By Chris Trotter*
The evidence for massive public buy-in to the Government’s fight against Covid-19 is overwhelming. Reputable public polling agencies have measured support for the Government’s handling of the Covid Crisis at roughly two-thirds of adult New Zealanders.
Given the nation is in the midst of a one-in-a-hundred-year event, and that the government has secured the support of so many citizens, the voicing of criticism needs to be handled with considerable care and sensitivity. Serious failings need to be exposed, but not in ways that lead large numbers of people to the conclusion that those responsible are being unduly or unfairly critical.
Accepting the catastrophic consequences of a general loss of public trust in the state and/or the mainstream news media, the burden of restraint imposed upon New Zealand’s politicians and journalists, as they navigate this crisis, is a heavy one.
Let us begin with the Government. It has been forced to acknowledge (thanks to the sterling investigative effort of journalist Michael Morah) that the regular Covid-19 testing of the personnel protecting our borders has been manifestly and inexplicably inadequate. The response of the Health Minister, Chris Hipkins, has so far been to outline the difficulties in determining whether or not there has been adequate compliance with the state’s previously given undertakings.
Not good enough.
It is very clear from the content and tone of Hipkins’ explanations – and, indeed, of the Director-General of Health’s, Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s – that something very disturbing is at work in the Ministry of Health. Viewed from the outside, it would appear that the orders of both the Minister and the D-G are either being resisted, or bungled in their execution, by those further down the chain-of-command. Even more seriously, it also appears that these inadequacies have, at best, been deliberately obfuscated, or, at worst, concealed from Hipkins and Bloomfield.
Hipkins has said that the time for looking back and identifying failures is not now: that there will be time for such reviews when the crisis has passed. But, since no one can say when the global Covid-19 pandemic will be over, this is not a realistic course for the Government to follow.
If what we are witnessing is evidence of an entrenched culture of incompetence, risk-aversion and butt-covering in the Ministry of Health, then a comprehensive culture-change is needed right now – not at some indeterminate point in the future. Hipkins and Bloomfield, assisted by the State Services Commission, must identify any weak links in the chain-of-command immediately. It is also important that they then publicly acknowledge and apologise for the failings of their subordinates.
Public faith in the effectiveness and security of New Zealand’s border defences is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of the population’s trust and confidence in the capacity of state agencies to resist the virus. What’s needed now is swift and decisive action – not philosophical debates about the proper limits of official coercion.
Sadly, the response of many in the news media has been to conflate the failings of the Ministry of Health with the performance of the Minister and the Director-General. There is a rising suspicion among members of the public that journalists are not in pursuit of a significantly improved performance at the border, but of the scalps of Hipkins, Bloomfield and even the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. If this suspicion is well-founded, then the media are playing a very dangerous game.
The Fourth Estate, like the parliamentary Opposition itself, is expected to demonstrate its loyalty to the nation as a whole. That obligation, to act as “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” is hardly reconcilable with a perception that opposition parties, either alone or in active collusion with the news media, are out to sabotage the Government’s eradication campaign. The Fourth Estate is not a political party. It is not subject to the judgement of the electorate. It should not, therefore, have any other agenda beyond communicating responsibly as much of the truth as it is able to confirm.
Over the course of the past week, however, the truth and the National Party have not been marching in step. A person I have known for decades: mild-mannered, slow to anger, and not in any way a political obsessive; called me a few days ago in a rare state of indignation bordering on rage. He had witnessed the media conference called by the Leader of the National Party Opposition, Judith Collins and her deputy, Gerry Brownlee, to discuss the Government’s response to the second community outbreak of Covid-19.
To say the performance of these two National politicians, replete as it was with insinuations, raised eyebrows and knowing smirks, had disgusted this voter understates his reaction by a wide margin. It wasn’t simply a matter of what was said – or at least hinted at – that appalled him, but what was left unsaid. Nowhere in that media conference was there any evidence that National included itself in the “Whanau of Five Million”. On display, instead, was a political movement whose only objective seemed to be power – along with an unsettling confirmation that it was willing to embrace any means necessary to reclaim the fruits of office.
If the rest of the country was even half as angry as my mild-mannered caller, then the speed with which Collins and Brownlee walked-back their statements is readily explained. Moreover, there is every reason to suppose that a great many of the responses communicated to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office came from members and supporters of the National Party itself. Conservative voters have clearly struggled to reconcile the party of Holyoake, Bolger and Key with the entity on display in Parliament’s Legislative Chamber on Wednesday afternoon (12/8/20).
Much of the subsequent discussion about this media conference has focussed on the witting or unwitting licence it gave to conspiracy theorists, and to anti-government extremists of every hue, to ramp-up their own paranoid disinformation campaigns. In much the same way as Don Brash’s in/famous Orewa Speech normalised anti-Maori feeling among a distressingly large number of Pakeha New Zealanders, Brownlee’s conspiratorial dot-joining clearly reassured the politically unhinged that they were on the right track. His subsequent back-peddling will have done little to give these people pause. Many of them will treat his apology as a statement extracted from him under duress by the “woke establishment”
Among the roughly two-thirds of New Zealanders who continue to believe in the Prime Minister and her Whanau of Five Million, however, that Wednesday media conference will be offered as justification for Ardern “going hard and going early” into the scheduled General Election. In the words of at least one member of the Twitterati: “Time to put the National Party out of its misery!”
It is, however, doubtful whether the Prime Minister will heed them. The level of paranoia among the third of New Zealanders who do not admire Jacinda Ardern is already so elevated that a decision by the PM to reaffirm the 19 September election date might drive the utter nutters completely over the edge. More likely, she will advance polling day by a month, to Saturday, 17 October, leaving any further postponement at the discretion of the Electoral Commission.
A different Opposition might have appealed to the Government and the mainstream news media to join with it in responding to the unprecedented circumstances in which the country finds itself by working together as a team to equip New Zealanders with the information they require to make an informed decision about the policies and personalities on offer on 19 September. A different mainstream news media might have led the way.
That New Zealand is blessed with neither, explains, perhaps, why so many of its citizens continue to repose their trust in the Prime Minister and her Labour-led government.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.