By Chris Trotter*
In 1940, the deadly threat confronting Great Britain was not a biological virus, but the deadly political disease of fascism. To defeat this disease, Britain needed aircraft: most particularly the Supermarine Spitfire; arguably the best fighter aircraft then in operation.
Knowing this, the newly appointed prime minister, Winston Churchill, did not turn to the men of Whitehall, whose bureaucratic inertia had already very nearly cost Britain the war, but to business leaders with a proven record of getting the job done.
Accordingly, the newly created position of Minister of Aircraft Production went to Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. Proprietor of the right-leaning Daily Express, the Canadian-born Beaverbrook had a fearsome reputation as a string-pulling go-getter, par excellence. It was this ability to make things happen that recommended him most strongly to Churchill.
Beaverbrook did not disappoint. During the Battle of Britain, when the fate of the British Empire hung in the balance, Beaverbrook’s success in increasing aircraft production was crucial. Lord Dowding, the leader of Fighter Command during the battle, later wrote:
“We had the organization, we had the men, we had the spirit which could bring us victory in the air but we had not the supply of machines necessary to withstand the drain of continuous battle. Lord Beaverbrook gave us those machines, and I do not believe that I exaggerate when I say that no other man in England could have done so.”
The great virtue of a working historical memory is its capacity to draw out of the past situations and identities capable of inspiring those grappling with the challenges of the present. It certainly explains why, when a group of New Zealand’s leading businesspersons last Tuesday (2/3/21) asked the Government to allow the business community to do more to help it defeat Covid-19, Churchill’s appointment of Beaverbrook instantly sprang to mind.
The historical parallel is very far from being exact. Had Jacinda Ardern been channelling the spirit of Britain’s “finest hour”, then she would, like Churchill, have drawn the New Zealand business community more directly into the fight much sooner. Certainly, Rob Fyfe was invited – and responded instantly – when asked to facilitate the utmost co-operation between government and business during the crisis. From a PR perspective, the “optics” of Fyfe’s appointment were excellent. Unfortunately, the level of co-operation was much less than he and the business community were expecting.
The instinct of the Ministry of Health (as well as the DHBs it relied upon to deliver on the ground) was to hold onto power at all costs. Certainly, it seemed extraordinarily reluctant to allow any outside players into the game.
Nowhere was this dog-in-the-manger attitude more evident than in the Ministry’s refusal to allow the roll-out of the “smart” Covid Card developed by Trade Me founder, Sam Morgan, and the talented team of digital wizards he had assembled. Obstacle after bureaucratic obstacle was placed in front of these experts from the private sector until Morgan, his patience exhausted, simply threw up his hands in frustration and walked away.
One of the reasons for the Ministry’s bureaucratic obstruction was its acute sensitivity to the “privacy issues” raised by the Card’s capacity to track-and-trace the movements of the people carrying it in real time. No need for voluntary QR scanning with the Covid Card. The authorities would be able to track the cardholder’s every move.
The Ministry’s sensitivity wasn’t just a question of whether or not the proposed Covid Card breached the Privacy Act, it was also a vexing political problem. There was a strong feeling among the bureaucrats’ that their political masters would never permit such an invasive piece of technology to be imposed upon the general population.
In this they were, almost certainly, correct. In the early days of Covid, Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues were acutely wary of “losing” the co-operation of the general public. The Prime Minister’s success in, by turns, inspiring, cajoling and convincing the “Team of Five Million” to be “kind” and “Unite Against Covid-19” persuaded her closest colleagues – and the health bureaucrats surrounding them – that Sam Morgan’s Taiwanese-style tracker-card was just too risky a proposition.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that both the Ministry’s and the Government’s fears on this matter were unjustified. If the Year of Covid has taught us anything, it is that New Zealanders are prepared to surrender all manner of “freedoms” to keep themselves and their loved-ones safe. Ever-practical Kiwis would probably have welcomed the convenience of a device that freed them from the irksome responsibility of holding their cellphones up to shop windows and/or signing a register.
The Ministry of Health and the Government had another, even more compelling, reason for declining to involve the business community too closely in the fight against Covid-19. Almost from the very beginning, some business elements took very strong exception to the Labour-led Government’s “Elimination Strategy”.
The notorious “Plan-B” group was widely perceived as a “front” for those industries most likely to be damaged by the Government putting the country into “Lockdown”. The quest for the chimera of “Herd Immunity” – exemplified most powerfully by the Swedish Government’s ultimately calamitous response to the pandemic – was regarded by many as proof of neoliberal capitalism’s callous (not to mention “ageist”) disregard for human life. Trump’s America confirmed these perceptions with decisions as bizarre as they were terrifying.
The problem confronting Rob Campbell, Joan Withers, Patrick Strange, Prue Flacks, Scott St John, and other business leaders, is that the Ministry of Health’s refusal to share power was not validated by its growing operational effectiveness as the nation’s principal defender. Multiple Ministry and DHB failures, from the unavailability of PPE, to failings at the border, and serious deficiencies in communicating clear and accurate information to the public, have all contributed to the feeling that New Zealand’s indisputable success at beating the virus has, all-too-often, been more a matter of good luck than good management.
But, if we have already passed through our equivalent of the Battle of Britain – without the assistance of a Beaverbrook – the war against Covid-19 is very far from being won. The quiet, but forceful, advocacy of Rob Campbell – so impressively on display in his Q+A interview with Jack Tame – makes it clear that there is a very large reservoir of expertise and good-will among the overwhelming majority of business leaders who were never persuaded by the arguments of the Plan-B special-pleaders.
As the big German corporations are already demonstrating, and our own are ready to confirm, the private sector can, at the very least, offer decisive logistical assistance to the huge task of vaccinating the whole population.
The “group of business leaders” argument: that the more experience and expertise which can be gathered around the national decision-making table, the safer and swifter our path out of Covid will be, and the more secure and prosperous New Zealand’s post-Covid future; is very hard to gainsay. New Zealand’s leading businesspersons are not claiming a monopoly on wisdom, merely that getting things done is what they’re good at – and they’re all keen to get started.
*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.