By Chris Trotter*
If Jacinda Ardern thought last week was bad, the week ahead promises to be even worse. Sixty community cases of Covid-19 reported on Sunday, certainly made for a grim beginning.
Making everything worse, is the extraordinary tangle into which the Government has got itself. Gone are the days of simple, but inspired, messaging: “Go hard. Go early.” “Stay home. Stay safe.” “Stamp out the virus.” In “To pee or not to pee: A full timeline of the confusing level three bathroom rule”, The Spinoff’s Madeleine Chapman makes excruciating fun of the Government’s messaging disasters.
People hating a government is one thing. What some people hate, other people are almost certain to love. But people laughing derisively at a government, that is something else entirely. Politically, it’s very hard to come back from derisive laughter.
But what other option, apart from derisive laughter, is left for New Zealanders? Except, perhaps, angry tears? And how did it get to this point? From OECD poster-child, to international laughing stock? What was it that caused this Government’s stunning reversal-of-fortune?
The easy answer is, of course, The Delta Variant. Jacinda Ardern’s government was well-armed against the Covid-19 virus of 2020. New Zealand had beaten it back in spectacular fashion, suffering only a tiny fraction of the casualties experienced in other countries. Sadly, the Elimination Strategy, this government’s very own Maginot Line, could not stop the Panzer divisions of Delta. The strategy of the first Covid war, proved inadequate to the second.
Also inadequate, was the administrative rigidity of New Zealand’s state apparatus. This country’s people are famous for their “No. 8 Wire”, can-do improvisation, and for their willingness to give anything a decent try – and to hell with the hierarchies! Indeed, we are told it is precisely this attitude that makes Kiwis so highly-prized by foreign employers. But, if such attitudes were ever acceptable to New Zealand’s public servants, they are pure Kryptonite to the current generation of bureaucratic mandarins.
Highly centralised, intolerant of independent thought, fearful of error (and, therefore, of experimentation) the state bureaucracy very early-on convinced the Prime Minister and her closest confidants that they were going to have to carry much of the performative burden on their own shoulders. The key decision-making circle was, accordingly, drawn very tight around the Prime Minister. The bureaucratic hierarchy most relied upon being neither the Ministry of Health nor MBIE, but the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
That this tight circle of decision-making got so much right in the first phase of the Pandemic encouraged an unfortunate surfeit of self-confidence among the Prime Minister’s principal advisers. Spectacular success isn’t always a blessing. “We got this!” can be a dangerous motto.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is very clear that, if the bureaucracy could not be relied upon to act with speed and imagination, then the Labour leadership’s most sensible response was not to try and do it all themselves, but to appeal over the heads of the public servants to the public itself. As we have seen, DHBs, businesses, iwi authorities, non-profits, unions, and community groups can come to the aid of a government with impressive amounts of energy and flexibility.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the tortuous roll-out of the official vaccination effort. Cumbersome, time-consuming, inefficient and ineffective, the official process generated enormous public frustration. If the People themselves had not taken the task in hand, New Zealand’s vaccination rates would be even worse than they are. Only when anxious communities swung into action alongside their GPs and other local health providers did the numbers getting the jab rise to something approaching an acceptable level. Vaccination busses with names like “Shot, Bro” and “Jabba the Hutt” exemplified the tremendous energy and creativity obtainable from the nation’s flax-roots.
Also with hindsight, it is possible to recognise how unwise it was of the Labour Government to allow the impression to grow that the “We” in “We got this!” did not include the business community. In a capitalist society, it is never a good idea to let the Devil find work for idle businesspersons’ hands. Those who own the world, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to think they should also play a significant part in running it.
Seeking to establish some sort of timetable for “re-opening New Zealand to the world” was by no means an unreasonable boon for the business community to ask of the Government. Especially if the business in question was a small one, and its owner was watching it die. No matter how attentive the Prime Minister and her colleagues may have been to some business leaders behind the scenes, the front-of-house optics were not encouraging. To many businesspeople, the spectacle of “Queen Jacinda” and “Saint Ashley” standing behind their “powerful podiums of truth” had a decidedly anti-business aspect. What did politicians and public servants know about running a profitable business?
Experienced and knowledgeable business leaders also understood that Delta was different. The swift elimination of Covid-19, leading to a swift return to business as usual, made lockdowns irksome, but bearable – especially with the government wage subsidy. If lockdowns proved unequal to the challenge of the Delta variant, however, only near-universal vaccination would suffice. If the Government wasn’t prepared to make “opening up” and mass immunisation amount to the same thing, then “the big end of town” would. John Key’s op-ed intervention made good the threat
These, then, were the components of the “perfect storm” which engulfed the Prime Minister and her government: first and foremost, there was the Delta variant itself; then, an arrogant, secretive, unimaginative and intolerably sluggish state bureaucracy; not forgetting the “We got this!” hubris of the PM’s tight decision-making circle; leading to the government’s tardiness in encouraging a “bottom up” roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine; and finally to its failure to prevent the business community, and its compliant news media, operating as a subversive “fifth column” in the Covid war.
Are the Prime Minister’s formidable communication skills equal to the task of getting her government’s anti-Covid campaign back on track? Is her health bureaucracy nimble enough to encircle the rampaging Panzer divisions of the Delta variant? Is there enough heart still left in her “Team of Five Million” for them to reassure their captain: “Don’t worry, Jacinda, we got this!” Is the business community willing to go head-to-head with the Team of Five Million if they rally to the PM’s side? Is the criminal underworld (making a late appearance in this drama) sufficiently patriotic to stay safe at home? Is the daily total of Covid community cases about to go exponential?
A lot of questions, demanding a lot of answers. And not a lot of time to provide them. Still, as Harold Wilson wryly observed, and Jacinda Ardern is only too aware: “A week is a long time in politics.”
*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.