Ardern and her team will be tested as NZ adjusts to new economic realities in the wake of Covid

Latest opinion  polling  suggests the  political mood is  still  coloured  by  the  pandemic,  with  support  for  the Prime  Minister  and  her  party remaining  strong.

Yet uncertainty  about economic   trends points  to  the  risks that  will have to be navigated  through the  next  12  months.  Will inflation  burn  out of control? How  will  the  tourist  industry  recover?  Will   the  surge in  house  prices flatten out?  May  the  trend in  growing  inequality reverse?

Through  all  the  uncertainty, the  faith  in  the Prime  Minister  remains unshakable. Any regular  reader  of  the “letters  to the  editor” columns  in  newspapers  will be  familiar with  how  any  criticism  of Jacinda Ardern  is  met with a  volley  of  responses  from  those who  ascribe  to her the  power  of  defeating Covid in its different  variants, and preventing  New  Zealanders  from suffering  the  rate of  fatalities experienced  in the  UK, Australia  or  the  US.

The  prevalence  of  this  conviction  in  the  wider population   has  meant  scant  heed  has been  paid to  any  complaints from those  who have  lost  jobs  or whose  businesses  have  gone   belly  up.

But  it  may  be  a  different  story if  inflation settles  in. The  relatively  smooth  run  through the  pandemic  of  many  industries (who  would have guessed  dairy  exports  would have  been in such demand internationally that farmers  will receive  record payouts?)  has  disguised   the  economic pain  in tourist regions, or  in  the  international education system.

Another  economic benefit, at  least  for the Southland  community,   is  that international prices  for aluminium  have  bounced  so  high that the Tiwai Point smelter  will remain open, as  Point of Order  suggested last week, far  beyond 2024, when  it was  earlier talking of closing.

Stuff  reports  NZAS chief executive Chris Blenkiron saying  Rio Tinto sees “a positive pathway to continue operating and contributing to the local and national economies beyond 2024.  We are working closely with Ngāi Tahu, Southland and key industry leaders to find the best way to achieve this”.

It  looks  then  that   a  “new  normal”  is  developing  for  the NZ  economy, with  some  industries  running  as  strongly as  before  the pandemic,  and  others  still  fighting  to get  back on  an even  keel, or   to  survive.  The tourist  industry,  for example, may be  dismayed  they  will be  trailing  in the  wake of  Australia, which  plans  to  open its  door  to foreign tourists  later this month.

Some   columnists – Fran O’Sullivan  in the  NZ  Herald, for example – think Jacinda’s  leadership is  being  tested  “like  never before”  as  she prepares NZ  for  the  “new  normal”  with  Covid becoming endemic.  O’Sullivan  says  it  is  the polar opposite to  the  campaign  of  fear that  Ardern  successfully  employed  in  March 2020 when  New Zealanders  were  urged  “to stay home  and  save  lives”  as  a pandemic took  hold  within  an   unvaccinated population.

Point  of  Order  believes   many voters, including  thousands  who  cast  their ballots  for  National in the 2017  election,   credit Ardern for our country being  spared  the  fate  of  countries  whose morgues  were filled  to overflowing with  Covid  deaths.  Those  who  do so discount  the  problems that only  became apparent  subsequently – particularly in the  next generation’s  education, mental  health  issues, the  difficulties  arising  from  MIQ, mounting government  debt,  and surging  inflation,  not to mention  depressed  living  standards  for many  New Zealanders.

The  slow  pace  of  the  vaccine rollout  is  overlooked, just  as  the  fact  that  NZ’s  isolation was  a  vital  factor in reducing exposure to Covid is discounted  by those who label Ardern  as  “saviour”.  It  may  have  been a  different  story if NZ’s  hospital  ICU  resources had  been  put to the  test.

At  least,  as  NZ  adjusts to  the “new  normal”,  ministers  can readjust  their  priorities,  and  get  to  grips  with both  the  economic  and  social  headaches  which NZ  now  confronts.  The  old excuse  that  the  previous  National government was  to  blame  for  these  headaches  has  worn  thin.

Now New Zealanders will  discover the  real capacity  of  the  government  to  tackle seamlessly the deepening issues – poverty, inequality, housing, health, education, inflation, climate  change, not to mention  Treaty “partnership” along  with  more mundane   issues like the price of petrol  or  of milk – without diminishing Ardern’s saintly stature.

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