CHARLOTTE BELLIS knows the news business. Over the last week the pregnant and stranded Kiwi journalist has delivered a master-class in how to apply pressure to a government via the news media. Sadly, the same cannot not be said of the Covid-19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.
Confronted with a story like Bellis’, there is only one sensible strategy: shut it down by giving the aggrieved party exactly what she wants. Instantly, a very bad news story becomes a passably good news story.
Had the Minister announced that, thanks to his decisive intervention, Bellis would be arriving home on the first convenient flight; following that up with the terse observation that those responsible for this debacle had let both Bellis and the Government down very badly; then a passably good news story could have become an excellent news story.
But, he didn’t. Instead, he just kept right on digging himself into a deeper hole. The National Opposition, and their Act ally, were not slow to take advantage of the Labour Government’s folly. Unsurprising, since, when it came to ammunition, they were spoiled for choice.
Should they fire the shot reminding voters that the Taliban regime had shown this young woman more empathy, and offered her more practical assistance, than her own government? Or, should they begin their barrage with a devastating salvo of statistics? Blasting the Government with the numbers proving that Bellis is very far from the only pregnant New Zealander languishing in the tortuous limbo of MIQ?
The utter madness of the Government’s response may be judged by the way it instantly devalued any and all decision-making related to MIQ policy. Whatever the Cabinet decided to do: no matter how far it went towards meeting the public’s expectations and/or criticisms; it could not now avoid being read by the electorate as a policy concession forced upon Labour by the Bellis Embarrassment.
The madness of Minister Hipkins also provided the National Opposition Leader, Chris Luxon, with an opportunity to, in effect, piggy-back on the public interest generated by the Bellis Embarrassment. His own Party’s “solution” to the MIQ disaster could now gazump the announcement of the Cabinet’s policy decisions.
In the highly-charged atmosphere generated by Bellis’ difficulties, National’s MIQ position statement was, naturally, given fulsome and positive coverage by the media.
Luxon and his advisers, undoubtedly buoyed by the results of the latest Roy Morgan poll (showing National/Act backed by 50 percent of the voting public) could hardly be blamed for marking the past seven days as the week Fortune’s tide re-floated the Centre-Right’s boats.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Bellis Embarrassment to understand is what on earth possessed those writing the rules to erect even the smallest obstacles to pregnant New Zealand women returning to their homeland to give birth. For most older New Zealanders, the rule has always been: “Women and children first – and pregnant women before everyone!” We were raised on the tragic example of the doomed “Titanic” – where men gave up their places in the lifeboats for the bearers of the next generation.
What does it say about the current crop of public servants that they were able to create a labyrinth of rules and regulations that made it possible for a British deejay to be welcomed into this country, while denying re-entry to a stranded Kiwi woman and her unborn child?
More to the point, what does it say about the current crop of Labour ministers – Chris Hipkins in particular – that they did not intervene, with righteous wrath, to put an end to this unconscionable rejection of that most basic human instinct: the urge to protect, at any cost, mothers and their children?
The Bellis Embarrassment is, in Talleyrand’s famous quip: “worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made “kindness” the watchword of her ministry. In doing so, she gave birth to a new kind of politics. Just how appreciated, especially by New Zealand women, “Jacinda’s” efforts were to soften and humanise the exercise of power, was confirmed by her stunning victory in the 2020 General Election.
But where is the “kindness” in the treatment of Charlotte Bellis, and scores of other pregnant New Zealander women aching to get home? If this desperate, pregnant, Kiwi journalist, stranded in starving Afghanistan, does not deserve kindness – then who does?
POSTSCRIPT: Even as this column was being written, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson was doing what his colleague, Chris Hipkins, should have done at the very beginning – giving Charlotte Bellis everything she asked for. Too late to repair the considerable damage done to Labour’s reputation by the Bellis Embarrassment, but at least it’s off the front page.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 February 2022.