibly competitive and highly mobile. We have no regrets about giving this production our best shot with government support. However we are disappointed for the local screen industry. Work will continue across government on ways to keep supporting the sector.”

In April of this year, Nash was heavily promoting the deal signed with Amazon. “The agreement with Amazon not only creates an enduring legacy for our screen industry, it generates local jobs and creates work for local businesses,” said Nash. That agreement came as part of a wider memorandum of understanding between the government and Amazon, including “innovations and mutually-beneficial R&D opportunities”.

9.40am: Middle-earth migrates to Britain

Twenty years of Middle-earth being filmed in New Zealand has come to end, with Amazon announcing that its Lord of the Rings series will move to the UK for season two. Shooting wound up in the Auckland region last week.

“The shift from New Zealand to the UK aligns with the studio’s strategy of expanding its production footprint and investing in studio space across the UK, with many of Amazon Studios’ tentpole series and films already calling the UK home,” said Amazon in a statement.

“We want to thank the people and the government of New Zealand for their hospitality and dedication and for providing The Lord of the Rings series with an incredible place to begin this epic journey,” said Vernon Sanders, a long-titled bigwig at Amazon Studios. “We are grateful to the New Zealand Film Commission, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Tourism New Zealand, Auckland Unlimited, and others for their tremendous collaboration that supported the New Zealand film sector and the local economy during the production of Season One.”

One of his colleagues acknowledged that further financial support from the New Zealand government would accordingly cease. “As we look to relocate the production to the UK, we do not intend to actively pursue the Season One MoU 5% financial uplift with the New Zealand government or preserve the terms around that agreement, however we respectfully defer to our partners and will remain in close consultation with them around next steps,” said Albert Cheng, COO & Co-Head of TV, Amazon Studios.

8.30am:  Sir Brian Roche calls for new Covid agency

The chair of an advisory group set up to “oversee continual improvement” in the government approach to Covid-19 has called for a new standalone agency to lead the response effort. Sir Brian Roche told RNZ that ministers would be considering that recommendation in the coming months. “That’s been advice that I’ve put to the government and it’s something that we’re actively looking at.” The Ministry of Health management of the response “was seen as a short-term intervention, that, you know, ‘we will deal with this Covid stuff and then we’ll move on.'”

He added: “I think it is now clear that this will be with us for many, many years, so the argument, I think, for having a standalone agency is a very live one … It needs to be accountable for our preparedness, all of our planning and and oversight of the execution, in the same way that we have a national emergency management office that says if there’s an incident in Westport, you know, somebody is on the ground to mobilise.”

It could take the form of a Crown agency or government department, he said. “I’m not sure that is as important as what is its function and particularly how is it gonna deploy resources?”

The low vaccination rates among port workers was unacceptable, he said. “We cannot as a country allow a gap in our armour.” He added: “That’s a huge frustration to me a citizen as well as in the current role. That’s partly why the government has brought us in. Look, there is enormous pressure on the Ministry of Health, but we just have to do better, and when we say we’re going to do something we just have to do it. Otherwise we’ll lose confidence and trust from the population.”

Yesterday Jacinda Ardern announced a four-step plan for “reconnecting with the world”. Justin Giovannetti has helpfully explained all of that in clear language here.

7.30am: Braae signs off from The Bulletin

A big day for the Bulletin, a big day for the Spinoff: the inaugural editor of our morning newsletter signed off his last edition this morning. It’s worth reading in full, here. No spoilers here, but do read it to the end. He traverses some of the news journey over the years since he joined us in early 2018. And he bids farewell in characteristically eloquent and heartfelt style. Alex is off to a rare and important role: executive producer of TVNZ’s Q+A, where I’m certain he’ll create some long noodly guitar jams important work with Jack Tame. We’re going to miss him enormously. And we’re very excited about what comes next.

Meanwhile, here’s the headlines from this morning:

At the major reopening forum in Wellington yesterday, the government outlined how it will happen. Well – it’s more like how it is intended to happen. Like the Clausewitzian adage about no plans surviving contact with the enemy, even many of the most cautious moves towards opening the borders have ended up being put on hold to date.

And on that point, the trans-Tasman bubble is very unlikely to be reopened in the form it existed in earlier this year. That comes from this comprehensive report on the reopening plans from political editor Justin Giovannetti, which highlighted a new ‘pathway’ system for getting into the country. There will basically be three of them, beginning in 2022: Pathway One will allow people from low-risk countries to enter without quarantining, provided they test negative. The “low-risk” aspect hasn’t yet been defined. Pathway Two will be for fully vaccinated travellers from medium risk countries, and will involve a modified form of MIQ. This also hasn’t yet been defined, but it could be something like a five-day stay followed by self-isolation. And Pathway Three will be for everyone else, and will look a lot like the current MIQ system. Here’s the speech PM Ardern gave to the forum.

You may have noticed the date in that earlier paragraph: This is all set to happen next year. In response, the Act party put out a release saying it was a step in the right direction, but would take too long. “We are 18 months into a crisis and the Government’s basic response has remained unchanged,” said David Seymour. Reps of the tourism industry, which is now facing another summer without international business, expressed support at least for having more clarity to work with, reports Stuff. And it may not be much comfort to all of those who cannot currently get a spot in MIQ, and won’t be able to for a long time to come.

But one aspect might happen earlier – and it could be controversial.Radio NZ have reported on the response to a pilot programme allowing those who go overseas for short work trips to self-isolate at home. Both National and the Greens say it looks too risky, and it was not recommended in the recent Skegg report. Expressions of interest will soon be sought from businesses who want to send workers on overseas trips – you’d hope there’d be an extremely heavy stick to go with that carrot for those businesses.

The other significant aspect of yesterday’s announcement was the speeding up of vaccine booking eligibility, with the doors being thrown open to all from September 1.As part of that, the gap between bookings has been increased from three weeks to six.Justin Giovannetti again had a piece a few weeks back about the efficacy of this in Canada, basically because there’s heaps of value in simply getting one dose into as many people as possible.

There has been some other criticism of what the government’s announcement didn’t include: Otago professor Nick Wilson commented that “there should now be urgent prioritisation of all essential workers for vaccination in Groups 3 and 4 (ie, supermarket workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, etc). The lack of vaccination of such workers has been one of the reasons that Sydney is currently struggling with its Covid-19 outbreak”, though had a generally positive response. Questions were also asked by Science Media Centre experts about the plan for those under 16, because while Covid tends not to be fatal for kids, outbreaks can and have spread through school systems, and those kids might still suffer severe health consequences afterwards.

And what could throw it all off? Delta is bad enough, as evidenced by what is happening in New South Wales. But what if new variants develop that can get around vaccines? Speaking ahead of the announcement, professor Shaun Hendy told Newshub that could “change the picture”. If there isn’t wide uptake of the vaccine domestically, then there may be less appetite for risk from the government around the new year. And we can’t be sure what the impact a surprise outbreak in the next few months could have on these plans, particularly because that could be really disruptive for the vaccine rollout.

Christchurch will have an even bigger stadium after all, after councillors voted to go for the 30,000 seater. Stuff’s Tina Law reports it follows a highly effective public campaign to sway councillors. Tens of millions more dollars will now need to be found, and ratepayers could end up with slightly higher. Almost all councillors ended up voting in favour of the bigger stadium. Sara Templeton voted against it on the grounds of it being wasteful spending when set against climate change focused projects, and Yani Johanson voted against because he wanted an even bigger stadium.

Expect to read more on this story in The Bulletin in the coming weeks: Canada appears to be on the verge of a snap election, according to multiple sources speaking to Reuters. If the Trudeau government does go to the polls this year, that would be two years ahead of schedule. The Canadian PM has been complaining about “opposition obstruction”, and is understood to want to turn his minority government into a majority so that he can more easily push through Covid-19 related spending plans.

Keep going!