After two years of pandemic, it’s time to plan for a better future, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.
This is my final edition of The Bulletin.
After two years of reporting for The Spinoff, this is likely the last thing I’ll write from parliament. If you’ll indulge me, this will be a little different. I’d like to take a step back and look at where we are as a country and what I’ve seen over the past 23 months. It has been exceptional.
New Zealand needs a plan for the coming years.
Build back better. It was a promise made last year by prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Emerging from Covid-19, she vowed that New Zealand would not repeat old mistakes. Instead, Aotearoa would be more resilient, sustainable and a fairer country. Build back better wasn’t an original slogan, borrowed from US president Joe Biden, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and others. The World Economic Forum, a posh annual meeting of the global elite in a Swiss ski town, even used the line as it called for a rethink of capitalism. However, far from that lofty goal, it’s hard to see any evidence in New Zealand that we are building back better.
Matching thanks for the public sector, with real actions.
Early next month, the Ardern government’s public sector wage freeze will enter its second year. I asked the public service minister yesterday if the freeze will be dropped. Chris Hipkins said he’s looking into it. He acknowledged that with the worst inflation in generations, the average pay of public servants is now shrinking. The prime minister and senior ministers have thanked nurses, border workers and the public service for keeping us safe during Covid-19. Those thanks have not extended to actions. This week began with nurses on Breakfast telling the country they felt “betrayed” by a new deal that gives them no back pay for the entire pandemic. Many have been offered a $3,000 bonus. For working the entire pandemic to this point. They were expecting ten times more.
A decade to rebuild from the past two years of hardship.
The public service deserves more than our thanks. It deserves a fair deal and a long holiday. We can’t really offer the second half unfortunately, so money will have to do. After two years of pandemic overtime and accelerating global uncertainty, things aren’t getting easier. The defence force has made no secret of its struggles. Stuff has written that it’ll likely take two years for the NZDF to rebuild from the number of people leaving right now. I’ve spoken to people in the defence force who worry that’s an optimistic assessment. Not only are young soldiers leaving the army, often enticed by better pay in the trades and easier conditions, but so are senior officers. The mid-level management of the defence force, the captains and majors, are leaving in growing numbers. The reasons are many, and while pay is a significant issue, it’s not the only one. You can’t replace a major in two years. That’s a decade of training and investment. There are similar stories in police, hospitals and schools. For the success of the last two years of managing the pandemic, we will spend a decade rebuilding.
Fairness is central to New Zealand.
Two years ago, before I moved to New Zealand, I spoke to a former Labour cabinet minister to get a sense of the country. I’ve struggled to reconcile one of the things he told me about the Aotearoa I’ve written about since then: “Fairness is central to the Kiwi mindset. People don’t like homelessness, they don’t like seeing people who can’t afford shoes or kids without lunches at school”. For much of the past two years, I’ve watched that fairness slip away. The country’s dashboard, if such a thing existed, would have a constellation of lights flashing red. While it’s not the control console at Chernobyl, it should be concerning.
All the warnings in a single day.
Earlier this week, the chief executive of the treasury announced that young people are falling behind. Stuff reported her concerns that the well-being of people under the age of 65 is slipping away. Red light. The very same day, police in Auckland warned that crime is up sharply in the central city. The NZ Herald wrote about how things have gotten out of hand. Red light. The union for healthcare workers, the very same day, said staff is quitting to work at KFC and Bunnings as pay negotiations drag on. Newshub reported that many have received advice to go to Australia for better conditions. Red light. There was nothing unusual about Tuesday this week, when all those stories were written. A Reddit user, who put together the stories they are seeing in the news, asked what the plan is to fix this. That’s an excellent question. I don’t see one from any party.
Much of this comes back to housing. Incomes are being squeezed as a cost-of-living crisis and housing crisis are feeding off each other. For many young people, the dream of buying a home is gone. What’s replaced it is often expensive, precarious, substandard rentals. There’s little surprise that many are looking overseas. I’ve sat in well over 100 press conferences over the past two years. Asked about her plans for housing, the prime minister used to draw a line in the sand: “No one wants to live in a country where the only way that you can move into your own home is if your parents can help you”. She repeated the line numerous times, until it was clear to most that her fear had come true. The line in the sand was washed away by rising house prices. There’s still time to bring it back. In a few weeks, the government will table its next budget. While still gun-shy after the failure of Kiwi Build, it could put forward a transformative plan to spend billions, accelerating construction, bringing in more builders and putting up the roads needed to house the next generation of New Zealanders.
That would be building back better.
The Bulletin will return next week.
Anna Rawhiti-Connell is taking over the editorship of The Bulletin from Tuesday. Many of you will recognise her name from the numerous stories she’s written for The Spinoff and other fine publications. Her writing has been funny, serious and often thought-provoking. Before she brings that to your inboxes every morning, here are a few words to introduce herself:
I’ve been a Spinoff member and Bulletin subscriber since they both launched. Over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve told people about my new gig as the incoming editor of The Bulletin, the overwhelming response has been ‘Great, it’s the first thing I read every morning’. It’s really brought home how valued it is by you as a genuine service and way to start the day.
Over the last few years as column, feature and opinion writer, I’ve relied on the work of this country’s journalists, thinkers and writers to riff off and provide context for my own writing. To be able to scan across Aotearoa’s media landscape every day and deliver the best of it you, is something I look forward to doing.
As a subscriber, I’ve enjoyed Justin’s proximity to the political centre of the country as The Spinoff’s political editor and what that’s added to The Bulletin. I am based in Auckland and though I enjoy stoking the rivalry between both cities a little too much, I remain a committed follower of what happens in Wellington. I was born in Dunedin and grew up in the Waikato so also want to reassure you that The Bulletin will continue to cast out around the country to reflect what matters to people outside the big smokes. Haere rā Justin, and thank you for contributing your own layer of expertise, style and spirit to The Bulletin. Readers, I will be with you, bright and early, next Tuesday.
A thanks to readers.
I took over The Bulletin last August as the first cases of Auckland’s (yet to be detected) delta outbreak were out on the town. Since then I’ve written for you nearly every weekday about a country and world that has changed. From delta we went to omicron and then the war in Ukraine. It has been heavy and sometimes deeply personal. For nearly the month of the occupation outside parliament, I walked to work through a crowd that didn’t much like me or my profession. But there have been moments of levity and we’ve often shared them together. As readers, you’ve given back to me, by sharing your thoughts and experiences. You’ve forgiven me for not understanding the rules of cricket. Many of you have shown the warmth of New Zealand.
I’d like to thank Duncan Greive and Toby Manhire for hiring this Canadian from overseas, two years ago and trusting me with setting up The Spinoff’s first office at parliament. I also couldn’t have done this without the support of my partner Mirjam and trusty golden retriever Tupper. I’ll be spending more time with the dog over the coming weeks as I figure out what to do next.
If I can make one last request of you, it’s to not turn away from the news. It is difficult and uncomfortable and often hard. But keep at it, bear witness to the struggles of others. Be there for the people who need you. You aren’t alone.
Thank you, au revoir, mā te wā,