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The BulletinApril 20, 2020

The Bulletin: Contest of ideas over Covid-19 future

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Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Political positioning intensifies over post-Covid future, decision coming on whether to leave lockdown, and schools and ECEs in spotlight.

‘Don’t politicise the crisis’, came the calls. Well, that’s out the window now. As the lockdown inches closer to a possible end (more on that later) we’re increasingly seeing strident calls and big ideas for how the economic future should be rebuilt. It might seem a bit sordid to be talking about these issues while a massive public health effort is underway, but it should be expected – we need clear and deliverable visions of what comes next or the recovery will stall. I’ll canvass a few of the recent ones here.

The first is an enthusiastic piece of cheerleading for New Zealand to become a sanctuary for not just native birds, but also the terrified super-rich of the world. Writing in the NZ Herald, (paywalled) Fran O’Sullivan has given staunch backing to a suggestion doing the rounds in capital market circles, in which those with $50 million to directly invest into the productive economy can come here and be put on a path to eventual citizenship. It’s an idea that has captured the imaginations of NZME’s right-leaning opinioneers, with both Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis-Allen also coming out in support. I think it’s worth considering, but have two problems with it. Firstly, I’d worry it would risk further transferring power up the economic scale, as this influx of the super-rich began to flex their muscles. And secondly, if we were to pursue this properly, asking each for $50 million would make us pretty cheap dates.

On a different side of the ledger, there are also calls to raise income tax on those on higher pay. Writing in Newsroom, Victoria University’s Dr Simon Chapple says it would be a much more desirable response than widespread wage cuts. He says those already on higher incomes who haven’t lost work are now in a much more relatively comfortable position compared to the rest of society, and that until unemployment returns to pre-crisis levels, the top marginal tax rates should be higher. Of course, you’d be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about the idea these sorts of tax rises would really be temporary.

The question of major city projects has also come into focus, as a way of delivering what we want the future to look like. Former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast wrote for Stuff about what she’d like to see changed – among the ideas put forward, she says the Convention Centre as it was originally conceived is no longer fit for purpose, and should be reworked as a mid-size venue, or a central library – two public amenities Wellington will still be lacking when the lockdown ends. She has also called for a deferral of cycleway construction, which seems like a strange one, given cycleways are among the cheapest investments in carbon-friendly (and socially distanced) transport that can be made.

Then there are the visions being put forward of extremely expensive carbon-friendly transport. Stuff reports the Greens have come out with a $9 billion proposal to create a new intercity rail network, with regional hubs through areas that are prosperous and growing. The party argues that building rail creates more jobs than building roads, and would be the sort of investment the country would benefit from for decades to come. In many ways, this sort of proposal is an indication of how far the conversation around what is politically possible has shifted in the space of a few months.

Finally, I’d strongly encourage you to read this piece which looks at a range of industries that have been smashed, and why each has a small sliver of optimism. It’s by Duncan Greive, and this part one of a two-part series takes in tourism, hospitality, sports and events, and film production. I’m including it here because it’s an excellent reminder that things aren’t standing still, even in lockdown. And for those who have a view about how they want to change the world, there will be few better opportunities to do so than when it is being turned upside down.

If you’re a new reader of The Spinoff, you might still be confused about who or what we are. Welcome, it’s great to have you here, and to explain how we operate, managing editor Duncan Greive has written this explainer. And if you’ve been making a contribution in the form of Spinoff Members, we’re very grateful for it, and will be using those contributions to produce more high quality writing and journalism.

So, leaving level four: We’re going to have an announcement later on today, over whether or not we can safely do that this week. If the decision is made to move to level three, then this is what life will be like. The absolute must-read piece on the decision making process comes from Spinoff editor Toby Manhire, who has assessed and weighed the various forces pulling the government in different directions. And to pick up on one of the considerations – the strength of New Zealand’s contact tracing regime – this from Dr Siouxsie Wiles is worth reading.

There have been some suggestions of political machinations at play behind this decision, particularly with a long weekend coming up. Henry Cooke at Stuff has stuck his neck out and written that a dispute is brewing between Labour and NZ First MPs – a suggestion that was angrily slapped down by NZ First leader Winston Peters on twitter. Meanwhile One News reports National MP Nick Smith has been blithely informing the public that the step will definitely happen, even though he’s as much in the dark as the rest of us. We’ll see what happens when the decision is announced this afternoon – keep up with all the developments on The Spinoff’s live blog.

If we do move to level three then one of the biggest points of contention will be schools and Early Childhood Centres. As Alice Webb-Liddall reports for The Spinoff, there is a lot of consternation and confusion in the sector about the current plans, which at present only cover kids up to Year 10 – about 14 years old for those who used to call it fourth form. The ‘voluntary attendance’ part of the plan has also left teachers and parents scratching their heads, and has subsequently been somewhat clarified as just those students who absolutely have to be at school – for example if their parents are essential workers.

Even so, the Early Childhood Council has urged the government to not allow ECE centres to reopen at level three. Among other concerns, they’re worried about the carrier risk posed by young children, who can catch and pass on the virus – and while deaths from Covid-19 tend to skew towards older people, there have been cases of children dying too.

A set of interesting bits of testing news to share: Random community testing has taken place in Canterbury, Queenstown, and a range of spots across the Waikato. And as the NZ Herald reports, all of the tests reported from this initiative so far have come back negative, which is a positive sign for community transmission concerns. The initiative moved to Auckland yesterday, and the results will be among the many pieces of data taken into account as the government makes their decision on lifting the lockdown – for more on the possibility of undetected community spread, this piece by statistician Thomas Lumley is highly informative. Meanwhile, Radio NZ reports a case has been found in Whanganui, with the person not having any links to other known cases.

Meanwhile, what is the science behind the testing, and which potential option is the best one for New Zealand to pursue? That’s explored in the latest piece by Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who has explained the broad groups that tests fall into, and outlined how we might assess which is most effective.

There has been a sharp rise in claims for the Jobseeker benefit, reports Interest, but we haven’t yet seen the dramatic spike seen in countries like the US. Between March 13 and April 10, the number of special food grants over the week also tripled, and there was a much more modest rise in people seeking the accommodation supplement. Social development minister Carmel Sepuloni was on The Hui over the weekend to outline the various measures the government had made here. One point of potential future conflict was around the decision to maintain the clause requiring jobseekers to take any job that was offered, regardless of whether it is suitable.

The Chinese ambassador has announced the delivery of medical supplies to New Zealand, as part of their global diplomatic push to help combat Covid-19. Ambassador Wu Xi made the announcement in an article on the website Politik, saying it was a gift based on friendship and international cooperation. It comes at a time of increasing tension between the US and China over Covid-19, with President Trump threatening consequences against China if it is found that they were “knowingly responsible” for setting the virus loose.

On that point, reporting from AP News last week indicated that China delayed telling the world about human to human transmission for a crucial few days in January – however, there is no credible evidence for the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese lab. There is however serious concern that Covid-19 deaths in China are still being under-reported, with the news over the weekend that the official toll in Wuhan was being increased by 50%.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Catherine Hall writes about dementia sufferers, and how we can’t forget about them after the pandemic is over. Michael Andrew reports on the looming crush of packages coming for courier companies. Louise Thornley has written an excellent explainer of what is a deceptively thorny question – what exactly is public health? Duncan Greive reports on the continued closure of magazines, and the feeling among the industry of being snubbed by the government. Leonie Hayden writes about the constant weight of anxiety that has settled on her since the lockdown began.

And in non-Covid stuff: wrap the changes coming to electorates for the next election. Danyl Mclauchlan reviews the new book by Thomas Piketty, called Capital and Ideology. Sam Brooks reviews the good, bad and weird of marathon online concert One World: Together at Home. And Robbie Nicol writes about his new webseries on New Zealand history, called The Citizen’s Handbook – I had a watch of it over the weekend, and reckon it captures a good blend of light-hearted humour to convey deadly serious themes.

Just thinking about the up-page theme of political decisions on the future, this is a fascinating read about which industries will end up being saved. The NZ Herald’s Andrea Fox (paywalled) has reported on the views of business leader Rob Campbell, who views the current wage subsidy system as a form of trickle-down economics, that doesn’t necessarily make sense going forward. Why? Because it’s an attempt to preserve the pre-Covid economy, rather than recognising that we’re unlikely to ever go back to the way things were. Here’s an excerpt:

“If you give cheap or free Government money to enable businesses to continue, in doing so you may be destroying the very thing that is valuable in business, which is the ability to evaluate risks and to take risk where the benefits that flow are greater than the costs.

“So I’m suspicious and concerned about the view that when we come out of this lockdown we need to start up quickly in exactly the same form we were before, with a big injection of Government money to help us get under way.

“I think that is as likely to cause problems as it is to solve them.”

The co-founder of a major Australasian Esports organisation has resigned after allegations of sexual harassment and grooming, reports Oskar Howell for Stuff. The story in question involves the co-founder allegedly using his position of influence to try and pressure no fewer than six complainants. His former organisation have issued a statement expressing their “deepest contempt and consternations” for the alleged actions.

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