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The BulletinMay 28, 2020

The Bulletin: The sad farce of Kiwibuild is back

construction building employment industrial work unions
construction building employment industrial work unions

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Kiwibuild buyers left facing years of delays, calls for relaxation of alert levels and travel, and new details emerge in NZ First Foundation saga.

Despite a reset of the policy last year, Kiwibuild is still proving to be problematic. A disastrous new story has emerged from One News‘ Benedict Collins, who has reported on a repeatedly delayed apartment development in Wellington, which has left the buyers of more than 40 Kiwibuild properties stuck renting while they wait for the development to be completed. Right now, the delays are being blamed on Covid-19, and it has clearly put a stop to a whole lot of construction. But the project was originally meant to be completed by July, before a succession of delays resulted in it all being pushed out until the middle of 2022.

In this case, the government’s advice to those who want their deposits back is that they should approach the developer directly. But the point made by National’s new housing spokesperson Nicola Willis is pretty clear – this was a government backed scheme, and people put their trust in it as a result. And as Interest reported several weeks ago, the way some of these developments are set up puts them on shakier ground if house prices really start falling in earnest, so we could see more of these examples emerge.

In some ways it is fortunate that the original target of 100,000 houses over 10 years was scrapped. Because as Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan noted in an archly written check-up on the policy, at the current rate of completion it would take about 436 years to reach the target. It is also clear that the government has done a better job on social housing, completing just over 3000 in two different categories across this term. However, with the pledge in this year’s budget to double the number of social houses being built, the question has to be asked – are people who need those homes going to be left high and dry too?

Meanwhile, commercial property and subdivision lending has dried up, amid fears of a wider coronavirus crunch. The story from the NZ Herald (paywalled) should sound the alarm for anyone looking for financing for a big development – though existing projects currently underway don’t seem to have been hit too hard yet. And the long term effects of it all could end up filtering down through the economy in ways that will affect everyone – for example, a financing crunch after the GFC in 2008 cut down the number of homes being built, and is partly responsible for the housing crisis we have today.

Just quickly, a message from The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Greive: 

“The arrival of Covid-19 and lockdown changed The Spinoff, transforming our editorial to focus on the biggest story of our lives, taking a small team and making it a seven day a week news operation. But it also fundamentally changed us as a business, too. Prior to the crisis, around 20% of our editorial costs were funded by our Members. Now, that figure is north of 50%. The loss of some key commercial clients meant that change has to be permanent. If you’re already a member, please know that all at The Spinoff are incredibly grateful for your help. If you’re not, and can afford to contribute, please consider doing so – it really is critically important to our ability to cover the next phase of the crisis, in all its complexity.”

Calls have burst out for changes in both the border restrictions and the current alert level. I’m bundling these two topics together here, because they both reflect the same impulse – the opinion that strict measures to fight Covid-19 have gone on for long enough, or that there are ways to further reopen the country. For example, yesterday’s NZ Herald front page carried a call from Auckland mayor Phil Goff for a quarantine process to be developed for international students, who provide a boost worth billions to the city’s economy. It comes at the same time as the news that film industry types have been allowed in to get cracking on the Avatar movies, and questions are being raised about what the criteria for defining what “significant economic value” is, reports Radio NZ.

On the question of a trans-Tasman bubble, conversations have continued between various levels of the two governments, reports the Guardian. A plan for this is likely to be presented next week, and could be in place by September. Of course, there are a lot of hurdles here. For example, some interstate travel in Australia is still banned, let alone opening up to another country. The contract tracing systems being used don’t necessarily yet align between the two countries. And – quite understandably – a lot of people will be wary of any opening in the border so soon after the sacrifices of lockdown.

We also got a sign yesterday that these sorts of questions are being thrashed out around the cabinet table. In an unusual move, both the PM and deputy PM Winston Peters talked openly yesterday about disagreements over the trans-Tasman bubble and a move to level one. Peters told Newstalk ZB that both were taking far too long, and appeared to pitch for votes at the upcoming election for NZ First to have more influence around the Labour-led cabinet table. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva analysed the episode as a frantic attempt by a coalition partner to create some political differentiation with Labour.

Meanwhile in possibly related news, a new story has dropped in the long running saga over the NZ First Foundation. Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner and Kate Newton have revealed thousands of dollars worth of donations to the Foundation ended up being spent for the benefit of several people with close connections to Winston Peters. At the heart of it all is a company called QComms, which “appears to have acted as an intermediary between the foundation and the New Zealand First party, handling the party’s electronic communications.” The Serious Fraud Office is yet to announce whether or not charges will be laid in relation to their investigation into the foundation.

If you’ve got any interest at all in earthquake strengthening for buildings, this long-read from the NZ Herald’s Georgina Campbell is a must-read. It concerns the earthquake safety standards that are currently being developed, and bounces off the damage done to Statistics House, and the long term closure of Wellington’s central library following the Kaikoura earthquake. The standards have huge implications for the rest of Wellington City, and a whole lot of other places at risk of serious earthquakes.

A bill has been introduced that would allow the government to issue takedown notices and create internet filters, if the chief censor deems it necessary, reports Marc Daalder for Newsroom. Currently, the government does not have those powers, which created problems in the aftermath of the March 15 attack, with some reprobate hosting sites refusing to take down the video. Terrorism, extremist material and child exploitation is the main focus of this legislation. It would also shore up the powers the government has to force overseas websites to take material down, provided there was an agreement between New Zealand and the host country. However, Internet NZ has concerns about the filtering aspects of the proposed law, in part because of the potential for overreach.

A wonderful story of good survival techniques and good luck: A pair of lost trampers have been rescued after 19 days in the bush. Trampers Dion Reynolds and Jessica O’Connor were in the Kahurangi National Park, and had been out of food for a while when smoke from a fire was spotted, the NZ Herald reports. Even though both trampers sustained injuries, they reportedly both did everything right to make a rescue possible by staying put, only moving to find water, and staying visible. Around 50 people were involved in the rescue, and they’re ecstatic with the result.

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Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, the follow up to 2018’s Nanette. (Photo: Netflix)

Right now on The Spinoff: Stephen Jacobi writes about the economic risk of alienating the Chinese government. Jessica Desmond writes about “brand New Zealand,” and living the values that we market to the world. Jihee Junn writes about the various pieces of contact tracing technology in use around the world. Sam Brooks writes about comedian Hannah Gadsby’s follow up show to the groundbreaking Nanette. And Hayden Donnell writes a frame by frame analysis of Newshub’s unusually brutal story about National’s shambolic day at the office.

For a feature today, a look at the risks to news organisations of running undeclared corporate content. Amazon has been under pressure recently over accusations they have been cracking down on attempts by workers to unionise. And as Vice reports, an identical news package defending the health and safety record of the company appeared across 11 different US news channels. Here’s an excerpt:

“We welcome reporters into our buildings and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise,” Alyssa Bronikowski, a spokesperson for Amazon, told Motherboard. “This type of video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we’ve rolled out in our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren’t able to come tour one of our sites themselves.”

The Amazon spokesperson, insisting that they not be directly quoted, also made various other claims. Lots of companies distribute propaganda videos, they said, and journalists can’t enter Amazon warehouses due to the risk of contracting a deadly virus and so running footage Amazon created of workers is the next-best thing. Additionally, they said that the promotional video was not a promotional video and that no one who participated in it was paid. Whether this includes Walker, the Amazon PR manager, is unclear.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme

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