Jacinda Ardern united New Zealanders when Covid hit. Then a long second lockdown split ‘the team of 5 million’

Morgan Godfery

Labour’s decline in the polls has government diehards puzzled. But it can be dated to 17 August 2021 and the move to Alert Level 4

Today marks two years to the day that the call went out for New Zealanders who were travelling or living overseas to “return home”.

In those strange, dangerous days the pandemic was threatening to unleash so many unknowns: how short was the transmission window? How effective were masks and ventilation? And what did hospitalisation and death look like in a first world country?

There were early precedents – the tragedy unfolding in Italy for one – but for at least a month New Zealand was thinking along the same lines as the rest of the world. “Flatten the curve,” using progressive measures including physical distancing to simply slow the spread. Aside from a handful of (at the time) unknown epidemiologists like Prof Michael Baker there were few experts or commentators calling on the government to “stop the spread”.

That was until 23 March when prime minister Jacinda Ardern made the most important decision of her career, and perhaps the most important decision any post-war prime minister has made: that night New Zealand would move to Alert Level 3 and two nights later to Alert Level 4, effectively locking down the country.

Ardern appeared before the country and with persuasion and a good deal of humility made the case to “go hard and go early”, introducing a term that would unite the country for the next year and a half – “the team of 5 million”.

The next day parliament met to pass $52bn in emergency spending, grant the Inland Revenue Department the power to remit interest on tax owing, and to freeze rents and prevent no-cause evictions for at least six months.

Seven months later and New Zealand voters rewarded Ardern and her government with a historic MMP majority. Labour took true blue seats like Ilam in Christchurch. Riding a leftwing tide the Green’s Chloe Swarbrick took Auckland Central while the Māori party’s Rawiri Waititi took Waiariki. And yet, on current polling, Ardern and her government are dropping up to 10 points from this time last year, and even more if you take the election result as a benchmark.

In the One News Kantar public poll National is registering at 39% support with Labour trailing at 37%. The last time National was polling ahead of Labour was before the pandemic. Granted, this is one poll – Labour is still ahead of National (just) in the latest Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll and comfortably ahead in the Hui’s poll of Māori voters – but the trend is clear.

The Labour government is gradually losing support. Why? The decline seems to puzzle the government’s diehards. National leader Chris Luxon’s first and seemingly only policy idea is to hit the tax cuts button, promising a change to the tax brackets and scrapping the top tax rate for the extremely wealthy.Advertisement

It makes little sense – do people earning over $180,000 really need a massive tax cut? – but the point is less in the detail than in what those details represent. A return to National’s core business, as a CEO might say, and a break from the Judith Collins era and its weird obsession with the obscure from Samoa to Tasmania to fat shaming to nuking one’s own colleagues.

Luxon is, without wanting to extend the metaphor, promising a smooth landing for National voters.

What distinguished the first extended lockdown in March 2020 from its second in August 2021 was that the first came with the social and financial support needed to sustain it

That leaves Labour in an uncomfortable position. Over the last four months the government has repeatedly departed from its core business, abandoning the Alert Level system and replacing it with the confusing Traffic Light system in December, wavering on mandates after the Canadian-inspired clown convoy made its way to Wellington, and hastily cutting fuel excise tax in a gift to Luxon and his argument that it’s possible to cut your way out of a “cost of living crisis” (where cut means cut taxes).

This isn’t to say the government isn’t also undertaking necessary and excellent reform – subsidising public transport across the country is a move that the rest of the world is watching with keen interest – but triangulating, searching for a “third way” between irreconcilable positions is very much the politics of another era.

If one can date the government’s decline 17 August 2021 is it.

On that breezy winter Tuesday the prime minister announced the country would move to Alert Level 4 at midnight. Back then, public compliance was high, and the team of 5 million did its duty. That initial lockdown would drag into December as the Delta variant proved a tougher opponent than the initial coronavirus variant, yet compliance remained high with movement data indicating similar patterns to previous Level 4 and Level 3 lockdowns in Auckland.

When the usual cast of conspiracists and losers turned out to protest the lockdown in August they could muster no more than 100 supporters. Yet six months later some members of that same pathetic cast managed to turn out thousands of people for the clown convoy to Wellington. How?

What distinguished the country’s first extended lockdown in March 2020 from its second in August 2021 was that the first lockdown came with the social and financial support needed to sustain it.

Alongside freezing tax interest, freezing rents and banning evictions came hundreds of millions of dollars in direct support to social service providers and a six-month mortgage holiday scheme for homeowners. A similar commitment to preventing hardship was absent in the August 2021 lockdown, and as Alert Level 4 and Alert Level 3 dragged on in Auckland stories were breaking that detailed exactly what that hardship looked like.

In South Auckland, it was often high school students taking jobs as essential workers. This is what did in the government’s strong support from New Zealanders, allowing communities to fracture as hardship went unanswered and unsupported.

You would find very few New Zealanders who strongly disagree with the government’s overall pandemic response. But for that response to work it needs the social and financial support to sustain it. Otherwise, people vote with their feet.

  • Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago and a columnist at Metro


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *