Comment

‘Calmness’ does not fix a cock-up

Responding to Jack Vowles' concerns about an over-reaction to Covid-19 slip-ups, Liam Hehir argues the media headlines and opposition MPs’ attacks have been an integral part of fixing the problem

Somebody is watching you mop the floor. They are eating a big bowl of ice-cream and keeping a running commentary on how you're doing it wrong. "You missed a spot," frequently issues from their big, fat gob. 

How annoying is that person? No skin in the game but full of unsolicited advice. Why can't they just shut up and let you get on with the job? 

Welcome to government. The floors are your response to a deadly pandemic. The ice-cream eating critic (critics, in this case) are the media and opposition. 

Feel free to pass the mop to someone else. 

In a recent article for Newsroom, Professor Jack Vowles had some harsh words for both journalists and politicians.

While accepting some need for scrutiny of the Government, Vowles says criticism does "not serve the country well if it undermines the trust, confidence, compliance and cooperation and ‘kindness’ necessary for New Zealanders to work together against Covid-19". It is, he argues, "no time to lose faith in the Government’s response".

People are angry about the recent botches and rightfully so. The lockdown we all endured has come at a tremendous economic and social cost. We all know somebody who lost their business, job or the chance to say goodbye to a loved one through compliance with the rules. 

National MP Michael Woodhouse's concerns about the handling of managed isolation processes were brushed off by the Government and its surrogates before the truth came to light, Liam Hehir argues. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It is not too much to ask that those in quarantine have been tested before being released into the wild under some "honour system" to monitor compliance with conditions, and it should not be some unexpected "learning" that this threatens our progress.

The propaganda issuing day and night from the Government's communications apparatus and repeated in the international media gave us a clear and unambiguous message: "We've got this." 

This has turned out not to be the case. National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse blew the whistle on the Government's hapless management of compassionate leave from managed isolation. The response was general denials by ministers and swift attacks by its surrogates - then the truth emerged.

At that point, the Government tried laughably to implicate opposition MP Chris Bishop in the fiasco. Finally, the decision seems to have been made to throw the public servants under the bus. 

To the extent they consider matters to be their problem, it seems Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Health Minister David Clark will go as far as "mistakes were made" and no further. 

In other words, they are averse to political accountability on this issue. Had Woodhouse not taken the steps he had, and the media not covered things in the way they have, it seems unlikely that we would be aware that things are not as rosy as they seem.

We cannot assume that the barn door would have been fixed in an environment where the media and opposition did anything but harshly call the government to account.

Is there ever a time when the job of the media, the Opposition and academia should be diverted from the task of speaking truth to power? That's debatable - but holding back is not what we need now.

The national mood of triumphalism probably contributed to our complacency in the first place, and a move away from that should be seen as a welcome corrective. 

Instead, Vowles is worried about the impact of criticism on national unity. It's not clear why we should be concerned, however, while there is a contradiction at the heart of his reasoning.

On the one hand, he argues government fumbling is probably nothing to worry about and unlikely to have serious public health implications. On the other hand, he feels unreasonable criticism of those in power imperils the nation in the face of that...well-contained threat? 

If the system is running as required, subject to a few kinks being worked out, then the suspension of ordinary political adversarialism is not required.

The Government is big enough and ugly enough to defend itself from unfair criticisms, after all, and it’s not short of communications platforms and media surrogates. 

Is there ever a time when the job of the media, the Opposition and academia should be diverted from the task of speaking truth to power? That's debatable - but holding back is not what we need now.

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