Meth house clean-up only just begun

I started this blog post wanting to layout the issues left unresolved after a week of reportage on meth houses. I finished it furious at the inept government response, not just since 2016, but since the report was released. Phil Twyford has work to do

It's time for another big meth house clean-up. Not of the houses themselves, which Sir Peter Gluckman has finally and definitively said are about as dangerous as a $10 note, but of the decision-making process around disputed science in public policy and Housing New Zealand's leadership.

Gluckman's report this week has been like a pin a in a balloon, loudly bursting the idea that "P-contaminated" meth houses were a scourge on the New Zealand landscape. Instead, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor found that houses where people had smoked meth were not in fact a danger to residents and did not need a $30,000+ clean-up to be inhabitable. He found that in recent years hundreds of people had been evicted and around $100m of taxpayers' money spent for no good reason. Gluckman said:

"There is absolutely no evidence in the medical literature of anyone being harmed from passive use, at any level. We can't find one case."

As Henry Cooke's article explains so well, the test being used by Housing New Zealand was designed not for houses where meth was smoked, but for houses used as labs. And the 0.5 micrograms guideline was meant to be a target for cleanliness, not a threshold for safety. 

On one level I have some sympathy for Housing New Zealand. Meth and its addictive use has become a scourge and it's understandable the agency would be seriously concerned about the use of meth in its properties. Any board would have been irresponsible not to take a cautious approach in the face of disputed science about potential harm to its tenants, especially when they include many of New Zealand's most vulnerable. The message given out by Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett at the time about her concern for "wee babies" in contaminated houses would have underlined that.

Yet it's clear the messages that 'meth is dangerous' and 'any house where meth has been smoked is dangerous' have been woefully conflated. Having said that, the critical language suggesting that anyone who wasn't declaring the safety of meth houses two years ago was swept up by "moral panic" itself reeks of a little lemming-like hyperbole. Unlike climate science, where extensive research had been done and more than 90 percent of the relevant experts are lined up on one side of the argument, there was genuine uncertainty and a range of competing voices. 

And yet. The problem with the defence I've just run is that the evidence that the approach was inadequate, unjust and potentially doing great harm to people's lives was strong and loudly expressed. This is where the story is simply extraordinary and frankly appalling. 

What Gluckman's report should leave us all wondering is why it took so long for this simple and obvious step to be taken and this clear conclustion to be reached. 

First and foremost, the lack of clarity for years before Gluckman came to such a definitive conclusion this week is of serious concern and needs to be understood fully. I can understand that caution from Housing New Zealand at first given the uncertainty. But how was that uncertainty allowed to continue for so long? A clear explanation remains elusive. 

Alot of bollocks is talked about a 'whole of government approach' to issues. But consider this. RNZ's Benedict Collins did stories in 2016 quoting Ministry of Health sources saying Housing New Zealand was using its guidelines incorrectly and in August that year Housing New Zealand minister Bill English told Morning Report he knew the guidelines were being misused. His defence was that they were the only guidelines the government had, so HNZ had to use them. Yet in February 2017 Housing New Zealand Chief Executive Andrew McKenzie was still saying at a select committe the Ministry of Health had said different things to its staff. It was as if, rather than sort out the discrepancies, he'd just ignored the public statements.

To resolve the whole confusion over what was safe, Standards NZ was brought in and a bunch of officials nutted out a standard that raised the threshold from 0.5 micrograms to 1.5 micrograms. Yet now Gluckman says 15 micrograms is a more reasonable threshold. 

If you look at those events, it seems simply farcical. Two of the government's largest ministries seem to not know what each other thin and are unable to talk to each other. The relevant minister knows the problem, but allows people to continue to be removed from their homes. Officials work together for months and come up with flawed science. The level of ineptitude look phenomenal... and systematic. You have to ask how people can be so stupid. Perhaps the answer is that individually they're not. I wonder whether our public sector has become so risk averse and bureaucratic that various agencies can't simply have a conversation, find a solution and act. 

Second, Housing New Zealand's leadership of this has been and remains a scandal. How did the board and senior management not insist on a Gluckman-like definitive ruling two years ago? How did they permit a policy that was clearly harming people while they lacked the information to make an informed decision? Why did not they insist on staff popping down the road to the Ministry of Health and coming back with a resolution?

Think of the public anger over the money wasted on the flag referendum and then quadruple it. That's what Housing New Zealand's leadership oversaw, all for the lack of some clear science. From what we know so far, heads must roll.

But hang on, surely these people have been closely investigating these issues. We know they worked through a process with Standards NZ; presumably they were worried about tenants' health. Surely there are explanations.

The problem is, we haven't heard them. In a level of ineptness that is the cap of idiocy on this mess, Housing New Zealand leaders are refusing to talk publically. Not a peep. Not a single interview.

That in itself should be reason enough for heads to roll. Whoever has decided that hundreds of evictions and $100m of our money wasted does not warrant a public explanation should not be working in the public sector. This is nothing less than a scandal and a shame.

I have been inclined to be sympathetic to the decisions the HNZ leaders have been forced to make, but their silence suggests something else. It suggests a cover up of incompetence or worse. What other conclusion can we come to? If the explanation is anything else, why not come forth and make it?

Andrew McKenzie is accountable to the public for his ministry's decisions and does not have the right to remain silent when questions of this nature arise. It's that simple. If you don't like it, get another job.

Phil Twyford can rightly claim credit for picking up the phone and getting Gluckman on the job. By doing so he's made his predecessors look silly and he's shown a commitment to evidence-based policy. But since the release he seems to have been caught up in the ineptness of this whole story. 

For one, as the responsible minister he should have demanded McKenzie and the Board chair appear with him in front of the cameras. Indeed, he could and should still do so. It's the least a government that has promised greater transparency should be doing. So Minister, pick up the phone again and make another call!

Finally, the government needs to seriously consider the question of compensation for state house tenants. Landlords have been bloody unlucky and poorly served, but it is only tenants who have been forcibly removed from their homes by the state.

There is a debate to have about safety and how the P residue got there in the first place and if tenants can be proved to have been in breach of tenancy agreements. But HNZ would need to prove a link between the smoke and a certain tenant and then that eviction was the appropriate and proportionate response. 

But there is a first principle question about how the government can spend $886m over ten years to compensate farmers for Mycoplasma bovis and deny compensation to state house tenants. Both are suffering harm where at least some of the fault has been found to lie with state agencies. The fuller question of where fault lies needs to be considered, but it's hard to see from a justice principle why one should be helped and the other not.

Yes, the meth house clean-up has turned into a mess on many fronts, and the government is far from being able to put its broom away just yet. Gluckman's report is the beginning, not the end.