New Zealanders’ response to both the Covid-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement suggest we may be on the cusp of a new period of social change, says Peter Dunne

Capacity crowds turned out in Dunedin and Auckland for the start of the new Super Rugby Aotearoa domestic rugby competition, the first live rugby games people have been able to attend since the start of the lockdowns.

Before the kick-off in Dunedin the crowd even tolerated and applauded a mildly political speech from Finance Minister Grant Robertson extolling the virtues of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 emergency.

That he was so indulged speaks volumes for the way the Government’s handling of Covid19 so far has gone down with the public. Normally, at such events the mere mention of a politician’s name would set off boisterous boos and jeers, and a speech, however brief and innocuous, would be considered simply out of the question.

Yet the games in Dunedin and Auckland over the weekend were about much more than just the rugby – they were also an occasion for New Zealanders to celebrate their personal achievements in overcoming Covid-19.

Having been shut down since March, people were not going to let the occasion pass, without giving themselves a giant and well-deserved pat on the back, with or without Government encouragement. At last, at least some of the team of five million that had been so extolled over recent weeks was able to have its say.

Elsewhere, in quite different circumstances, large crowds turned out in Auckland and Wellington to show their grief and demonstrate their support for the Black Lives Matter campaign now sweeping the world in the wake of the brutal, unthinking and indefensible killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by local Police a couple of weeks ago. These were far more sombre and serious occasions and far more significant than the rugby matches, and the address by Justice Minister Andrew Little to the crowds filling Parliament Grounds was accordingly appropriate to the occasion.

Both sets of events suggest New Zealand may have changed somewhat since the lockdowns were imposed in March. While our happy-go-lucky spirit seems as strong as ever, as evidenced by the passion of the rugby crowds, we may now be more willing to see things in a wider context, and prepared to endure considerable personal sacrifices if doing so will contribute to an apparent greater national good. That certainly seemed to have been the case with the reaction to the lockdowns.

A similar process may be getting underway with the reaction so far to the Black Lives Matter campaign. The level of immediate support evident at the weekend, and with it, signs we may even be prepared to begin a serious examination of contentious aspects of our pre- and post- colonial history, suggest a new period of social change may be getting underway.

However, lest we get ahead of ourselves, it is simply too early at this stage to conclude any of these shifts are permanent. After all, we are still in a time where support for the Government is at artificially astronomic levels, and with it, the level of confidence in the Government and its institutions is at abnormally high levels as well. While that remains so, support for actions the Government is closely associated with – for example, the Covid-19 response, or the move to teach New Zealand history in schools (the scope and tenor of which is yet to be defined) – will likewise remain high. However, though the euphoria of the moment may be uplifting and exciting, it may yet prove illusory and short-lived.

As the forecast decline in economic activity and the consequent rise in unemployment starts biting, the Government’s currently stellar levels of support will fall, and the pendulum revert to a more normal state. What things will look that at that point will be a more accurate reflection of the current state of the country.

Already, there are signs on the economic front, at least, that the devastation caused by the lockdowns, although severe, may not be as bad as first feared. Nevertheless, the fragility of many small to medium sized businesses and job uncertainty remain high. Moreover, many people for whom the prospect of redundancy or unemployment has neither been a factor previously are now having to face that prospect.

And the uneven and unequal nature of that impact will bring about its own level of household uncertainty. The moral outrage that has arisen over businesses that accepted the wage subsidy for their employees during the lockdowns, only to now make those same employees redundant as the subsidies expire is testament to the current brittle state of affairs. There seems to be little acknowledgement that without those subsidies those jobs may have disappeared much earlier in the piece than now.

The real question to emerge though is where the blame will rest ultimately – with the Government which designed such a lax, open-ended scheme with little accountability, or the employers that took advantage of it.

Worthy talk, so often cheap in the past, will henceforth be expected to be by matched deeds that count.

The battle to control the narrative is now underway. The Government is “annoyed” at businesses that it is keen to paint as not having played the game, by taking the wage subsidy, but not protecting  affected jobs in perpetuity, while business says that it took the subsidy to protect employees in the short-term, rather than abruptly release them all when the lockdowns began and economic activity stopped dead in its tracks. The argument will only intensify right up until the election, as the winter proceeds and more jobs are lost. Who wins it may well be determined by how many and whose jobs are lost.   

The flow-on from the Black Lives Matter campaign is likely to have just as profound and enduring effects. Not only will there be a renewed focus on the state of race relations within New Zealand, with institutional racism within government structures like the Police, the health and justice services, coming under renewed scrutiny, but there will now be a much greater expectation of meaningful action to address them. Worthy talk, so often cheap in the past, will henceforth be expected to be by matched deeds that count.

The accompanying debate about how appropriate various colonial-era statues and memorials are in contemporary New Zealand goes to the heart of New Zealand’s history and how it is presented. The Government indicated, prior to the outbreak of Covid19, that it wished to see New Zealand history taught compulsorily in all schools until Year 11, and discussion was getting underway about its shape and form, before its introduction in 2022. Now, the debate has been broadened to take in the contemporary representation of certain historic figures and whether that accurately reflects the historic deeds and legacy of those persons.

But while the new spirit of openness abroad in the wake of Covid-19 opens the door for the full range of issues the Black Lives Matter campaign has set off to be examined afresh, that will need to occur in an environment where the pursuit of historical accuracy, good and bad, prevails for its outcome to be credible and ultimately durable.  As so many of our towns and cities, and features linked to them, are built around particular historic figures, that is going to be very difficult to achieve. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s observation that “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present” is worth considering in this regard.

It may be just coincidence that the Super Rugby Aotearoa final will be played on 19 September – the same day as the election. The volubility of the crowd and the reaction to any politicians present may prove the best indicator of not only how these two very important yet different debates, so much at the core of our future over the next few years, have played out and been received by the public, but also, more importantly, what the next three years may portend.

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