Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8: Finally English and Ardern talk to Peters

Winston Peters has confirmed he will soon begin preliminary talks with both National and Labour. Photos by Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look at the latest developments in coalition talks, and dig into Housing New Zealand's big meth testing bill.

1. Finally, they're talking

Winston Peters confirmed yesterday he was set to begin preliminary government-forming discussions with Bill English and Jacinda Ardern later this week.

The New Zealand First leader spoke briefly with both prospective coalition partners yesterday on the phone, they confirmed.

New Zealand First put out a statement yesterday morning after Bill English revealed he had called Peters on Sunday, but had received no response.

"Mr English left a voice message on Mr Peters' phone last evening, suggesting the two talk this week. As one would expect, Mr Peters has already responded to Mr English by phone," New Zealand First said.

It added "preliminary talks will proceed this week when arrangements suitable to both parties are concluded."

Ardern put out a statement yesterday afternoon that: "This morning I spoke with New Zealand First Leader, Winston Peters. We will look to hold a meeting between our respective teams later this week, while we wait for special votes to be counted."

English had said yesterday he thought it would be difficult for the parties to agree on an arrangement before Peters' self-imposed deadline of October 12 if they waited until after the October 7 announcement of the special votes to begin talks.

Five days to negotiate policy concessions and the make up of a Government that included New Zealand First ministers would be difficult. Policy concessions that allowed New Zealand First to remain on the cross benches after agreeing to supply and confidence would take less time.

However, I would be surprised if a Government was in place before mid-to-late October. Parliament must resume at least six weeks after the returning of the writs on October 12, which sets a Parliamentary deadline of Thursday November 23.

The other informal deadline is that APEC and East Asian Summit meetings are held from November 11 to November 14 in Vietnam and the Phillippines. Donald Trump and Xi Jingping is expected to attend and key TPP decisions are due to be made. Most expect New Zealand would need to have a Government in place before then because any Prime Minister (or new Prime Minister) would be expected to attend.

Winston Peters has previously said he expected to make a choice by October 12 and has repeated that in recent days, but it's hard to see a Government sworn in before the end of October.

2. 'The specials do matter'

Ardern said this morning that the counting of the special votes did matter for the negotiations because they could change the respective number of seats for the parties, which could make the size of majorities more or less comfortable.

"Both parties are looking at slim majorities, whichever way you cut it," Ardern told Morning Report.

"Most leaders would want some comfort that the majority they hold would withstand the loss of MPs. The specials do matter," she said.

Currently, National is on 58 seats and the Labour-Green bloc is on 52. Adding New Zealand First's nine seats would give a centre-left Government just 61 seats and make it vulnerable to the loss of an MP through a by-election or someone switching sides.

A switch of two seats from National to Labour-Green would give a Labour-Green-New Zealand First a two-seat buffer in Parliament to allow for the loss of one or two MPs.

Ardern said she was also confident the Greens would stick with Labour.

"I've certainly had relayed to me. That expectation is still a focus on changing government," she said.

As I wrote yesterday in the email and on Newsroom, discussion about a potential National-Green alliance is empty posturing aimed at creating some leverage and pressure on Peters.

3. Housing NZ's meth-testing bill

Housing New Zealand spent $52 million in the last financial year testing for trace elements of meth and repairing houses that tested positive for meth, Baz Macdonald reports on Newsroom.

It turns out that's 52 times more than Housing NZ spent on testing for mould and asbestos. Housing health experts question the mania about meth that fueled the growth of a testing and repair industry that is the biggest in the world.

Macdonald's piece documents how a new regime for meth levels due to be set in law will set a level that is less dangerous than fly spray.

Housing health experts question why Housing New Zealand has spent so much more on meth testing when there is little evidence that trace elements are harmful to health. Whereas, there is plenty of evidence that cold, damp homes with asbestos kill dozens each year.

Director of the housing and health research programme at the University of Otago, Philippa Howden-Chapman, said there was no evidence of adverse health effects from a meth contaminated home.

“I looked at this in some detail a couple of years ago and I couldn’t find a single instance of where there was someone hospitalised for just being in a house where someone has smoked meth,” she said.

Howden-Chapman asked why it was meth testing was receiving so much attention from the Government, when there was no evidence of its ill-effects, especially when there is overwhelming evidence of the health effects other aspects of housing are having on young New Zealanders.

“Thirty thousand children are hospitalised each year from preventable housing related diseases – asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Children who are hospitalised for these housing related illnesses are 10 times more likely to die. On average, 20 children a year die from housing-related diseases. So, that is what we should be worrying about,” she said.

“How many of them go ill from meth [contamination] rather than being cold, damp, mouldy and unsafe? Absolutely none. We are concentrating on the wrong thing.”

4. Evictions for less meth than on $5 bill

The evidence shows the evictions being justified by the incredibly low levels of meth being written into law means people will be evicted for levels of meth that are lower than the trace elements on every dollar bill in the country.

Massey University applied environmental chemist Dr Nick Kim has been involved with this issue since 2010 when he was consulted on the original guidelines constructed by the Ministry of Health on the remediation of meth laboratories.

He, like many of the nearly 2000 other scientists who submitted on the meth testing standard instituted this year, believes this industry is unnecessary and there is little scientific justification for the level of scrutiny meth contamination is receiving.

“I don’t think there was ever a need for a meth testing industry in ordinary houses.”

What people don’t realise, Kim said, is 1.5 micrograms per 100cm2 is a such a small quantity that it is at a forensic level, completely undetectable unless looked for with advanced technology.

“That is millionths of a gram. It is a tiny amount.”

Kim reported to the NZ Drug Foundation last year that 0.5 micrograms, and now 1.5, are incredibly conservative numbers and that the lowest amount he could conceivably imagine a health effect occurring would be around 12 micrograms/100cm2.

This, Kim said, is his most conservative estimate and the lowest dose recorded to have a pharmaceutical effect is still 500 times higher than this 12-microgram figure, or over 3000 times higher than the 1.5 level set in the new standard.

“We are quibbling about a number which is hundreds of times lower than a dose that would be given when it is prescribed.”

This prescription is for Desoxyn, a 5mg dosage of methamphetamine, which is used to treat ADHD in children in the United States.

Even at 12 micrograms/100cm2, Kim said he would be perfectly comfortable living in that house with his family. It was a moot point, however, as he didn’t see any need to be concerned about meth smoke residue.

“I wouldn’t even bother to test for it.”

In fact, Kim said there is likely to be as much meth residue on a bank note as there are on the walls of homes people are being evicted from. Last year, Fair Go did a test in Auckland which showed 100 percent of bank notes had meth residue on them and 60% had levels higher than the 0.5 microgram standard at the time.

“People were probably removing walls for having less residue on them than existed on the notes in their wallet.”

Yet, Kim asked, why is it there is a health panic over these levels on a wall when there was never one over the contents of our wallets?

See Macdonald's full article here on Newsroom.

5. Milestones

Retiring - In one of the bigger moves in corporate New Zealand in recent months, ASB announced Chief Executive Barbara Chapman would retire at Easter 2018 after seven years in the job. Chapman said she would take some time to think about future interests and challenges. ASB said the board had started a recruitment process. CBA CEO Ian Narev is expected to leave ASB's parent at the same time.

Suspended - MBIE announced Fuji Xerox New Zealand (FXNZ) had been formally suspended from one All-of-Government contract for 'Print Technology and Associated Services (PTAS) and terminated from the Office Supplies contract, which 93 agencies had used. The suspension is effectively immediately and prevents Fuji Xerox from signing up new business, MBIE said. The suspension follows Fuji Xerox's revelation of accounting irregularities at its New Zealand unit.

6. While you were sleeping

A 64 year old lone gunman used more than 10 guns to fire indiscriminately into a crowd of over 22,000 country and western music fans from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Hotel in Las Vegas.

He kept shooting for more than 10 minutes and killed at least 58 people and injured hundreds. He killed himself as police approached him after what is described as one of the worst mass shootings in US history. (New York Times)

Facebook is expected to hand over to Congress tonight the content and detail of more than 3,000 advertisements bought by Russian operatives during last year's Presidential election. Twitter has already privately briefed a Congressional committee on how Russian troll farms used the platform during the election. (Axios)

The situation in Puerto Rico remains desperate, with 95 percent of the population without power and US federal authorities rarely seen. Most are spending their days queuing for water, petrol, medicine and food, as Robin Respaut and Nick Brown from Reuters report.

Catalan leaders plan to declare independence unilaterally within a week after over 2.3 million of its 5 million residents voted in a referendum on independence. (Bloomberg)

7. Coming up...

NZIER publishes its September Quarter Survey of Business Opinion at 10 am today. ANZ's September business confidence survey found a sharp fall in confidence about the wider economy to net zero, potentially due to political uncertainty.

New Zealand First's caucus meets in Wellington today ahead of Winston Peters' first preliminary discussions with the two respective party leaders.

8. One fun thing

It seems the nation is gripped with the latest celebrity television series. It's called Married at First Sight. I say it seems because I am not a viewer...

But it has generated a few good twitter memes.

GCSB Intercepts: "Tonight's surprise contestants coming up on the premiere of Married at First Sight. #MAFSNZ"