Comment

Back to business for NZ - politicians included

The news of a timely move to Level 2 will be welcomed by all New Zealanders - not least politicians chafing for the opportunity to make their pre-election pitches to the electorate, Sam Sachdeva writes

At one point during Jacinda Ardern’s press conference, it started to feel like the wait for news of when New Zealand would reach Level 2 might extend as long as we spent in Level 4 lockdown.

The Prime Minister praised Kiwis for the personal sacrifices they had made, noted our success compared to the rest of the world, reminded us of the importance of washing our hands - all admirable sentiments, but ones we have heard from her and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield almost every day for the last two months.

Finally, 752 words in, came the news we were waiting for: we were ready to move to Level 2 this Thursday, with a few minor caveats.

When Ardern raised the prospect of a phased move to Level 2 last week, seemingly out of nowhere, it was hard not to suspect that was where we would land come Monday.

So it proved, albeit not quite as staggered as could have been the case.

All businesses and services are allowed to open as outlined, with the singular exception of bars who will have to wait until Thursday next week to welcome their clientele.

The decision to hold them back another week may seem unfair to some, given they will still be subject to the same seating and spacing restrictions as restaurants and cafes when they do reopen their doors. 

While more bodily fluids may be emitted on a rugby field - although that may depend on your drinking establishment of choice - the teams remain static, known quantities compared to the groups that could cycle through a bar on any given night, even with a 100-person capacity limit in place. 

But alcohol and inhibitions do not always go hand in hand, and it is easy to see how people could let their guard down on physical distancing and other health measures after a few drinks late at night - particularly given there is greater mingling with strangers on a dancefloor than at a restaurant.

And while more bodily fluids may be emitted on a rugby field - although that may depend on your drinking establishment of choice - the teams remain static, known quantities compared to the groups that could cycle through a bar on any given night, even with a 100-person capacity limit in place. 

Ardern cited a new outbreak in South Korea linked to nightclubs as a justification for the stricter approach, while Bloomfield - somewhat surprisingly - revealed his ministry had actually been pushing for a two-week delay (with the effect, intentional or otherwise, of making Cabinet’s decision appear more reasonable).

The other striking change was the introduction of a new 10-person limit for gatherings like weddings, funerals and parties at home. There is also a two-hour limit on those events in public, although Ardern’s office was forced to clarify that - contrary to the Covid-19 website - there was no such restriction for gatherings in private.

But for the most part, the country is open for business - and politicians are no exception.

Back to business for politicians

Barely a few minutes after the big reveal, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had fired out a press release hailing the news and issuing a call for the public to buy local, before pivoting to a campaign pitch of sorts. 

“New Zealand First’s focus now turns to business and jobs. Our efforts every minute of every day will be directed at helping business to get back on their feet to assist both job preservation and creation so that business and workers can begin to rebuild our economy and make it stronger than ever.”

National has also signalled a return to politics as normal, after leader Simon Bridges formally suspended the party’s election campaign two days before lockdown.

“130 days to go until the election,” proclaimed a statement from deputy leader and campaign chair Paula Bennett championing the party’s track record and new candidates.

Of course, politics never truly went on hold: it is inextricable from the policy decisions made by the Government, or from the Opposition’s response to them, no matter how vehemently their supporters may disagree.

But the civility which has (with a few glaring exceptions) accompanied political debate in the last month or two will slowly recede with the lockdown restrictions, although Bridges notably shied away from any overt criticism in the wake of the Level 2 news.

The first big test is just a few days away, when Finance Minister Grant Robertson unveils the coalition’s “rebuild” budget on Thursday.

Ardern has quite rightly earned some political capital in recent weeks, but it will quickly dissipate if voters feel like she and her ministers have placed themselves above criticism.

There will still be a veneer of decorum on display, but it seems fair to expect some sharper elbows with the election barely four months away. 

Politicians will also be able to resume their beloved photo opportunities, albeit on a significantly smaller scale until the 10-person limit is increased.

No doubt some will argue that it is too soon to get back to politics as usual, and there is truth to the idea that the challenges we now face could be served as well by collaboration as competition, if not better.

But there are fundamental ideological differences between all the parties in Parliament and those outside it, and seeking to paper over those for the sake of national unity only entrenches the electoral advantage already enjoyed by incumbents.

That advantage was implicit in the much-discussed email sent to ministerial staffers ahead of last week’s surprise document dump, claiming there was “no real need to defend” any official advice contrary to Cabinet decisions and criticism could instead be dismissed.

Some of the outrage was a little overblown - including from the media, who need to remind ourselves that we are not slaves to the quick-hit news cycle - but it was the tone of the remarks that were as offensive as anything else.

Ardern has quite rightly earned some political capital in recent weeks, but it will quickly dissipate if voters feel like she and her ministers have placed themselves above criticism.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners