Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted to the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett that ”Covid is constantly in my mind”.
In an interview at the weekend, extending over two pages of the newspaper, Trevett observed:
“Ardern is now very confident in her Prime Ministerial skin. There is nothing tentative about her leadership.
“She has admitted suffering from a touch of self doubt in the past— but if she, or others, ever thought she was not up to the job, the past year has dispelled it completely. There is also optimism in her.”
Trevett went on to assert –
“The most recent community cases have been dealt with, with limited disruption to people’s lives” .
On that, there may be a question mark. The interview appeared the very day another community Covid case had led to a fourth lockdown of Auckland. The decision had been taken by Cabinet on Saturday afternoon and announced by Ardern at 9pm.
The Dominion-Post on Monday led the paper with a report that began:
“Perhaps sensing blood in the water for the government, as Auckland begins its second lockdown in a fortnight, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pointed to the personal failures of a few and stoked the fear of death by Covid”.
Ardern in other reports conceded she was “angry”.
But probably not as angry as those Aucklanders who have been held up for up to eight hours in long queues on the Auckland motorways passing through police roadblocks – or by Auckland businesses required to close their doors yet again.
So is the PM’s halo beginning to slip?
Ardern has won admiration abroad and almost veneration at home for her leadership.
In her interview with Claire Trevett she talked about the “constant, grinding” anxiety that comes with leading during a pandemic.
But it is also becoming a constant grind for the country. And for the first time , despite the government’s effort to deflect the blame, there is criticism: contact tracing has not been up to scratch; Cabinet came out of the previous lockdown too quickly; the government has failed to fully apply the Simpson/Roche recommendations.
Ministers have been long on complacency and not short on self-congratulation.
The problem for New Zealand is that we can claim to have escaped the worst impacts of the pandemic, but real economic and social pain is deepening in the community: witness the lengthening queues at food banks. And child poverty is becoming extensive.
Where there were 4000 families on the Priority A list for public housing in 2017, three years and three months later there are 20,339.
New education data shows children’s education achievement is slipping.
Hardship is not confined to the Auckland businesses teetering on the brink of insolvency: it is being felt across the country, particularly in regions like Otago and the West Coast (ironically heartland Labour territory) .
All this prompted Point of Order to consult a range of authorities on what might be going on within the Beehive. Their views were quite diverse. Here is a summary:
- The Prime Ministers is obsessed by Covid. While she was lionised for her early handling, it’s time to hand over to the Minister she put in charge and get on with the process of governing.
- Ardern entertains notions of global leadership and the capacity/need to go offshore to visit other world leaders.
- There are clear signs the cabinet isn’t working effectively – too many newbies and with only a handful of near-veterans.
- Finance and education ministers are showing signs of overwork.
- Business is becoming disenchanted by the emphasis on social policies which reflect the absence of any knowledge of how business actually works – and by the government’s reluctance to learn.
- Many ministers are slow on the uptake and don’t appreciate the need for reading widely and coordinating.
- Ardern appears to handle only one thing at a time – she complains that she has a full caucus to balance.
- Cabinet is very much in thrall to the active and demanding Maori caucus which in turn is wary of the impact of the two Maori Party MPs.
- Only recently, after much hand-wringing by departments, has the PM called ministers together to discuss (and/or learn) the range of issues confronting NZ
- There has only been a belated recognition of the importance of Australia and how the international environment is shifting rapidly. Ardern still is the commanding figure in the government — assisted by the under-performing Opposition. But the veil may be wearing thin.