Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Dire warnings about water levels, tentative good news on Covid-19 case numbers, and local government struggles for funding.
The seriousness of this issue has largely gone unnoticed amid everything else, but if we don’t address it now things could get pretty bad. The state of water storage in Auckland is currently the worst it has been in decades. In fact, as Radio NZ reports, Watercare has warned the city that if it weren’t for Covid-19, water restrictions would already be in place. Chief executive Raveen Jaduram put the current dam levels in context, which are down to just 52% of capacity: “We want everyone in Auckland to realise how severe this issue is. Half full storage lakes in April – we haven’t had that since about 1992.”
To reiterate, formal water restrictions have not yet been put in place. And continuing good hand-washing is essential right now, so don’t stop doing that. But the message around activities like washing the car or waterblasting the house is very simple – don’t do it. If water use doesn’t come down, or we don’t see an inordinate amount of rain in the next few weeks, restrictions will almost certainly come in. And the real pain point won’t necessarily be this year – if things don’t improve, another dry summer next year could be catastrophic.
If you think this is just an Auckland problem, think again. Large parts of the country are still in drought, according to NIWAs drought monitor. The associated problems with that haven’t gone away in the last few weeks, even though attention has been elsewhere. Discussions are starting up again in the particularly hard hit Hawkes Bay about water storage dams, reports Hawke’s Bay Today, which is fair enough, though you can’t store rain that isn’t falling. This situation is not going to get better as the climate changes, so the whole country needs to start thinking about permanent changes in habits that lower the amount of water that gets used.
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See this graph here? It shows tentative signs of a very positive possible scenario in the fight against Covid-19. There were only 54 new cases announced during yesterday’s update, which sounds like quite a few, but is lower than any other day over the last two weeks. That also comes amid increasing numbers of tests being carried out – though typically Monday and Tuesday have seen lower tallies of new cases than other days of the week. Dr Ashley Bloomfield says we’re clearly not out of the woods yet, and people still need to follow all of the lockdown measures for the efforts so far to be worth it. It’s worth reiterating that there could be unknown cases out there. Here’s the updated charts which show the current spread so far.
One of the biggest issues in government funding over the next year is going to be how on earth local government pays for itself. Concern about rates is bubbling up all over the country, at a time when most councils are facing deficits of critical infrastructure. Rather than tie the individual issues together beyond that, I’ll just go down the country and give you some headlines to show where things are at:
In Auckland, there has been a freeze on contractors, and non essential work has been paused. The Council also has basically no choice but to go ahead with a 3.5% rates rise. In New Plymouth, the Council has major three waters projects coming up, and discussions are taking place over recovery from the Covid-19 downturn, “rates remission, rent holidays and a proposed rates increase.” In Wellington, the rates hike is still going ahead, amid the loss of tens of millions in revenue from Council facilities.
In the South Island, Tasman District is considering blocking a scheduled rates rise of 2.97%, and foregoing about $2 million in the process. In Christchurch, councillors are actively pushing for property owners to lobby the Council to stop a rates rise, which would involve big budget cuts – but don’t worry, those councillors still want a massive new rugby stadium to be built from the public purse. And in Clutha, the rates will still have to be paid, but the Council has given a bit more leniency on how quickly for those affected by the downturn.
In the interests of transparency, IRD has started publishing the names of businesses who have applied for the wage subsidy, and how much they’ve been paid out. And New World stores, which have continued trading over the lockdown period, have now voluntarily withdrawn all applications, and will pay back money already paid out, reports Stuff. The scheme is not just free money – it requires businesses to have seen a 30% downturn in revenue (or projected revenue) because of Covid-19, and is tied to keeping people employed. You can have a look at the list here. And speaking of supermarkets, Michael Andrew has reported on a new crowd-sourced system which tells you how long the lines at stores are.
The government needs to consider some sort of private equity measures to prevent key NZ companies with depressed share prices being bought up by overseas interests. That’s the view of the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Fran O’Sullivan, in a provocative column that looks at the likes of Tourism Holdings, Fletcher Building, and other companies that are vulnerable to raiding. Other countries, particularly Singapore and Australia, have already made moves in this direction.
Health minister David Clark suffered through a pretty brutal round of interviews yesterday morning, after his demotion and reprimand from the PM. A brief survey of political reporters and commentators show a pretty unanimous opinion that it will only get worse from here. Radio NZ’s Jane Patterson believes that “his future as a Cabinet minister once the lockdown is over is shaky, to say the least.” Stuff’s Henry Cooke argues that his career is now effectively over, and he’s now just serving out a notice period as health minister. And the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Audrey Young has hammered home the point made by the PM – that she would have sacked Clark were there not a global pandemic on right now. Just so we’re all clear here, David Clark did offer his resignation – it just wasn’t accepted because of the immediate situation.
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Right now on The Spinoff: Kerry Davies writes about why essential workers need higher base pay and safer conditions, rather than danger pay to risk their health. Alice Webb-Liddall writes about how to support small local food businesses during the lockdown. Reverend Scottie Reeve writes about the time of reflection that is Easter, and what it will mean during the lockdown. Duncan Greive surveys the wreckage after a terrible week for the media, and assesses the companies most in danger of falling over next. Josie Adams writes about the wild internet rumours swirling about adrenochrome, another substance with no evidence to back up the claims it could fight Covid-19. And Rachel Buchanan has written a lovely piece about putting on an online concert for the locked down residents of a rest home.
Schooling from home is all well and good in theory, but in practice can be hampered by a serious lack of digital connectivity. That’s the major conclusion of this op-ed on E-Tangata by public servant Kirkpatrick Mariner, who has looked at the digital divide and how it disproportionately affects Māori and Pasifika people. It’s something that we’re going to have to take really seriously in the coming weeks and months, especially if schools can’t quickly go back to normal. Here’s an excerpt:
Child poverty data shows that one in four Māori and Pacific children suffer from material hardship. Material hardship is defined as households that can’t afford specific items that most people regard as essential. We can safely assume that there’s a correlation between poverty and being digitally disadvantaged.
Right now, Covid-19 is demanding that we get students on the digital agenda and equipped for the future. If we don’t do this soon, we’ll see this crisis further exacerbate social inequalities. That means the most vulnerable groups in our country will continue to be marginalised and become an entrenched poverty statistic (if they haven’t already). In fact, the signs were there well before Covid-19.
The credibility of an esports code has been thrown into question by accusations of match-throwing, reports Oskar Howell for Stuff. You’ll have to read the story to get the ins and outs of what happened, but basically a highly touted team in the Rocket League Oceanic Championship made some “uncharacteristically rookie mistakes” in losing a series – which if that team had won as expected would have allowed their arch-rivals a pathway out of the group stage. So far, no firm motive for the allegation of throwing has been offered beyond spite for said rivals. Let’s Play Live, who run the tournament, say they’ve got no tolerance for any sort of fixing, and will be investigating.
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