The Covid Recovery Minister’s futile attempt to control how Aucklanders leave the city once internal borders end reminds Peter Dunne of Berlin when communism fell.
Successful governments usually have a senior minister with the unofficial role of being the internal critic who stops silly ideas before they become public and embarrass the government.
In the past two governments, the role was filled with aplomb by Sir Michael Cullen and Steven Joyce. Both were ministers with strong political instincts and a very good sense of the limits to public tolerance. And both had the seniority to quash ill-considered or half-baked ideas from often enthusiastic and well-meaning colleagues, long before they got anywhere near the public arena.
Last week’s debacle over Covid Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins’ public musing that Aucklanders might have to book a specific time to be able to leave their city over the coming summer holiday period shows the current Government lacks such a figure.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson did try to pour cold water on the suggestion the following day but was overruled after that by the Prime Minister who, although trying to downplay the idea, did not squash it completely. In the process, she has merely added to the confusion and disbelief caused by Hipkins’ original suggestion, while confirming, albeit unintentionally, that her friend Roberston is not in the same league as either Sir Michael Cullen or Steven Joyce.
The idea that Aucklanders may be required to book a time to leave the city over Christmas is awkwardly reminiscent of the last days of the Berlin Wall, when East German authorities attempted to introduce a regulated permit system to make it easier for people to visit the West, only to have an impatient population ignore the controls and effectively push the Wall down. A similar situation at the Auckland border with stressed holidaymakers simply forcing their way through the Christmas holiday checkpoints is not inconceivable.
In East Germany, border guards quickly gave up their early attempts at enforcement and just let the crowds through. The spectre of Christmas holidaymakers being arrested by the police or the Defence Force in similar circumstances at the Auckland border, and the imagery associated with that, which would go global in a flash, is unimaginable, further highlighting the ludicrous and unrealistic nature of Hipkins’ original idea.
The remarkable thing is that, aside from Robertson’s feeble attempts, no other government minister has debunked the idea, or even distanced themselves from it, at least in public. Only the ever-helpful and increasingly partisan Dr Ashley Bloomfield attempted to explain Hipkins’ comments and lessen their immediate impact by saying the Ministry of Health was still finalising its advice on the matter, although what expertise it possesses on border management and policing issues is hard to fathom.
The only reasonable conclusion to be taken is that the Hipkins’ plan, or a version of it, remains very much in the frame, as a potential sting in the tail of any moves after November 29 to reduce restrictions in Auckland.
Aside from this debacle, the Government’s handling of the Auckland situation over the last month or so has effectively divided New Zealand, far more so than the physical boundary might suggest. The heavy focus on increasing vaccination levels in Auckland so that it can move to the new traffic light system by the end of November, while laudable in one sense, has cut the country in two.
There has been nowhere the same urgency demonstrated when it comes to the plight of the rest of New Zealand, south of the Waikato. The remainder of the North Island and the entire South Island have been at Level 2, far lower than Auckland, for some weeks now, with hardly any cases being identified, yet there is no suggestion of urgency about when they might enter the traffic light system.
It looks increasingly as though the Government’s sole focus has been on Auckland, not just because that is where majority of cases under the Delta outbreak have been, or because it is the country’s major population and business centre, but because it is also the region that is home to the bulk of Labour’s core supporters.
The last thing the Government wants is these people, who have already suffered a lot, facing more difficulty and disruption (causing potential political disgruntlement) over the summer holiday period, hence the focus on reopening Auckland, and the Prime Minister’s increasingly explicit promises to do so. If nothing else, she clearly understands which side her political bread is buttered on.
As for the rest of the country, the Government seems happy for it to just drift along in Auckland’s wake. After all, as it notes, things have been not nearly as bad as for those in Auckland, which, while true, overlooks the fact that because of that, many people – especially those in Wellington and Canterbury where vaccination rates are equivalent to Auckland levels – are finding it increasingly difficult to understand why their status is so linked to what happens in Auckland.
For people with family in Auckland the focus on enabling people to leave Auckland, while still restricting inbound visits, is as infuriating as it is cruel. The way Auckland is being dealt with, particularly when bizarre ideas like the Hipkins’ plan emerge, is lighting a slow-burning fuse of resentment and frustration across the country which the Government would be unwise to ignore.
In years to come, when the history of this Government is written, the month of October 2021 will likely be viewed as the time when its honeymoon with the New Zealand public ended. Not only will it be seen as the time when the previous tolerance of restrictions, at whatever level, in the interest of the greater good that the Government had relied on so successfully since March 2020, dissipated, but it was also the time when public patience ran out.
The cumulative effect of prolonged lockdowns, an inept and uncaring MIQ system, and inconsistent rules have finally taken their toll. Unfortunately for the Government, all that has coincided as its own ideas and the luck which has largely sustained it since the outbreak of the virus was also running out.
It is often said that that timing is everything in politics. Labour’s misfortune is that its October travails have occurred at the same time as the summer weather and the yearning for the great New Zealand summer approaches, and more images are starting to appear of people in other countries enjoying themselves as pandemic restrictions are being relaxed.
The fact the Government has appeared increasingly all-at sea over the past month has simply compounded the difficulties. Moreover, having sold the message for so long that we were doing so much better than other countries (as we were) it is now struggling to explain why those countries are getting back to relative normality before us.
This underscores that Labour’s challenges from here on with the pandemic are largely political. For some months it has been setting up the scenario that vaccination is the key to our return to something approaching a normal way of life, and New Zealanders have responded.
Now, with vaccination rates moving towards the 90 percent level nominated as the ideal, the pressure is intensifying on the Government to deliver on its side of the bargain and reopen the country. People increasingly feel they have done the hard work – the pain before the gain as Sir Roger Douglas used to say – and now they want the reward they were promised.
Pointing to its record of keeping the virus at bay over the past year is no longer enough – people have moved on and are looking ahead to what comes next. And sooner, rather than later.
This is always the hardest bit for any government – ensuring that the reward provided meets the public expectation. After all, there is nothing as angry as voters who feel they have either been short-changed or deceived by governments when it comes to political promises, especially if they have waited some time for them to come to fruition.
The more the Prime Minister says she wants New Zealanders to be able to enjoy a typical Christmas holiday, the more she consolidates the view in the public mind that it will happen. Now she has to make good on the promise. But, given the practicality of people arranging their holidays and travel, she cannot unduly delay that announcement. The November 29 date she has already nominated is probably as late as she can realistically leave it, without creating a situation where while the news may be good, its timing means it is too late for many people to take advantage of it.
All the Government’s energy needs to go towards making sure that happens, and that neither the whining of epidemiological grinches or hare-brained ideas of regulating the time when people can travel, get in the way of achieving that. Otherwise, it risks reaping the political whirlwind.