What the deputy leader of the opposition has been implying lately is more than ‘nonsense’ – it represents a threat to one of New Zealand’s most powerful and undervalued assets, writes Duncan Greive.
Things started getting interesting last Friday. National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee appeared on RNZ’s Morning Report to discuss the new government mask guidance, calling it “an interesting development, somewhat out of the blue”.
It ramped up considerably yesterday, after the revelations of community transmission and Auckland heading back into lockdown. During an extraordinary 3pm press conference from Brownlee and National leader Judith Collins, Brownlee leaned on his new favourite word again.
“I just think it’s interesting,” he said, going on to list the issuance of mask guidance, Ardern’s visit to a mask factory and Bloomfield’s Covid-19 test. He then stepped away from the lectern with a slight smile playing upon his face. “What do you mean by that?,” a reporter asked. “It’s interesting. An interesting series of facts.”
What Brownlee was doing both before and after the announcement of community transmission could charitably be described as a form of media criticism. Not the head-on form we saw during the valedictory speeches of outgoing MPs Sarah Dowie and Clare Curran, but a marginally more subtle variant. He’s suggesting that it’s very curious that the government should ramp up its preparedness at this moment. As he put it last week, “Why is it now, when we’ve got 94 days of no community transmission, and apparently secure borders, that they’re wanting to bring this up?”
This is the kind of question the media should be asking, he seems to be saying – what did they know that they weren’t telling us? It was, in a way, Brownlee deploying the media as his proxy – with parliament no longer sitting, he could not put the question to her in the house, so had the press gallery do it for him. In so doing he shared the opprobrium of having made the insinuation with an institution vying with the opposition for unpopularity during the anxiety of Covid-19. Naturally, the media did ask it, with Ardern calling it “just nonsense” – the closest thing she gets to anger on an emotional register.
On one level Brownlee is right. It is interesting! After months of New Zealand having acted like elimination was essentially clocking the Covid-19 game, we belatedly announced the existence of an expansion pack in the form of the peril of second waves of the virus. This existed the whole time, of course, as we knew then and really, really know now. But the very close proximity of a renewed interest in communicating the dangers of and correct response to a second wave of community transmission and the emergence of that community transmission was and remains striking.
Yet New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 is not happening in a vacuum. In fact, it’s happening during the greatest live policy and response testing environment the world has ever known. The period of increased government communication and preparedness was precisely correlated with another very interesting news event – that of an enormous and destructive second wave of the virus in Melbourne. A city with a similar population to New Zealand, which thought it had achieved something like elimination and relied on secure borders.
Had the government witnessed this on the 6pm news each night and failed to imagine a similar scenario occurring here, Brownlee would rightly be flaying them for it. Instead, they elevated communications and other preparedness in response to external events that could manifestly happen here – as they now have.
So, while interesting, there is a very logical answer to the question of why the events Brownlee outline occurred when they did.
The alternative, which he never has come out and said, is almost unspeakably evil. It suggests that the government and health department knew that Covid-19 was circulating in the community, and was withholding that information from the public and thus purposefully letting the virus become re-established.
Why it might do this is extremely interesting. Could it view an election under lockdown as one in which it’s harder for the opposition to campaign, while the government maintains its regular access to the airwaves? As former National leader Simon Bridges has rightly pointed out, that is a true and unavoidable consequence of a lockdown, and a serious incumbent’s advantage.
For the conspiracy theory to be real, though, the government and health department have to conspire to risk the lives of thousands of citizens, and spend billions while blowing up a fragile economy, all so that they can impose a kind of authoritarianism by stealth. This is not an exaggeration – it’s the most logical implication of what Brownlee finds so interesting.
It barely needs saying, but this is about as serious a charge as you can level against a government. If you’re going to level it, then you had better be confident. And you should have the decency to say it in unambiguous terms. It’s a very high-stakes game – if you’re correct and there is a vast conspiracy threatening the country, then you will bask in the glory of having seen it hiding in plain sight, and should reap unimaginable political rewards for uncovering it. If you’re wrong, and Ockham’s razor holds – that the preparedness was in fact a response to Melbourne’s travails – then you should be prepared to wear the consequences of having levelled an enormously destructive charge so blithely.
By failing to come right out and say it, Brownlee allows himself plausible deniability. It’s just interesting. It’s up to the media to ask the questions. To figure it out.
It’s also, as Grant Robertson put it this morning, “ridiculous nonsense”. Brownlee knows full well that there is not a vast deep state conspiracy to reinfect the population for malign political ends. If Winston Peters’ superannuation overpayments could not stay private, then there’s no way dozens of people could hold information this dangerous without it leaking out.
It feeds into what is known in the US as the “paranoid style”, popular with Republicans in the 60s and again now. To deploy it requires essentially letting go of your relationship with mutually agreed facts, with science, with evidence and with a common set of institutions upon which you battle for the public’s confidence and ultimately their vote.
The paranoid style is surging worldwide, fuelled by unregulated social media and partisan divides. The rise of QAnon, the anti-vaxx movement and 5G conspiracy theories are all part of a giant soup of suspicion. To participate simply requires belief that elites from the government, academia and media are mostly lying to you.
It is very present in New Zealand. The second lockdown in Auckland has immediately brought it to the fore, evident in bizarre conspiracy theories springing up in Instagram stories and protestors appearing spontaneously at intersections demanding the right to breathe unconstrained by masks. Leighton Smith, formerly morning presenter on ZB and now host of a very successful podcast, opened his most recent episode by saying “of recent times, I’ve got to say I’ve become somewhat suspicious of experts. Experts of all kinds.”
Until very recently, this style has stayed at the fringes of our politics – Billy Te Kahika and the NZ Public Party are wildly popular on Facebook and can get thousands to rallies, but don’t register in polls. This reflects a broadly chill politics – while true believers are capable of whipping themselves into frenzy over the day-to-day of party disagreements, our politicians are in fact easily the most mild-mannered of any of the countries to which we most frequently compare ourselves. To put it another way, would anyone prefer the political culture of any of the other five eyes nations – the US, UK, Australia and Canada – to our own?
Even during lockdown, when much of the rest of the world was falling into partisan and distrustful divide, the centre held. Then-National leader Simon Bridges was criticised heavily for his tone, but largely agreed with the government on the big stuff, and never once got close to impugning its motives. This was, in part, what he was rolled for by the Muller cabal, and look how that turned out for all involved.
Brownlee’s questions feel different. Covid-19 can apparently infect the minds of even those who never contract the virus itself. National has by far the most MPs in parliament. It styles itself as a broad church and the natural party of government. For its deputy to make such claims feels new and dangerous. It will naturally give succour to all those who see conspiracy and lies in all our institutions, and contribute to the erosion of faith in our democracy itself.
It’s also entirely unnecessary. There is plenty of fertile political ground to battle on. A second outbreak actually plays into a persistent National narrative, that the border is not as secure as it should be, and that its party are more competent day-to-day custodians of the machinery of government. If this becomes a second long-running lockdown, the election will near inevitably be delayed and conditions become more favourable to Brownlee and his party.
Such a scenario is what we’re likely approaching, and certainly far more plausible than the outlandish sub-subreddit theory he has been floating over the past week. One that not only seems unlikely to work out well for his party, but actively undermines the centrist political culture that has existed more-or-less without major rupture since Muldoon drunkenly gave up power in 1984.
It might not be all that interesting. But it’s one of the most powerful things we hold as as a nation, and should not be easily surrendered to the world of distinct and opposing partisan sets of facts.