Tuesday 1 September 2020

What Just Didn't Happen?

The New Old Triumvirate: Jacinda Ardern, back in 2017, confers with her longest-standing political allies, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins.


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 just happened!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 1 September 2020.


AB said...

Chris - it's almost certainly not what happened.

1.) The Government honestly believes that they have learnt enough from the first outbreak, and how the virus behaves, that it is safe enough for Auckland to go down half a level in the face of a single largish cluster that is now returning new community cases in only single figures. Contact tracing, testing (including the new genomic testing) has been beefed up enough since the first outbreak for them to have this confidence. This is not a departure from an elimination strategy - the plan is to eliminate this cluster while letting normal life (with significant restrictions) go on. Elimination is not permanent eradication, it is going hard and early on every outbreak and eliminating it - while all the time doing the very best to stop outbreaks from happening in the first place. I am hopeful that they are correct and in fact this elimination strategy is exactly what living with the virus looks like. Labour is a centrist party, they are going to save economic BAU and so far are doing it very effectively, despite being hated-on by the very people who do best under BAU (the owners and managers of the private economy).
2.) The messaging error was a cock-up by someone. It got through because actually at first sight it doesn't seem that alarmist. The outbreak is mainly in the south and west, so surveillance testing in these areas would be logical. Testing everyone is a step beyond that, and it takes a bit of reflection on how the sheer number of tests of asymptomatic people would overwhelm the much more important testing of symptomatic people, before the realisation dawns that it can't be right. Every day of our lives is characterised by cock-ups small and large - if people don't expect these they are living on another planet.

Tom Hunter said...

Well I hate to tell you this Chris but it's two things you don't want to hear about this government

1) Our Health bureaucracies are actually not that competent. Locking down a population can work in squashing a pandemic even when your health folk are not that goo because it's a crude, simple solution. It's when things start up again and things get more complex that it becomes a problem.

2) Outside of Hipkins and Robertson this just isn't a competent government capable of dealing with bureaucratic incompetence. The PM is a superb communicator and front-person for all this - but nothing more. Hence all the MSM coverage of how she "feels", including being repeatedly and reportedly "angry" about successive failures.

3) Despite your fondest hopes they are not the reincarnation of the First labour Government and even if they were they live in a very different global world where they have no choice but to rely on the private sector for employment, tax and so forth. So sooner or later the answer to your previous post is going to be "Wall Street" over "The People" because they really have no idea how to have government run businesses nowadays.

Incidentally that why we're at L2 (2.5?) while COVID-19 cases continue to appear, something that several months ago resulted in L4 for the whole country. Labour have decided to live with the virus and let people go about their business - literally.

petes new write said...

Announcements must be made by the PM or cabinet ministers, not civil servants.The latter need to be brought under control.

PaulVD said...

Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity".
This is a Government which has been hip-deep in underperformance since it was elected: Kiwibuild, tax reform, poverty reduction, protecting the border, and on and on. Great promises, then almost complete non-delivery.
In addition, the civil service is not a strongly-managed institution. Middle managers seem quite willing to just make up their own procedures, without feeling constrained by what has been decided at higher levels, and the organisations are not well-run enough to prevent this.
So I have no difficulty in believing that this advice was written off-the-cuff by some low-level "communications adviser", and that nobody above them (up to the Minister) was asked to approve it, or thought it worth correcting after it had been issued.
There is no secret revolt of the managerial classes against the Government. The truth is both more mundane and more depressing: the apparatus is so ineffective that the levers of power are mostly not connected to anything.

Kat said...

For whats it worth...

"Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you're always afraid..........."

Patricia said...

Perhaps it was, after all, just a balls up. Of course National has done so many, I would call, treacherous things to the Government of this country that wouldn’t put it past them to have organised it, but how could that be proved just six weeks out from an election.

Trev1 said...

Who knows, Chris? Transparency is not this government's strength. But I think you're correct in sensing there has been a sea-change in the government's approach to COVID. Now that Aucklanders are free to roam the land at will the risk of the virus spreading throughout the country has increased considerably. So it appears the elimination strategy has, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned despite protests from the government that it has not. This is an almighty risk that can only have been taken for political purposes.

John Hurley said...

I must admit, I'm confused about Covid. One reason is the official sources are the toxic RNZ, Spinoff and TVNZ. I was just googling "Covid outcomes" when I decided to read Bowalley Road. Who and how many die and how many survive but don't fully recover?
Leighton Smith podcast had Dr Borody who I respect (having followed him on another matter). He claims to have a cure and he says the malaria pills plus ++ are effective in the early stages of the disease but Trumps advocacy was the death knoll to that?
I read the South Auckland rumor and waited to see if it was valided, however on Q&A an Australian expert suggested someone wasn't coming clean on contacts. If it was bouncing around in the community it would have found a weak target?
There is a trust issue. They have been managing our opinions for decades as our senior thinkers?

Kat said...

Comments that the Labour govt have given in to political pressure is a nonsense.

When NZ was in Level 4 lockdown all twenty DHB's throughout the country had recorded cases and there were widespread clusters. The current situation is totally different in that the majority of cases are localised to a common cluster in Auckland. The govt is doing a pretty good job in containing the virus given all the circumstances.

Making inflammatory comments for political point scoring appears to be the default mode for those not interested in the facts. Either that or they are just plain lazy and subscribe gleefully to fake news.

Simon Cohen said...

Dear Patricia,You are being too kind to National.They actually paid the Chinese to invent this virus so that it could be inflicted on NZ to bring this government down and when that didn't work they subverted Bloomfield to make a number of cock ups to further embarrass the govt.
They are truly capable of anything and I hope they never find out where you and I live or our lives will be in danger.

Anonymous said...

The 'civil service' was abolished in 1913. Since then workers in that area of government have been called 'public servants'. Many of the people involved in the Covid response are not part of the public service but work in other areas of government such as the defence force.