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Govt’s Covid-19 package hits the right spots, but Bridges does not

Despite the historic nature of the Government’s coronavirus response, there is still more that can - and should - be done. But not all politicians covered themselves in glory in their reaction to the news, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

There was precious little social distancing on offer in the media lock-up for the Government’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Journalists and analysts were tightly packed together in Parliament’s Legislative Council Chamber to hear from Finance Minister Grant Robertson, the only obvious sign of what Jacinda Ardern has called “the new normal” were the bottles of hand sanitiser dotted around the tables.

The urgency of the official response was evident in the lack of fancy branding that usually accompanies such budgetary documents, as well as in the delay in their arrival (having literally just come off the printer, we were told).

Robertson did not mince his words in discussing the economic picture, noting that New Zealand was almost certainly heading towards a recession.

But the scale of the Government’s response - $12.1 billion in total, equal to 4 percent of the country’s GDP - was striking, as were some of the specifics contained within.

The decision to permanently increase benefits by $25 a week across the board does not go all the way to meeting the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, but will ease some of the pressure on the coalition to do more for New Zealand's worst-off.

A Covid-19 Rorschach test

The Covid-19 package had become a Rorschach test of sorts for different political parties and interest groups - National decided tax cuts would save the day, ACT backed spending and regulation cuts, while Greenpeace and other environmental organisations plumped for climate investment.

The coronavirus response offered a chance for the Government to push through one of its own (worthy) pet projects, which may have gone ahead anyway in this year's Budget but is now packaged in a less politically contentious manner (although it did still notably balance the $2.8b in welfare changes with an equal $2.8b in business tax changes).

Robertson's announcement was broadly well received by most, with the notable exception of National leader Simon Bridges.

For better and (in this case) for worse, Bridges has only one speed - relentless negativity, an attack-dog approach that pulled his leadership out of the mire last year but is now entirely inadequate for the job at hand.

He choked on the few words of faint praise he did offer for the Government’s package, saying of the $12.1b figure, “Is it large enough? Yeah, I suppose,” before pivoting to more comfortable territory.

“What we see in this package today is money flowing faster into the hands of beneficiaries than the workers and the businesses that will lose their businesses and their jobs over coming weeks and months,” Bridges claimed.

It is a statement that ignores both the basic mathematics of the economic plan, and the likelihood that the numbers in need of welfare will rise irrespective of what business support the Government does provide.

Simon Bridges' aggressive style of speaking seemed an ill fit for the circumstances he found himself in regarding the coronavirus response. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

He decried “confused and muddled priorities”, in a speech that appeared designed less to rally the public than the troops on his side of the House. Not that it had that effect, with most National MPs staying silent and still throughout (although admittedly that may have been a bid to reflect the gravity of the crisis).

Bridges suggested there should be no cap on the wage subsidy scheme but offered no idea how much that would cost, having earlier claimed the Government had no legal basis to detain travellers who refused to self-isolate, only for that to be refuted by a journalist who pointed to public health orders.

This is not to say that there should be no criticism of the Government’s response. Indeed, there are many worthy questions that have been asked about the stringency of the testing criteria, and the readiness of our health infrastructure for any surge in hospital admissions.

But there is still a careful balance to be struck in doing so, with probing questions rather than alarmist proclamations.

Bridges could learn from his finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith, who in his own speech on the Covid-19 package continued his run of strong performances in articulating where National agrees with the coalition on coronavirus, and where it would take a different path.

Goldsmith offered praise for the wage subsidy package (“absolutely the right thing to be focusing on”) and funding for Covid-related leave, but pointed out gaps in cash flow support for smaller businesses.

“When we talk about helping businesses right now, it's over the next month that they really need it. This is going to be the critical time; it's not going to be in four years' time with depreciation rates.”

In substance it was not hugely different from Bridges, but in tone and temperament it was worlds apart.

Jacinda Ardern called on New Zealanders to be "strong but kind" in their response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Ardern herself hewed to her usual, relentlessly positive approach, describing New Zealand as a nation shaped for the better by its “tough, harsh and unpredictable” experiences.

“That is when we rally: when we look after one another, when we care for the most vulnerable.

“So my final message is this to New Zealanders: be strong but be kind—we will be okay.”

Ardern’s deputy prime minister and coalition partner Winston Peters did his best to echo her sense of gravitas, speaking about the Government’s “unprecedented steps for an unprecedented challenge” and offering particular support to the elderly New Zealanders at greatest risk from a coronavirus infection.

“You are our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, and senior citizens - a respected part of our community.”

But Peters could only resist his natural impulses for so long, and soon enough found himself exchanging jibes with National’s Gerry Brownlee (who he described as “somebody who jumps up, opens his mouth, and lets the wind blow his tongue around”).

“I know the Prime Minister hates this,” Peters offered towards the end of his speech, with Ardern looking up from her notes and offering a half-pained, half-sincere grin in response.

Of course, platitudes and goodwill alone will not be enough to see New Zealand through this crisis.

More work needs to be done on support for larger businesses, and on wider stimulus once the economy is in a position to benefit from it; Robertson has already offered a change of direction in what will now become a “recovery Budget” later this year.

But equally, footage of fighting over toilet paper in Australian supermarket aisles should offer us a reminder of where panic and overreaction could lead us if we are not careful.

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