Comment

A careful balancing act for the Government

World War Two tells us that managing resentment as it turns to impatience when things start to improve will be one of the biggest challenges the Government will face, writes Peter Dunne

A week is indeed a long time in politics. Last week we were working through Covid-19 and its potential impacts, but it was still largely politics as usual. This week, we are starting an unprecedented period of potentially prolonged national lockdown.

The criticisms around last week about the adequacy or otherwise of the Government’s response to date now seem so outdated and irrelevant.

The blunt reality has dawned that what we are facing is a serious global pandemic, affecting potentially all of us, not just a political contagion. After a slow start, to enable government departments to develop the options for Ministers to consider, the Government has clearly stepped up its game and is obviously fully committed to following best international practice, and the example of countries like Taiwan which appear to have been more successful than most to date in dealing with Covid-19.

It deserves our support for its efforts and the suspension of our criticisms until we are all in a better position to judge the effectiveness of the steps that have been taken.

But that is not a blank cheque. While the Government’s actions so far are clearly well-intended and based on the best advice available to it, it does not mean it knows everything about Covid-19 and how to deal with it, because palpably it does not. Nor does anyone, anywhere. Governments and citizens the world over are learning all the time from each other and the various approaches being taken.

All this shows that we need to be able to work our way through the issues, in an environment where there can be a high measure of trust in the decisions being taken. But there must also be a strong capacity for those ideas to be tested and challenged if need be, to hold those implementing them to proper account for their performance. Also, we must avoid falling into the easy trap of assuming, or even worse believing unquestioningly, that only the Government really knows what is going on and how to deal with it. There needs to be space to hear and test the concerns that various specialist groups will raise from time to time.

As with so many other areas of contemporary life, we are moving into a new era when it comes to the art of politics. The politics as usual response adopted by the Leader of the Opposition last week fell completely flat and his recent call to his party to suspend election campaigning and petty politicking seems to be an acknowledgement of that. It is the right call in the latest circumstances, but it is hard to see it lasting for very long.

Overall, non-Government politicians seem to have been genuinely struggling to figure out precisely what their role is in these times. The Government’s firm resistance to any form of government of national unity, perhaps involving the Leader of the Opposition and, say, his deputy and maybe the ACT leader has not helped.

While the recent establishment of a special Covid-19 select committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition is a small step towards relieving the Opposition of being left completely side-lined, its role of just reviewing the Government’s actions still leaves it with very much an “after the event” focus. The commitment to involving all sides of politics in formulating the national response still looks rather grudging.

Right now, the whole country needs to feel engaged in the strategy being followed, and confident of its outcome, if we are to succeed in curtailing Covid-19. But that full community buy-in will not occur if there is not a sense that there is a place for everyone in the response, and that it is not just a matter of following instructions from on-high. That is especially so, given that, as everyone keeps saying, the outbreak of Covid-19 means the end of life as we know it for at least the foreseeable future.

We are one of the oldest continuous Parliamentary democracies in the world, and it is sad to see our commitment to upholding that democracy apparently given up so quickly.

While we go through unprecedented self-isolation for however long it may take, we still must retain a social mechanism for debating the issues. We also should be starting to consider the shape and direction of our society once the crisis has passed.

Therefore, although there are sound reasons for limiting the gathering of Parliament in one place for the next little while, that should not mean that Parliament is effectively shut down and shoved in the cupboard for the time being. The technologies exist to ensure Parliament can be assembled for, say, one day a week to review progress and hold the government to account.

We are one of the oldest continuous Parliamentary democracies in the world, and it is sad to see our commitment to upholding that democracy apparently given up so quickly. Yes, these are unprecedented times, but that is an argument for utilising our Parliamentary system to the fullest, not truncating it.

After all, none of us, from the Prime Minister downwards really knows how our communities and general population are going to take to these changes over time. There are no known immediate parallels to what we are now facing. Some leaders, like Boris Johnson and even the Queen have evoked the spirit of World War II, but the vast majority of us – everyone under the age of at least 80 – will not have any direct recollection of those times, let alone the spirit that then prevailed.

Therefore, the recorded reactions of people living through the war may offer some insights worth considering, even if many of the conditions they had to face, and the structure of society were vastly different from today.

Many people commented in the early months of the war that it all seemed so far away – on the other side of the world.

After initial predictable excitement and anxiety about what lay ahead, life quickly settled down into a quiet and regular pattern, and people just got on with taking everything in their stride. Even the first major overseas deployment of troops – the first echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force – in January 1940 reportedly occasioned little of the public enthusiasm or outbursts of patriotism that had accompanied the departure of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War 1, just over 25 years earlier. Some attributed this to what the eminent historian Professor Frederick Wood later described in the country’s official war history as “a general feeling of futility”, but there are many other contemporary media references to how normal life seemed to be overall.

Over time, though, there was a deepening sense of community resentment, in part against some perceived inconsistency or unfairness with some of the controls and restrictions imposed. Petrol rationing was mentioned as a frequent source of irritation.

Later in the war, as victory began to appear increasingly likely, the public mood began to shift towards an impatience for a return to normality, and a feeling that the level of restrictions people had been enduring had been going on too long and should be steadily relaxed.

And that is the most relevant lesson for today. Public tolerance for the steps taken so far will last only so long as they are seen to be fair and necessary. Managing deepening resentment as it turns to impatience when things start to improve will be one of the biggest challenges the Government will face.

From now, the Government faces a careful balancing act. The big decisions have been made – at least for the time being – but their impact and scale need to be managed and the public’s expectations that things will be fair and even-handed honoured. These will be difficult enough to achieve, let alone sustain over time. But they are far more likely to happen if both sides of Parliament are seen to be working closely together. 

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