A Response to Jason Walls: Not a single cent more for podcasts, poetry and picture books in the name of ‘Covid recovery’

A Response to Jason Walls: Not a single cent more for podcasts, poetry and picture books in the name of ‘Covid recovery’

Can you imagine a world where the most powerful man in the world pushes his followers to attempt to overthrow an election. A world where governments worldwide decide to sacrifice millions of lives because it is too difficult not to. A world where one of the world’s previous superpowers is tricked into voting to kneecap itself because a bus told them to? A world where we are hurtling towards environmental disaster and no government is making a serious attempt to stop it?

Imagine living in this world, and you hear about a book about a collapse of democracy and your first thought is ‘I don’t see how this could be of any relevance.’

Jason Walls opens his latest opinion piece for Newstalk ZB with this

As New Zealand faced the brunt of a global pandemic, the Government spent $26,000 commissioning a novel about the collapse of democracy in an association of alpaca breeders.

At least Richard Dawkins was able to spot basic allegory.

As people lost jobs in droves, almost $50,000 was given to the Comedy Trust to examine what changes need to be made to better support a more diverse and sustainable comedy industry.

As people lost their jobs in droves, the New Zealand Comedy Festival, run by the Comedy Trust, had to cancel its 2020 Festival. It left itself, and dozens of comedians, with thousands of dollars in sunk costs into development and marketing and having lost the one time a year it makes most of its money.

Receiving funding allowed the Comedy Trust to continue to function despite this, and allowed it to spend time into the much needed work of how to better support a more diverse and sustainable comedy industry.

In an industry dominated by white men, the most significant recent success story to come out of the local New Zealand is Rose Matafeo, who found most of her success once she left the country. If these steps taken by the Comedy Trust are successful and can open up pathways to just one more person like her, it will have paid itself off tenfold.

I’m not making this up.

Don’t worry Jason, no one ever had a doubt you were making this up. You have shown so far that you lack the creativity. Even this article is just a rehash of a taxpayers union press release from almost exactly a year ago with some, but not all, of the racist and homophobic dogwhistling taken out.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has spent $57 billion on New Zealand’s economic recovery.

A lot of this money has been well spent – the wage subsidy scheme prevented what would have likely been an economic collapse.

So now Walls gets into the economics of it. The wage subsidy prevented economic collapse during the lockdown. I’m glad Walls thinks the wage subsidy was a worthy cost, as his employer took over $4,000,000 from it.

What does Jason think this art subsidies goes towards? Without having seen the budgets of each individual project, I would guess that the majority of this funding went on… wages.

But amongst the important, well-targeted spending is a smorgasbord of abject waste.

Billions and billions of dollars have been spent on projects that don’t come close to a semblance of sensible spending, let alone meeting the threshold for Covid Recovery.

Here we see a glimpse of creativity from Jason Walls, unfortunately it comes when he starts talking numbers. Billions and billions is a great term for when you want to conjure up a large figure but you don’t want to have to back it up with evidence.

But if you were talking about billions and billions of wasted funding (which for arguments sake I am going to assume is 4 billion, the minimum amount required to two lots of multiple billions) surely you wouldn’t waste your time talking about a project that received 0.00045% of that would you?

Take the $18,000


for writing poetry that “explores indigeneity and love in the time of climate change,” for example.

If Jason wasn’t just rehashing Taxpayers Union press releases, maybe he would have investigated the outcomes of this funding, and seen that this $18,000 resulted in the publication of Tayi Tibble’s Rangikura, one of the best books of the year.

I work in a bookshop, and Rangikura is one of our best sellers. So not only has this grant put $18,000 into the economy through Tayi Tibble’s wages which she would have circulated around the economy, it also has gone on to stimulate spending in bookshops, publishers, book distributors, couriers, designers etc. Which seems like an ideal impact of Covid response funding.

It’s easy to take aim at the Creative NZ funding and to poke holes in what the Government’s decided to fund through its $55m “public interest journalism” fund.

I have read and reread this sentence multiple times, and I am not sure why it exists. It doesn’t make any argument and introduces the public interest journalism fund, which is immediately dropped and not mentioned for the rest of the piece. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Some $26.7 million was spent on cameras on fishing boats, in the name of Covid recovery.

There was also $200m for the construction of a new building at the University of Auckland.

And a whopping $1.22 billion was spent on the jobs for nature scheme

But the threat of economic collapse didn’t end with lockdown. We exited lockdown to a very different economy, which required government stimulus to keep people in work. Which is where the Covid Response and Recovery Fund came into it. By giving a cashflow injection to ‘shovel ready’ projects, the government ensured new jobs were created, to replace those which had been lost due to the pandemic.

– as a little perspective, that’s enough to buy roughly 1000 houses in Auckland.

I don’t know if by saying this Jason is advocating for that money to be instead spent on houses in Auckland, if so I’m sure he’s aware that the government has quite spectacularly failed at pouring money into building houses in Auckland despite their best efforts. He has written about after all.

Are they important projects? Maybe.

I don’t know how successful these projects were. But if the best examples of wasteful spending are making an industry that has notoriously been shirking its responsibilities more compliant, adding more infrastructure to our education system, and going towards thousands to jobs that aim to fix some of New Zealand’s environmental issues, it doesn’t seem like it’s a great argument.

Should they have been the Government’s focus in these unprecedented times? Absolutely not.

The Government’s focus in these unprecedented times, was less about the projects themselves and more about how they were a pathway to an injection of money into the economy. The fact they had value in and of themselves was just a bonus.

The currency of politics is opportunity cost – what project has missed out on funding as a result of another getting the nod from the Beehive.

I agree with Jason here. The Covid Response and Recovery Fund was not a perfect tool. There were major issues with it. It exacerbated inequalities, like how women were more likely to lose their jobs because of the pandemic, but the covid response grants have been disproportionately given to industries dominated by men.

In the case of the Covid-19 Recovery Fund, every cent spent on commissioning podcasts, picture books and poetry is money not spent on New Zealand’s health care system.

One, this is not really true. The government decided how much debt it wanted to take on in order to provide its Covid response, and it hasn’t even spent all of it.

And two, it is as much true for every piece of government spending and revenue ever. Every cent that is spent on film subsidies for amazon is a cent not spent on New Zealand’s health system. Every cent not taxed from people who make money from capital gains rather than from income from work is a cent not spent on New Zealand’s health care system. Every cent spent on every road, every piece of welfare, all education, all foreign aid, the five eyes programme, our prison system, the police, they are all cents not spent on our public health care system.

Successive governments have made decisions about spending and taxation that has resulted in a chronically underfunded healthcare system. But instead Jason Walls chooses to focus on the podcasts, picture books and poetry (notice how Walls goes back to arts funding after he briefly found some bigger numbers to mention).

Meanwhile, that very system is being stretched to its limits.

The Government’s top Covid-19 advisor, Sir David Skegg, said it best in a recent warning to MPs.

[The health care system] is under a lot of stress at the moment, even without any significant problems from the pandemic.

“We have to all accept that we need to invest more in our health system.”

If the Government decides to abandon its Covid-19 elimination strategy, the strain on New Zealand’s already stretched hospitals will only get worse.

This is all 100% true. Finally we have reached something valuable in this article.

But by that point it will have been too late – the Covid fund’s already been mostly raided.

Here’s the thing. Even if we put all the money from the Covid-19 Response fund into healthcare, it would neither fix our heathcare system, nor provide the economic stimulus that was needed.

The Covid-19 Response fund had to be fast moving, to get people into work quickly. It had to be short term, for projects which once completed did not require ongoing support. It had to be spread out across the economy. If we pumped the billions and billions of dollars that Jason claims was wasted into the healthcare system there would still be hundreds of thousands of people in other industries out of work.

If Jason Walls has information about public health care projects that fulfilled the criteria of the Covid-19 Response Fund, and did not receive the funding, I would be very interested in reading about it and look forward to that article.

But there is some hope.

Tacked at the bottom of a Grant Robertson press release about New Zealand’s “strong economic momentum” was a fairly significant note.

Cabinet’s decided to allocate a further $7 billion to the Covid-19 Recovery Fund.

When added to the $3b that’s left in that fund, ministers have a tidy $10b extra to spend.

Although it’s a sixth the size of the overall Covid fund, it’s not an insignificant amount of money.

It needs to be spent properly, with New Zealand’s health care system at its focus.

Healthcare will not be fixed by a one-off cash injection. There needs to be long term, targeted and ongoing funding to address the decades of neglect.

We need to ensure that when this Covid Response Fund is emptied, that healthcare will continue to receive funding. We need an education system that doesn’t expect nursing students on full time placements to survive on student loan alone. We need to improve the work conditions and pay for midwives to stop them burning out and leaving the profession. We need to increase the physical capacity of ICU beds, and the training and funding to staff them. We need to train more psychologists, so that suicidal people get support and not just a list of helplines.

These things can only be fixed by increasing the base funding.

That’s more hospital beds – not funding the instrumental arrangement of 10 songs for children, from ideas given by children.

More nurses – not paying for seven large domes in fiberglass for exhibition as exoplanets using satellite imagery.

More money for New Zealand’s hospitals – not funding for obscure and wasteful projects in the name of the ‘Covid Recovery’.

I knew this argument reminded me of something.

The government’s Covid response is far from immune to criticism . I appreciate the work done by journalists, including occasionally by Jason Walls, into investigating and holding the government to account.

There was undoubtedly wasteful spending as part of the Covid response. It was done quickly, attempting to support all who needed it, with minimal people falling through the cracks. Which meant some people who didn’t deserve it got it. It’s worth journalists looking into how the system was flawed and how it could have been implemented better.

It’s also worth journalists questioning why New Zealand has such an abysmally low number of ICU beds. Why healthcare professionals are leaving the industry due to burnout. Why our hospital infrastructure is so decayed it’s falling apart. And there is great journalism happening in these areas. I haven’t seen Jason Walls write any of it.

note one:

I received $13,000 from CNZ as part of their Covid response funding to pay me to work for 13 weeks where I would research and write towards a first draft of a novel about male affection in hypermasculine spaces.

The draft I wrote was not good and I am now working on rewriting it from scratch.

That $13,000 was spent in the NZ economy on rent, food, books, live shows and a holiday in some of the areas most affected by the lack of international tourism.

My project was one of the projects picked up by taxpayers union as wasteful spending. It was the top of the list on their press release and although I can’t prove it, I believe it was highlighted to spark a homophobic response.

I am still working on this novel in my spare time unpaid.

note two:

As well as having performed in the Comedy Festival, I have worked for the Comedy Trust as a contractor. I was going to work the 2020 festival before it was cancelled, but later in the year they did pay me a part of the fee for the work I was due to do.

note three:

I am not a journalist. I’ve never studied journalism, politics or economics. And don’t have the resources of a news room, so any facts or figures in this may be off. Despite all this I would back this over Jason’s opinion piece.

I decided to self publish this because I wanted to be able to be more mean than I imagine most websites would allow. So that means I’m not getting paid for it, which is not guaranteed when writing for a lot of media anyway.

If you want to support me, the best thing you can do is buy my book. I work for a great bookshop who are a living wage employer, so you can buy from us here. Or as an ebook here from a New Zealand based website mebooks.

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