Thomas Coughlan: Callous MIQ Tweet sets Government back after victorious summer


The Government should be riding high this January, basking in high polling, a strong Covid response, and the resplendent summer sun.

Last year, a testy – one might venture “divided” – Cabinet, pulled itself this way and that over the pace and method it would use to move on from the elimination strategy managed to ease into the end of the year with something that worked.

Having held back to get vaccination rates high, and using a fairly common sense (if occasionally intrusive and annoying) regime of public health measures under the traffic light system, the Government managed to keep infection rates low while allowing New Zealanders to experience one of the few “normal” summers enjoyed anywhere in the world.

Alarming predictions of mass death and an overwhelmed hospital system never eventuated; beaches were crowded, not hospitals; barbecue chat was the tragic – if familiar – holiday topics of the road and drowning tolls (punctuated, of course, by the story of the noisome DJ, Mr Dimension).

It was remarkable too for the pivot it represented in the Government’s Covid strategy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hitherto erred on the side of caution – perhaps overly so, leaving strict health measures in place ever so slightly longer than might be necessary (just to be on the safe side, you might say).

She did this leading up to the introduction of the traffic light system, and the opening of the Auckland boundary. Holding back a restless Auckland for weeks whilst the Government eked out every last first dose it could; numbers of newly vaccinated people slowed to a trickle – but every little counted, and Ardern held the line.

Back then, the Government appeared overly concerned with protecting the unvaccinated minority, rather than restoring freedoms to people who had done the right thing and got jabbed at the earliest opportunity.

The politics of the pivot was a popular – almost populist – move, asserting the Government was on the side of that vaccinated majority. It even U-turned on a promise to begin reopening the border, dashing the hopes of Australian Kiwis, but giving the domestically-based population time to get boosted (and, if one is cynically minded, time to have a relaxing Omicron-free summer).

Ardern might not have gone as far as French President Emmanuel Macron who earlier this month asserted he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated, but the sentiment embedded in the traffic light system is much the same.

The Government finished the summer break, very much intact, with a risky strategy that defied naysayers and worked.

Then it all seemed to fall apart.

After taking an unapologetic approach to misinformation and presiding over the hiring of public servants to monitor and clamp down on misinformation via the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (the non-political public service department – distinct from the Prime Minister’s Office), Ardern was rocked by allegations her fiancé might be dishing out inaccurate information on Covid policy to his mates to help them get rapid tests.

He apologised (just – he never gave his version of events), and she drew a line under the episode, but not before knocking a few inches off the now very much chastened “podium of truth”.

A week later, Defence Minister Peeni Henare walked into an utterly avoidable minor scandal, posting a picture of himself at a gym while contemplating the response to the Tongan volcano crisis.

Ministers have as much right as anyone else to work out, but there’s a convention in New Zealand politics which requires a degree of basic humility from politicians. Humility that was very much not on display here. We swipe left on gym selfies, I’m afraid, Mr Henare.

The greatest flub was MBIE’s decision to use a tweet to announce it was indefinitely delaying new applications for MIQ spots. The reason – MIQ was full of new Omicron cases – means the decision likely to be popular, but the means of communication was callous.

The tweet sparked a fairly unedifying digi-brawl from the Government’s supporters who claimed an indefinitely postponed MIQ auction was not actually a border closure, as if to argue that so long as there’s more than a single person entering the country each day, the border is functionally open. Kindness sure takes some people on a journey, if not one that ventures very far from our shores.

MIQ is one of the most heartless policies enacted by a Government in modern times; it’s a barely more benign version of the famous trolley car problem, where the family life and basic rights of the few are crushed for the health of the many.

The border is already shut in essence, clamping it down even further is an extraordinary decision. If the Government is going to pull the lever for the trolley cart, we expect a little more than a tweet announcing it.

Covid Minister Chris Hipkins used his final speech in Parliament last year to assert that he never forgot the gravity of the decisions the Government was making – he even used his five minutes to “acknowledge the difficulties that the border closures have created for [New Zealanders abroad].”

This Government is making rules in extraordinary times, and impinging on people’s private and personal freedoms to an extent previously thought unethical or impossible.

Part of its political mandate to do this is to always ensure the decisions it makes can be justified – as appears to be the case here, and to communicate decisions in a way that demonstrates a bare minimum of empathy with the suffering they will cause. This second criterion was left sadly unfulfilled by the MIQ tweet.

Covid decisions and their communication should be ethical, empathetic and justified. Everyone should be allowed clear information from ministers on changing Covid policy – not just people with Clarke Gayford’s number.

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