Matthew Hooton: Covid scare saves Jacinda Ardern once more


Pity Judith Collins. On the face of it, the latest Covid-19 scare sounds like bad news for Jacinda Ardern.

As predicted here two weeks ago, the political pantomime of early 2020 is repeating in 2021, with Ardern constantly playing catch-up with health experts on her Covid-19 response.

As foretold, the more infectious South African strain that most concerned vaccinologists has now arrived, finally prompting a holiday-mode Government back to work.

The strain has leaked out of the quarantine facilities epidemiologists warned weren’t robust. Its source was Auckland’s Pullman Hotel, smack bang in the CBD and right next to the city’s two universities – underlining arguments that the country’s major quarantine centres shouldn’t be in its major population centre.

With the exception of the sick Northlander, for whose diligence we should be grateful, the public still isn’t using the tracking app as well as we should. Contrary to the Government’s promises last year, vaccination of front-line workers – let alone the public – will lag behind the rest of the world. The Prime Minister has indicated the borders will remain shut through 2021.

But none of this matters. For as long as Covid dominates the media, the Prime Minister avoids scrutiny of her Government’s baffling incompetence and bewildering indolence on everything except crisis communications.

Collins was on the cusp of setting the agenda this week. With one eye on the inevitable leadership challenge from newbie Chris Luxon, the National boss gave a pretty good state of the nation speech on Tuesday. For the first time, it was clear she understands her survival depends on those who voted three times for John Key and twice for Ardern.

Consequently, just as the evangelical Luxon softened his image this month by announcing he plans to learn te reo, Collins again sought distance from her old “crusher” brand.

She spoke of growing up on a small Waikato farm in a staunchly Labour family, and wanting to meet the party’s incoming star, Helen Clark.

Nevertheless, she says, the values Mr and Mrs Collins instilled in young Judith were in fact National Party values, including “a strong sense of community” and “a strong sense of responsibility toward each other, to help those who need it”.

Collins lamented that today “we have far too many children growing up in poverty … families getting sick because of poor quality housing [and] groups, particularly Māori and Pasifika, with far worse health outcomes than others.”.

There is a role for everyone to fix such problems, Collins said, “but particularly for government”.

She declared the Covid-19 response her first priority: “protecting our borders and New Zealanders from the job losses and excessive costs of further restrictions and lockdowns”.

Her other priorities are “economic recovery”, “hardship and public safety”, “housing, infrastructure and world-class cities” and “technology and post-Covid opportunities”.

This is all good stuff from a 2020s National leader and was certainly more impressive than Ardern’s pathetic opening gambit the previous week. After prepping the media about a major housing package, Ardern simply re-announced Housing Minister Megan Woods’ intention unveiled eight months ago to build an extra 8000 “state and transitional houses” over five years.

For context, there were 22,409 families on the state-house waiting list in November, nearly 17,000 more than when Ardern took office. Average weekly rents in Auckland are set to pass $600 and the OECD this week found New Zealand to be the developed world’s worst country for housing affordability among the poorest quintile of people.

Beehive strategists now promise a “rolling maul” of housing initiatives through 2021 but that is a term invented by Key to describe making things up as you go along.

One of the initiatives promised as part of the “rolling maul” is a National Policy Statement on Urban Development which Ardern claims will force councils to free up new land for housing this July.

But it turns out her advisers were confused with councils being required to complete housing and business development capacity assessments by that date, a mere information-gathering exercise. Councils won’t make actual changes to their long-term plans until 2024 – after the next election.

Consequently, Collins’ speech briefly put Ardern on the defensive by proposing an emergency bipartisan select committee to urgently develop legislation to open up housing supply by no later than the end of March.

Ardern quickly rejected the idea – but were it not for the Covid scare, she might have come under more pressure to say what she planned to do instead.

The answer, of course, is nothing – and whether that stems from incompetence or indolence doesn’t much matter. Whether Ardern has simply given up on the house-price issue or more consciously calculated that asset-price inflation is to her advantage, Labour strategists know their third term relies on house prices increasing with the “sustained moderation” Ardern said was her goal in December.

If the Labour left doesn’t like it, they can vote for the Greens.

And so the year will go on. Next week the Climate Commission issues draft carbon budgets that are certain to require an economic shake-up exponentially more radical than Roger Douglas or Ruth Richardson dared dream.

If the draft budgets are taken seriously, our two main foreign exchange earners, tourism and dairy, will have to radically change their business models or become uneconomic.

This is on top of the radical change the tourism industry already faces with airlines likely to take a decade to return to pre-Covid capacities, having laid off pilots and mothballed planes.

Instead of accepting that reality early, the industry is already demanding more subsidies, beginning the process towards unsustainable state dependence we saw with agriculture in the 1970s and early 1980s – and from which it will one day need to be brutally cut off.

But that lobbying effort is entirely rational in the short-term. Ardern’s record suggests tourism will winongoing handouts, and the dairy industry also has a near-perfect record of getting its own way.

Nothing about Ardern’s record suggests anyone need take the new carbon budgets any more seriously than proposals for tax reform, flooding the housing market with cheap houses, consolidating district health boards, abolishing school boards, reducing poverty or tackling inequality.

Yesterday’s announcement on electric vehicles simply laid out a timetable for never-ending bureaucratic report-swapping, with nothing like the environmental ambition of even Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government which has banned the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2030.

Everything about Ardern’s Government soon reduces to mere talk, with Covid taking the political heat away. Enjoy the status quo.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.

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