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No room for politics in pandemics

August 20, 2020

We won the first round against Covid-19 on points only. We took a bit of a hammering and collected a few bruises in the process but the fight is far from over. We also dodged a few low blows from some in the audience who wanted the government to drop its guard and relax border controls. The latest outbreak in South Auckland shows how quickly the virus will take advantage of any weakness even with strict controls in place and how foolish it would have been to lower concentration for a moment.     

Now the bell has sounded for the second round and, in spite of heroic efforts by thousands of people, things don’t look all that good in our corner.

While the government has moved quickly to contain the latest outbreak we don’t know where the new infection came from or how long it has been in the community. We need to know that if we are to survive the second round and to do that we will need the cooperation of entire nation as we did with alert level four. With a few exceptions by stupid individuals they have shown they are more than capable of that.

The tracing system has worked better than most critics thought it would which has allowed a dozen or more new infected people to be discovered and put into isolation. It would also help to have the support and full cooperation of all members of Parliament but, within hours of the new outbreak, there was a repeat of the ill-informed and negative criticism from the Opposition. 

They should have learned from the first lockdown that the public expect all members of Parliament to put party politics aside during a national crisis. Former leader Simon Bridges lost massive public support for National with his carping and negative criticism during the early stages of the alert level four lockdown. By the time he had read the public mood it was too late, the damage had been done and National dumped him. 

His replacement Todd Muller made a good start in rebuilding National’s public profile with offers of support and assistance with the Covid-19. His promise that there would be no opposition for opposition sake was a refreshing change but a lack of internal party discipline convinced him to walk away from the job when he had hardly got his feet under the desk. 

Out of the wings came Judith Collins to take over the leadership and there were almost audible sighs of relief around the country as she seemed to have a similar determination to return the party to the role of a responsible opposition providing essential checks and balances. There was an immediate lift for National in opinion polls and the community looked forward to having two intelligent, sensible and empathetic women from opposite ends of the political spectrum running the country in a crisis. The most entrenched members of the old boys club were impressed and the smugness of the girls club could almost be detected on the wind.    

Then came the bell for round two of the Covid-19 fight with the South Auckland outbreak and National seemed to slip back into the negativity which had cost them so much is such a short time. Collin’s claim that, so close to a general election by traditional convention, she should have been consulted before the government applied public movement restrictions. There is no such convention. There is however a convention that, after an election and before a new government takes office, there should be full consultation on major decisions. That does not apply here and she should have known that. 

She should also know how to read the public mood. She is smart, quick on her feet and a lawyer. She has held a number of high-level portfolios both in government and in opposition. 

Her claim that the general election should be delayed until November on the grounds that locked-down campaigning would be impossible sounds more like a play for time to rebuild her shattered party. The most important elements of a general election are public access to information about candidates and their parties and the ability of voters to cast their ballots in safety. If those are in doubt the Electoral Commission can intervene. With weeks to go before the election, there was ample time and opportunity for candidates to get their message out to the public.     

Collins also claimed that mass postal voting would not be legitimate democracy. That system is used by many democracies. Government has delayed the formal dissolution of Parliament and called the House back into full session. The general election has also been delayed by a month but that probably won’t make much difference to the outcome. It will however remove the opportunity for unsuccessful parties to challenge the result. 

In the meantime we have a fight to win.