26 August 2021

Labour's greatest asset is its past success, its second greatest asset is a divided National Party

We all know the story, New Zealand achieved enormous success in isolating itself from Covid 19 in 2020. With a very low death, hospitalisation and infection rate, the Ardern Government was able to feel vindicated in having a hard lockdown, putting up walls around New Zealand and subsequently being able to open up the economy and life to relative normality after a few months. Sure, part of it was because the geography of New Zealand made it much easier to block foreign travel than say Ireland or Switzerland, but it was also a series of policy decisions, albeit blunt as they were.  There can be little doubt this saved both lives and illness from Covid 19.

Furthermore, it was that handling that predominantly drove Ardern and Labour to a historic victory in the 2020 general election. For the first time since 1951 a party obtained over 50% of the vote (party), this remarkable mandate is built on that record, and don't they know it.

Following opening up to Level 1 conditions, New Zealand got complacent. The assumption being that putting all overseas visitors into managed isolation would stop it entering the country. Indeed, as Australia looked like it reached similar (although inferior) levels of success, the "Trans Tasman Bubble" opened up the countries to one another, giving a vision of what the future might look like. 

Meanwhile, as New Zealand basked in people overseas wondering at how sports matches, concerts and other events could be undertaken unhindered, New Zealanders watched at hospitalisations and death elsewhere. In the USA, UK, and elsewhere, the outside world looked unsafe, especially as some faced lockdowns of months long, albeit leakier with foreign travel. However, in parallel some other countries engaged with vaccinations, and ordered vaccines quickly and started vaccinating as their pathway towards less death and more freedom.  Israel and the UK were great success stories.

New Zealand, despite the claims of the Government was never at the "front of the queue" for vaccines, but few cared. It seemed through early to mid 2021 that NZ was free of Covid, and vaccines could be rolled out slowly, focusing on those working at the border, health workers and the vulnerable. To be fair, Australia was moderately better.  Then came Delta.

Then Delta leaked from MIQ (it seems) and now New Zealand is in full-scale lockdown, as cases grow.

The Government and its supporters continue to focus on well the country has done up to now, with so few deaths.  This is all fair enough, but that time is over.  What is clear though is that in the time after the first lockdowns, little government attention has been paid on how to cope with a second lockdown and moreover how to move beyond the Little Aotearoa Hermit Kingdom model of how to live in a world that is learning to live with Covid.

There are big questions that deserve answers. 

However, this is a Government, that whilst wielding unheard of powers of command and control over people and their property, wants everyone to trust it.  It doesn't want to be questioned too much about how it exercises those powers and why it hasn't learned much from the past lockdown and moreover its basis for making decisions at all.  

You see it prefers to present Jacinda Ardern, the Mother of the Nation, at press conferences that spend a good 15 minutes providing background to the announcement 90% want to hear about - which is what level of heavy-handed control will the country be living under and from when.  The strategy is elimination "indefinitely" with lockdowns "indefinitely".

What are those questions?

Here are a few...

  1. Is the real reason NZ has been slow in obtaining vaccines because it "didn't want to compete" with others that needed it more, or was it just bureaucratic or political inertia?  After all, Australian PM Scott Morrison apologised for not ordering enough vaccines, why is NZ different? Is it because Pharmac didn't order them?
  2. Isn't the real reason contact tracing is a nightmare the complacency encouraged by having "kept Kiwis safe" with less than 10% QR code scanning and having planned not at all for a ramp up of contact tracing for a future lockdown? i.e. didn't most people treat Level 1 as Level 0?
  3. Why wasn't their planning for ramping up testing if there was another outbreak and why did vaccinations have to halt because there had been no planning to take into account vaccination in an outbreak?
  4. What is the basis upon which Cabinet decides to change Covid lockdown levels? Is it infection rate, is it case numbers, is it contacts? If there isn't some objective basis to start from, how is this decision made?
  5. Why were frontline emergency workers not regarded as a priority for vaccination?
  6. Why does NZ continue to only use the highly invasive version of PCR tests instead of less invasive (not back the nose) versions seen in Australia or use saliva testing for those being frequently testing, as recommended in the Simpson-Roche report?
  7. If high vaccination rates are reached, and vaccines remain effective in preventing death, hospitalisation and serious illness from Delta (and any other variants), why should NZ not end nationwide lockdowns in response to outbreaks?
  8. Why does there remain a MIQ booking system that is blatantly unfair and not even linked to booking air tickets? 
  9. Why are lockdown rules not shifting to an outcome based approach (meeting performance standards for minimising infection) rather than ad-hoc rules based?
  10. What are the conditions for NZ opening up home-quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers from overseas?
  11. On what basis does Cabinet decide to allow people to get access to MIQ bypassing the system for everyone else? Is it just a case of who has the greatest political pull?
Or is it just that keeping New Zealanders safe from Covid 19 has ended up being greatest asset the Ardern Government has ever had, and if New Zealand moves on from it, and gets back to normal, and there are never any lockdowns, and foreign travel and tourism returns, that it no longer looks that special anymore? Then more attention will be turned to the other elements of the health system, to the housing shortage, to poor educational outcomes, to the dramatic economic and social impacts of policies designed to look like it is combating climate change, to the pursuit of highly illiberal policies around speech, centralisation of water management and taking outrageous Critical Race Theory approaches to treating vulnerable Maori children. 

You see Ardern and the Government have a strong preference for intervention in the economy and in people's lives. It is the most leftwing government since the Kirk era, and it has hired an expansive public sector to implement it.  Consider the micro-management of Covid regulations, that ban private imports of Covid tests (despite them being available in pharmacies and supermarkets in Europe), that ban butchers and greengrocers opening. This Government believes its interventions can fundamentally change the country for the good, by ignoring how markets work, by ignoring personal preferences and choices and by not relying on competition and choice for consumers and taxpayers, but rather central direction and control.  They've swallowed structuralist leftwing identitarianism wholesale, and it is hard to believe that this thinking, which does not gain widespread support in other liberal democracies, is the mainstream of New Zealand thinking. Finally, it has embraced not just meeting the Paris Agreement commitments on climate change, but taking a rigid central planning role to reducing emission through the Climate Change Commission.   The effects of these policies will be to increase energy prices, to increase taxes and have zero discernible impact on climate.

So pardon me if I don't think the Ardern Government believes people's freedoms are that important. It has proposed making political and ethical beliefs protected from so-called "hate speech".  It has a vision of a "kind" state "providing" for people's needs, and caring for the environment, and fixing unfairness. Although it is notable that in recent months the pursuit of this agenda has seen the massive political lead of the Labour Party get halved, it remains ahead.

So keeping everyone safe is part of that, and Ardern can easily argue that, for the past year or so, she has kept people safe, and being seen to be doing that is an asset to Labour.  

Peter Cresswell has a worthwhile list of what wasn't done with the time available after the last success to suppress Covid in NZ. Government supporters may want the debate to be some banal "oh you want thousands to die like in Britain" retrospective, when no one is arguing that.  What IS being argued is that a Government that is philosophically committed to a highly activist state, that spends, regulates and micro-manages more than any in the past 38 years, has been lazy and incompetent in improving its performance.  

However, the Government and its army of supporters can keep looking backwards at the success of last year, paint those challenging it as "destabilising" the current efforts to eliminate the Delta variant or "wanting thousands dead", and still get some traction. The past success is their slowly eroding asset.

But their second greatest asset is a divided and distracted National Party. They have a fairly obvious choice - have a clear, consistent strategy of messaging around what can and should be done to reduce and eliminate the need for lockdowns, and a positive vision looking forward, based on better outcomes for the whole country. An open, outward looking vision of a largely vaccinated, prosperous country, that confronts failings in housing, healthcare, education and water, that encourages diverse responses to those challenges (yes, that includes Maori-based delivery for those who want it).  A government that is fleet of foot, innovative and doesn't tolerate poor performance, and doesn't default to having to command and control to address problems.  Can Judith Collins deliver that? I don't know, but the National caucus needs to develop a strategy and decide who is best to front it and lead it politically. Chris Bishop has been doing a decent job of taking the Government to task over issues like vaccines and saliva testing.  How hard can it be for the Opposition to focus on demanding better from a Government that has had nearly a year to prepare for the risk of a second outbreak?

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