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The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsAugust 31, 2020

It’s going to be a long seven weeks to the election in grumpy, suspicious NZ

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

With the past few weeks yielding some serious government botch-ups, the lead up to the election is going to be fraught with blame, frustration and needless cries of conspiracy, writes Pattrick Smellie of BusinessDesk.

As of this morning, Monday August 31, there are just under seven weeks to go to polling day, assuming the election goes ahead on Saturday, October 17.

Let’s hope to God it does go ahead then, because if it doesn’t, there has to be a chance that the gaseous brain-farts of a nation of tired, grumpy armchair experts and party apparatchiks will suffocate us all.

There would be an upside in that. It would mean the Covid-19 threat had been overwhelmed by the nauseous stream of piffle that passes for much of the current debate about the pandemic response.

Social media – perhaps it would be better not to spend any time there over the next 46 days – was bursting last night with two equally irritating opposing forces.

Force one was the nose-tapping savants who have divined in their Machiavellian brilliance that the move to alert level two in Auckland is “political”, that the government has decided it can’t afford to keep Auckland in level three lockdown a moment longer because it could cost them the election.

How satisfying it must be to be imbued with such powers of political perspicacity. How simple, too, not to have to be in the group of people actually making the decision – a knife-edge call in itself.

On one hand, a single Auckland cluster is continuing to produce Covid-19 cases in the community and its so-called “long tail” could be with us for some time. That is very worrying.

On the other, the capacity to test, trace and genomically mark Covid strains is streets ahead of where it was when Covid first hit our shores in late February, when the government went somewhat late, but hard, in combatting the virus.

And, as the prime minister pointed out yesterday, alert level two has always contemplated the possibility that “limited community transmission could be occurring” and that there could be “active clusters in more than one region”.

In other words, there was always a possibility that alert level two would look like what we’ll experience this week in Auckland.

But the armchair experts, conspiracy theorists and the less scrupulous of the government’s political opponents are happy to suggest that this decision is just about Jacinda Ardern making sure she wins the election.

Well hang on a second, Maestro. What if she’s wrong, the virus gets away on us because of the level two decision and it’s rampant by October 17? That’s possible too.

How would that help Ardern’s alleged cunning plan to remain in power? That’s right. It wouldn’t.

However, equally irritating are the blindly loyal – the Jacinda-maniacs who will hear nothing said against their favourite angel, who cannot see that there have been mistakes and flaws, that New Zealand’s Covid successes have had much to do with isolation and a dollop of luck.

That Ashley Bloomfield is not a demi-god, but another bureaucrat in charge of a moderately incompetent Ministry of Health who has worked his arse off and, not surprisingly, has still regularly come up short.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Real experts in public health and epidemiology continue to bicker, freeze one another out rather than hear alternative advice, and occasionally make monumental errors.

One such was the inexplicably alarmist instruction over the weekend telling everyone in south and west Auckland to get a Covid test.

That was a botch-up. Someone will pay a price for it.

But for the cynical armchair experts, it’s all just part of the plan to frighten and control, while the loyalists say anyone can make a mistake. Get over it, they say, especially journalists asking about it. It’s only 700,000 people being told to do something unnecessary and worrying that took an age to correct. So what?

No wonder Ardern, uncharacteristically dropping the kindness mask, said she was “incredibly angry” about this snafu.

She should be equally angry about the weasel words the Ministry of Health came up with to undo its error – a masterpiece of self-serving bureaucratese that, in seeking not to cast blame, also managed to avoid shouldering responsibility. And in language the average Aucklander would find baffling:

This is all part of the weary, grumpy post-level one mood, a “tired of it, don’t bother me with your nonsense” fatigue born of a very difficult year in which fear was replaced by hope, which was then replaced by disappointment and the reality that this will be a grind.

There was no economic “recovery” after New Zealand went to level one. It was a “rebound”, no more.

The next few weeks will deliver a lot of job losses, business failures, marriage-testing household budget discussions, and devastating news for people who have no control over whether or not they have a job next week.

It is worrying, stressful and hard. It is harder to be kind. But what it is not is a government plot.

There are numbskulls who believe collective action against a collective threat is actually a threat to civil rights when it’s actually a test of our national character. But they are seen for what they are: a fringe, albeit vociferous minority, with some appeal to people feeling scared for the future.

Worse are the teenaged political takes that say the government is making decisions to get re-elected and nothing more.

Of course there is politics in these decisions. Every government always seeks to be re-elected. That’s hardly a revelation.

But to suggest the government is trying to be re-elected by playing Russian roulette with the virus to open the Auckland economy is simply naïve.

Any government in this situation – Labour or National-led – would find itself constantly rolling the dice on the hardest decisions any politician could be asked to make outside of wartime. National and Judith Collins understand this. Gerry Brownlee has stopped his conspiracy talk and Collins is still backing the Covid elimination strategy.

She does not have to and it must be tempting not to. But she is. That should be instructive.

Collins may argue the government is incompetent and that she could do it better. Fair enough. That’s politics.

But, so far, she is in lockstep with the underlying approach, even if it is based on the flawed and constantly evolving, but all the same best, advice from health officials both here and globally.

The accusation that the government has caved in to its own sense of self-preservation is, at best, childish rather than clever analysis. At worst, it is cynically destructive of the already fragile public appetite to stay the course in battling the pandemic.

This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.

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