Labour shot up in the polls during the first lockdown – but while National has made early missteps the second time around, there is reason to think it may find more fertile territory, Liam Hehir writes
Among the commentariat, the immediate assumption has been that a second lockdown would benefit Labour politically.
The first lockdown did, after all, with National forfeiting a solid edge in the polls and Labour surging to unprecedented popularity. So it is easy to see why Judith Collins is concerned about the prospect of Jacinda Ardern dominating the airwaves with lockdown updates during the pre-election period.
Things may just play out differently this time, however.
The first lockdown had a surreal quality to it. For many people it even felt like something like an out-of-season Christmas shutdown. Businesses didn’t go under immediately, thanks to the wage subsidy and the fumes of the pre-Covid economy. We all shared a strong sense that, if we could just hold on together, there would be light at the end of the tunnel.
As of last week, however, it has dawned on us that any kind of outbreak will see us pitched back into uncertainty at a moment’s notice. The prospect of being thrown backwards and forwards from normalcy to emergency, time and time again, is an exhausting and depressing reality to confront. It’s like rolling a boulder up a steep hill, only to realise that it’s going to roll downhill again each time we reach the top.
There will not be the same sense of jubilation and national achievement when the Auckland lockdown is lifted. Any relief will be laced with unease about having to do it again and again until a vaccine is found – and perhaps that is how we should have felt the first-time round.
In fairness to the Government, you will struggle to find many comments from ministers counselling complacency. There is, however, no getting around the fact that our initial success greatly increased gross national smugness even as it devastated our gross domestic product. The Government benefited from that triumphalism and will now have to deal with the disenchantment.
If the Government was expecting a resurgence, why are people now complaining about testing stations being so disorganised? If the Government now advises us to wear masks and assures us there are plenty of them, what is the strategy for their equitable distribution?
There will be some justice in this, because what has transpired has also thrown the Government’s various failings into sharp relief.
For example, we have had three months since community transmission was first squashed and yet our contact tracing regime remains shambolic. The uncertainty we now face arises partly from the inability of officials to quickly identify who may and may not have the virus, because nobody has really been keeping a record of where they have been. Given that the Government now says a second outbreak was inevitable, the question must be asked why fixing this was not top of mind for Ardern and her ministers.
We all have some personal responsibility here. Compliance has not been helped, however, by a clunky government app that many people found unusable. And, looking back, it is astonishing to note the absence of a pervasive and concerted propaganda campaign to pressure the people into compliance for the sake of saving lives.
Then we must consider the mounting list of failings at the border. We have lurched from the compassionate leave fiasco to reports of security lapses and to the revelation that bus drivers ferrying new arrivals and even border workers were not being tested. It is too much to expect perfection but the scale of the complacency that has put us all at risk often feels mind-boggling.
If the Government was expecting a resurgence, why are people now complaining about testing stations being so disorganised? If the Government now advises us to wear masks and assures us there are plenty of them, what is the strategy for their equitable distribution? We have now known for some time that masks do work after all but there is no publicly comprehensible strategy to distribute them equitably at short notice.
The one saving grace for the Government has been the lack of discipline from the Opposition. Instead of being focused like a laser beam on the provable failures, the limited attention the media pays to the Government’s official critics has been squandered on idle speculation about what the Government knew and when it knew it. While voters are unlikely to get as worked up about alleged conspiracy theorising as Labour’s surrogates are, such talk puts National into “explaining is losing” mode when it is challenged in the mass media.
For the first time in a long time, National may find itself in a happy hunting ground.
It is important to note that none of this political calculation affects the validity of public health measures the Government has announced. The Opposition should be (and is) urging compliance with the spirit and the letter of whatever sensible restrictions are put in place. At the same time, however, National has a duty to hold the Prime Minister to account for the fact we took a big step backwards last week.
Doing this properly will, of course, be to the political advantage of the National Party. That is simply adversarial politics working as it is supposed to. As ghoulish as it sometimes feels to see politicians profit by our troubles, it remains the best way to guard against government complacency.
After initial missteps National does seem to be getting its act together. If it can stay focused, it will have no shortage of material with which to keep Ardern and her ministers on their toes. For the first time in a long time, National may find itself in a happy hunting ground.
Be that as it may, it seems unlikely that anything National now does or does not do will materially affect the election. With voting due to start soon, Labour remains very much in the driver’s seat. A more disappointed electorate is not necessarily one that will opt to change horse mid-stream.
But election victories and defeats are not the be all and end all of politics. Opposition and media exposure of government failures will lead to a more realistic appraisal of the competency of our leaders. That will put pressure on them to do a better job than we have seen in the last few months.