Don’t derail Ardern as we take the next steps

In any crisis, large or small, people usually rally round those in control so long as they convey a sense of knowing what they are doing. If those in charge lose that sense, start to waver, or are otherwise deflected, then their authority quickly starts to erode, warns Peter Dunne

As we moved into the totally foreign territory of an Alert Level-4 lockdown, New Zealanders, whatever else their misgivings about the limits that were going to be placed on their freedoms, drew some comfort from the joint front presented by the Prime Minister, the public health officials and the Police.

All showed strong commitment to the task at hand of getting the country rid of the Covid-19 virus, and, the occasional missteps and inconsistent responses notwithstanding, conveyed a reassuring air that they knew what they are doing, and that it would work in the best interests of the country.

Consequently, in the first phase of the lockdown the Government has been able to keep the country on-side and in the vast majority of circumstances, with a couple of notable exceptions, secure the compliance of the public.

However, it has not been easy. Already, there are reports that almost one third of the businesses closed down by the lockdown may never reopen. Our national airline has been brought to its knees and may have to be nationalised. Tens of thousands of workers face redundancy, either on a permanent or medium-term basis. There are doubts about how quickly export markets can be restored.

The Government has been forced to commit billions of dollars to a range of business and emergency relief programmes, which taxpayers will bear the consequences of for many years to come. The health system has been braced to be stretched as never before.

New Zealanders have been called on to make, and are making, incredible sacrifices, and enduring personal pain and disruption on a scale never previously experienced.

Yet, despite all those adverse circumstances, there remains the sense that it will have been worth it, if we are successful in getting rid of Covid-19, at least in New Zealand.

All the while, we need to remember as the Prime Minister has pointed out in a phrase reminiscent of Churchill’s famous “end of the beginning” line all those years ago, that we are “not yet at halftime”. Inevitably, though, thoughts are starting to turn to what happens next, and here is where over the last few days cracks have been starting to appear in the joint face presented to date.

The Prime Minister understands better and more clearly than the public health officials and some of the other government officials advising her where the boundaries of public tolerance and support lie.

Together, they have made remarkable steps in the last couple of weeks, and as a result we are in a far better position than anyone might have dared to contemplate barely three weeks ago.

But the Prime Minister knows that while people have so far been largely supportive of the massive steps that have been taken, that support will not last forever, as the doubts about their future employment prospects or the sheer frustration of continuing to live within their “bubble” magnify.

That is why there has been a small but perceptible change in her language this week, and an increasingly strong emphasis in her remarks that the Alert Level-4 lockdown will be over soon. At the same time, she has been making it clear that the removal of Alert Level-4 will not mean the restrictions are over. Rather, they will be loosened but not removed, perhaps in a couple of weeks, maybe to a yet to be fully defined Alert Level-3 state, although that will be just the first step of a lengthy process to get the country back on some sort of an even keel.

The Prime Minister clearly appreciates that New Zealand’s future rests on that process getting underway sooner rather than later. It is a position most New Zealanders, proud of the sacrifices they have made to date, but not all that keen to put up with privations and limits on their freedoms indefinitely, would endorse.

... officials may well be trying the time-honoured tactic of pushing the boundaries as far as they can, in the hope of getting at least some of their own way, but this is not an issue where such sectoral game-playing is at all appropriate.

People crave certainty, so want to know where they stand, and what their lives and hopes are going to look like for the future. And while it would be wrong to suggest that this is all being done with an eye to the election still scheduled for later in the year, the Prime Minister is also acutely aware that how her Government handles this next phase will have a significant bearing on the public’s judgment at that time.

But it is not clear that the Prime Minister’s broader view is shared by all the officials who have been advising the government on the Covid-19 response.

While it is a relief that the Police appear to have backed off the swaggering, law and order-centric approach they seemed keen initially to adopt, in favour of what seems to be a more community-centred approach, the public health officials seem, if anything, to be moving in the opposite direction.

Despite the cautiously pleasing figures being released each day they appear quite reluctant to join the Prime Minister in inching towards the next phase. As the Government and the public are turning their minds to the bigger picture of how our communities and businesses can recover, their focus seems still to be that Covid-19 is still fundamentally a public health crisis, and everything must be secondary to dealing with that.

That has been an understandable and justifiable response so far, but they now also need to recognise that the country cannot remain a giant isolation laboratory forever.

New Zealanders want to move forward with a sense of confidence that the steps taken so far are working, and that the next phase, and those to follow, will be similarly carefully organised.

In that context, hobby-horse type suggestions that all future visitors to New Zealand should be required to wear electronic monitoring bracelets, for example, show a breadth of vision more usefully confined to an academic ivory tower than proffered for public debate.

The Prime Minister gets that, even if some of those advising her apparently do not. Those officials may well be trying the time-honoured tactic of pushing the boundaries as far as they can, in the hope of getting at least some of their own way, but this is not an issue where such sectoral game-playing is at all appropriate.

What will knock the public’s confidence is any sense that the Government is losing its grip. In that regard, the extraordinarily foolish behaviour of the Minister of Health is the last thing Prime Minister needs right now.

At a time when every other citizen is being asked to make sacrifices above and beyond the norm, she should not have to tolerate any of her Ministers, or even her Members of Parliament for that matter, let alone the Minister of Health, breaching – not once but at least twice – the sanctions that have been put in place.

His actions have stretched the Cabinet rules about Ministerial conduct beyond any reasonable limit, but, in the circumstances his demotion rather than outright dismissal is understandable although frustrating. Nevertheless, he is now very much on borrowed time – left sitting in Dunedin to count the days until his ultimate dismissal, before or after the election.

The Prime Minister’s approach this week has been to start the process of setting the way ahead. For their part, New Zealanders seem increasingly ready to begin that journey. The last thing either need is to be derailed by overly zealous and cautious officials doggedly unwilling to face the future or stupid Ministers unable face the present.

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