1080 and Water Fluoridation: Opponents who drink from the same anti-science trough

I had a pretty gnarly rental in 2014. Situated in what one might euphemistically label as the ‘economically diverse’ melting pot of Hamilton East. It had an asbestos ceiling, rotting internal walls* and was nestled within an even less entrancing cinder block dump. Alas, it served its purpose, perfect for someone wishing to live cheap but not far from the local University, a place to myself (however terrible) where I could potter about with my postgraduate studies.

I was also a ‘paid troll’ of the pro-fluoride movement, or so it was claimed; which must have made my humble lodging all the more bemusing to anti-fluoride campaigners who used the societies register to stake out my whare. Surely I had the option of living somewhere much nicer by virtue of my shadowy, government funded campaign to poison New Zealand’s drinking water? After all, I had been making a very handsome sum of money fighting, keyboard in hand, the good people at Fluoride Free New Zealand. Yet despite someone burning down our neighbour’s garage one lazy weekend afternoon, or the upstairs occupants running a 24 hour Colombian-style drug cartel, I apparently chose to continue living in a shitty unit, in a shitty block, surrounded by (mostly, but not all) shitty neighbours.

The great academic / scientific / government / whatever conspiracy

Nonsensical accusations such as those directed at myself or other skeptics, serve an important function for people denying the scientific consensus on something. Whether it was Community Water Fluoridation (CWF) then or 1080 now, these opponents have a predisposition to believe, uncritically, accusations of corruption occurring among their adversaries. Such discourses mutate as they become more publicly widespread, ‘True Believers’ emerge, people whose opposition to a particular government initiative quickly morph into an impenetrable form of group-think. Such conspiracies then flourish without any attempt by their proponents to fact check the veracity of such ridiculous claims.

This brings us to the current climate of loud but hopefully evanescent anti – 1080 hysteria where we again see the presence of ludicrous conspiratorial conjecture. As Cody Knightley (a local anti – 1080 campaigner) laid out in a recent homemade video, the Department of Conservation (DoC) has become the Department of Corruption, the Department of Contamination, the Department of Conspiracies (sic) and so on. Such allegations resonate strongly with different sections of the public, specifically hunters like Knightley and a few hoodwinked urban dwellers.

But where is the evidence?

Contradictory positions

Another commonality is the desire to spread whatever information might help the cause, no matter how much it contradicts a previous line of advocacy. Anti -CWF campaigners repeatedly claim that fluoride is a deadly neurotoxin, but then inexplicably advocate it be used in higher doses in toothpaste and / or as part of school wide toothbrushing programs. The same people claiming 1080 does not work will also claim it’s cruel due to its indiscriminate nature (so, it works?!), while others claim the bush is not at risk from predators but then advocate increases in funding to trap supposedly non-existent predators.

Contrast that with conservation group Forest & Bird, who alongside Federated Farmers (the most unlikely of bedfellows) operate the ‘1080 Facts’ website. Forest & Bird readily admit that a small number of Kea appear to have died as a consequence of 1080 operations. They balance this against how pest control, overall, has allowed Kea populations to rebound across the South Island, along with every other native species. For lay people such as ourselves, this should signal the more credible position; one side contradicts itself with a scatter gun approach to any number of evidence-free claims, while the other is transparent in its approach noting that not every aspect of their stance is without its own risks.

Building the Strawman

A favourite jibe of anti-fluoride campaigners has been to misrepresent the CWF message for something it never was and our local 1080 protesters are no different. A typical provocateur might say “If it’s safe, why not put a teaspoon in a glass of water and let us know how you get on?” Such faulty reasoning attempts to play on the toxic nature of such chemicals in their most raw, undiluted forms. Consequently, its rejection is designed to place some doubt in the minds of those undecided; that is, the scientifically illiterate and anyone else unfamiliar with the rudimentary concepts found in a high school chemistry textbook.

Whether it is pellets of 1080 or a teaspoon of hexafluorosilicic acid (commonly used for CWF), the same general reasoning can be applied:

only a f**king idiot would add a 1080 pellet to a glass of water; and

only a f**king idiot would add HFA directly to a glass of water; furthermore

only a f**king idiot would add a teaspoon of chlorine to a glass of drinking water.

In any event, 1080 is aerially dropped at an increasingly lower rate; from 8kg of baits per hectare in the 1990s to less than 3kg of bait per hectare today and not directly into someone’s water tank. And with anything (absolutely everything), it is the dose that makes the poison. Too much or too little oxygen and you’re dead, too much water or too little water and you’re dead and so on. Our longevity does not rest with the complete removal of certain chemicals (afterall, fluoride is ubiquitous in our environment), but rather living within acceptable limits of exposure.

It is also demonstrably true that 1080 dilutes in running water and is biodegradable over a short period of time. It is water that lowers the toxicity of 1080, sufficiently so that there have been exactly zero deaths or hospitalisations attributed to aerial 1080 drops in New Zealand. Meanwhile, literally thousands more water samples taken following 1080 drops have confirmed that claims 1080 is unsafe are reliant on the most improbable of circumstances; such as a 50kg pregnant woman, continuously drinking 2l of water each day, directly from a source that supplies the water into a small and undiluted catchment where baits have been indiscriminately dropped.

Activism infused with Vested Interests  

If one was to pull the curtain back, there are some less genuine motives behind the activism. Anti – CWF group Fluoride Action Network has been soliciting private donations for over a decade while collecting $25,000 a year from Joseph Mercola, an internet entrepreneur who operates a controversial online store that sells yup, you guessed it, water filters!

1080 protesters appear to be a slightly more transparent bunch, Knightley made no attempt to hide the gun slung around his shoulder in his video, nor his frustration that DoC were effectively poisoning ‘decent’ venison meat. So beyond the anti 1080 hand flapping in some corners of suburbia, what emerges is a clearly identifiable reason why people in the bush hate 1080, it kills mammals such as deer en masse. Some studies suggest a by-kill rate among deer of up to 93%, now that sort of by-kill rate would suck for any hunter looking to fill their freezer.   

So, is it ethical?

Let’s start with what’s fair. Is it fair to take away a food source from people who have relied on it for multiple generations? That’s a tough call because even though mammals such as deer are introduced pests, it is also fair to say that hunting is now a 150 year old Kiwi pastime, well entrenched in the fabric of provincial New Zealand society. And in the current economic climate, we probably shouldn’t begrudge people like Knightley who view hunting as a means to circumvent paying extortion-level global market prices for meat at the supermarket.

Knightley also called DoC the Department of Cruelty, which raises another important question: Is it is ethical to use such a potent substance on the mammalian population? There is no doubt that 1080’s use is devastatingly effective. It makes my stomach churn just thinking about how the poison operates. But I also find it a less diminishing feeling than the guilt of standing idle and doing nothing. Evidence on the effectiveness of 1080 operations is as comprehensive as that of CWF programs, so casting such evidence side and abandoning  1080 operations would arguably be the less ethical approach.

It works, but does anyone care?

It should be glaringly obvious by now that efficacy is a moot point in public 1080 debates. As Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki eloquently explained, despite claims to the contrary, 1080 works remarkably well. There has also been detailed evaluations conducted on behalf of the New Zealand Government. Meanwhile, New Zealand-specific research covers everything from the regeneration of native flora and fauna associated with 1080 use, to the control of introduced pests through 1080 use and the safety of using 1080 in or near our freshwater systems.

There is simply no shortage of high quality academic literature supporting the ongoing use of 1080 operations. So until the wild claims of conspiracy are substantiated, are we going to risk the collapse of our ecosystem, and the extinction of our native wildlife, just for the sake of some wild venison?

Simply put, my challenge to Knightley et al. is this, show me bonafide evidence of corruption, contamination or conspiracies involving 1080 at the Department of Conservation and I will unequivocally reverse my position.

It’s the same challenge I issued to Fluoride Free New Zealand once upon a time, their response was to ban me from their Facebook page.

TL;DR:  1080 does the job you don’t, even if it sucks.

* A quick shout out to Quinovic for that little gem of a rental, your dereliction of duty when it came to the most basic maintenance meant you somehow outshone all the other epically shit slumlord agents operating across New Zealand. 

 

Lauren who? Mr Howard, we’re detaining you on character grounds

Ask any New Zealander this past week who the racist, anti feminist and immigrant-loathing individuals are bound for our shores and they would probably respond with ‘Lauren Southern’ or ‘Stefen Something’. Such was the chorus of hand flapping, cynically whipped up by our news media that these two Canadian nobodies were suddenly propelled into our national news cycle. Even more surprisingly then was that the visit of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a vastly more accomplished racist, anti feminist and immigrant-loathing old fart, passed by this weekend without much fanfare at all.

Unlike Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, both of whom lacked the profile here 3 weeks ago to mobilise any more than a hundred odd angry sods, it was the Howard Government that successfully pioneered dog whistle politics to millions of Australian voters. It was also the Howard Government who savaged the ideals of an inclusive Australia, showing just how effective outright lying can be. Howard’s masterful populism (much of which he co-opted from Pauline Hanson), was undoubtedly politicised during his 4 consecutive terms, at the expense of a more harmonious Australia.

So unapologetically divisive was Howard, it must be asked why no attempt was made to block his entry into New Zealand in the first place? Or at the very least, what happened to that loud mob of protesters primed to shout down a couple of B grade internet celebrities? Seemingly unimpeded by our Minister for Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway, Howard was instead headline act at the annual National Party conference. During his endearing rant, intended to rabble rouse the party’s conservative base, Howard opined that our electoral system was flawed and that the opposition National Party had been robbed of a 4th term in government.

That sounds a lot like incitement, sedition perhaps? Maybe Howard should have been thrown into detention until his character could be properly assessed.  

Semi-joking aside, his speech, to be followed next week by Molyneux and Southern should provoke some thought as to why we so readily accept the ‘mainstreaming’ of rancid populism by our politicians, but not by others who are remarkably less significant. His visit also comes at a critical time in New Zealand politics with National Party faithful still licking their wounds following a not-so-poor result on election night. For that reason the choice by National to bring Howard over should be analysed through the recent political history of our trans Tasman neighbour.

Firstly, National voters are still angry (and the party knows it). While MMP produced a government that fitted closely enough with how the public expected it might, many National faithful felt aggrieved that much of Winston’s retirement-home constituency probably lean blue, suggesting that a majority of the voting public would have preferred a National / NZ First government. This all played out in an eerily similar way to the 2010 Australian Federal Election where a hung parliament gave 4 independent MPs the chance to decide the next government. Despite 3 of the 4 Independents hailing from traditionally conservative seats, 3 of the 4 decided to throw their support behind Labour and return the Gillard government to power. Maintaining widespread incredulity for the next 3 years was a useful way for the Liberal Party to keep it supporters active until the next election.

Secondly, tax cuts are easy while ‘doing stuff’ is hard; the Rudd government (2007 – 2010) tried doing both. Through raising the threshold on middle income brackets and instigating a series of poorly managed infrastructure programs, federal Labour pissed away wads of money faster than a full house of yobs at the MCG.  The outcome was (cue the surprise) bloody terrible mate; ballooning fiscal deficits and shoddy workmanship all of which were rightfully eviscerated by the Australian media.

Enter 2018 and New Zealand Labour’s marquee housing policy: Kiwibuild. To be an unmitigated success, Labour must nurse Kiwibuild along parallel tightropes of ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’ while also meeting the public’s expectation of ‘affordable’ all while hoping that the existing property market (read: artificially inflated ponzi scheme) does not collapse. The Australian experience suggests that any (perceived) failure with Kiwibuild could be enough to propel Mr Bridges (or insert opposition MP here) into the role of Prime Minister at the next election. And if it were Mr Bridges to ride a wave of righteous vindication back into government, one might fairly characterise him as sufficiently close ideologically speaking to that of Tony Abbott, the man mentored by Howard who led the Australian Liberal Party to a landslide victory in 2013.

That’s what makes Howard so iconic to conservatives across Australasia and an attractive keynote speaker for National as they look to hustle their way back into power. Not only did Howard spend more than a decade freezing out a socially liberal reform agenda, he established a political culture of ‘traditional’ Australian values that aided his party’s return to office less than 6 years later. The consequence of National springing back in to government under Bridges would also be equally comparable to that of Abbot, as reforms earmarked by progressives (in areas such as criminal justice) are either unwound or kicked to touch.

Which again begs the question, who should the activists have been more animated about these past few weeks? Two uneducated Canadian Youtubers or a former Australian statesman?

Save University Challenge! An Open Letter to the Hon. Clare Curran

Dear Clare,

A starter for 10:  How much public funding would it take to produce the next season of University Challenge?

Is it:   100k,

           50k, or

           20k?

And the answer is: 20k!

Some will inevitably claim that any such allocation of funds is entirely undeserved, that television programs should always turn a profit or, that we should let the market decide.

Indeed, the market has decided…

The market decided that we wanted to see David Seymour and Marama Fox ‘dancing’. The market decided Mark Richardson and Duncan Garner get free reign to pontificate on matters ranging from housing to immigration. The market decided we needed Mike Hosking to suggest we all buy Maserati’s instead of building public transport infrastructure. And forthcoming on TVNZ, the market  decided that we would all benefit from a season of ‘Heartbreak Island’.

I call that Market Failure.

Heartbreak Island is perhaps the clearest example yet of how the executives at our state-owned broadcaster have mastered the Aristotelian principle of a ‘Golden Mean’, a happy middle ground; the virtue found in that midpoint between ‘The Bachelor’ and Pornhub.

Yay, more bullshit on TV!

Claire, I suspect you probably get quite a few of these letters. The requests for money, the heartfelt story or the unashamedly brash request for a ‘hand out’.

So, i’ll keep our pitch brief:

As this Government has committed to encouraging tertiary education through their comprehensive free fee schemes, what better way to promote the sector than a competitive public display of each of our Universities? A measly 20k is the difference between a season of University Challenge – The Podcast and another intellectually stimulating program being consigned to the dustbin. 

Tom Conroy bought University Challenge back to New Zealand shores in 2014 and since then the game show has showcased some of the sharpest minds across the country*. Not only does UC attract a cult viewership, it boasts the accolade of being the only onscreen production bringing together all of our country’s eight accredited Universities.

Season 1, 2 and 3 had NZ on Air funding and despite Season 2 (2015) being one of Prime’s best performing programs, they chucked Season 3 into a 6pm Saturday time slot.

Auckland’s triumphant 2015 team. 

Cue the surprise, it didn’t end well. The show was cancelled and some improvisation was required.

Improvise we did, a gang of 4 ex-contestants ran the competition on a shoestring, reaching into our own pockets. We even filmed the finals, live from the University of Waikato. But we can’t afford to do that again that, we need a bit of moolah to make the whole thing work better.

For the 2018 edition, Tom has managed to rationalise the costs down to a paltry amount while finding a new broadcast partner in Radio New Zealand. 

But NZ on Air still won’t throw us any crumbs. Clare, you might not be able to direct NZ on Air’s funding but will you help us save University Challenge?

TL;DR  Drop Clare Curran a message to show your support for University Challenge NZ.

* and a few seat warmers like myself.

Claire Curran is New Zealand’s Broadcasting Minister in the Labour – NZ First Coalition Government.

Telling Madison Recruitment to go f*** themselves: Census 2018

Trudging off to University on a mid December weekend doesn’t come with all that many highlights. ‘Think of the future’ I muttered to myself as I paced toward Symonds St having missed the bus. Sweaty, tired and a bit jaded was a pretty fair assessment of myself and the other three PhD students that had sacrificed the beach (ok, probably Netflix) to keep toiling away on their thesis. As midday neared, a morsel of excitement started to build for our one prearranged activity of the day: heading off to the food court for some authentic (I think) South East Asian cuisine.

In between mouthfuls of mee goreng, another high pressure topic cropped up – we’re all broke and don’t have any summer work. I’m totally f**ked, said one of my friends, an exceptionally bright student trying to survive in Auckland on a budget of $300 a week. I think we’re all f**ked, says another. Back in the office I made a few calls to try grease the wheels of anyone who could hook us up with some work. ‘Nothing much’ was the general response, unless I wanted to ditch the PhD and take a permanent gig in the public service. But I did get a tip off, there would be some work leading into the upcoming census.

Armed with Google I did some hunting and found that Statistics New Zealand were outsourcing census work to Madison Recruitment. Sure enough, Madison’s website had a link to the job listing for the role of ‘Temporary Field Officer’ (read: door knocker / survey collector). I applied and got a phone call shortly thereafter; hooray!

Seven weeks on, this is why I’ll never apply for a job at Madison Recruitment again:

Reason 1: Hiring as if they’re choosing the next CEO of Fonterra

The Madison recruitment process for becoming a ‘Temporary Field Officer’ was as follows:

  1. Send resume & cover letter.
  2. Provide references.
  3. Agree to police check.
  4. Complete phone interview.
  5. Complete online literacy test.
  6. Complete online numeracy test.
  7. Attend an in-person group role playing game (yup, that shitty one they’ve all used for 20+ years where your plane crashes in the Amazon and have to choose which items to take).
  8. Attend an in-person individual role play game (two scenarios).

Reason 2: Less flexibility than a rugby player at their first yoga session

Every applicant needed to provide evidence that they have a drivers licence – which was a little odd because Madison weren’t providing temporary field officers with company vehicles. Instead, Madison expected that you’d not only have a licence, but that you would use your own vehicle and be willing to have it insured for commercial purposes. I guess I’ll just have to stomach any premium increases if it means I’m gonna score some work.

“But what about one of my friends? She lives nearby, doesn’t drive but we could work in the same area no problem” I said. “Sorry, we’re screening out anyone without a driver’s licence” replies the consultant. “What if I pick her up and drop her off in my own time?”. “Sorry, you must have a driver’s licence”, clearly unmoved by my offering up of tangible solutions to their unnecessarily restrictive hiring practices.

Reason 3: They’re cheap assholes that mold workplace training into the recruitment process.

I really should have submitted a timesheet for the hour already worked. After all, Madison get you to sign their generic and virtually obligation-free temporary employment agreement before you even come in for the role play assessment, that is, a month before they even made me a job offer. And before you even begin the role play assessments you’re watching youtube videos regarding the ‘Madison way’, trying on uniforms for size and having it reinforced to you in person that Madison is your employer – unless they wish to dispense with you, in which case, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, peasant.

Reason 4: Treating relationships with your employees like they’re the sucker from Offspring’s  “Self Esteem”

Four weeks after applying, three weeks after the phone interview and reference check and one week after the role play assessments, I get contacted by a consultant in Wellington asking if I would be interested in starting a week earlier than originally discussed. She said that Madison Recruitment felt that “I was someone who showed resilience in the interview process’ and that perhaps I would be useful working with some of the more difficult to reach members of the public.

It sounded good to me, an extra week of work. So I checked a few things and then sent confirmation via email, I also asked if that meant I could be confident I had secured employment, to which I was advised that they would be in touch be the end of the month. On January 31st, seven weeks after applying, five weeks after the phone interview and reference check and three weeks after the role play assessments I get a phone call advising that I am no longer required until after census day and that I would instead be placed on a part paid stand-by role until then. As a requirement of this new role I would need to keep my schedule clear provided they needed my services the following day.

“Now I know I’m being used

That’s okay because I like the abuse

I know she’s playing with me

That’s okay ’cause I’ve got no self-esteem”

All this BS for a temporary role paying the princely sum of $20.20 per hour – that the employer can terminate at any time without penalty to themselves.

Now while I can appreciate that a young consultant, probably still shaking off an #awesome #laneway isn’t exactly au fait with what constitutes ethical hiring practices, surely there’s at least one employment lawyer at Madison Recruitment who knows better. It also begs the question that if a straight white dude with a car, licence, computer, references and a f**kin Masters degree is having difficulty scoring a temp job at New Zealand’s largest recruitment company, what chance have most other people got? That is, what chance has anyone on the dole got scoring a job that requires ringing doorbells and handing out forms?  

TL;DR? No, Madison Recruitment; go f*** yourselves. I won’t be sitting idly and on standby while you mete out corporate fascism on behalf of a government department.

Teenage Parties? Leave it to the Woodstock generation, and their obvious infallibility

An edited version of this story was republished by The Spinoff on November 8th, 2017.

I spent an hour chatting with the woman dubbed ‘Momma Doof’, who defied conventional parenting ‘best-practice’ by somehow remembering what it’s like to actually be a teenager.

As we draw toward the end of 2017, the thick nub of New Zealand’s self righteous nanny state has re-emerged from its winter slumber, casting shame on those acting haphazardly at that explicably reasoned age of 16, or thereabouts. In both Hamilton & Rotorua, a few dozen students are now facing sanctions for liberating themselves of clothing in the annual silliness that comes with ending 13 years of formal schooling. Meanwhile, students at Rangitoto College were advised that ‘adulting’ would be banned via the prohibition of makeup, and further south, police have shown their willingness to break up innocuous gatherings of teenagers – with full riot gear.

“It had barely started” says Teresa Soper, still incredulous that more than a dozen mostly boyish looking police officers arrived at her property unannounced, despite what she says had been a cordial relationship with law enforcement up till that point. Soper rattles off her various meetings with police leading her to believe she’d be legally compliant provided a few ‘slight adjustments’ were made. So, what cuts her the deepest? “Well, we missed the chance to make some charities a bit of money”, laments Soper who had been consulting local kaumatua about the best use of any excess funds she’d collected through the sale of tickets.

Last week, police charged Soper with providing a space where minors consumed alcohol. Affectionately known as ‘Momma Doof’, for the past couple of years she had been organising parties for teenagers to congregate, under the watchful eye of adult supervision. Her motivation was simple; she was petrified about her daughter sneaking out the bedroom window at night and acquiring the wrong sort of company. Soper tells me that after a bit of ‘trial and error’ her crew managed to formulate some fairly common sense rules; including no hard liquor, no weapons (both enforced through bag checks), no fighting and to leave when asked.

“We charged a small admission fee to cover the costs of security” advises Soper, referring to what she called her ‘Guardians of the Doof’. These guardians were a dozen adults dressed in fluoro identifiers, enforcing the rules and ensuring the safety of patrons. She’d also included a ‘time out’ space for teenagers that had had too much to drink, a ‘safe space’ for female teens, and a makeshift urinal for the lads. It wasn’t just a good ole’ fashioned ‘kiwi-as’ piss ups either, Soper had a hospitable, funky barn space kitted out with a BBQ area and its own raised DJ booth, aiming to keep teenagers of all walks sufficiently entertained.

Soper accomplished this in a setting nestled far enough away from the suburbs that the music could be blasted without it inconveniencing any of those more ‘civilised’ types, you know, the teenagers’ parents. And she isn’t shy to rattle off the professions of a few rather distinguished persons whose private school kids were often being dropped at the party’s front gate by their (probably grateful) parents.

“The parties were also used to raise awareness about the consequences of alcohol abuse and Class A drugs.” explains Soper, keen to point out that the purpose of these events is much deeper than whose kids it was that were in attendance. She doesn’t supply any of the liquor herself and confirmed that teenagers found to be possession of drugs were asked to leave. Soper also relayed a few heart-wrenching stories while we chatted on the phone, personal events in the life of her daughter that gave some context to her decision to pursue a more engaging approach. Soper claims she’s happy to leave the deconstruction of New Zealand’s teen drinking culture to the experts; what matters to her most is how she can manage their drinking in a safer way.

That’s not a bad effort from a mum that just wanted to ensure her daughter was keeping good company. Without Soper, it is fair to say a few hundred Christchurch teenagers each weekend have been left muddling through the weekend largely of their own accord.

That didn’t stop a ferocious mob from the concerned mothers league joining the pile on though. Fairfax contributor Mary-Ann Scott opined that Soper wouldn’t be the ‘cool mum’ for long and asked if she had considered the prospect of 1 of the 400 attendees brandishing a knife. Perhaps Scott believes that knives are confined to bush doofs, perhaps handed out in goody bags at the entrance? She hasn’t quite explained why it would be better for the hypothetical knife-wielder to be among the same kids, only with no adult supervision or first aid available.

Knives (and liquor for that matter) are ubiquitous in New Zealand and at least Soper made some arrangements to deal with such anti social behaviors. Not to mention that our Government has listed “reducing the social destruction caused by alcohol” as one of their four national priorities to reduce crime. If evidence-based policy wasn’t so much less appealing than knee jerk responses, we might be asking Soper’s advice instead of charging her; as it stands, her record of 0 violent incidents in 2 years of events makes an interesting contrast to outcomes elsewhere across New Zealand.

Not to be outdone, Kidspot Managing Director Heidi Boulger then seized the opportunity to offer up her own wisdom to Chris Lynch on Newstalk ZB. It appears “motherhood” and “online entrepreneur” are now clearly sufficient qualifications to meet Newstalk’s stringent editorial standards for “credible public health expert”. Boulger offered up pearls such as “‘it’s illegal” and “they’re underage teens”, leaving no doubt she is capable of summarising most of the relevant facts; missing only the legal nuance of whether the barn constitutes public or private property, which appears to be a one of the determining factors in whether Soper was within the law. “I don’t think it’s a good idea” Boulger then states, after being presented nothing short of generous wind direction by Mr Lynch.

Notably, neither member of the peanut gallery managed to support their opinions with evidence or actual research, opting instead for a drive-by slight at a mother who had the temerity to take a more progressive stance toward teenage social deviance. Scott or Boulger probably don’t even care about Soper’s parties, they’re just enjoying the publicity that a bit of virtue signalling in the media has delivered for them.

Among the hand flapping of a few high school principals, pushed into the public sphere by a media that has long realised the cost advantages of sensationalism over journalism, it has almost been forgotten that the teenagers of today are literally the grandchildren of the original Woodstock generation (err, the music festival not the shitty bourbon) whose lives seemed to pan out alright after a few years of questionable behavior. And through a heavy dose of moral panic offered up by our 4th estate, the condemnation has widened beyond those too young to remember where they were when commercial aeroplanes slammed into New York office buildings and onto people like Soper, who have dared provide an element of pragmatism when marshalling such unenlightened beings as today’s youth.

So, shouldn’t Teresa Soper, despite any faults, be in the running for New Zealander of the Year? Instead, she’ll be facing court for choosing evidence-based harm minimisation instead of our country’s hypocritical, draconian and entirely futile attitudes toward liquor consumption. It’s a culture that’s not only inextricably linked to the plaid shirt, rugby mad, hyper masculine characterisation of New Zealand men but also the dearth of stringent regulations and social programs to ensure Kiwi teens are not socialised into a life of alcoholism in the first place.

Perhaps it’s Soper’s own daughter that sums it up best when she took issue with the criticisms levelled at her mother; “I’ve never needed to sneak out of home to be with my friends and I’ve never been in a car with a drunk driver” states Libby. “I don’t need to – I’ve got a cool mum.”

TL;DR  Progressive thinking in New Zealand can lead to you being charged for not falling within the parameters of established social norms, because you know, there’s surely only one way to raise children.

P.S  If you’re passionate about this topic and would like to make a donation toward Teresa Soper’s legal defense than no amount is too small.

Teresa Soper

ANZ

01 0635 0235145 00

Put ‘lovedoof’ in the particulars.

 

Penal Populism in New Zealand: Meandering further down the fairness spiral

This is one of a series of post election pieces i’m writing over the next fortnight, today I look at one of the more absurd reforms suggested for our criminal justice sector which also appeared on the Sociology New Zealand website.

 

In our most recent election campaign the National Party co-opted a longstanding New Zealand First policy of suggesting we dispatch troubled young men off to military style boot camps, which would have been a somewhat useful proposition if it had worked in the past.

The policy announcement was pilloried by those with experience in youth criminal justice. Criminologists have pointed out that boot camps are the antithesis of evidence-based policy and simply don’t produce outcomes consistent with reducing anti-social behaviour.

Perhaps the most absurd thing about the proposed resurrection of boot camps was that it was floated barely a fortnight after the Labour Party acknowledged issues at a previous camp that operated under their own watch, a camp that is said to have seen horrific levels of abuse of vulnerable young men.

Boot camps are yet another troubling lurch back to authoritarian forms of justice, particularly when disparities in application of the law in the New Zealand’s courts are now so frequent, and so pronounced, that they make a mockery of the basic foundations of what justice is supposed to represent – fairness for all.

Let us not mince words; boot camps serve a very narrow function in this country, taking mostly young brown men off the street and bullying them into making peace with an establishment they often have grown up at odds with. An establishment that wants to trounce the inappropriate behaviour of some and then conveniently explain it away for others.

But that’s just sentencing, the fairness crisis in our justice system is much broader than that, it cuts across the attitudes and behaviours of police and can also adversely affect persons on the basis of class and gender. Nothing exemplifies this fairness crises more than how justice has become a commodity, in some cases strictly available to those who can afford it. Think back to March, 2015 when parents of two teenage children attended the prestigious St Bede’s College acquired an interim injunction in the country’s High Court. The matter? Their children, on their way to a national tournament, had been thrown off the school’s rowing team for riding on the luggage carousel and into a restricted area of Auckland Airport. The parent’s lawyer, a Queen’s Counsel no less, argued that the decision of the school had been hurried and disproportionate. It was therefore inferred that the school’s decision may unfairly penalise the students in a manner that would alter the trajectory of their lives.

Justice Dunningham was swayed by this argument and agreed that there was at least enough doubt about the proportionality of the school’s decision and an injunction was granted on the basis that by not doing so the boys would miss out on participating, a series of events that would therefore be ‘irreversible’ if it was found the school had overreached their authority.

The parent’s behaviour in seeking an injunction divided the country, with most armchair commentators arguing that the kids ‘needed a good boot up the ass’, of course conveniently ignoring that had it been their own children, ones they had seen arise from bed each morning at 5am and diligently train for 6 months, they too might have plead that their sons be given some leniency.

In any event, the kerfuffle of whether the school was justified in standing down the boys, or the judge’s decision in setting aside that suspension there was an even more important narrative obscured from the public discourse; most families simply cannot afford the services of a QC let alone urgent High Court proceedings. And so it begs the question, what would have happened if it had been two young men from the predominantly Māori roll of Huntly College, riding airside on the luggage carousel in transit to the Rugby League Nationals? Could we be confident they would only be given a simple warning by Police? Maybe, but not with any certainty.

It is just as likely they would have obtained a diversion, which would have required both students to present before the court. Would their parents have had the means to seek an urgent injunction in the High Court? Based on the 1B school decile, probably not. And, how many more opportunities do you think would present for those senior students, outside of that tournament? Ditto. Not alot, one can assume. And what about after the tournament, as the two students muddle their way through their final two years of adolescence?

What if one was found driving an unregistered car with a bag of marijuana in one of those ‘random’ stops conducted by Police who seem to always favour plying their trade on the main thoroughfare of Huntly (instead of the similarly sized but relatively more affluent towns of Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Morrinsville)?

Well, he’s already had a warning – isn’t it time he was shipped off to boot camp?

 

TL;DR:  Boot camps don’t work, their function is to signal certain virtues that have nothing to do with fixing the underlying issues.

Green & Grazed: 18 Consecutive years outside of Government

This is one of a series of post election pieces i’m writing over the next fortnight, today I look at the Green Party and its near Chernobyl like post-Turei meltdown.*

Enough has already been written about the Metiria Turei debacle that I see no merit canvassing that matter further. It is however worthwhile noting that Turei’s own admission gave the party an initial surge in popularity, and with it a momentary vision of securing a record 18 MPs.

It could also be said that such a spike in popularity inadvertently precipitated Jacinda Ardern’s takeover of Labour and its subsequent cannibalisation of the Green Party vote.

Much of that saga is now history.

But since the beginning of August there were 3 other noticeable areas (outside of policy prescriptions) where the party simply lacked the nimble strategic positioning to capture what should have been closer to 10% of the vote.

1. They needed another co-leader.

James Shaw was just a bit too square to do it all on his own.

Shaw is the polite and easily consumable modern Green leader, marketing his party toward a well heeled and better educated strand of the electorate. His one chance to express a broader vision for the Green party was in the minor leaders’ debate, a stage where he was entirely outgunned by a more battle-ready Marama Fox & David Seymour.

That’s not to say either the party’s former co-leader or, potential new co-leader are any different or, that Shaw himself presents as an upper class snob. But when you lack an ‘attack dog’ of say a Steven Joyce or Trevor Mallard variety, the sorts of pit bulls that soak up media attention, you need a few different looking faces fronting the camera, appealing to as many of your potential supporters as possible.

The Greens lost some of their Maori voters and some of their female voters – having a white dude solely running a party championing diversity probably didn’t help the optics all that much.

It’s a situation that could have been avoided on both counts had the party quickly slotted a competent and respected operator such as Marama Davidson into the position of co-leader, at least until after the election had taken place and a more democratic process could have been pursued.

I know what the party hacks will say ‘but our constitution doesn’t allow for that’. Well if that’s the case then your constitution needs an amendment.

2. Golriz Ghahraman should have been 6 on the party list.

Ghahraman will probably get home on special votes but she should have been handed a guaranteed position in the next parliament anyway.

That is, at least ahead of Chloe Swarbrick and Gareth Hughes. Swarbrick will no doubt bring an exciting brand of energy-infused politics to parliament but she has nothing on the experience of a not-much-older Ghahraman, who has both ‘Oxford’ and ‘United Nations’ on the resume.

The fairest assessment of Hughes I can conjure up is ‘Most improved player’, and at least, after 3 terms he can now capably address the media without the assistance from a PR minder.

But if you’ve been in parliament representing your party for 3 terms exclusively from the party list, then it’s probably fair to the party and its members that you opt to stand again outside the 5% threshold and prove you’ve actually added something in your time in parliament, something that makes voters want to ensure your return.

Not only would the marketing of Ghahraman bolstered the intellectual wing of the party, making it even more appealing to urban liberals, it could have also attracted some nervous 1st and 2nd generation kiwi voters who feel the major parties are too often pandering to the likes of Winston Peters and his dog whistling bullshit.

As an extension to this, Ghahraman encapsulates everything the party idealizes when they talk about increasing New Zealand’s refugee intake.

Having already been tested in her previous roles, it makes her a more likely candidate to lead the party in years to come.

3. How a TOP top-up could have played out, but didn’t.

It is of course something the party machine will brush off in light of aforementioned constitutional constraints, but it is again these participatory entanglements that ensured the Greens’ lost an important opportunity when both Clendon and Kennedy resigned.

It was August 7th and barely a week since Ardern had taken over the Labour party, the Greens were in strife as two of their sitting MPs had walked and probably taken with them some of that blue-green vote that is often talked of but equally difficult to quantify.

Running parallel to the Green meltdown was an apprehensive Gareth Morgan who could already see his fledgling party’s’ writing on the wall. TOP were simply not going to make the 5% threshold in the shadows of a newly refurbished Labour party and so in desperation Morgan made Ardern a rather brash offer: To ‘fold the tent’ and disband TOP provided her party adopted their policies.

Well, that was never going to happen.

Jacinda didn’t want to go to the ball with Gareth anyway, she was waiting for James to sort his shit out. But despite already having a date with Jacinda, James couldn’t help but notice how much he had in common with Gareth. So it was up to James to balance romance with bromance.

Upon the departure of Clendon and Kennedy, a more bold Green Party could have made an alliance with TOP offering them the respective places of each departing MP; Kennedy’s 8th place (to TOP’s Geoff Simmons) & Clendon’s 16th place (to TOP’s Teresa Moore).

In the end though, Shaw turned up at the school ball all on his own, Jacinda got there a little late and deflated while Morgan stayed home playing video games.

The cold reality for Green party faithful is that they have never actually been in Government even when they were called something else.

TL:DR Political campaigns require political parties with broad appeal and the ability to be nimble, the Greens were neither and were almost wiped out because of it. 

* Yes, I am aware it’s not ‘technically over’ but after listening to Peters last night it’ll be the Greens mostly on the outer (again) even if any deal is struck between NZ First & Labour. 

Winston’s last stand: Tailoring the Emperor’s New Clothes, again.

Leading into the 2014 election I recall Chris Trotter was feeling pretty optimistic, he even suggested National’s vote could slump to the low 40s and a Labour – Green bloc would therefore have a chance of clinching power.

He must have been polling in Mt Albert.

Fast Forward to 2017, and the ever adaptable Trotter had taken a more pragmatic approach, channeling Winston Peters as man of the hour, someone willing to call ‘time’ on the experiment we refer to as ‘neoliberalism’.

So, Peters the revolutionary? Oh, Please.

What is true about Peters is that for decades he has been part of an enigmatic group of politicians around the world who ply their trade casting suspicion over society’s elites. In 1992, he became fed up with his place in the National Government and buggered off to start his own political party, calling it ‘New Zealand First’.

Under the auspices of Mr Peters, New Zealand First have constructed a political platform that resembles a ‘giant jenga’ of bicultural nationalism and blue rinse conservatism.

In contrast to the liberal order that arose and its claim to ‘empower’ individuals, Peters spoke about the faceless elites within it who he claimed were in fact ‘disempowering’ the nation. It is a form of politics that has struck a chord with a significant cross section of the voting public.

But from the mid 90s, Peters had started tailoring the first of his invisible ensembles, something he could drape over a newly empowered and marauding constituency. He accomplished this by promising many things to many people.  He promised the workers that he would ‘stop the clock’ on economic liberalisation, the elderly were promised that he would safeguard their retirement and Maori were promised an end to the National Government. He would also sing a tune that would resonate with all 3 groups, an end to the record numbers of Asian immigrants arriving in the country.

In New Zealand’s first MMP election he garnered 13.4% of the vote and every single Maori constituency. This brought him 16 MPs and more crucially, the balance of power.

It was in the period between 1996 and 1999 that Peters suffered his first public calling out.  After tailoring the imaginary threads of National’s demise in the ‘96 election, he made an about face and joined with them in coalition. And instead of providing the elderly with the financial security he promised, he severed the area between his spine and lower back and fought for a referendum on compulsory superannuation – a proposal that was bitterly rejected by voters.

By now, the facade of fine tapestry became clearer and the popularity of Peter’s party begun to plunge, as did National’s.  Shortly thereafter, a plucky Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger out of a job and Peters knew it was time to abandon ship. But a small group of New Zealand First MPs, led by Tau Henare, broke away and continued to support the now Shipley-led National government.

Peters’ plan to flush away the Shipley government and save himself had backfired spectacularly.  When the 1999 election finally came around just about everyone linked to New Zealand First were bundled out.  Peters himself only clung on to his seat by only a few dozen votes.

But Peters was by no means a spent force.

The old yarn of a child finally calling out the Emperor for ‘not wearing anything at all’ should also present an opportunity for us to reflect on why we have such difficulty calling out politicians who offer us such little substance.

It is as if the ‘system’, this ghastly form of neoliberalism, has taken on a form of personification that absolves those who have spent decades governing within it, from taking any responsibility for its existence, or any meaningful action to replace it.

By 2002 Peters had bounced back, scooping up votes from a National Party that had plummeted to its lowest share of the vote in electoral history.  He still rallied against immigration from the sidelines but the Clark Government didn’t require his services until 2005.

Just as the first tranche of baby boomers started heading into retirement, Peters reentered government and produced a ‘senior card’. But seniors would have about much use swiping a Flybuys card, because the price of everything had started increasing at a rate not seen before.

Ironically, despite decades of isolationist rhetoric Peters traded in domestic policy for a post as Foreign Minister. And throughout his tenure the bi lateral trade agreements continued, the numbers of cashed up immigrants accelerated and the gaps between rich and poor widened.

By 2008 the public started to howl that the fine tailored ensemble they had been sold (again) was in fact ‘nothing at all’.

This time Peters and his mob were voted out entirely, albeit for only 3 years.

Peters emerged from the ashes in 2011 to lay claim as a guardian of democracy. Just as he had done decades earlier, he convinced the public that he was the man who could be trusted to keep those faceless elites in line, especially those who frequent otherwise innocuous looking Auckland cafes.

By 2014 he was so emboldened by the response to his campaign that he took his immigration stump speech to the oldies a bit further than he usually would. “Two wongs don’t make a white” said Peters, who made the news that night for being a racist dick.

Peters has spent longer in the New Zealand parliament than the time neoliberalism has dominated its politics and he has been part of 3 governments (Bolger, Bolger / Shipley, Clark) that were proponents of it.  Meanwhile, his go-to election issues have remained practically unchanged for the past 25 years, the only notable exception is that his party sometimes oscillates between pro Maori positions and others which are clearly antagonistic.

New Zealand First policies are just ‘common sense’, Peters will say.  And it is the promise of ‘common sense’ that leads a disillusioned public toward measuring up for his triennially regurgitated and largely evidence-free vision for the country.

It is as if every 3 years the Emperor’s subjects become inflicted by one of those memory cleansing devices you would find in a ‘Men in Black’ movie.

Now to the 2017 campaign and the mood for populist quasi-conservatism articulated by Peters is perhaps stronger throughout the world than it has ever been. Some political pundits are even suggesting that Peters could go as high as 20% of the party vote, virtually all of it coming at Labour’s expense.

The blue rinse constituency will tell you that a vote for Peters is a return to the nostalgia of better times. A time when New Zealand was supposedly prosperous, egalitarian and grounded in its bi-cultural underpinnings.

It’s actually just a vote for the Emperor’s new clothes.

Chris, the facade is not neoliberalism – just those who pretend to be doing something about it.

TL;DR Peters ain’t your homeboy.

This column was originally published here by my good friend Josh Van Veen.

 

Negative gearing: More distortion than a shitty dub step track

Have you heard the latest joke? The housing market is cooling off and it’ll be affordable again sometime soon!

Heh, that old chestnut. Conveniently popping up in our news feeds every time politicians feel the pressure to address self-made distortions in the Australasian housing market. 

I wonder why that is?

With only a few days until the next New Zealand General Election such objective sources as ‘Barfoot & Thompson Realty’ are on hand to spin us another yarn about increasing housing affordability. So, millennials, break out that 180k you’ve got laying around, the average Auckland sale price might fall to $900,000 over the next two years and you too can take advantage of blah blah, etc, etc.

Last night ‘The Block NZ’ managed to climb its way into the national conversation, its contestants wore turgid expressions as the auction process confirmed they would not be rich, that after spending the entirety of winter putting up with Mark Richardson.

In what has been an incredible assumption of egg before chicken, the comparatively lower auction prices at this years’ season finale are being used to claim that the Auckland housing market is now in a state of decline.

Not perhaps that there is an election looming and that housing policy is in fact one of the few areas of substantive difference between the major parties and their allies.

No, of course not, lets just gloss over that little nugget of context. 

Kiwis and Aussies could be forgiven for thinking that the pillow fighting among our respective governments is a sign of a cultural chasm that has opened up so deep that it threatens to rip apart that oft talked about, all-conquering ANZAC spirit that we share; like, an affection for oval shaped ball sports, a pair of ugly looking steel bridges and a f**kin’ stupid housing policy.

Make no mistake the housing situation is a mess on both sides of the Tasman, and it is impacting just about every metropolitan area with more than two supermarkets in its city limits.

The housing market is so f**ked in places like Auckland, it is making Hamilton a more appealing place to live. And because of that, housing in my beloved hometown is now pretty well f**ked too.  

Bank of New Zealand Chief Economist (whom I affectionately consider as the curly haired face of fascism in this country) played a straight bat for the ears of home owning baby boomers recently, berating those desperate to get onto the housing market by suggesting they were either whiny, wasteful or expecting too much.  

He was of course merely engaging in a bit of low-brow millennial bashing, using the sort of language that would have appealed to his investor buddies, whose explosive growth in their property portfolios no doubt gives them better erections than the more conventional diamond-shaped blue pill they’re typically prescribed.

It was also a lazy argument that bordered on plagiarism, which in context made his seriously shit remarks that little bit more ironic.  

Housing is a complex issue, beyond the musings of economists there is an idea being touted by some politicians that it can be addressed by transforming everyone’s favourite “f**k off we’re full” slogan into a nationwide immigration policy. While immigrants usually take a couple of generations before they’re discussing stock options down at the country club, they are already good for some things; in this case, taking the blame that might otherwise fall on the type of people who donate to political parties.

It’s also important to remember that it is immigrants doing the jobs we can’t be f**ked doing ourselves – such as shift work in hospitals, working in one of our genuine growth industries (prisons) or even wiping the asses of our parents as they begin to populate retirement villages. Those new migrants will all need somewhere to live too. So, we need to build more homes to at least keep pace with their arrival.

But, there is something else driving demand at such a breathtaking pace; it’s the unseen incentives we give people to park capital in the real estate market.

This obscene policy is called ‘negative gearing’. It’s a process only allowed to operate so liberally in our two fine countries. While it’s banned entirely throughout most of Europe and the United States.

It is practically undisputed among top economists, people such as Philip Lowe, the Reserve Bank Governor of Australia, that negative gearing is a contributor to the considerably over-inflated housing market we’re all chained to.

Negative gearing is defined rather succinctly here.

“It is when the cost of an investment is greater than the income earned from it. For rental properties, costs can include interest payments on a loan or mortgage (but not the principal payments), and expenses such as maintenance, rates, water, insurance, depreciation, accountants and agent fees.

If a property owner has a loss on their investment, they can claim a tax deduction and offset that loss against income earned elsewhere.”

Housing investors are almost always borrowing money to fund their new purchases, and with any mortgage, the amount of interest paid in each installment is more at the beginning of the loan. Therefore, in the first decade at least they can write off such losses against their personal income taxes because their interests costs are high.

This makes property a compelling option for investors, because while they may not be earning the passive income you’d typically hope for from a rental property, they’re able to limit their tax burden while watching the equity in their investment home skyrocket.

After a few years the investor can reach a cost equilibrium but also a substantive capital gain. Provided enough equity has been realised, those same investors can buy another home.

And another one

And another one

And another one

And another one

And another one

And another one

The result is that more people are competing to buy the same number of homes, which pushes prices even higher. When the investor finally secures that shitty old run down ex-state house for 700k, they then need to rent it out for a weekly amount that at least keeps within range of their monthly mortgage repayment.

The end result of this madness is that housing in Australasia has become a multi trillion dollar ponzi scheme that would make Bernie Madoff gush from his federal prison cell.

Even old mate Tony conceded that by ending the practice it will have some impact on the housing market – he must have wanted to shower after admitting that.

It’s also around this moment you start to realise why New Zealand has over 41,000 people (about 1% of the population) either sleeping rough or in woefully inadequate forms of housing (read: cars, garages and boarding houses) throughout the country.  

Census data from way back in 2011 puts the Australian number at over 100,000.  I would bet the value of a week’s’ rent for my tiny studio apartment that the figure is higher now.

How can we fix this mess?

Clearly, you could do nothing and hope for the best – it’s certainly what the Property Council of Australia and New Zealand Property Investors’ Federation would like you to do.

OMG DID YOU SEE THE BLOCK LAST NIGHT??!! 

Or, you could drastically cut immigration as suggested, boot a whole lot of people out and then transform the country into some form of agrarian utopia by pushing people from the cities and into farms (google ‘Khmer Rouge’ for further information).

The first part of which is kind of what happened in Perth, except it wasn’t Government-directed; the decline in the resources sector caused a mass exodus of the formerly employed; many of them Kiwis now returning home to greener pastures.

That’s another reason negative gearing sucks; if growth flatlines and the economy tanks (in the way it has done in West Australia) the housing market will collapse in an even more dramatic fashion, leaving a lot of people in negative equity (where their mortgages are higher than what they could sell the home for).

So, negative gearing must go or be significantly curtailed, because even if the market stutters for a few months in times of uncertainty (as it is currently doing) it will simply rebound at some point if nothing is done to fix the structural issues created by artificial demand.

In the long run, negative gearing is a ‘no one wins’ type scenario for just about everybody – except the boomers who have cashed out already, and of course the banks, politicians, and lobbyists who awarded themselves the liberty in the first place.

TL;DR?  The housing crisis is an issue of both supply and demand. In times of uncertainty, demand will taper off. However, unless you change the underlying structural issues in the market, demand-driven distortions will inevitably return.

 

Triclosan: Just another chemical (get the f*** over it)

Rachel Southee

You’ve probably already heard the one about New Zealand Member of Parliament Jacqui Dean asking a Government Minister to ban Dihydrogen Oxide. It wasn’t her finest hour, but she’s not the only MP around the world to fall victim to a hoax illuminating their lack of scientific literacy.

Meanwhile, acetic acid (vinegar), sodium chloride (salt), ethanol (alcohol), and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) are just a few of the other ‘scary’ sounding chemicals that are probably safely stored away in your kitchen cupboard.

Which is hopefully a timely reminder to all and sundry: Everything is a f****** chemical.

Last week that pinnacle of highbrow journalism Fairfax media, published an article with the bombastic headline “Chemical in Colgate Total possible hormone disrupter and carcinogenic”. A similarly titled piece “Ingredient in Colgate Total should not be sold over the counter, says chemistry expert” then appeared in that other almost – nearly Pulitzer Prize winning rag nzherald.co.nz. In brief, both pieces suggested the public be weary of a toothpaste branded ‘Colgate Total’, this had come amid fears that the presence of a chemical called triclosan was s o m e t h i n g something and banned by the FDA.

Commercial media outlets seem to take great pride exhibiting willful ignorance in matters of high school level chemistry, all the while skipping through the opinions of those persons suitably qualified to temper down such alarmist rhetoric. At least by quoting Dr Michelle Dickinson, the Herald had made a half assed attempt at moderating their click bait headline with a little critical perspective.

But if I am not already appalled enough by the quality of such online content, I just need to scroll to the bottom of a story and read the comments made by a hysterical public. For it is now that I can fully appreciate how gullible our society has become. The knowledge gaps in science communication are only exacerbated by the likes of Dr Libby and Dr Oz whose assumed authority as medical experts can and should be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism.

Our collective scientific literacy has become so god damn awful I expect a sideways look just asking my neighbour how much sucrose she’d like in her tea.

So, for the sake of balance.

Triclosan, is an antibacterial ingredient that has been used in countless products, and has been for some two decades. Now, time alone does not automatically make something safe, but it does lend to the possibility that a product has been thoroughly tested. And as it turns out, Colgate Total is one of the most thoroughly researched toothpastes in the world.

The Cochrane Systematic Review of Triclosan in toothpaste, which can be found here, said the following regarding its efficacy:

“The evidence produced shows benefits in using a triclosan/copolymer fluoride toothpaste when compared with a fluoride toothpaste (without triclosan/copolymer). There was a 22% reduction in plaque, a 22% reduction in gingivitis, a 48% reduction in bleeding gums…”  

For the unwashed, Cochrane systematic reviews are the gold standard. They are ‘meta’ or let’s say ‘mega’ reviews, in this case the Cochrane researchers independently pooled 30 peer reviewed papers.  They also assessed the evidence pertaining to harmfulness, and this was their conclusion:

“There was no evidence of any harmful effects associated with the use of triclosan/copolymer toothpastes in studies up to three years in length.”  

Still want to ‘do your own research?’, you could seek out the Material Safety Data Sheet. This is where you can find the relationship between a chemical and its toxicity. Like many chemicals, Triclosan in HIGH concentrations can be very harmful, and there is still ongoing research into whether or not there is a link between its use in smaller concentrations of Triclosan and hormone disruption in children.

The worthwhile takeaway point in all this is that the amount of Triclosan in Colgate toothpaste is 0.3%, sufficiently low for the FDA to not ban it on the basis of the best research available.

So actions taken by the FDA regarding Triclosan can be summarised as follows:

  • There was a negligible ‘benefit to risk’ ratio for Triclosan present in hand soap, but a strong ‘benefit to risk’ ratio in toothpaste.
  • As there was little proven consequential benefit in hand soap, with some degree of harm to the environment – the FDA withdrew its approval of Triclosan and other antibacterial compounds from their use in hand soap.
  • As there was measurable benefits to humans and still no evidence of harm, the FDA approved the ongoing use of toothpaste such as Colgate Total.

Having now disposed of the premise that led to much of the nonsense regarding Triclosan, there is one aspect of the original story which had some real merit; aquatic life will likely respond differently to particular concentrations than what the human body does. And if our wastewater treatment plants do not process out the Triclosan prior to discharge, then such minute concentrations could still be harmful to aquatic life.

Unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants are not designed to entirely remove such trace elements – but this is not an issue that is unique to Triclosan, it is just that the media generally ignore the already well established waste issues that are responsible for destroying our freshwater ecosystems *cough* intensive farming practices *cough*.

Science is subject to change, that’s how it works.  The evidence for or against Triclosan could one day shift, but it is important that proactive choices by scientists to investigate something further (as is what’s happening with Triclosan) are not confused with a presumption of harm.

The kerfuffle regarding Triclosan only strengthens my view that we need more funding for science communication (as well as more funding for actual research). And maybe some of those funds could be used to ensure that journalists get a crash course in year 11 chemistry.

But that’s probably just a pipe dream.

Perhaps i’ll just email Jacqui Dean, she ended up making it into Government and is now Minister for Consumer Affairs.

TL;DR?  Not eating toothpaste has always been a good idea, along with consulting your dentist for the oral heath advice that is best suited to your personal requirements.

Rachel Southee has a BEng (1st Class Honors) from the University of Waikato.