Comment

Ardern heads into new territory with Covid-19 ‘address to the nation’

Jacinda Ardern’s live address to the nation about the coronavirus outbreak is almost unprecedented in recent memory, and a sign of the uncharted territory we’re now in, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Given New Zealanders’ aversion to tall poppies, Jacinda Ardern’s office must have thought carefully before moving ahead with the idea of a prime ministerial “address to the nation”.

The very phrase evokes Churchillian rhetoric, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

But Ardern’s surprise decision to speak directly and uninterrupted to New Zealanders seems an apt fit for the existential crisis we find ourselves in.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins let the cat out of the bag a little early; asked on Newshub Nation about whether schools and other facilities could be closed in particular regions to prevent the spread of the virus, he responded: "The Prime Minister will have more to say on that...very very soon."

Shortly afterwards (just after 10am) came official confirmation from Ardern's office - a "live address to the nation" to discuss the next steps in the Covid-19 response, to be carried by public broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ at midday.

Political trainspotters racked their brains for the last time a prime minister delivered such an address - with most settling on Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1982 decision to implement a wage and price freeze in a bid to combat inflation.

It appeared the uncharted territory being carved up by coronavirus required a (relatively) unprecedented response.

Despite false rumours of a nationwide lockdown spreading on social media earlier in the week before being debunked by Ardern, the media advisory announcing the address did not explicitly rule out such an announcement.

The lack of clarity created some unnecessary anxiety, even if just for a short while, although a few media outlets were subsequently briefed before the speech that a lockdown was not yet in play.

But before long, it was time for the official news to be broken to New Zealand.

Summoning a 'Blitz spirit'

Sitting behind the desk in her Beehive office, a portrait of Labour Party icon, and depression and wartime Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage not so subtly in frame over her left shoulder, Ardern waited patiently to go on air.

The Facebook livestream of the address captured the minute or so before the Prime Minister went live on television. “I can hear if that helps,” she whispers to someone off-camera, before taking one last gulp of air in the seconds before the presenters cross to her.

The subject of her six-minute speech, a new Covid-19 alert system designed to echo existing hazard awareness frameworks, ran the risk of seeming a little underwhelming set against the method of delivery.

It also almost certainly guarantees similar coronavirus-related addresses in future, given the stakes will only increase from here, and could risk emergency speech fatigue among the public.

Asked about her decision, Ardern cited the novelty of the alert system and the need to ensure New Zealanders were acquainted with its intricacies.

 “Whilst from now on we may move up or down ... I really wanted to make sure that everyone had a clear insight into the entire framework.”

That may be true, but perhaps its most important purpose - one implicit if not explicit within the speech - was the need for public reassurance.

Ardern spoke of the “anxiety and uncertainty” associated with Covid-19, of “disruption and uncertainty” for many.

The supermarket shelves stripped bare are testament to that, and it was no surprise that Ardern again hammered home the message that panic buying is not only unnecessary but dangerous to the more vulnerable members of our society.

Addresses to the nation may traditionally be reserved for times of war, but it feels as if we are in a war of sorts right now, and a New Zealand version of the Blitz spirit - albeit the one of myth rather than reality - would be no bad thing.

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