WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Over the course of the past 72 hours something changed. Exactly what isn’t clear, not yet, but something has. New Zealanders feel it in their bones, in their hearts, and they’re scared.
When it’s impossible to know what has happened, the next best thing is to try and establish what hasn’t happened.
Accordingly, I would like the Director-General of Health’s, Ashley Bloomfield’s, reassurance that the ridiculous – not to say dangerous – Covid-19 Alert, which more-or-less ordered every person living in South and West Auckland to be tested for the virus, was NOT a deliberate attempt to destabilise the New Zealand Government’s management of the pandemic.
Because, what civil servant in their right mind would send out such a message without the formal, traceable, approval of those at the very summit of the civil service hierarchy? More to the point, what sort of senior public servant could fail to appreciate the sheer absurdity of the order and its potential for inducing something close to panic amongst the population of South and West Auckland?
Occam’s Razor allows of only two reasonable explanations. 1) That the action was deliberate and its consequences foreseen. 2) That the calibre of the staff responsible for its release was so abysmal that the notice’s glaring deficiencies passed unnoticed. Neither explanation offers us much comfort. The first admits to sabotage. The second to utter incompetence. The question to be decided, therefore, is whether we are looking at a conspiracy or a cock-up?
What motive would the individuals responsible for that errant notice have for sabotaging the Government’s orderly transition from Level 3 to Level 2.5?
The most obvious answer lies in the all-too-evident trepidation among scientists, civil servants, and members of the general public, that the move out of Level 3 might be premature – dangerous even. Those holding this view have argued that the “perimeter” of the South Auckland Cluster had yet to be conclusively established. The alarming possibility therefore arises that the offending notice may have been issued as a form of institutional protest against what a faction within the All-of-Government Committee (AOGC) responsible for managing the pandemic considered a reckless government decision? A decision driven not by the science, but by political and commercial interests no longer willing to be guided by expert opinion.
Please Dr Bloomfield (wherever you are!) please tell me this is NOT what happened. Because if I’m right, and the release of that notice wasn’t simply another demonstration of massive institutional incompetence (to set alongside the many others) then public trust and confidence in the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, already visibly shaken, will crumble and collapse.
Moreover (as if the above speculation isn’t wild enough) there’s the additional concern that extreme events, like the publication of that Covid-19 Alert, seldom happen in isolation.
And that is why I would like the reassurance of the Prime Minister that she has NOT – at the insistence of the Finance Minister and the Health Minister – abandoned her hitherto rock-solid determination to put the welfare of the New Zealand people ahead of the profits of New Zealand businesses. Please, someone – anyone – tell me, tell the nation, that this is NOT what happened.
While they’re at it, they could also tell us why it was that Chris Hipkins, interviewed on Magic Talk Radio just a couple of hours ahead of Jacinda’s appearance in the Beehive Theatrette at 1:00pm on Sunday, 30 August, insisted that the government would be “ploughing-on” with the transition from Level 3 to Level 2.5?
The Health Minister confirmed at today’s (31/8/20) 1:00pm Covid Update that he was well aware of the situation relating to the “mistaken” Covid-19 Alert at the time of that Magic Talk interview. So, the question arises: Did Hipkins make the statement about “ploughing-on” to signal to our supposed AOGC rebels that their protest had been in vain?
More to the point, was it also a very public warning to Jacinda that there could be no stepping back from the plan already agreed upon with her longest-standing and closest political allies – Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins? Any deviation from the scheduled 11:59pm level-change could hardly fail to be interpreted by the news media as evidence of a serious split in the uppermost reaches of the Coalition Government. Not something a prime minister heading into a general election would be eager to acknowledge!
The problem with this sort of speculation is where to call a halt. Viewed through my admittedly dramatic political prism, Jacinda’s decision to keep her former health minister, David Clark, in Dunedin – and his job – for a great deal longer than he had any right to expect begins to look like a shrewd method of ensuring the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic would be decided by the Prime Minister and her Director-General of Health. (Where is Ashley, BTW, he wasn’t at today’s update?)
Did the Director-General’s failure to properly implement the Cabinet’s directives relating to border security so weaken his position that Robertson and Hipkins were able to elbow him aside and transform the wildly popular, science-driven, duumvirate of Jacinda and Ashley into a new, much more business-friendly, triumvirate of Grant, Jacinda and Chris?
And if that is what happened, then what does it say about the government’s new direction of travel? Jacinda’s and Ashley’s decision to “go hard and go early” represented a revolutionary reversal of the usual neoliberal priorities. In effect, they opted to put people first and profits second. The immense and very obvious outpouring of public gratitude and affection that followed the extraordinary success of this strategy made Jacinda effectively invulnerable to attack. Until the saintly duumvirate could, somehow, be destabilised, the furious business community (ably assisted by their right-wing allies in the news media) could only whinge and moan. But then Ashley stumbled, and the business community seized its chance.
This morning, on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon political panel, Labour’s pollster, Stephen Mills, wondered aloud why Jacinda – backed in the polls but upwards of 80 percent of her fellow New Zealanders, had apparently chosen to abandon her hugely successful go-hard, go-early “elimination” strategy, in favour of a new strategy of Covid-19 “containment”.
Please, someone – anyone – confirm for me, and the rest of the 80 percent, that the explanations offered in this post are nothing more than the fever-dreams of an ageing left-wing commentator. Please tell us that the sequences of events outlined above bear absolutely no relation to reality. That there has not been a coup against Jacinda’s “people first” Covid elimination strategy. That the 20 percent haven’t prevailed. Please, please, please, reassure Jacinda’s loyal team of four million that this is NOT what has happened!