Anne Salmond: A Roman circus

Divisive, combative leaders who think they know more about science than scientists have led to soaring death rates and economic devastation. Let's hope New Zealand doesn’t go down that bleak, heart-breaking track, writes Dame Anne Salmond.

Does the Opposition realise that our country is in lethal danger, and that a global pandemic is raging? Do they understand that at present, New Zealanders need calm, intelligent, trustworthy leadership, focused on the future and our collective survival?

Over the past few months, the Opposition has operated like a Roman circus, crying ‘wolf’ over a fictitious homeless man, trying to trip up the Government by leaking confidential medical information, and throwing one leader after another to the lions.

Now they have appointed Judith Collins, who talks about National ‘crushing’ the government and ‘taking back’ the country, as though New Zealand was their own private possession. As Jim Bolger has warned, pugilistic power-grabbing is about the last thing that most Kiwis want or need at the moment.

In countries like the US and the UK, people are dying in droves, and in Australia the pandemic is spiking. New Zealanders are worried about friends and families, losing their jobs, and a future that looks dark and dangerous.

Behind the pandemic lurk the climate crisis and the wholesale destruction of habitats, making it easier for infectious diseases to jump the species barrier.

At present, a sense of shared purpose, care for others, and a trust in scientific approaches are vital to dealing with these existential challenges, and keeping the virus at bay.

In discussing Covid-19’s impact on climate action, the new leader of the Opposition is worrying: “Scientists expect the impacts of 1.5C warming to be lower than 2C. But the same statement is true for the difference between 2.0C and 2.5C… The costs of global warming are real, but there is no indication they are insurmountable.”

This kind of ignorance is dangerous. Judith Collins needs to read Sir Jonathon Porritt’s new book, Hope in Hell, which authoritatively summarises the science on climate change, and gives us a decade to rescue a planet that is habitable for humanity.

While questioning the need to take practical account of these risks, she adds, We will wonder why the government decided to add climate change into RMA decisions by local councils. We will be ready to embrace infrastructure on a scale not seen since the ‘Think Big’ days. And when anyone mentions Greta, we will ask: Who?”

It is sad when a Swedish teenager knows more about climate change than a long-serving politician. Divisive, combative leaders who think they know more about scientific matters than the scientists, and who rate the economy above saving lives have ruined the response to Covid-19 in a number of countries, leading to soaring death rates and economic devastation.

Let’s hope Kiwis are watching and learning from their suffering, and that New Zealand doesn’t go down that bleak, heart-breaking track.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Auckland, and was the 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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