Jacinda Ardern and her government have won global admiration for vanquishing the coronavirus. At home their ratings have soared. Polls show more than 80% of those sampled support the way the government handled the pandemic crisis.
New Zealanders accept without a blink the virus is universal and ubiquitous, a threat to all humankind. They celebrate how as part of a team of 5 million led by Ardern (and Ashley Bloomfield – whoever thought a public servants would become such a cult figure?) they repulsed Covid-19.
There is adulation of the kindness and compassion displayed by the Prime Minister.
Other governments, by comparison, have been condemned for their bungling and incompetence, the failures of their public health systems, and death tolls criticised as needless.
Foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall in The Guardian says a new age of revolution is dawning — but just what kind of revolution it may be will rest on how the pandemic’s shock waves and after-effects are directed and shaped.
New Zealanders may like to think they can steer clear of a looming cataclysm, of the kind Tisdall envisages. The bulk of them accept that shutting down the economy as tightly as the Ardern government did was appropriate, even though the impacts are deeply unequal. They excoriate those who, like the economics editor of The Australian Adam Creighton, criticise Ardern and her government’s pandemic measures.
Creighton wrote in his newspaper earlier this week NZ’s response to Covid-19 was “draconian”.
“No national leader has been as feted as Jacinda Ardern during this pandemic. But while she might have popular support, the facts are she is pushing the NZ economy off a cliff.”
He said despite NZ being an island with a “massive moat and a small population spread over an area the size of Italy”, the “stringency of its lockdown was higher than practically any other country, according to Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government”.
Creighton’s column, reprinted in NZ, attracted so much vituperative social media commentary that TV3’s AM Show on Friday morning invited him to respond. He told its viewers he wrote it after seeing the immense international praise being heaped on to Ardern during the pandemic.
“ The economic costs of the shutdown are just extraordinary.”
Creighton pointed out in his column that
” … the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, who have not worked in the private sector, spruik the totems of modern left governments — renewable energy, trees, higher tax, equality — but without much to show for it.
“Plans for a billion trees and 100,000 houses have come close to almost naught and a capital-gains tax was dumped. Labour made a song and dance about reducing child poverty, too, but on six out of nine measures tracked by Statistics NZ it is unchanged or worse since 2017, including the share of children living in material hardship, which has risen to 13.4%.”
So will the political mood hold as firm as it appears to be through to the election?
Labour pundits are convinced it will: the election, they believe, will result in a landslide for Labour. It might easily have the kind of majority enabling it to govern on its own.
That possibility may have drifted on to the horizon of NZ First. Leader Winston Peters, who fully backed the decision to shut down the economy, now suddenly perceives what might be happening.
His reaction was to come out this week insisting the economic fall-out from Covid-19 is now the enemy, not the virus itself.
Asked when NZ should move to alert level 1, he replied: “Yesterday”.
Perhaps Peters had been told of the survey showing 80% of households are on the edge of financial crisis.
The Finance Minister’s answer, of course, is to circle over those households and shower them with money forwarded to him on behalf of the taxpayers by the Reserve Bank.
But the problem is that so many New Zealanders are now so anxious about the pending economic recession they don’t want to spend it. The less people spend, the faster the economy shrinks.
If many more bosses are forced to say “Don’t come Monday”, there is no enthusiasm even for a round of farewell drinks.
Day after day, the job losses mount: 14,000 by the NZ Herald’s count of those reported in the media.
It’s here that Winston Peters sees an opportunity: he believes the coalition government should re-open the door to international students ( who in the years before Covid-19 added about $5bn a year to the NZ economy). He thinks NZ is ready to receive them now and international students should be given “the green light as soon as possible”.
Peters’ enthusiasm to encourage the re-entry of international students will be welcomed by university administrators. But there may be some among NZ First’s erstwhile supporters who recall how Peters used to carry on about foreigners taking NZers’ jobs.
Isn’t he on record as saying many overseas students were “ … behind counters in supermarkets and working in service stations
“……Kiwi workers now face more unfair competition for jobs, which are not in abundance.
“The official unemployment rate is 140,000 and about a quarter of young Maori and Pasifika do not have a job. Student visas should not be used to flood the job market, drive down wages and undermine conditions and increase the already record number of permanent immigrants.”
Point of Order accepts Peters has always been a consummate politician: perhaps he senses that by beating the economic drum as he has done, he can win over enough onetime National voters for NZ First to climb above the 5% threshold.
After all, without Peters acting as a brake on Labour, who knows what kind of revolution a second-term Ardern government with a whopping majority might inflict on the country?