The pandemic and ‘events’ have disrupted the Labour Government’s legislative reforms and now it has perhaps 44 days of Parliament’s time to drive major changes it wants to pursue

New Zealand turned a significant corner with the Government’s announcement this week that Covid-19 restrictions were at an end, with the traffic light system scrapped, the mask requirement dumped for all but healthcare and aged care facilities, and vaccination mandates being removed shortly.

After two and a half years of Covid-19 related disruption and restriction, the country is set to return to something akin to the normality it knew previously. No wonder the Prime Minister proclaimed, “Rather than feeling that Covid dictates what happens to us, our lives, and our futures, we take back control.”

She could justifiably do so with considerable pride, given her Government’s solid efforts since March 2020 to guide the nation through the twists and turns of the pandemic. Equally, her call to “take back control” was as much a sigh of relief as it was a statement of intent for the future.

After all, her Government is now free to get on with its primary mission, to be the government of transformation she promised in 2017, that it has been prevented from being so far by unexpected events over the years. These include a series of dramatic natural and other disasters from the eruption at Whakaari White Island, to unprecedented levels of floods and storms, the horrific terrorist attack at the mosques in Christchurch, and the arrival of the pandemic.

In these circumstances, the Prime Minister could be well forgiven for wanting to move on from the Covid-19 experience and shake off forever the label of being the “Covid19 Prime Minister” in favour of some of the yet unachieved transformational objectives of her Government. It has been noticeable for most of this year that the Prime Minister has been very keen to move on from the preoccupation with the pandemic.

From the arrival of the Delta variant in the latter quarter of last year, followed by Omicron over the summer break, the Prime Minister has steadily and deliberately removed herself from being the Government’s face on Covid19. That task was shifted first to the overworked Chris Hipkins during the Delta outbreak and subsequently to the more bookish Ayesha Verrall who has been quietly but consistently talking for some time about moving on from Covid-19 restrictions.

When the staged media conferences with the former Director-General of Health stopped, and the ministry returned to its primary role as a government agency, rather than a media spin outlet, the unwinding of the Covid-19 response quickened, as the Government felt more able to take back political control of the management of the pandemic.

However, while dropping Covid-19 restrictions will be widely welcomed – there have been clear signs since late last year of rising public fatigue at their ongoing imposition – it will not be all plain sailing for the Government from here on.

There remains a significant minority that for various reasons – professional, latent fears, and otherwise – will be bitterly disappointed and angered by this week’s announcements, and who will feel betrayed by the Government’s apparent abandonment of its previous, single-minded commitment to seeing Covid-19 solely through a public health lens. At the other end of the scale, the motley mix of anti-vaxxers, anti-mandate, and general conspiracy theorists will feel emboldened to crow ever-loudly and more irrationally that they were right all along.

As it navigates through these swirling waters to “take back control” the Government will have other realities to contemplate. The massive debt built up to fund the national response to Covid-19 now must be repaid. The combination of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has led to a global inflation spike and economic slowdown from which New Zealand has not been exempt. Indeed, our cost-of-living increase has been the sharpest for the past 13 years, and according to the Department of Statistics, real wages are now lower than when the Government came to office in 2017.

With the focus now off the pandemic, the public expectation will be that the Government will shift its attention to these more intractable problems. And, even though it has been adept to date in blaming its predecessor for every problem it has faced over the past five years, the extent to which the Government will now be able to continue using Covid-19 as an excuse for the deteriorating economic situation is debatable. An already tired population will be impatient to see things improve.

The best way the Government can “take back control” is to reset its legislative agenda through to the next election. But even that will be difficult. With the House adjourning this week as a mark of respect for the late Queen Elizabeth II, there are only 27 parliamentary sitting days remaining this year, of which only 18 are set down as days for government business, the rest being days for members’ business.

Next year, assuming the sitting pattern of previous election years is followed, the House will sit for about 20 weeks or 60 days before being dissolved for the election. Allowing a minimum of 14 days for set piece debates (like the Budget, the Prime Minister’s Statement, Estimates and Financial Reviews) 46 days remain. Of those, 20 will be set aside as Members’ Days. That leaves a total of just 44 sitting days between now and the election for government business, making the possibility of a bold, legislative reset of the government’s agenda hard to imagine, let alone complete.

The Prime Minister and her colleagues are understandably delighted they are at last able to put the nightmare of the pandemic largely behind them and get on with what they wanted to do in government. However, they now face the real headache of both managing the emerging new political expectations around our post Covid-19 future, and the lack of time available to them to fulfil those before they next face the judgement of electors. And all this assumes no serious infectious variants of the virus emerge in the meantime.

For those reasons, the Prime Minister’s obvious, understandable sigh of relief this week is likely to be short-lived.

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