Week in Review

The paranoid style in New Zealand politics

Criticism of the Government's Covid-19 response is far from new, and has often had merit. But the new National leadership's dark mutterings of a cover-up are taking New Zealand politics in a dangerous direction, Sam Sachdeva writes.

"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."- Richard Hofstadter, 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics', 1964

Nothing wrong with asking questions, is there? Where’s the harm in that? ‘They’ haven’t turned that into a crime as well, have they?

Such was the tone of the National Party’s press conference on new community cases of Covid-19, in an ill omen for the tenor of the campaign for our next election - whenever that proves to be.

National leader Judith Collins offered a small hint of her likely approach when news of the four South Auckland cases broke on Tuesday night, saying the return of the virus would “come as a shock to all New Zealanders who believed what we had been told - that we had got on top of this virus”.

If there were any reservations about going negative, they were not on display as Collins and her deputy leader Gerry Brownlee instead doubled down on Wednesday afternoon.

She complained about National health spokesman Shane Reti’s difficulties in receiving a briefing from Health Minister Chris Hipkins, as well as the timing of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s call to advise Collins of the Auckland lockdown about 30 minutes before the Prime Minister informed the country.

“It is always the pre-election convention that a government does not make major decisions without consultation with the opposition: clearly, advising the Leader of the Opposition ... just before a public announcement is not consultation.”

National's deputy leader Gerry Brownlee outlined - unprompted - an allegedly suspicious series of events in recent weeks, as if joining the pieces of the puzzle with string on an overloaded pinboard.

That is not quite right - the Cabinet Manual states that governments are not generally bound by caretaker conventions in the period before an election, although many “have chosen to restrict their actions to some extent” - but it was at least closer to the mark and a more reasonable point than some of what followed.

Asked about the Government’s timeline, Collins said she was “hearing a lot of rumours”.

Several minutes later, her deputy leader Gerry Brownlee outlined - unprompted - an allegedly suspicious series of events in recent weeks, as if joining the pieces of the puzzle with string on an overloaded pinboard.

“The messaging around a possible further outbreak of Covid-19 began ... about 10 days ago; on top of that there was the issue of masks, we were encouraged to start purchasing masks to have them available in the emergency kit.

“Dr Bloomfield went a bit further, in one interview I saw suggested that people might wear a mask for one day a week, just to get used to the idea of wearing masks.

"Then you saw the Prime Minister’s visit to the mask factory ... along with Dr Bloomfield, after 103 days of no community transmission having a test himself - all very interesting things to happen a matter of hours before there was a notification of the largest residential part of New Zealand going into Level 3 lockdown.”

Pressed on what exactly he was implying, Brownlee replied with a smirk: “I’m just outlining facts ... it’s an interesting series of facts."

A Trumpian take on postal voting

Exactly what those facts were meant to prove was left unsaid - although leaving it to the vivid imaginations of tired and scared New Zealanders was perhaps the point.

Then, outlining her desire to delay the election to November or even next year, Collins appeared to borrow from Donald Trump’s playbook in casting aspersions on the trustworthiness of postal voting - despite the fact New Zealanders can already apply to cast a ballot by mail.

“This is a serious issue, it is not a laughing issue, it is not something to joke around, and it’s certainly not something to have just put in an envelope and sent off with no verification as to who anyone is.”

Mercifully, the pair at least confirmed their support of face masks, reducing the chances of a large-scale culture war as seen in parts of the United States - but the overall picture was not positive.

At least when Simon Bridges attacked the Government during the initial lockdown period, it seemed less malignant and more a demonstration of his “buffoon-like qualities”, to borrow Bridges’ characterisation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Bridges also ably chaired the Epidemic Response Committee set up to give the Opposition a platform during the adjournment of Parliament, and mostly favoured cock-up over conspiracy in his critiques of Ardern and her ministers.

Making ominous references to “interesting facts” does nothing to address concerns about the Government's response, and runs the risk of undermining public buy-in for a longer lockdown, should one be required.

The line of attack from Collins and Brownlee comes from a darker place, and it is hard to know which is worse - that they genuinely believe in some sort of grand cover-up, or are prepared to stoke such sentiment out of political expediency.

To be clear, there is plenty of ground for legitimate criticism of the Government’s response.

Information about the locations visited by the new positive cases has dribbled out slowly and inconsistently, leaving those who may have been a casual contact on edge.

Ardern’s refusal to engage in “hypotheticals” about the likely extension of Auckland’s lockdown, given the 14-day incubation period that we have all learned about, seems overly cautious and potentially counterproductive in preparing people for a long haul.

But making ominous references to “interesting facts” does nothing to address those concerns, and runs the risk of undermining public buy-in for a longer lockdown, should one be required.

As the US has torn itself apart over a politicised Covid response as deaths shoot upwards, we have patted ourselves on the back.

Such complacency on the health front has proved to be a mirage - we can only hope the quality of our political discourse does not similarly evaporate.

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