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The physically distanced government benches in parliament. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The physically distanced government benches in parliament. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsApril 29, 2020

We’re back at parliament. But let’s not go back to politics as usual

The physically distanced government benches in parliament. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The physically distanced government benches in parliament. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Over the past month, we became deeply aware that we were all only as safe as our most marginalised and at-risk. Nobody was immune. We need to channel that knowledge to the core of how we do politics, writes Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.

Yesterday, Aotearoa New Zealand cautiously toned down the world-leading, robust safeguards designed to eliminate the spread of Covid-19. We did not get here unscathed. Nineteen New Zealanders died, and there are still active cases. We will remain in a constant state of vigilance.

Throughout the past month we all have shown our collective potential to change the world. As George Monbiot said, the horror films got it wrong. The virus turned us not into Mad Max extras, but good neighbours. We distributed groceries to those who needed it. We formed online communities to ensure we found and heard those who are lonely. We sent an East Coast wave to neighbours at a comfortable and kind two-metre distance.

We put the spotlight on the gaping wound of poverty and inequality that existed well before this pandemic came along. We talked about not letting it be swept back under the carpet, and we vowed to keep it on the political agenda. Through hui, we laid the foundations for a new normal. There have been hundreds of hours of thought and discussion, thousands of words typed, and now, a chance to achieve that change we’ve collectively imagined.As we acclimatise to level three, it’s apparent we haven’t immediately returned to what once was. Walking into Bowen House (Parliament House’s uglier cousin, where most government MPs are based) this morning, I was be greeted by sanitiser bottles bolted along the wall and public health signs demanding no more than one person per elevator.

Skeleton-staffed, staggered across the chamber and physically distanced, parliament is back. Question Time is back. Politics is back, baby.

With it comes a substantial shift for press gallery journos who’ve covered daily 1pm press conferences fronted by the prime minister and director general of health. The cast of usual characters, their rhetoric and story arcs offering a far more diverse and salacious platter of intrigue than the nuts and bolts of policy and politics that has the potential to transform society.

Everybody knows that inequality and environmental destruction existed long before this pandemic. But we hadn’t first-hand experienced the immense speed and raw power of government to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Homelessness, income supports, labour rights and educational opportunity have never so blatantly been exposed as an issue of political will.

We easily forget that normal is just routine; repetition evolving into tradition and “the way things are”. That’s kind of what people mean when they talk about “the system” – the patterns and power structures of our lives that we are so used to that they appear entirely natural and immovable. It’s like that awful “joke” I offered in my maiden speech nearly three years ago. A fish is swimming up a river and it sees a dog standing on the bank, and the dog says to it, “How’s the water?” and the fish replies, “What’s water?”

Our most fundamental realities are often the hardest to see, and the hardest to talk about. We don’t typically have much language to describe that which we take for granted. It’s just “normal”, and everything else is a contrast, a challenge, a disturbance, a threat, a risk.

Over the past month, every single person in this country has been touched by change. We became deeply aware that we were all only as safe as our most marginalised and at-risk. Nobody was immune.

It wasn’t quite what most imagined as “transformation”, and with it came immense suffering. But in this crisis, we have paused and reflected. We’ve learnt that we can consciously design where we want to go. Inequality and global warming are policy settings, and so are their solutions.

In the aftermath of this devastation, the societies we build and lives, rights and freedoms we’ll work to protect are front of mind. After World War One and the Great Depression that followed, Aotearoa New Zealand became the first country in the world to implement a social safety net.

It didn’t come overnight, and it was a historical moment never guaranteed. Unemployment had hit record levels and social cohesion was at threat. Workers organised, campaigned, demonstrated, and our nation’s shared values became such that anything other than guaranteed support for those who needed it became politically untenable. Such was the political context that birthed Michael Joseph Savage’s mark on New Zealand’s history, which finds him now at home in framed black-and-white images on the walls of many left-wing leaders.

The history books about what follows Covid-19 haven’t been written yet. It’s here and now we get to make the decisions about our country, and our people, and the kind of politics we will accept, which will instruct the decisions that shape the country and opportunities available to all of us.

We are coming to this time and place with a deep understanding of how the lottery of birth and circumstance informs who is rich and who is poor. We’ve felt and known the solitude and insufficiency of isolation; we need each other not only to survive, but to thrive.

Politics as usual, business as usual, will not be our saviours. We’ve proven we can band together, share resources, and prioritise our collective good. No one ever changes the world alone. Our power is as communities, as groups of regular people with shared values, who refuse to accept exploitation of workers or nature as par for the course. Our future isn’t written in stone, and we choose what comes next with the wisdom of what’s failed in the past.

“Normal” was inequity. So what will be normal now? We can do far better than inequity with hand sanitiser.

Keep going!