'Welcome. We don’t usually welcome people by locking them up.'Jacinda Ardern in her Beehive office. Photo: Justin Giovannetti

Covid-19, crisis and transformation: An interview with Jacinda Ardern

The prime minister discusses the crunch decisions as the coronavirus threat spread, what comes next, and the ‘transformational’ idea, with Spinoff political editor Justin Giovannetti. 

Jacinda Ardern was watching coronavirus in China with growing concern in January as developments were still largely limited to foreign news reports. The scale of the virus and its speed were commanding the prime minister’s attention. On February 1, it became clear to her that New Zealand could not avoid Covid-19.

The next day, Ardern announced that the country was closing its door to foreign visitors from China nearly immediately. She said publicly at the time that there were too many unknowns in the way the virus was being transmitted to take any risks. Privately, however, she knew that economic damage was now inevitable, and it was likely to be huge.

Speaking with the Spinoff from her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive, Ardern described her government’s early response to the pandemic. The prime minister has earned acclaim from around the world for her handling of the crisis. She described a situation where decisions had to be made with rapidly changing information before all the consequences could be fully understood.

“There was a huge degree to which we were stepping into the unknown and also the pace of decision making. Sometimes you just had to anticipate, you knew what the science was, you knew what the evidence was telling you, but you didn’t know how it was going to roll out here in our context,” said Ardern, sitting on a couch in her office.

In the hours before she announced the border closure, Ardern spoke at length with her chief science adviser as well as networks of officials in Australia, including prime minister Scott Morrison. The decision to close the border would be made despite the World Health Organisation warning against such moves.

That first border closure was when Covid-19 became real for both Ardern and New Zealand. The economic cost of such a decision was monumental, she said. “There was a point that if you made them too late it was all economic cost with no health gain. Those were the earliest decisions where the ramifications were huge,” she added.

Leaders like Ardern typically consult weighty written reports before making significant decisions. Today piles of reports and printed out emails are stacked on her desk. However in early February, information on the coronavirus was developing more quickly than it could be typed out.

Instead, Ardern was on the phone listening as reports came in. “I remember having a conversation on a Saturday, right before we made the decision on closing our border to China, and just getting that feedback and evidence straight,” she said.

In her less than three years as prime minister, Ardern had earlier commanded international attention following her response to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. At the time she said her response to the tragedy had been largely instinctive. Covid-19 brought an added layer of complexity, she told the Spinoff, with the addition of science and a tidal wave of evidence that needed to be considered before she acted.

However that old instinct that served her in Christchurch was still at play. “At no point did the science and evidence say in absolute terms that this is exactly what needs to happen and this is the exact point at which it needs to happen,” she said. “There was a lot of judgement applied there.”

The scale of the response to the coronavirus, both in terms of the financial cost and the impact on human lives across the world has often been compared to a large war. It’s a comparison that fits in Ardern’s office. Overlooking her desk are two second world war recruiting posters, one encouraging women to enlist in the US Navy and the other the Royal Navy.

“They show the progress of women over time,” she said, before pausing. “War recruitment posters do it for me.”

Along with Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health who has become a household name during the crisis, Ardern credits chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard for keeping her on the right path. Gerrard is a professor at the University of Auckland who specialises in biochemistry.

The country’s path so far has widespread public support, with recent polling showing about 90% of New Zealders supporting the lockdown. Ardern said those decisions around the border have been part of New Zealand’s success. By creating a legal moat around the country and allowing few to enter, people within New Zealand have enjoyed fewer restrictions than seen in most countries around the world, she said.

The government is now eying moves to reduce those border restrictions. Along with a possible trans-Tasman bubble allowing unrestricted travel with Australia, the country is planning on permitting a trickle to continue to enter the country as long as all arrivals enter 14 days of managed quarantine at a government-run hotel.

Ardern has taken a keen interest in people going through the border and has been following a number of strangers on Instagram. “The best insight I could get is following just random strangers posting pictures of their walks and their meals, and it was insightful for me,” she said.

I only exited managed-isolation, the government’s term for someone largely kept in a hotel room for 14 days, the day before the interview with Ardern. The prime minister was interested in learning more about how the system was working.

“Welcome,” she said after some chitchat. “We don’t usually welcome people by locking them up.”

A concern that has been raised with New Zealand’s approach is that the border restrictions will need to be maintained in some form until either a vaccine or effective treatment to coronavirus is developed. Earlier this week, British prime minister Boris Johnson warned there may never be a vaccine despite a global effort.

Ardern said she believes a vaccine, or treatment, is likely. However, if none materialises the country will be no worse off than any other, she said. Even countries that have approached the virus with more of a focus on developing herd immunity, allowing for some spread of Covid-19, are nowhere near the levels that would be required for that strategy to be effective, said Ardern.

“I think the globe is waiting in anticipation, investing a huge amount into vaccines and treatments because we’re all in some form, to different degrees, reliant on that being produced.”

Before answering questions, Ardern has a tendency to lean back and hum. She considers her words briefly before launching into a reply. Sometimes the tone of the hum seems to betray some disapproval with the question.

One of the criticisms that has been levelled at Ardern’s government is that despite its often stated ambition of being transformational, the Labour-led coalition has, some argue, largely tinkered on the edges. Its first budget in the era of Covid-19, tabled last week, was widely seen as a very orthodox response to a world that is increasingly unorthodox.

Some governments around the world have responded to the coronavirus with so-called helicopter cash, sending substantial sums of money directly to their citizens. The US government has spent trillions sending $1,200 cheques to nearly its entire adult population. In Canada, about one-third of the workforce is receiving deposits of up to $500 per week from the national government.

Neither of those programmes would have been considered possible even days before they were unveiled. Those schemes have now been compared to trials of a universal basic income.

Ardern’s hum turns sharp when she’s asked about whether New Zealand could become a similar laboratory for a basic income. “Finland is a trial. Finland is a trial, the others, they’re helicopter cash,” she said.

A universal basic income, or UBI, was something Ardern had studied while she was an opposition Labour MP. During that time, Finland’s government sent 2,000 unemployed citizens €560 payments every month for two years in a trial. The results of that trial are still being debated. The US and Canada aren’t anywhere near a basic income, according to Ardern.

New Zealand has a wage subsidy programme and has slightly increased benefits permanently as a result of the economic downturn due to coronavirus. However, it has so far ruled out a larger package of direct aid to citizens.

Ardern said she’s looked at a basic income in the current crisis but makes no promises: “Ultimately, there are a suite of things that governments can do and we keep looking at the range of options, we haven’t finished yet. That’s what I would say.”

She insists her government is transformational. After a moment, she added that she keeps having the debate about whether it is transformational. The debate centres around the question of what exactly a transformational government looks like. “That is the question. In my view, transformation that exists for three years and then is completely rolled back is not transformational, by default it has to be sustained,” she said.

Ardern’s philosophy of transformation is, by her own admission, slow and steady. It requires getting a mass of New Zealanders to agree with a new program or change, so that the next government can’t unstick it.

In her mind, the Accident Compensation Corporation was transformational. The Working for Families tax credits, a 2004 change to the welfare system that allows for payments to working lower-income families, was transformational. As for Ardern, her government’s work on making universities and skills training more accessible might be transformational.

“The things that have been big bangs, you could probably describe all the 1980s as that in New Zealand. And that caused huge pain,” she said. That’s the kind of transformation she’s trying to avoid.

“I want to look back on this period and say that there are things that could have gotten worse because of covid that we managed to actually make better: Our housing crisis, child poverty and equality, and environmental issues.”



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