Politics

Jacinda Ardern on the road to recovery

As Kiwis move from lockdown to a new normal, Jacinda Ardern's attention is now on the long road to recovery. Ardern spoke to Newsroom this week about making hard decisions quickly, the pandemic fuelling protectionism, and whether the country's worst-off are getting the support they need

In the distant past of mid-February, before Covid-19 officially became a pandemic and the world as we know it changed forever, Jacinda Ardern took in what is now a forbidden delight - attending Sir Elton John’s Auckland concert.

While John was forced to end his set early due to ill health, it seems the Prime Minister does not hold a grudge: she names his 1983 tune ‘I’m Still Standing’ as the song that soundtracked her pre-pandemic 2020.

“It seems to have been quite prophetic,” she laughs - and indeed, both Ardern and New Zealand remain on their feet even as the virus rips through other nations.

The way in which coronavirus accelerated up the list of national and global concerns, becoming far more than just a “Wuhan virus”, seems to parallel the infection rate curve itself.

In the early stages, Ardern was keeping a close eye on events overseas and monitoring international reporting, but cites the decision in early February to close the border to travellers from China as when the significance of the situation really hit home.

“What I constantly had my mind on was in overseas countries, by the time they were making decisions, those small windows were closing on them and things were getting away - and even a week was a lifetime in the transmission of this virus."

“At that point, we weren't talking about cases in New Zealand; of course in our mind were the health ramifications, but the economic ramifications were the first thing to hit us, because we were making a decision to close off an incredibly important education market, tourism market, all in aid of getting ahead and not being in the position of others.

“So that that was the first decision that I just, you know, the gravity of that was huge.”

Those huge moments did not stop: every time Ardern and her ministers thought they had made the biggest decision they would face that week, an even bigger one would swiftly follow.

Those calls were made tougher by the pace of events. In the three days it could sometimes take for a written briefing to be drafted then shared, the basic facts would have been overtaken by other events, making oral briefings a necessity.

“What I constantly had my mind on was in overseas countries, by the time they were making decisions, those small windows were closing on them and things were getting away - and even a week was a lifetime in the transmission of this virus...

“By the time we were getting ourselves in the position of having compiled all the advice and bringing ministers together, we were thinking about the next step, because that was what was required to stay in front of it.”

'An appalling balancing act'

Writing about the potential return of English football, The Guardian’s Barney Ronay memorably described the invidious position of British authorities: “Every decision taken right now involves an appalling balancing act, between virus control and total economic collapse. Every decision is by definition pragmatic and flawed.”

The same applies to the decisions made here, Ardern says - “Inherent in all of them was economic pain” - but she has no regrets about the stringent lockdown, contrasting it to indecision in other countries.

“When I look overseas and look at even some states now that have been in a form of lockdown for several months, that to me is the proof point, that doing what we did was not only the best health outcome, but the best economic outcome for us as well, even though implicit in all of these decisions was that it did come at a huge cost.”

Covid-19’s exponential growth rate means we are not out of the woods yet, even with the number of active cases down to double digits, but attention has started to move from recovery to rebuild.

Unveiling the Budget last week, Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson emphasised that things could not be simply put back as they were - but exactly what we should build in its place remains a little vague.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson's Budget last week made clear that the rebuild from Covid-19 would not result in an identical economic structure. Photo: Monique Ford/Pool.

The Prime Minister says it will be the private sector itself that drives much of that work, mentioning feedback from business owners during her recent visit to Rotorua.

“They know their business, they know their customers well, and they're the ones undertaking that reorientation, but what they're saying to us is, ‘What we need is a bit of support through the transition of that’, or ‘We need a bit of support through the overarching marketing campaigns’.”

One area where Ardern is clear on the need for change is greater market diversification for Kiwi exporters, who faced tremendous pain when their access to the Chinese market was shut off.

The Government does have a role to play there, she says, noting continuing free trade talks with the European Union and the United Kingdom and a funding boost for NZ Trade and Enterprise to assist exporters.

New Zealand First leader and coalition partner Winston Peters has called for the country to ramp up its domestic manufacturing, a position that may seem at odds with our free trade principles.

"In those places where we have seen those walls being built up, we've also seen a different approach on Covid...it will be really interesting to see how those citizens see that approach and whether or not they've been well served out the other side of it."

But Ardern believes we can maintain our principled position while providing assistance to critical producers on-shore, such as the Whanganui company cranking out N95 masks.

“We have seen some retrenching and some behaviour that suggest a bit of destabilisation in those global trade principles, actually shoring up our position and saying now is not the time to abandon it.”

Is she worried about protectionist sentiment - already on the rise before the pandemic - surging further in the wake of a virus helped along by the ease of global travel and trade?

“We should all be worried about that ... what will be interesting to see will be in those places where we have seen those walls being built up, we've also seen a different approach on Covid,” Ardern says, somewhat diplomatically.

“And it will be really interesting to see how those citizens see that approach and whether or not they've been well served out the other side of it, but the Covid story is not yet complete so only time will tell.”

A tough time for migrants, beneficiaries

But not every New Zealand citizen is happy with Ardern’s approach, some of her own supporters included.

Many migrants find themselves in difficult situations at present, with some out of work and unable to access benefits relying on meagre food packages while others out of the country at the time of lockdown unable to make their way back in.

Ardern concedes there is more work to be done in both cases. The support for migrants out of work due to lockdown “was never intended just to be food parcels”, she says, and she has followed up on specific cases raised with her to check whether accommodation costs and other needs are being met.

“So [I am] keeping a close eye on whether or not that system's working on the ground, not just in theory ... there is more work to be done there so I'm very open on it, and we're beavering away on it at the moment.”

When it comes to visa holders locked out of New Zealand, Ardern says there are two different camps: those who were already living in the country but were offshore at the time of lockdown, and those who held the legal right to enter but had not yet exercised it.

Officials are working on the quarantine procedures that would be needed for returning migrants, as well as “sequencing” requests to return based on those varying statuses.

“We are very mindful of the group most likely to be affected by Covid, but also the stimulatory effect of having those on the lowest income supported, so that's, you know, a bit of a placeholder, I guess, I would say, as we keep doing that work.”

“You could see why someone who was previously here, we need to address that issue more promptly than someone who had not actually been in New Zealand at all.”

On benefits more broadly, some on the left saw the Budget as a missed opportunity, with no welfare increases for the disadvantaged New Zealanders most likely to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Ardern pushes back, noting the $25 weekly increase in the earlier Covid-19 financial package as well as the 2019 decision to index main benefits to wage growth, the introduction of the winter energy payment and increases to the family tax credit.

But that does not mean the Government’s work is finished.

“We are very mindful of the group most likely to be affected by Covid, but also the stimulatory effect of having those on the lowest income supported, so that's, you know, a bit of a placeholder, I guess, I would say, as we keep doing that work.”

It is a useful reminder that for all the plaudits Ardern has (fairly) won for the initial response, there are some significant gaps still to be filled in.

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