THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S greatest political challenge over the next 6-12 months will be keeping up morale. If it fails to hold the nation together, then it will be swept out of office on a tsunami of fear, anger and recrimination.
Only a very small number of New Zealanders can draw upon historical experience to help them through the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. Assuming people’s coherent memories kick in from around the age of 7, to recall the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 you would need to have been born in 1922 – making you 98! To have clear memories of the outbreak of the World War II, in September 1939, you would need to be 88. Most of us have never experienced anything like the present crisis. If our morale is not to crumble in the face of mass illness, a rising death toll, and something pretty close to economic collapse, then the Government will have to box very clever indeed.
It is, therefore, to be hoped that Jacinda and her colleagues, in addition to being briefed by scientists, physicians and senior civil-servants, call upon the services of New Zealand’s historians – especially those with knowledge of “The Home Front” during World War II. The Government needs to know how this country kept up its morale during six long years of war. Especially important to understand, is how we coped with the first three years of the war – when nearly all the news was bad. What prevented us from falling to pieces when the Germans and the Japanese were winning on just about every front?
Critical to the maintenance of public morale was the near complete control exercised by the wartime government over information and the means of communicating it. The daily newspapers, radio broadcasts, cinema newsreels – even private letters – were strictly censored. The Government’s key objective was to ensure that every citizen received the same information about the war.
While no government can prevent people spreading rumours and speculation, the state does have the power to punish those responsible. During World War II, persons found guilty of spreading “alarm and despondency” faced harsh penalties. To be convicted of attempting to undermine the government and/or the war effort, or, even worse, give “aid and comfort to the enemy” – i.e. commit treason – could mean execution.
There can be little doubt that had the Internet existed in 1940, one of the first things the Labour Party leader and wartime prime minister, Peter Fraser, would have done is bring it under strict state control. Inevitably, Jacinda Ardern will have been briefed by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) on the practicalities of controlling the Internet, should the situation deteriorate to the point where such action becomes necessary. If that sounds fanciful, just consider the fact that in 2019, governments around the world shut down the Internet on nearly 200 occasions. Given the Internet’s crucial economic role, the NZ Government would be loath to take such a drastic step. But, if fake news was inciting major unrest: rioting in the streets; a run on the banks; or massive and prolonged panic buying; Jacinda and her colleagues would be left with little choice.
Controlling the crisis “narrative”, however, is just the start. Keeping up public morale is best achieved by encouraging all citizens to “do their bit” for victory. In the present circumstances, “doing our bit” might involve joining neighbourhood units dedicated to assisting the elderly and those in “self-isolation” with food and medicine deliveries. Such groups could also serve as the Government’s “eyes and ears”: reporting possible new cases of infection and enforcing the quarantine. “Doing our bit” might also involve working in the “instant factories” set up to manufacture protective masks and clothing, and construct additional ICU facilities. This sort of state-directed production is already underway in the United Kingdom and the United States. If New Zealanders could lead the world in medical equipment innovation; protective gear, and electrical appliance design, then this manufacturing proposition shouldn’t be beyond our powers!
During World War II, the NZ Government gave itself more-or-less unlimited powers to intervene in and control every aspect of the market. Obviously, this included the labour force. Just about anyone could be “manpowered” (sorry, but this was the 1940s!) anywhere. In 2020, with the supply of immigrant farm labour shut off, keeping up agricultural and horticultural production (our principal source of overseas funds now that tourism and education have been taken out of the export mix) may require those without work to accept being “person-powered” to the nation’s orchards and dairy farms.
When World War II came to an end in 1945 the sense of collective achievement was huge. Clearly, the suffering and dangers endured by New Zealand’s soldiers, sailors and airmen in direct conflict with the enemy could not be shared by everyone, but just about everyone contributed something to the war effort. The women who worked in factories, offices and on the land; the kids who collected waste paper and scrap metal; the grandparents who tended “Victory Gardens” and knitted socks for the “boys overseas”. There had been shortages, rationing, deep fear and agonising loss, but New Zealanders had come through their national ordeal, together, and they were enormously proud of their resilience. Moreover, most of them were equally proud of the government that had guided them through – re-electing Fraser’s Labour Party in 1946.
In leading New Zealand through the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jacinda could do a lot worse than allow herself to be guided by the spirit of collective sacrifice and co-operation that animated the New Zealanders of 80 years ago. Most Kiwis alive today have had no opportunity to prove their mettle in the way their parents and grandparents did during the global struggle against fascism. In the weeks and months to come, Jacinda’s Government must do everything it can to ensure that we are given our chance.
A top-down, government-knows-best approach will not secure the public “buy-in” crucial to keeping the people of this country together. If the response to the Covid-19 Pandemic is not crafted and delivered by all of us, working together, for all of us, then the many hardships and wrenching tragedies that lie ahead will not bind our communities more closely together, they will tear them apart. Good leaders do not attempt to carry their people, they allow themselves to be carried by them.
We can be strong, we can be kind, and we will be okay, Jacinda. Count on it.