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The Prison Slushie Story is Back, Baby, and It’s Less Nutritious Than Ever

What’s more wasteful than spending $315,000 on syrup and machine maintenance? Trying to generate a controversy about it.

Think back to the pre-pandemic romances of 2019. A “rat” was a disgusting rodent and not a self-administered plague test; the sixth Labor government was in power; and the summers were hot. In fact, it’s so hot that the Department of Corrections installed 193 slushy machines in late 2018 as “Health and security“Measure to keep prison guards cool during the sweltering summer months. (Prisoners, they were careful to clarify, They wouldn’t put their lips around them.)

You expect us to believe that horse shit!? Opposition leader Simon Bridges fumed quietly when he heard the news. “This kind of spending shows the government doesn’t need to tax Kiwis more,” he told the media in April, “as they clearly don’t know how to spend what they’re already charging.” By May, his anger had boiled over in parliament. “What has the government contributed? “Nothing!” he shouted from across the debate room, before shouting a linguistic nail in his political coffin.: “Slushies!”

It was a sight to feast on and the nation ate its fill. But like the slushie, it was full of empty calories. The entire fiasco concerned a taxpayer expense that amounted to a whopping 0.0009% of the total government spending that yearand he was an outgoing nobody, except the toughest NZTU stalwarts who really envied prison guards, a group of people most voters have some sympathy for given their challenging job, practically boiling alive inside their heavy stab proof vests.

As Alex Braae wrote for The Spinoff At the time, Bridges exposed himself as “absolutely ridiculous,” and the story went from political outrage porn to absurd theater in a matter of days, before fizzling out like a spent firework.

Until yesterday morning, when the NZ Herald tried to rekindle the fuse.

“Controversial prison slushies rack up a bill of $315,000 for syrup and maintenance,” read the article’s headline, a figure the Herald extracted from the Department of Corrections through the Official Information Act. It turns out that Corrections still uses and maintains 160 of the 193 slushy machines installed in 2018, and this has cost the department “$217,273 in syrups to flavor the ice mixes and $81,598 in maintenance” to date. (That adds up to $298,871. It’s not clear to me where the headline figure comes from.)

So we’re talking about an average of around $50,000 a year, a rounding error in terms of government spending: something like 0.00004%, if we use 2023 spending as a benchmark. This ~big reveal~ about how taxpayer money is spent? A total non-story. “A totally justifiable drop of water for people doing difficult, dangerous and vital work,” reads a representative comment in the comments section.

Why bother producing a story like this? There were clear signs that the taxpayer outrage angle would backfire, despite it being the easiest political bait in the book (see also: kfc, hair straighteners); Chief among them is the fact that we already litigated this matter in the court of public opinion five years ago, Simon Bridges was strident enough to break glass the entire time, and the verdict was “ehhhhhh, who cares?” .

Listen: unlike some people around me with green stickers on their MacBook Air, I think reporting on wasteful taxpayer spending can be important and newsworthy, even when a Labor government is in charge. In fact, I hate waste in all its forms. That’s why I hate this anger baiting approach.

It’s a waste! It is a waste of journalistic resources (thin on the ground right now); It is a waste of time for the public official who had to respond to the OIA; it’s a waste of brain cells to read (and, yes, write about it). Think about the groundbreaking stories a well-written and targeted OIA request can uncover. Is this what you spend your Carl Bernstein energy on?

Not that a shady story in 2024 can’t be great. She had read a 3,000-word essay reflecting on what the fiasco said about Aotearoa’s political arena and the national psyche before the pandemic; a true cultural retrospective of “simpler times” that you can pore over over a steaming cup of tea.

But trying to generate outrage over the cost? In this economy? Make yourself a drink and get back to the drawing board.