Jacinda Ardern at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research on Friday. Please be assured that is not a real coronavirus in her hand (Photo: Dom Thomas - Pool/Getty Images)

Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere but still the clock keeps ticking on election 2020

Level one might not be back for some time amid warnings the current Auckland outbreak will linger. But the election campaign must go on – one way or another, writes political editor Justin Giovannetti.

There’s an election campaign going on out there if you know where to look for it.

With the move to extend level three restrictions in Auckland until the end of the week, the country’s politicians can’t roam New Zealand freely. The campaign buses are remaining parked and the leaders aren’t straying far from the reanimated parliament. Instead, they’re turning online and striking a newly constructive tone.

With the country’s eyes focused on the health response to Covid-19, the prime minister and the Labour Party have put their campaign plans are on ice. There are some upsides for Labour, however: with daily press conferences back on, the public is getting to see the party govern in the midst of what Jacinda Ardern has termed the “Covid election”.

Much of the campaign energy is now with the opposition, which is walking a fine line between being adversarial and helpful to the government.

There’s been a slow but perceptible change in tone from the National Party during the country’s second outbreak of Covid-19. After some missteps, the opposition has been working at keeping the criticism grounded.

In the hours before Ardern’s decision on Auckland’s lockdown on Monday, National released a new campaign promise to convene a public health summit if it’s elected. The point of the summit, according to leader Judith Collins, would be to review how lockdown levels work. “It is clear that the levels system needs to be reviewed in light of our experience, with a wide range of perspectives in the room,” she said.

When one third of your country and the bulk of its economy is stuck in lockdown, that’s a pretty inoffensive promise from the official opposition. With the prime minister taking up almost all the air, National settled on putting out a mildly interesting idea.

Meanwhile deputy leader Gerry Brownlee and his interesting ideas have been sidelined in recent days.

National MPs Gerry Brownlee, Paul Goldsmith and Shane Reti look on during a press conference at Parliament on August 12, 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, as the country was only hours into this bout of the coronavirus, he appeared before the media and openly pondered what he called an “interesting series of facts” that seemed to imply the prime minister knew community transmission was coming. Collins stood at his side and did nothing to stop him. The party spent days trying to explain how Brownlee wasn’t indulging in conspiracy. That’s the wrong kind of media attention for a party struggling in the polls.

Compare that to yesterday, when Collins appeared in parliament’s ornate red chamber alongside Shane Reti, the party’s health spokesperson, and finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith. Reti, whom Collins has decided to call “Doctor Shane” at all times, is quickly filling a role no one in parliament has so far adopted. He’s a calm, measured parliamentarian dishing out health advice like the GP he trained to be.

A dynamic is emerging where Collins is equal measures aggressive and sarcastic, while Reti comes after her with a soft rhetorical broom. Speaking yesterday, Collins thundered that under Labour, “Covid has been allowed back into New Zealand” before catching her error. “Or eh, it came back in.”

Asked about the government’s move to make masks mandatory on public transit, she said “it should have been done ages ago, a no-brainer.” Then Reti took the podium. He explained that the World Health Organisation’s view on mask use has changed over recent months and New Zealand’s mask use rules have changed with it. The opposition supports the new advice, said Reti.

Asked if National’s support could go further in the future to mandating masks in schools, Reti said there is “a trend towards more people wearing more masks in more situations”. That answer could have come from the mouth of director general of health Ashley Bloomfield.

Just over a month ago Reti was the party’s spokesperson for tertiary education and skills. He wasn’t on the opposition’s front bench. Today, the National Party’s Facebook video feed, its main way of reaching out to voters, is dominated by Reti. It’s a slideshow of Doctor Shane and Crusher Collins.

After weeks of complaints from Collins that Reti isn’t getting briefings from the health minister, he’s now expected to get one within hours. And Reti’s call to bring back parliament’s health committee, which has been ignored so far by Labour, has now been backed by New Zealand First.

As for Goldsmith, he echoed his party’s support for the country’s elimination strategy. National is calling on the government to extend the government’s existing support package for business. “As the prime minister said at the start, the worse thing we could do is yo-yo in and out of lockdowns,” Goldsmith told reporters.

With the country expected to remain in level two for the foreseeable future, many local candidates outside of Auckland are expected to get back out on the campaign trail this week after a short break. With parliament practising physical distancing, most MPs have little to do but resume campaigning.

Act leader David Seymour, who said yesterday that the government had no choice but to extend Auckland’s lockdown, said he’ll move his campaign online. However, he said it’s essential that candidates get out and speak directly with voters for this election to feel fair.

“One thing the election has in common with people trying to run businesses and households is that the uncertainty is killing us. It’s not so much the restrictions for this week, its the doubt about whether we can do it next week,” said Seymour.

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