A little over 24 hours before Jacinda Ardern learnt of new Covid-19 community cases, she sat down with Newsroom to discuss what real transformation looks like, how to improve our pandemic planning, and making the most of the Covid crisis

Oh for the days when a missed meal was among Jacinda Ardern’s most pressing problems.

Sitting down for a mid-afternoon interview with Newsroom on Monday, the Prime Minister asks, semi-sheepishly, if she can eat some belated lunch – an egg sandwich from Wishbone – while fielding questions about her party and the Government.

Any time for a proper feed has been squeezed by a Cabinet meeting, then a brief press conference with journalists to discuss one of the main agenda items – the finalisation of the first step towards a Covid-19 “travel bubble” with the Cook Islands by the end of the year.

With her Labour Party polling above 50 percent and having at least a sniff of an outright majority, Ardern could have been forgiven for fast-tracking the bubble and booking a spot on the first flight to Rarotonga.

But the very next day brought an all too real reminder of the inherent risks in a global pandemic, with four new Covid cases identified in South Auckland without any clear link to overseas travel or high-risk workers.

Now, Auckland is under Level 3 restrictions while the rest of the country is at Level 2, as the Government and health officials work around the clock to track down the spread, and hopefully origin, of the virus.

Places like Taiwan managed to halt the spread of Covid-19 without going into lockdown, thanks to rigorous contact tracing and testing protocols.

So, Newsroom asks – not yet aware of what is to come – could New Zealand bolster its pandemic planning to the point where we could also avoid a full shutdown?

“There’s lots…about the unknown that we need to build into our system, and there are just baseline things that I think it’s good to have in place so that you don’t have a situation like in Queensland where people don’t stay home because they can’t afford to. And that’s about your social system, not just your health system.”

“There’s so many different other factors at play – just basic human behaviour, cultural responses,” Ardern responds.

“Are you a country that has used face masks routinely before? Do you have…the labour conditions that if someone is taking sick leave, that they have the income to support them to do that? Do you have the social security? So many different interesting factors that can exacerbate or support a response to something like this.”

The Government has looked and will continue to look at responses overseas, she says, but through the lens of Kiwis’ behaviour and what is actually viable here.

The world will “inevitably” improve its readiness for pandemics, but even the best-laid plans need contingency to pivot to account for the factors that cannot be known in advance.

“Incubation periods, highly infectious periods, all the things that were very unique to Covid, you had to learn as you went. So what do you do when you’re still learning, what kind of precautionary approach do you take when you’re still working out whether or not you should have a 14-day quarantine or 10-day quarantine?

“There’s lots…about the unknown that we need to build into our system, and there are just baseline things that I think it’s good to have in place so that you don’t have a situation like in Queensland where people don’t stay home because they can’t afford to. And that’s about your social system, not just your health system.”

True transformation?

But can Labour reshape the social safety net in the way some of its most fervent followers would like to see – and does it even want to?

The question of whether Ardern’s administration is truly “a government of transformation”, as was promised during the Speech from the Throne in 2017, has hung over the coalition ever since.

While left-wing critics have accused the Prime Minister of squandering her political capital in favour of cautious incrementalism, Ardern argues moving step by step is better than a sudden leap forward.

“For me, transformation is change that sticks. I think people forget about the second part of that equation, they just think about change, and somehow transformation needs to be dramatic and jarring.

“If we don’t make it stick, then there’s no point…that means you might move at a pace that might be slightly slower, you might spend a bit more time trying to get more people on board and in agreement, but if that means it lasts, it’s more likely to be transformational.”

She cites the decision to ban the issuing of new oil and gas exploration permits, coupled with work to help the residents of Taranaki through the transition, as an example of meaningful change delivered carefully.

Not all of Labour’s supporters would agree with that incrementalism, but Ardern says the constraints of MMP cannot be ignored either.

The constraints of MMP government cannot be ignored when assessing Labour’s progress against its own policies, Jacinda Ardern says. Photo: Pool.

“Ultimately, you have to campaign on what you intend to do over the next three years, and then you work with whatever is delivered on election day…I do think New Zealanders have an appreciation for that, they know that what you present is your ideal scenario and then you make it work from there.”

One of the main casualties of the coalition was Labour’s plan for a capital gains tax, with Ardern ruling out any such tax at any point during her leadership after she failed to win over New Zealand First. 

“Since I’ve been a member of the Labour Party, whether or not it’s in the guise of tax or whether or not it’s in the guise of just general fiscal management, we come up against a set of perceptions, and that just happens to be the reality,” she says.

Trying to change that perception has limited the party’s scope for radical proposals, but it does seem to have succeeded, with Labour outperforming National on the issue of economic management in several polls this year.

Asked whether she attributes that to the Government’s management of Covid-19 or the fiscal decisions that preceded the pandemic, Ardern says she sees them as two sides of the same coin.

“We wouldn’t have been in the position we’re in now had we not done that preparatory groundwork early on, going in with debt relative to GDP at 20 percent…

“But I think people do make judgments in proximity to the decisions that have demonstrated something in real time and Covid has done that, particularly the decision-making that was involved around the wage subsidy, the small business scheme – those were decisions we had to make very quickly.”

Moving into the unknown

Likewise, she believes the Covid crisis has heightened rather than altered the Government’s pre-pandemic priorities, such as public housing, retraining and reskilling workers, and transitioning the New Zealand economy towards a more climate-friendly system.

“I remember when we were in [the initial] lockdown, I had a whiteboard in my office that on one side had daily case numbers and testing capacity which I tracked, and then on the other it had the work that we were doing on our recovery and response package.

“And on one side I just wrote all of the things that were already a focus for us and how could we then use our Covid response just to speed that up, so that from day one has been on my mind.”

But have we really had the “green recovery” that many, including coalition partner the Greens, have called for?

Ardern argues that is so, pointing to the cycleways and multimodal transport options funded through the pre-Covid NZ Upgrade infrastructure programme, as well as waste reduction initiatives and the commissioning of a business case into a 100 percent renewable power grid through pumped hydro.

“This is the area where I can see our investments starting to make a difference in some of the conversations we’re having around those big significant step-changes for us really starting to bed in, and Covid does provide us an opportunity to do more of that.”

But those opportunities have faded in the background for the time being, as Ardern and her ministers try to avoid a second wave of coronavirus.

It’s perhaps fitting Labour’s campaign slogan is “Let’s Keep Moving”, for there will be plenty more lunches on the run in the coming weeks.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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