Chris Hipkins speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Chris Hipkins speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 15, 2021

The Bulletin: Calls made for return of Epidemic Response Committee

Chris Hipkins speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Chris Hipkins speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Calls made for return of Epidemic Response Committee, Māori wards coming in around the country, and police admit to illegal intelligence gathering tactics.

Serious flaws in the government’s Covid response have been exposed on a day of sustained pressure at parliament. Hundreds of MIQ workers have failed to get their tests on time, and some may have never been tested at all, reports Michael Morrah for Newshub. The risk from that is considered low by Covid minister Chris Hipkins, but it also came out that one worker who tested positive hadn’t actually been tested since November – that’s despite previous assurances from the government that MIQ workers were being tested regularly. The data collection system to measure this is also considered to be lacklustre, with Otago epidemiologist professor Nick Wilson describing it as “way too loose”.

So what went wrong? According to PM Jacinda Ardern, the worker lied. Stuff reports the blame was also directed at their employer First Security, with Ardern saying “ultimately though, that employer needed to have checks and balances in place to make sure they were still doing what was required.” The company in turn responded that it had “current proof of up to date Covid-19 testing of all guards working at MIQ facilities”. You might recall the government announcing last year that private security firms would no longer be used at MIQ facilities – as Radio NZ’s Katie Todd reports, that’s only now starting to happen.

The story only started to unravel during a particularly poor display of parliamentary power. A Labour-controlled select committee wasted a large amount of valuable time with those in charge of the pandemic response, and this story from Stuff’s Thomas Manch goes into detail about how the chair, Labour MP Dr Liz Craig, found ways to make two thirds of the hour with Dr Ashley Bloomfield and MBIE boss Carolyn Tremain a pointless exercise. It was only in the brief window allowed for National MP Chris Bishop to ask questions that the detail about the positive worker not getting tested since November emerged.

Analysing it, our political editor Justin Giovannetti noted that the day had led to National to call for a return of the Epidemic Response Committee – that short lived creature of Covid. The crucial difference with that committee is that it was run by the opposition, and as such provided a platform for real scrutiny. As Giovannetti writes, the government isn’t keen – perhaps in large part because they currently have a firm grip of where and when they’ll be questioned.

Hipkins told reporters that the country doesn’t need to revive the epidemic response committee. That group had been a one-time response to the lack of parliament during lockdown and with the return of question time, the health select committee and a weekly press conference, there are enough venues for scrutiny, he added.

Yesterday’s day of stumbles makes a mockery of that claim. Question time, as the speaker often reminds the house, is not answer time. Press conferences are also an imperfect creation, where follow-up questions are hurried and lines of inquiry on technical details are rarely able to be fleshed out.

Meanwhile, we finally got a sense of what the plan is for the vaccine rollout. Radio NZ reports the next big target is to have about 1.16 million doses administered by the end of June. If that happens, awesome – though as Giovannetti’s piece notes, “that’s a quarter of the doses that the government had previously suggested would be delivered by then.”

Around the country, the implementation or otherwise of Māori wards is becoming a highly pressing issue. Just this morning, Stuff reports a decision could be made as soon as today on a ward in Hamilton. Kaikōura will be consulting on a new one, after the council voted in favour of a ward in 2018, which was then defeated at a referendum. Palmerston North Council voted in favour of a ward last week, which will be in place in time for the election in 2022.

And something slightly different happened in Tauranga – the unelected commissioners decided that the city would now have a Māori ward, reports the BOP Times. This has been vocally opposed on a local level, and even prompted Act leader David Seymour to make a hyperbolic comparison to Hong Kong’s authoritarian governance. It’s obviously not that, but as I outlined in my piece a fortnight ago about Tauranga’s new governance arrangement, there is genuinely something troubling about major decisions being taken by those who don’t have to stand for election on them.

Police have admitted to the long-term use of illegal intelligence gathering tactics. Hamish Cardwell and Jordan Bond of Radio NZ report that Northland police have been setting up roadblocks to gain information on suspected gang members. The top cop in the region basically said his officers didn’t realise what they were doing was illegal, which is an incredible admission for someone in the police to make. In response to this story, and other recent ones that included alleged racial profiling of Māori, Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi called for a Royal Commission into how police treat Māori.

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The backlog for residency applications to be processed is now the longest it has ever been. As Dileepa Fonseka writes for Stuff, that is causing some split families immense hardship, and making it impossible for other people to plan their futures. It is also affecting businesses, who can’t necessarily expect that the skilled migrants they want to employ will get through in time.

Meanwhile, new Black Caps batsman Devon Conway has been fast-tracked after himself spending a long time in the queue.Stuff’s Tom Hunt reports that happened on ‘national interest’ grounds, to allow him back into the country after the tour of England. Much as everyone loves Conway’s cover drive, that decision might be seen by some as a bit unfair – though some important context to it is that even with the fast-tracking, Conway was still waiting more than a year for it to go through.

Strikes will soon be taking place on the Wellington bus network, after a vote from Tramways Union drivers. Stuff’s Joel Macmanus reports that the dispute is with major contract holder NZ Bus, and the drivers don’t want to be moved onto a new collective agreement with higher base rates, but lower penal rates and less leave. Some drivers have calculated that the loss of those penal rates would add up to thousands of dollars each year. Cancellations are certain if the strikes go ahead, and could start as soon as Monday.

The official cash rate has been left unchanged at 0.25% by the Reserve Bank, reports Interest. That was pretty widely expected, but the commentary around it suggests that we’re going to have low interest rates for a long time to come. The RBNZ also expects a bit of impact on house price growth from the government’s new housing policies over the long term.

The nominations for the Voyager Media Awards came out yesterday, and there’s a bunch of top Spinoff people up for them. They include Ātea editor Leonie Hayden, science communication legends Toby Morris and Dr Siouxsie Wiles, business editor Michael Andrew, intern extraordinaire Sherry Zhang, live updates editor Stewart Sowman-Lund, our man in South Auckland Justin Latif, essayist Nadine Anne Hura, science contributor Naomi Arnold, feature writer Michelle Langstone, and to many individuals in our video and podcast teams. Across the industry there’s way too many people to name individually (read them all here) but suffice to say there’s plenty of journalists whose writing is worth reading every single day. It’s great recognition for some extremely strong work being done across the country. And to those who missed out – don’t worry, I reckon you’re in great company!

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Right now on The Spinoff: Mirjam Guesgen writes about the history behind how we got to a ban on live animal exports. Hanahiva Rose writes about the centuries of history that went into one activist’s decision to drop the pine on One Tree Hill. Matthew McAuley writes about a new paper that discusses the potential for growth in the creative industries. Ben Fahy writes about the plan to get to 100% renewable energy. Kristian Rusten went to the one NZ-themed bar in Paris to find out how it had fared through Covid. Josie Adams compares and contrasts Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, with a Russian version made during the dying days of the Soviet Union.

And because we’re absolutely that sort of website, here’s three pieces about reality TV show Popstars. Alex Casey interviews people who were there the first time the show was on, and explores how it was rebooted. Sam Brooks reviews how the reboot is nothing like the original, and says that’s causing big problems. And Toby Manhire, for some reason, decided to compare the ads on TV1 vs TV2 during the simulcast on both channels.

Finally,  we’re announcing a very cool project for everyone interested in visual science communication: The Spinoff, alongside the Science Media Centre and supported by NZ On Air, is now accepting applications for Drawing Science. That’s a free intensive one-day workshop for researchers and illustrators interested in developing their skills in collaborative science communication. And best of all, it’s taught by the dream team of Toby Morris and Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Get more details here.

For a feature today, a wonderful piece of writing about the early weeks of recovering from a substance addiction. Writing in Metro, Noelle McCarthy has gone into depth about primarily the mental side of recovery, and the challenges of getting through moments in each day. Here’s an excerpt:

Around this time, I had to give an after-dinner speech to a bunch of dentists. The engagement predated my sobriety — I said ‘yes’ a lot when I was drinking. What I said has been erased from my internal hard drive, blessedly. I think I talked about Martin Amis and Nabokov, the oral indignities they suff ered. The dentists — red-faced men with wild eyes and perfect, unhinged smiles — loved it. They wanted me to party with them. I said I was on antibiotics, so they asked what kind — some are apparently fine to mix with alcohol. I fled in a taxi. 

My apartment was in one of those Pitt St complexes that seemed to go up overnight. My room had no natural light and moveable walls that folded back on themselves, but I was grateful. It was my fault we’d been thrown out of the last place. I sat by the ranchslider in my grey ball dress and the red lipstick I put on for the dentists, looking at the Sky Tower against the inky sky, my heart tight in my chest, feeling like I was getting away with something, but only barely.

NZ Rugby has granted conditional approval for two Pacific teams to join Super Rugby from next year. The NZ Herald reports Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are expected to be part of a twelve team competition, including the Australians. Some things still need to happen for it to go ahead, and a final decision won’t be made until mid-year – but this step indicates that NZ Rugby now has confidence that will happen.

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