By Chris Trotter*
It is no small thing when a former prime minister speaks publicly during a time of national crisis. At such times, the words of former leaders, spoken in support of present leaders, can have a powerfully unifying effect. Indeed, there are few gestures capable of generating such positive results. When support is received from across the party-political divide, the message is simple. In this time of crisis, what unites us is of vastly greater importance than what divides us.
By the same token, it is no small thing when a former leader steps forward to criticise the present leadership’s handling of a national crisis. Far from generating unity, such interventions can only intensify divisions – especially when the former leader concerned hails from the Opposition party. On top of the fears arising directly out of crisis, such interventions heap the bitterness of partisanship and conflict. Only in the face of the most imminent danger; only in response to the most abject failure; could such an intervention be justified.
That the former National Party prime minister, John Key, makes no attempt to convince his fellow New Zealanders that the policies of their government pose either an imminent threat to public safety, or represent an abject failure of political leadership, casts his very public intervention in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in a deeply troubling light. To present an alternative strategy to that of the Government: a strategy unsupported by scientific evidence, but laced with highly contentious invective; raises serious questions as to motivation.
Not the least of these questions is why Key chose to make his intervention in splendid isolation from the present leader of the National Party, Judith Collins? The most obvious riposte: to give Collins plausible deniability; simply will not wash.
Key’s article, published in competing newspapers, on the same day (26/9/21) comes at a time when Collins’ leadership is under constant fire from forces both inside and outside her party. It would, therefore, be entirely understandable if Key’s opinion-piece was construed by many National Party supporters as a “For God’s sake, woman, stand aside and let me show you how it’s done!” moment.
If Key’s article constituted a magisterial review of Jacinda Ardern’s government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, such an unflattering construction might have been avoided. Had it been full of carefully marshalled scientific evidence and practical solutions to well-established problems, suspicions of intra-party dog-fighting could have been cast aside. Especially if it had been rounded-out with a measured, above-the-fray call for bi-partisan co-operation in the national interest. Sadly, Key’s article does not fit this description.
Even Key’s choice of metaphor – the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 – fails to fire. Key presents Apollo 13 as the classic example of imaginative adaptation:
“In a crisis, humans can be creative and inventive. Faced with the growing acceptance that Covid-19 and its variants may be with us indefinitely, the New Zealand Government and public health officials, like Nasa in 1970, rapidly need to change their thinking to adapt to the new challenge.”
Except that Key’s understanding of Apollo 13 is fundamentally flawed. Nasa didn’t change their thinking, they were simply forced to do more of it. Most importantly, they had to think about how to get the astronauts home safely using only what they had on the spacecraft. That was the critical challenge: to accept that no one was going to save Apollo 13 except the men on Apollo 13. All Houston had to offer them was advice. To get home, the Apollo 13 astronauts had to “follow the science”.
It is highly instructive that this interpretation of Apollo 13 never occurred to Key. Hardly surprising, of course, since by this reading, Jacinda Ardern, her Government, and “the team of five million” behaved exactly like the astronauts. They sealed themselves in and sat tight in their tiny, acutely vulnerable country. They consulted their scientists, heeded their advice, and with maximum care, and minimum destruction, brought New Zealand safely home.
It is telling that Key looks upon the this extraordinary success-story and can come up with no better descriptions than “smug hermit kingdom” and “North Korean option”. In the midst of this country’s ongoing, much more desperate, and yet to be won struggle against the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, New Zealand’s former prime minister decries what he sees as the Ardern Government’s lack of urgency:
“The only urgency we’ve seen for months is an enthusiasm to lock down our country, lock up our people and lock out our citizens who are overseas.”
This is not the sort of language one expects to hear from someone who is trying to help. Frankly, it is more akin to the sort of language one encounters on Facebook. A cartoonist who shared Key’s opinions would undoubtedly depict Jacinda Ardern as a madly cackling queen enthroned atop a pile of prostrate Kiwi prisoners.
Not content with describing his country as a gigantic jailhouse, however, Key goes on to characterise the Government’s expert scientific advisers as fearmongers:
“Public health experts and politicians have done a good job of making the public fearful, and therefore willing to accept multiple restrictions on their civil liberties which are disproportionate to the risk of them contracting Covid.”
Says who? A former prime minister whose professional expertise lies in currency trading – an occupation with no obvious connections to the science of epidemiology. One hesitates to ask which overseas model Key would wish to see promoted by the New Zealand Government: Sweden’s, Ireland’s, Singapore’s, the United Kingdom’s, the United States’?
One wonders, too, how Key must have greeted the news that the latest polling by Research New Zealand shows upwards of 70% of New Zealanders wholly or partly supportive of the “multiple restrictions on their civil liberties” that “Lockdown” entails. His dismay at discovering how very few New Zealanders favoured dropping all restrictions – “masks, quarantine and the lot” – just 7%, is easily imagined.
Key’s 5-point plan, for what? “Freedom Day”? is a curious mixture of carrot and stick. The more reasonable suggestions are already being investigated by the Government, the Ministry of Health, and the business community. At the core of his appeal, however, is Key’s deep-seated frustration (shared by the not inconsiderable number of powerful individuals and organisations for whom he is speaking) with the Government’s all-too-evident success in persuading a substantial majority of the population that the measures it has adopted to keep New Zealanders safe are both necessary and effective.
How do they explain their own failure to persuade New Zealanders that getting rid of lockdowns and throwing open the borders is the best way forward for the country? The insulting answer, sadly, is because, as far as Key is concerned, they are too scared to think for themselves. In short, they have been frightened into compliance. “Stop ruling by fear.” Key bluntly demands of Ardern’s government.
It is as well Key declined to govern New Zealand with the ham-fistedness on display in this opinion-piece. Had he done so, it is doubtful his time in office would have lasted eight years. With the considerable political finesse he demonstrated as prime minister, Key could have achieved so much more. An essay clearly intended to be constructive, filled with the agreeable optimism that made New Zealanders vote for him again and again, would likely have prompted a grateful phone-call from the Prime Minister – maybe even an invitation to toss some ideas around. The effort carried in Sunday’s newspapers, however, merited no more than it received – a good hard slap from Covid Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.
It turned out to be a small thing after all.
*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.