Comment: Whether it’s the public service pay announcement, or the border worker who went months without being tested for Covid, the Government seems set on fighting a losing battle, writes political editor Jo Moir

Occasionally politicians get handed an easy opportunity to correct a mistake.

When they don’t, it’s usually stubbornness or stupidity that has got in the way.

In the last week senior ministers in the Labour-majority Government have had multiple opportunities to correct the record by taking an inch of the blame. Instead, they’ve chosen to put up a fight for absolutely no gain.

It started last week when senior ministers, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins, announced anyone in the public service earning more than $100,000 would not get a pay rise for the next three years, those between $60,000 and $100,000 would be considered for one on a case-by-case basis, and those earning $60,000 or less would be guaranteed more money in their back pocket.

The focus should have been that it was addressing the ever-growing inequality gap – by lifting up the poorest.

But it failed to find a fix, or even acknowledge, the fact many public servants aren’t on step-based contracts and therefore wouldn’t be eligible for anything for three years

For those reporting on the story, an information vacuum formed. Unsurprisingly a pay freeze narrative was created.

That’s on Robertson and Hipkins – the ones charged with getting the message out.

The Government has spent days responding to backlash from the unions and headlines about pay freezes.

This newfound ‘fight it to the death’ attitude serves nobody well, least of all the Government.

Robertson and Hipkins spent far too much time in the media conference last week talking about how the announcement was “showing leadership’’.

Showing leadership doesn’t sit well as a reason when it’s public servants, namely police officers, border workers, and nurses, who have been doing the hard yards in the fight against Covid-19.

And the Government can’t even say how much money will be saved as a result of these measures.

Robertson and Hipkins are two of the Government’s better communicators but they also do the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to ministerial portfolios and announcements.

It begs the question of whether they’re too overloaded and not enough time was given to prep work and make sure the messaging was clear.

The communications chief, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has had to do damage control and on Tuesday even said she’d support more public servants being put on step-based contracts so they can receive automatic pay rises.

She’s also refocused the narrative around inequality and, unlike Robertson and Hipkins, hasn’t blamed the media for twisting their words.

Following meetings with the unions on Tuesday, Hipkins has also put cost of living increases in scope to be discussed during pay negotiations.

It’s a bad week for Hipkins, who is spending far too much time with a spade trying to dig himself out of a hole instead of taking the rope that’s been helpfully thrown to him.

When his office responded to a written parliamentary question from National’s Covid response spokesperson Chris Bishop, it did so in such a blunt way it opened the Minister’s answer up to all sorts of interpretation.

Bishop asked Hipkins on what date and at what time he and his officials learnt that the last Covid test a border security guard had before testing positive in April 2021 was in November 2020.

Hipkins’ office responded: “I am advised that Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) officials first learnt of this detail during the initial case interview undertaken at 9.15am on 8 April 2021. Following the initial case interview, ARPHS provided preliminary information about the case’s testing history to the Ministry of Health at the 11am incident management team (IMT)/ARPHS briefing that day. The IMT controller briefed the Director-General of Health following the meeting at 11.30am, who informed me of known information about the individual’s situation prior to the 1pm media announcement that day. At the time, this was under investigation by MIQ officials.”

All of that is true, but it wasn’t until April 14 – six days later – that the public was told the security guard hadn’t got a Covid test for five months.

On Tuesday Hipkins explained that the Ministry had conflicting information to that of the employee and his employer about when a test had been taken. Adding to that was a language barrier and the need for an interpreter to help conduct an investigation.

Even with all of that going on it shouldn’t have taken six days to get to the bottom of it, but that’s beside the point.

By not providing that level of detail in the response to Bishop, it was left vague enough for him to interpret that the Government had sat on the information for six days.

Unsurprisingly, Bishop then shopped the story out to media.

Hipkins can cry foul that the story doesn’t reflect what actually happened, but he could also make life easier for him and his Government by just acknowledging the answer given to Bishop wasn’t clear.

On three occasions on Tuesday, Newsroom asked Hipkins if the written answer had created the confusion in the first place.

Stubbornness overrode the Minister on every occasion.

Instead of taking some responsibility, Hipkins is breathing new life into a story that should never have been one in the first place.

This newfound ‘fight it to the death’ attitude serves nobody well, least of all the Government.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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