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Commissioners John Whitehead and Hekia Parata (Image: Archi Banal)
Commissioners John Whitehead and Hekia Parata (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsSeptember 28, 2023

Ours is a kinder, gentler kind of Covid inquiry. But is that what NZ wants?

Commissioners John Whitehead and Hekia Parata (Image: Archi Banal)
Commissioners John Whitehead and Hekia Parata (Image: Archi Banal)

The Covid inquiry is a different kind of royal commission, one that is forward-looking, non-adversarial and happening largely out of the public eye. Duncan Greive was given exclusive access to the people seeking the lessons of the pandemic.

New Zealand is now approaching its second election since the arrival of Covid-19, each one conducted in its long shadow. The first basked in the afterglow of our having succeeded with an elimination strategy and reaped both the health and economic rewards of having done so. The current campaign is more of a paradox. Now, the entire political reality is shaped by the virus, with health, education, crime and economic impacts all seemingly step changed. 

Yet no one wants to talk about it. “Pandemic fatigue” was initially coined to describe a weariness over complying with restrictions and public health measures; now it more accurately describes a national mood which suggests we would rather not think about it at all.

While that’s true of the nation as a whole, there are a trio of people spending months digging back into the weeds of what we collectively went through. A royal commission, our most serious form of inquiry, is partway through its work. Chaired by epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, along with fellow commissioners, the economist John Whitehead and former MP Hekia Parata, it’s meeting with dozens of New Zealanders with the aim of figuring out what we did during the pandemic, and whether it worked. 

Unlike most other recent royal commissions, its focus is explicitly on planning for the next pandemic rather than assigning blame for any failings. Its full name is “NZ Royal Commission Covid-19 Lessons Learned”, and the parliamentary order bringing it into being is at pains to prescribe its intention: “to examine is the lessons learned from Aotearoa New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 that should be applied in preparation for any future pandemic.”

A screenshot of John Whitehead and Hekia Parata in a video introducing the royal commission’s work.

In early September, two of the three commissioners came to The Spinoff and spent an hour with me discussing the parameters of the inquiry, their work to date, and why the “lessons learned” part of the inquiry was of paramount importance. Whitehead and Parata had spent the day in meetings, but had a real buoyancy about them. They both say their attraction to the work came from the sense of mission attached to the project.

“I came to New Zealand as an immigrant child; this country has been incredibly good to me. And I feel I owe something back,” says Whitehead. He’s an internationally renowned economist, former head of Treasury and board member of the World Bank. Still, this opportunity proved irresistible. “Being invited to be part of this is a real privilege, because you get to hear so many wonderful things from people about what they did – and also some very painful things. Being let into that is something very special.”

This sentiment is echoed by Parata. She’s a former senior National Party minister under John Key, but also independent enough to have quit the party in the aftermath of Don Brash’s notorious Orewa speech. She has largely eschewed the public eye since leaving office in 2017, but the importance of this work drew her back in. “Throughout our history there have been some really significant events – world wars and the depression, and all sorts of generations that have been really impacted by macro-scale events. The pandemic is one for this generation. I think we have learned a lot from it. But there’s also been quite a lot of damage as well.”

The damage. Any serious inquiry into New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 must reckon with the group that experienced a lingering alienation from society as a result. In a short video explaining the inquiry, chair Blakely refers to it as “a little bit of fading of the team of five million”, a fairly hefty understatement. That fracture began with the rise of Billy Te Kahika, widening through the dividing lines represented by the vaccination campaigns and mandates, then reached a visceral apex with the the occupation of parliament. That movement remains palpable in our politics today, not just in the proliferation of parties driven by fringe ideology, but in the noticeably fewer public engagements held by the main party leaders during this campaign. 

The rise of an alternate reality

If we had to have a pandemic, this one was well-timed in some respects. The ultra-fast broadband network and new technology made a reasonable amount of work and a small amount of education possible even locked down at home. The country carried relatively low debt, enabling a vigorous economic response without undue strain. A high level of social cohesion meant that public health orders went mostly uncontested by our elected representatives, at least at a national level. 

But the same technology that enabled us to work from home also meant that the pandemic hit upon a country with a fairly new and almost entirely unregulated communications architecture. Communities assembled, publicly and privately, across WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram. Some of them already had latent distrust of key institutions like mainstream media and the government, which escalated markedly until it represented a kind of permanent alternate reality. It’s hard to envisage pre-pandemic social trust returning. 

The Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at parliament on November 09, 2021, a precursor to the much larger parliament protest three months later. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images).

Surprisingly, the changed information distribution systems of this pandemic have not been raised with the commission, nor does it particularly consider them within its purview. That said, Parata says they realise that some sections of society were already alienated, and ripe for radicalisation. “I think that one of the things that the central government and Wellington is going to get a little more realistic about is that influencers are not who they have generally thought they are,” she says. “They are different people… Who’s the trusted voice? They are all community level, they’re not big, overarching organisations.”

A fraught question for the inquiry is how it might engage with those communities that cleaved away from the mainstream during the pandemic. Based on our conversation, it’s not clear if they ever will. “I don’t think that we necessarily have to go meet leaders of [the occupation] to have the opportunity to hear those views,” says Parata. “I know in my communities, all the way around the East Cape over into Te Whānau-ā-Apanui – they are the people who shared those views. I have already sat with them prior to coming on to the commission, and heard some of their views about the mandate, about the vaccine.”

It’s a tricky line to walk. A failure to engage with the leaders of the anti-authoritarian groups who have risen to prominence since the pandemic runs the risk of re-inflaming their sense of grievance. But engaging directly with them raises the possibility of a destabilising chaos, one which might endanger the inquiry’s work. The sequencing and scope of the inquiry seemed designed to protect it from exposure to certain groups. It takes as read the efficacy of the vaccines, for example, and does not oblige the commissioners to hold public hearings which might easily be hijacked.

Instead it’s doing its work quietly and confidentially, and is currently focused on meeting those operating in prominent capacities, often official roles, during the pandemic. “In the first phase [we] gather and collate and analyse that density of public information,” says Whitehead. “It’s a big job. Then the second part is to meet with the government leaders who made these decisions, and to hear from them.”

Meeting with the most powerful, in private

That’s where they are now. The commission publishes a list of those it meets, leaning strongly toward those closest to the biggest decisions made. Dame Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson have already appeared, along with most other senior ministers, and a number of prominent influencers of policy outside parliament – the likes of Professor Michael Baker, Sir David Skegg and prime minister’s science adviser Juliet Gerrard. There are also more critical voices, such as Act’s David Seymour, National’s Shane Reti and organisations like Federated Farmers. But so far it’s been predominantly those likely to be defending their record.

Professor Michael Baker, one of the most prominent faces of the Covid-19 pandemic, is among those appearing in front of the royal commission.

The private, non-confrontational work of this royal commission sets it apart from other recent examples, like the investigations into the aftermath of the March 15 shootings and the Christchurch earthquakes. These examples were cited by the Act Party in its call for an inquiry mere months after the pandemic began. However those were focused on events that – aftershocks notwithstanding – had definitively ended when the inquiry began. Still, along with the inquiry into abuse in state care, both were conducted in public.

This was also the case in the UK, where the Covid public inquiry is funded by but independent from the government. Its hearings are public and it can compel witnesses to appear, making its work highly scrutinised. In general, its posture has been much more prosecutorial, as exemplified by its successful high court action to gain access to WhatsApp messages between more than 40 members of parliament. 

In Australia a Covid inquiry has only just been announced. Yet it has already attracted significant rancour over its narrower scope, lack of coercive power and in particular the decision to exclude states and territories – where the most impactful decisions were made – from its work. There is a risk that conducting the inquiry this way is seen by some as evidence of elites protecting their reputations. But Parata believes the more low-key New Zealand approach strikes the right balance.

“We know looking at the international examples of commissions that are in action now. Almost all of them are focused on finding fault, laying blame – even down to which WhatsApp messages were sent at what time and so forth,” she says. “So I think the approach that we are taking is much more in keeping with the best version of who we are. 

“Yes, pain, damage, loss, hurt, alienation, dislocation – all of those experiences characterise our engagements in one way, shape or form. But all of our engagements so far have been – and I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna – but it has been a testament to the strength and resilience and aspirations for our country. And actually, there hasn’t been a lot of blame-laying.”

A deserted State Highway One out of Wellington on the day Level 4 lockdown came into force on March 26, 2020. (Photo: Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

This might be down to the fact many of the early witnesses were themselves part of the decision-making apparatus. But Whitehead believes that the way the inquiry is being conducted makes the sessions more introspective and ultimately useful. “We’ve had these incredibly open, very free and frank conversations, where people speak with pride about what went well for them, what they did to contribute to their country’s success and meeting this huge challenge. And they’ve also spoken out loud some of the pain – there have been tears,” he says. Parata endorses that, adding “I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve shed the odd one or two.”

How they hope it will end

The commission is still relatively early in its work, with months of meetings ahead. A spokesperson gave a formidable list of upcoming sector-wide engagements: “health, economic Iwi and Māori, social (education, justice, cohesion), general (all of government, crosscutting themes, and impacted people)”.

But for Parata and Whitehead, the commission is already proving the value of a less adversarial approach. Its low-key style and terms of reference – not to mention its start date, which ensured no report would be issued prior to the election – are certainly politically useful to a Labour Party that would rather not be drawn back into second-guessing its handling of the pandemic. Yet they are also redolent of the first lockdown, the extraordinary sense of unity which ran through New Zealand in that balmy autumn of 2020; a royal commission, Ardern-style.

Jacinda Ardern with a printout of The Spinoff’s ‘Flatten the Curve’ graphic, March 14, 2020. (Photo: RNZ)

That’s certainly the message from the commissioners based on their meetings to date. Whitehead says that as well as a plan for a future pandemic, he would like to think it might function as a form of truth and reconciliation hearing too. 

“I think the service we can provide is to listen. That is an important part, both of democracy, but also of healing. We won’t have all the solutions to everybody’s problems. But by listening, we can sometimes help identify some of the lessons that might come out of this. So vaccine efficacy is not part of our terms of reference – but mandates are. We can actually hear about people’s feelings on that,” he says.

“I had a role at the cathedral in Wellington. And during that protest, I went down there and the cathedral was opening up its toilets for protesters to use. There were a huge range of people there. And many different causes. I suppose the common theme was that sense of alienation. I spoke to some absolutely beautiful people. Some of them, I could relate to their ideas – we would have had to agree to disagree, but we actually were able to have that conversation.”

It’s a hopeful idea, that by engaging in a national dialogue – albeit one conducted behind closed doors – some of the lingering agonies of the pandemic might dissipate. Based on the changed nature of both social media and real life, it seems perhaps overly optimistic. But if the commission finds, say, that mandates were overbroad, or some lockdowns too stringent, it is possible that those who felt excluded from their own country might see it as an olive branch of sorts. 

If not, then a playbook for the next global emergency would be enough. As Parata says, “we just want it to be better next time.”

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