Freelance journalist Graham Adams has written an excellent piece for The Democracy Project on the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project, and its implications for media impartiality. You can (and should) read it here.
Freelance journalist Graham Adams has written an excellent piece for The Democracy Project on the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project, and its implications for media impartiality. You can (and should) read it here.
It’s probably no bad thing that the Maori Party has initiated a petition calling for New Zealand’s name to be changed to Aotearoa. It may have the effect of forcing action on an issue that needs to be resolved.
What we’ve been observing for the past few months is a sort of phony war in which politicians, government officials and the media have been freely using Aotearoa despite the name having no official status and without any public mandate.
This practice began almost hesitantly and often in tandem with “New Zealand” as a sort of each-way bet. But the use of Aotearoa as a stand-alone name has become steadily more brazen and confident, to the point where it seems unexceptional – which is exactly the aim of those promoting it.
The purpose, clearly, is to impose the name on us: not by stealth (you could hardly call it surreptitious) but by sheer frequency of usage, in the hope that it will stick – or to quote the prime minister, that Aotearoa (which, incidentally, isn’t recognised by my Spellcheck) will be adopted “organically”.
By launching its petition, the Maori Party has put the issue formally on the public agenda. This might at least serve as the catalyst for a free and open debate that’s well overdue. It would be no surprise if calls for a referendum gather momentum to the point where they can no longer be ignored.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there are good arguments for adopting Aotearoa. Setting aside all the arguments about its dubious authenticity, the name at least says something about us and our place in the world which New Zealand does not. It also acknowledges the people who were here first, which must count for something.
Against that, as I said on this blog a few weeks ago, New Zealand is the name by which the rest of the world has known us since we first existed as a national entity. It may have been bestowed by historical accident, but it has acquired its own powerful resonance in all manner of spheres: sport, warfare, diplomacy, trade, tourism and the arts, to mention a few. That has to be weighed against the appeal of an alternative that is more distinctively our own.
What matters is that the issue must be resolved through a transparent, democratic process in which the majority will prevails. So let’s have a debate and put an end to all the dishonest ideological shadow-boxing.
The same should apply to the names of towns and cities. If the citizens of New Plymouth, Gisborne, Christchurch and Dunedin want their cities to be renamed Ngamotu, Turanganui-a-Kiwa, Otautahi and Otepoti respectively, so be it.
But that seems improbable. While many Maori place names have greater cultural resonance than English ones, whose origins are mostly forgotten and of minimal historical relevance anyway, I suspect the sense of local identity attached to existing names is too strong to be renounced.
Besides, it’s absurd to suggest, as Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi does, that these cities and towns originally had Maori names. They didn’t. New Zealand’s cities and towns are wholly the creations of British colonialism. They are therefore totally distinct entities from any Maori settlements that may have originally occupied the same sites.
Take Auckland, for example. That it happens to occupy a general location originally known to Maori as Tamaki Makaurau is hardly a compelling argument that historically, that’s the city’s rightful name. The current fashion for using Tamaki Makaurau to refer to a vast metropolis far beyond the wildest imaginings of any 19th century Maori (or British settler, for that matter) is virtuous posturing. That doesn’t mean Auckland shouldn’t change its name – merely that the people who live there should be the ones who decide.
How about this for a rule of thumb? We should retain or restore the Maori names of everything that existed pre-colonisation and for which Maori had their own established nomenclature. That includes geographical features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, coastal features and islands – yes, even the North and South Islands (Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu respectively) and Stewart Island (Rakiura). This wouldn’t require a seismic adjustment because many are referred to by their Maori names anyway – even some that were once known by English names, such as Mt Taranaki/Egmont.
But for everything created post-colonisation and given an English or European name, the status quo should prevail unless the people decide otherwise. This would acknowledge both the Tangata Whenua and the Tangata Tiriti (i.e. non-Maori), but wouldn’t preclude the citizens of any locality from deciding to ditch their English place name in favour of a Maori one. I for one would rather live in Ngamotu than New Plymouth and Taitoko rather than Levin.
The bottom line in all cases is that decisions should be made democratically, not imposed by the political elite or the raucous proponents of identity politics.
Update (added at 3.40pm): A Curia Research poll published today found that 49 percent of respondents opposed a change from New Zealand to Aotearoa - 39.2 percent "strongly" and 9.6 percent "somewhat". There was support for the change from 28 percent of respondents (18.4 percent "strongly") and 22 percent were neutral.
As a matter of record, I should note that Family Court judge Peter Callinicos delivered his judgment last week in the case of “Moana”, the six-year-old Maori girl whom Oranga Tamariki wanted to remove from her Pakeha caregivers because her “cultural needs” were supposedly not being met (these apparently taking precedence over all her other needs, such as warmth, love, affection and physical wellbeing, which were). I was away when the judge’s decision was announced but mention it here in case people who had read about the case on this blog missed the news stories.
As Stuff’s Hawke’s Bay reporter Marty Sharpe reported here, Judge Callinicos ruled that Moana, who was traumatised and neglected before being placed with the Pakeha couple, should remain in their care. His decision will be widely applauded as a triumph of compassion and humanity over the grotesquely cruel and inhumane demands of the culture wars.
Sharpe reported that the 145-page decision “includes stark criticism of Oranga Tamariki, its chief executive and numerous of its staff”.
“The judge was particularly scathing of Oranga Tamariki staff members’ failure to appreciate the need for honesty and accuracy when compiling statutory reports, and concluded that social workers appeared to place little importance in documents that were vital to a child’s wellbeing.”
Judge Callinicos said the ideal goal in such cases was to have children of a specific cultural group placed with caregivers from the same family or cultural group, but “sadly that may sometimes not be achievable”. The key flaw in such a belief-driven approach was that it distracted from the mandatory consideration of what was holistically best for the child, he said. (Pause here for further applause.)
Most tellingly, the judge said Oranga Tamariki’s insistence on removing Moana from the couple’s care showed the agency was either incapable of seeing the wood for the trees or that it was driven “more by ideology than workable child-centred outcomes”, or both.
Oranga Tamariki’s claims that the couple were “stripping [Moana] of her whakapapa” were found to be groundless. In fact Callinicos noted there was overwhelming evidence that the agency failed to provide the couple with any support to build their "cultural capacity", and neglected their requests for more information on Moana’s whanau and whakapapa.
This suggests the agency’s professed concern for her cultural needs was a sham, serving only as a pretext to get her away from caregivers whose sole failing was that they are not Maori.
The judge clearly wasn’t unsympathetic to the view that Moana should know about her cultural heritage. He ruled that while she should remain with the Pakeha couple (whom Stuff called the Smiths), her guardianship should be shared by Mr Smith, Moana’s birth mother and the Maori caregiver Oranga Tamariki had intended to place her with, who will look after Moana for several weeks each year and who has “strong and competent links to whakapapa and whanaungatanga (kinship)”.
So – all done and dusted, then? Er, no. A follow-up story by Sharpe revealed that Moana’s birth mother – no doubt funded by the taxpayer and egged on by activists – will appeal the judgment. The social justice zealots in the front line of the culture wars don’t give up easily, especially when they know there’s a good prospect that a higher court will be more easily swayed than the redoubtable Judge Callinicos by ideological arguments that place racial considerations above human needs.
Naturally, Ngahiwi Tomoana, head of the Ngati Kahungungu iwi that supported Oranga Tamariki’s bid to remove Moana from her Pakeha caregivers, supports the appeal. Stuff’s stories don’t explain Tomoana’s legal standing in the case (if any), and neither do they reveal what (if anything) the iwi did to provide practical support for Moana’s birth mother or help her Pakeha caregivers trace her whanau. But that hasn’t stopped Tomoana from grandstanding on the case and using it to promote separatist models of care.
“The days that [sic] judges can tell us we’re not good enough anymore are over,” Stuff quotes Tomoana as saying. “This is just another case of other people thinking they know what’s best for Maori.”
No, it’s not; it’s a case of a judge humanely stepping in where others – including Ngati Kahungungu, quite possibly – failed to protect a vulnerable, damaged child. Why should Moana be made an innocent pawn in the culture wars? That’s ultimately what this case was about.
The matter still has some way to run, and not just because of the pending appeal. There’s also the small matter of the two senior judges who allegedly intervened in the case at the urging of Sir Wira Gardiner, who was then acting head of Oranga Tamariki. The two judges’ actions, for which they were rebuked by Judge Callinicos, are now the subject of a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner – although no one who has observed how the legal and judicial establishments protect themselves will be holding their breath in the expectation of a salutary outcome.
Beyond that, there’s a risk that Labour’s powerful 15-strong Maori caucus – almost a government within a government – will push to change the current Family Court rules so that iwi input in similar child care cases will be prioritised over other factors. Respected welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell thinks Judge Callinicos, inadvertently or otherwise, has pointed the way in his judgment.
What, then, of Oranga Tamariki? In normal circumstances, scathing judicial criticism of a government agency – including implications of dishonesty – would prompt, at the very least, a rigorous internal review. But these are not normal circumstances, and it’s likely that the febrile internal culture at Oranga Tamariki is too securely entrenched to be threatened even in the unlikely event that the bosses feel moved to act. Stuff quotes chief executive Chappie Te Kani as saying he will take time to consider the judge’s findings. I bet he will. And you can be sure there’ll be no pressure from the Beehive for Oranga Tamariki to change its ways.
Still, the case is encouraging for a number of reasons. A Pakeha couple cared enough for a vulnerable Maori child to fight on her behalf against Oranga Tamariki and its scheming social workers, and an independently minded judge cared enough to rule in their favour despite knowing, as he must have done, that there would be a backlash.
Oh, and a reporter brought this important case to public attention, reminding us why society still needs good journalists. Full credit to Marty Sharpe, then, and to Stuff for publishing his stories. There’s still some hope.
In the hours following the Countdown terrorist incident, serial race agitator Guled Mire tweeted the following:
“To my Muslim brothers and sisters, while we all condemn today’s attacks, please remember you don’t owe anyone an apology. You have done nothing wrong. And the actions of this individual does not [sic] and will not ever represent what we truly stand for.”
As it happens, I agree with the sentiment. New Zealand Muslims are not to blame for what happened last Friday.
But I wonder what Mire’s reaction would have been if a white commentator had posted a similar comment in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque massacres. “To my white Christian brothers and sisters, while we all condemn today’s attacks, please remember you don’t owe anyone an apology. You have done nothing wrong."
My guess is he would have been apoplectic. He would have denounced it as racist and inflammatory. More to the point, he would have seen it as an attempt to evade blame for an atrocity that Mire seems to think, judging by his many comments about racism in New Zealand, all white New Zealanders share collective responsibility for.
The obvious point to be made in response to Mire’s gratuitous tweet last Friday is that no one actually asked his Muslim brothers and sisters to apologise, for the very good reason that no one blamed them. Not that this deterred Mire, who rarely misses an opportunity to foment mischief.
Here’s the thing about Mire. Even when he’s saying something that no reasonable person would disagree with – namely, that New Zealand Muslims shouldn’t be blamed for the Countdown stabbings – he manages to do it in an overtly (and I suspect deliberately) provocative, confrontational way; one that’s calculated to foster the impression that New Zealand is irreconcilably divided on ethnic and religious lines. The pernicious ideology of critical race theory underpins almost everything he says.
Ironically, the person most likely to excite ill-will against New Zealand Muslims (and I hope it doesn’t happen, because they deserve better) is Guled Mire.
■ Historical footnote: The New Zealand History website informs us that on this day in 1921, the South African Springboks played a New Zealand Maori side for the first time.
The match, played at Napier, was notable not just for that fact, but also for the reaction of a South African journalist who was astonished that the predominantly white crowd cheered for the Maori XV.
In a telegram to his paper, he gasped: “Spectacle thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who [were] frankly disgusted”.
The incident is worth recalling because it tells us something about the unique nature of race relations in New Zealand, which were far more amicable than left-wing revisionist historians would have us believe.
As an aside, one of the reasons I recently backed away from writing a weekly column for the National Business Review was that the paper’s co-editor, Tim Hunter, objected to a paragraph in my inaugural column in which I wrote that race relations in New Zealand had been mostly “harmonious and respectful – a fact attested to by the number of Maori activists with European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames”. Hunter (an immigrant from Scotland) disagreed with that statement and wanted to delete the sentence, along with one other. I refused and decided to cancel the contract I had signed with NBR only days before.
New Zealand history is threaded throughout with examples of Maori and Pakeha not only collaborating closely but exhibiting mutual goodwill and respect, and in the process creating a unique culture that, as I wrote in a recent post, incorporates admirable elements from both constituent parts. The rugby match at Napier was a small but revealing example.
Of course this is not the full story of race relations in New Zealand, but it's one that's largely ignored in favour of versions that highlight only those actions and policies that disadvantaged or discriminated against Maori (of which there were plenty).
A courageous historian could write a book around this theme. The problem would be finding a publisher willing to defy ideological orthodoxy and risk the fury of woke vigilantes.
A few questions to start the day.
■ Newshub’s 6pm news reported that the man who ran amok with a knife at a Countdown supermarket in Auckland was shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) before police shot him dead.
I could find no mention of this in other media coverage, apart from a Reuters story that cited a New Zealand Herald report. But I scanned the Herald’s stories this morning and saw no reference to it.
Neither was there any mention of the alleged shouts of “Allahu Akbar”, a phrase associated with Islamist terrorist acts, on the Stuff or RNZ websites. Yet Newshub referred to it several times and interviewed a witness who said she heard it.
This suggests three possibilities: 1. Newshub and/or its witness got it wrong; 2. Other witnesses either didn’t hear it or think to mention it to other media (though that seems unlikely, especially in view of the Herald report quoted by Reuters); 3. Other media outlets were told about it but chose not to mention it.
If it were the latter, why would the media engage in self-censorship? Presumably to avoid arousing hostility against the Muslim population.
That’s understandable up to a point, since New Zealand Muslims can no more be held responsible for the actions of the lone-wolf terrorist than New Zealanders can be blamed for the Christchurch mosque shootings, which were also the work of a solo perpetrator.
But it’s also misguided, because the duty of the media in such situations is to convey information. Yes, we know from the prime minister and the police commissioner that the Auckland terrorist was inspired by Isis, so it could be argued that the fact he shouted “Allahu Akbar” was just an irrelevant additional detail.
But in a major event like this, every bit of information is relevant because it helps the public build a fuller picture of what happened. I hope I’m wrong in speculating that the media may have intentionally suppressed a significant detail. But since the culture wars permeated the news columns, we can no longer be confident that the media are concerned only with presenting the facts.
■ The Dominion Post’s Marty Sharpe reports this morning that human rights lawyer Tony Ellis has asked Attorney-General David Parker and Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann to take action over two senior judges who intervened in a Family Court case that didn’t involve them.
Readers of this blog will be aware of the background to this affair. Sir Wira Gardiner, then the acting boss of Oranga Tamariki, spoke to Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu and Principal Family Court Judge Jackie Moran about Family Court judge Peter Callinicos’s conduct in a part-heard case involving a Maori child placed in the care of Pakeha foster parents.
Taumaunu and Moran subsequently took the matter up with Callinicos and were sharply rebuked by him for interfering in the case and thus breaching the principle of judicial independence.
Ellis has now complained to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner about the judges’ behaviour, but thinks Parker and Winkelmann should take up the case because it raises issues of constitutional importance.
Sharpe reports that Parker has backed away, saying it’s not a matter for the Attorney-General, and Winkelmann has declined to comment. Well, fancy that.
Sharpe, who has the terrier-like qualities required of a good investigative journalist (and thank God we still have some), also approached the Law Society. It didn’t want to get involved either. In fact the society’s president, Tiana Epati, said the society was not aware of the facts of the case, other than what had been reported, and wouldn’t speculate on whether it raised issues of public importance.
This seems extraordinary. If you entertained the fanciful notion that the Law Society had an interest in ensuring judicial probity and upholding public respect for the law, you were clearly deluded. The society’s so unconcerned that it hasn’t even bothered to acquaint itself with the case beyond what the rest of us have read in the paper.
Here’s my question, then: why doesn’t the Law Society get involved? Perhaps it doesn’t have to, strictly speaking, but what’s to stop it? Shouldn’t it be concerned with upholding confidence in legal and judicial processes and institutions? Even a statement of concern or support for an investigation would count for something. Or is the society worried that if it looks into things too closely, it might find itself in the embarrassing position of having to take a principled stand?
I frequently hear from good, honest people whose dealings with the law have led them to the bitter conclusion that the legal and judicial establishments are adept at closing ranks and going to ground whenever awkward questions start being asked about dubious conduct. The Law Society’s complacent, look-the-other-way stance will cement the impression that the law is a club that protects its own.
■ It’s also reported this morning, in both the Dominion Post and the Wairarapa Times-Age, that a proposed water storage dam near Masterton has been canned after 20 years of planning and a reported bill of $12 million. Just like that.
Tim Lusk, the chairman of Wairarapa Water Ltd, the company promoting the scheme, said the 20-million cubic metre dam had been abandoned because environmental planning rules had changed rapidly, making the obtaining of consents from Greater Wellington Regional Council “extremely challenging”.
No elaboration was provided. We apparently just have to take his word for it that a scheme described in July 2019 as “eminently consentable” is suddenly too difficult.
So the public who paid for the preparatory work are expected to stoically shrug it off and walk away? Good luck with that.
There are a whole lot of questions to be asked here. For a start, it would be helpful if someone could explain glaring discrepancies in the reported figures. Piers Fuller, the Dom Post’s Wairarapa reporter, says $12 million has been spent. He’s been covering it for years, so he should know.
But the Times-Age refers only to $7 million from the Winston Peters Re-election Fund – sorry, the Provincial Growth Fund – of which it says $5 million has been spent.
Either way, we’re talking about serious money. Where did it go? And while Lusk and local MP Kieran McAnulty are engaging in acts of conspicuous public lamentation over the death of the scheme (“I’m gutted,” said McAnulty), it would be a lot more helpful if they explained exactly why it turned out to be a crock. The public is entitled to more than a glib statement that it’s suddenly too tough.
The regional council’s role in the debacle, in particular, needs explaining. It was a backer of the scheme, contributing $7 million to early investigations (it doesn’t sound a lot of money if you say it quickly, and after all there’s plenty more where it came from – i.e. ratepayers and taxpayers), but the same organisation, as the consenting authority, presumably imposed the environmental conditions that killed it off. How does that work?
The people of the Wairarapa deserve a more convincing explanation for what appears, on the face of it, to be a scandalously wasteful fiasco. But I’m not holding my breath.
People can argue ad nauseam (and they do) about the merits of the government’s management of Covid-19 and its aim of eliminating the virus through a strict lockdown policy – a strategy that comes loaded with economic and social consequences. But whatever you think about the government’s approach, there’s no disputing statistics that prove its effectiveness when judged purely in terms of mortality rates.
America’s Johns Hopkins University keeps a running tally of global deaths from the virus. It uses two measurements: the case fatality rate (the proportion of infected people who die) and deaths per 100,000 population. Judged according to these metrics, New Zealand’s 26 deaths make this country one of the world’s standout performers in minimising Covid-19 mortality, with a case fatality rate (CFR) of 0.7 percent and 0.53 deaths per 100,000 people.
Compare those figures with some of the countries we think of as generally similar to us:
Australia (1012 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 3.99 deaths per 100,000.
United States (640,108 deaths): CFR 1.6 percent, 195.01 deaths per 100,000.
United Kingdom (132,859 deaths): CFR 1.9 percent, 198.79 deaths per 100,000.
Canada (26,989 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 71.80 deaths per 100,000.
Peru has the unhappy distinction of heading the Johns Hopkins table, with 198,263 deaths, a CFR of 9.2 percent and a death rate of 609.84 per 100,000. It’s followed by Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, in that order.
In a table of 192 countries with the hardest-hit at the top, New Zealand is ranked seventh from the bottom. If you measure the threat posed by Covid-19 purely in human, personal terms – that is, the virus’s direct impact on sufferers and their families – then these figures represent a powerful vindication of the Ardern government’s elimination strategy. But of course the political equation is far more complicated than that because it has to take into account broader concerns such as the economic costs of lockdown, the disruption to children’s education and the effects of social isolation on personal wellbeing and mental health.
So which six countries have kept their Covid-19 death rates even lower than New Zealand? If the statistics collected by Johns Hopkins are to be believed, we’ve been out-performed by China (ironically, considering it was the source of the virus), Bhutan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laos and Tanzania.
The data-gatherers may be too polite to say it, but these countries’ figures should probably be treated with some scepticism. Johns Hopkins does caution that there are inconsistencies in the way the statistics were compiled and that country-to-country comparisons may be misleading. The point should also be made that the figures don’t distinguish between the original virus and the much more contagious Delta variant.
Subject to those provisos, however, the Johns Hopkins table makes interesting reading. What else does it tell us?
■ Singapore is another standout performer, with 55 deaths, a CFR of 0.1 percent and 0.96 deaths per 100,000. (Singapore’s CFR is the lowest on the chart, but that may be due to the exclusion of patients who had Covid but died of other causes.)
■ The shocking figures for Fiji (496 deaths, CFR 1.1 percent and 55.73 deaths per 100,000) are a stark reminder of the trauma experienced by one of our closest neighbours – a country that has dropped off the New Zealand media’s radar screen as a result of our absorption with our own imagined hardship.
■ Some commentators attribute New Zealand’s success in controlling the virus to the happy geographical accident of being surrounded by sea, and hence better able than many countries to protect its borders. But Malta (441 deaths, CFR 1.2 percent, 87.73 deaths per 100,000) and Iceland (33 deaths, CFR 0.3 percent. 9.13 deaths per 100,000) have been hit much harder despite being similarly isolated.
■ Sweden (14, 692 deaths, CFR 1.3 percent, 142.84 deaths per 100,000) controversially opted not to lock its population down, yet has fared markedly better than Italy, the UK, France, Spain and Portugal. On the other hand, its mortality rates have been much higher than in the other Scandinavian countries.
■ Israel’s vaccination programme has been held up as a model for the rest of the world, but with 7043 deaths, a CFR of 0.7 percent and 77.79 deaths per 100,000, it’s still in the wrong half of the Johns Hopkins table.
■ The countries that have suffered most from Covid-19 tend to be in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe (Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, in addition to those mentioned above) and Latin America (Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia), though there are exceptions to the overall pattern (such as Belarus and Venezuela, assuming their figures can be trusted).
■ Germany (92,229 deaths, CFR 2.3 percent, 110.94 deaths per 100,000) and the Netherlands (18,368 deaths, CFR 0.9 percent, 105.97 deaths per 100,000) have managed significantly better than the other major countries of Western Europe, of which Belgium and Italy (15th and 16th on the table, respectively) fared worst.
■ There’s surely a thesis to be written on why Canada suffered far less severely than the US, despite being just across the border and spending significantly less per capita on health.
■ There’s another thesis to be written on the contrasting Covid-19 strategies adopted in Australia and New Zealand, and their strikingly different outcomes. Whoever writes it might like to consider, among other things, why New Zealand appears more amenable to lockdowns. Setting aside contrasting political structures, I think it’s another reminder that despite all our superficial similarities, the two countries are culturally and socially quite distinct. Some might say it’s the difference between a larrikin country with lawlessness in its DNA (that would be Australia, in case you’re wondering) and one whose people are meeker and more compliant - or if you prefer, more inclined to pull together in pursuit of a common goal. But I won’t stick my neck out by going any further than that.
(You can see the Johns Hopkins table here.)
We crossed a significant threshold in the Covid-19 crisis yesterday, and I’m not talking about the number of new cases.
Commenting on the potentially problematical disjunction between current high inoculation rates and dwindling supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, Jacinda Ardern had this to say: “It’s not a matter of running out [of the vaccine], it’s a matter of whether or not we are in a position of where we need to have a little less demand.”
Er, pardon me? I've read this sentence several times and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to mean, or indeed whether it means anything at all. Communication is normally one of Ardern’s great political strengths, but this statement was, at best, cryptic. At worst it was nonsensical, and I’m wondering whether it’s a sign that the government is almost past pretending it’s in control of the pandemic.
It certainly stood in striking contrast to the optimistic pep talk last week in which she said tracing the origin of the current outbreak would help the government “circle the virus, lock it down and stamp it out” – a phrase that gave the impression of a resolute government in command of the situation, while also conveying the patently false impression that Covid-19 could be extinguished as easily as a candle.
Similar punchy phrases – “the team of five million”, “go hard and go early”, “be strong and be kind” – have been an essential part of the government’s tool kit in managing the pandemic. If PR spin was all we needed to defeat a virus, Covid-19 might have been vanquished by now. But there comes a point when the Beehive communications wizards run out of snappy lines and the government’s vulnerability is exposed for all to see. Perhaps we’ve reached that point.
Spin gets you only so far, and I suspect Ardern’s daily press conferences no longer work the same magic that won the loyalty and support of New Zealanders last year. Covid-19 was new to us then and we were prepared to put our faith in her. We were all in uncharted territory.
This time is different. We’ve had months in which to observe the effects of the Delta variant overseas knowing it must eventually arrive here, yet the government appears to have been caught napping. Even the media, which with a few honourable exceptions (Newshub’s Michael Morrah, for one) was previously happy to go along with the government’s spin, finds itself unable to ignore the daily catalogue of flaws and failings in its management of the pandemic.
We have learned, for example, that the government passed up the opportunity to buy other vaccines besides Pfizer’s, even though going with one supplier meant waiting months for stocks – and this on top of delays that had already made a black joke of Chris Hipkins’ boast that we would be at the front of the queue.
Similarly, we now know that the government could have ordered reputable saliva-testing technology that would have permitted people to test themselves, thereby avoiding the frustration of long queues at testing stations and delays in getting results.
On three key metrics – testing, vaccinations and contract tracing – the government’s performance has been, to put it politely, tardy and sub-optimal. Protection at the border has been slack and the MIQ system appears to be a shambles. Meanwhile vulnerable essential workers, from police to port employees, have inexplicably been left unvaccinated.
Puzzling anomalies have reinforced the impression that the Covid-19 response is being decided on the hoof, despite the government having months to prepare. Pharmacies weren’t able to offer vaccinations, and then suddenly they were. Ditto general practitioners. Why barriers were placed in their way, when they were eager and impatient to help, remains a mystery. Control freaks in the Beehive and the bureaucracy seem the most likely explanation.
New Zealanders know all this and have become justifiably sceptical about the government’s propaganda offensive. As a result, Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield may have burned off much of the goodwill they accumulated in 2020. The next political opinion poll is awaited with more than usual interest.
Myself, I’m conflicted on Covid-19 and the lockdown. I instinctively bridle against the government’s gloss and spin. I’m over Ardern’s patronising entreaties from the Beehive Theatrette and I know lots of people – apolitical people, in many cases – who feel the same.
I also take the cynical view that the Covid-19 outbreak gifted a floundering government with a priceless publicity opportunity and a rare chance to give the appearance of being in control of something. But while the crisis initially looked good for Labour, it turned out not to be, because it served to cast light on the multiple glaring deficiencies in its preparedness.
Having said that, it’s hard to argue that the government hasn’t done the right thing (albeit in an inept fashion) by taking the lockdown option. Most New Zealanders probably consider that a temporary curtailment of their liberty is a reasonable price to pay for avoiding large-scale mortality.
Management of the pandemic comes down to a difficult trade-off between the need to keep people safe and the imperatives of maintaining economic activity and respecting individual freedom. My guess is that most New Zealanders, being essentially pragmatic people, would probably argue that the government has got the balance about right – for now, at least. Ultimately, it may be futile to pursue the objective of keeping Covid-19 out; but in the meantime, while everyone’s getting their jabs, it’s in our collective interest to keep the virus confined as far as that’s possible.
Ironically, the most effective PR line Ardern could run in validation of the government’s approach is one she’s unable to use. She could point to the striking difference in Covid-19 mortality statistics between New Zealand (26 deaths) and Australia (999) or Britain (132,000).
That’s a compelling vindication of New Zealand’s approach and a perfect answer to all the snide, condescending overseas commentaries about New Zealand being a “Covid prison” and an “isolated dystopia”. But of course it would never do to highlight those figures, because it would look like gloating at other countries’ misfortunes.