WELL, IT’S GONE! The 2,020th year of the Common Era. The year of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The year of bubbles and lockdowns and Zoom. The year Donald Trump lost – badly. The year Jacinda Ardern won – bigly. Gone. But, we’re still here, celebrating the first day of the first month of 2021. A good time, traditionally, to hazard some guesses as to what the next 364 days may bring.
My most confident prediction is that Covid-19 will feature as prominently in the next twelve months as it did in the last.
By the time most New Zealanders begin to see the effects of the mass vaccination campaign against Covid-19 more than half of 2021 will already be behind them. Over the months remaining, those same New Zealanders will become increasingly impatient with the sizeable anti-vaxxer movement and its profoundly anti-social delusions.
Pressure will grow for the Government to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory. Should compulsion fail to move the hardliners, then the ugly punitiveness which lies just below the easy-going exterior of the average Kiwi is likely to erupt in spectacular fashion. Refusing to be vaccinated may be classed as a form of criminal assault, and denying the benefits of vaccination to one’s children may see the offending parents prosecuted as abusers.
If we’re very unlucky, the outrage of the anti-vaxxers will merge with the rising stridency of the “Free Speech Union” and the undiminished frustration of the country’s gun-owners, into a single, very angry, “Freedom Coalition”.
Jacinda Ardern’s government will be portrayed by this group as dangerously dictatorial: a collection of woke virtue-signallers prepared to unleash the full powers of the state against any individual citizen who refuses to acknowledge their obligation to serve the greater good.
The strength of the Government’s position on the issues of Covid-19 vaccination, curbing hate speech, and comprehensive gun-control should be sufficient to marginalise these critics. What could weaken its position, however, is the Ardern Administration’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge its own obligation to serve the greater good.
Sharp rises in the number of families living in poverty, and the intractability of the housing crisis, could well see the Government facing serious charges of hypocrisy. In the name of “kindness” citizens are expected to swallow their objections to enforced inoculation, watch their language, self-censor their opinions, and submit their firearms to state regulation and control. That same state, however, acknowledges no obligation to show kindness to the tens-of-thousands of beneficiary families living in poverty: no duty to advance the collective wellbeing of the nation by redistributing wealth and intervening directly in the “free” market.
Both the Act Party and (if it can summon sufficient intellectual energy) the National Party will seek to exploit the issues arising out of vaccinations against Covid-19, hate speech and gun control. From the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens and the Maori Party will chime in against poverty and homelessness.
A self-confidently “centrist” government, assailed from both the right and the left, has little to fear. With most voters happy to position themselves somewhere in the “middle”, support for the Government is unlikely to be shaken by attacks launched from the political extremes.
Of much more concern to Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues would be the emergence of a political force willing to combine the arguments of both the right and the left into a single devastating critique of the Government’s policies.
For most of the period between 1993-96 this was precisely the strategy adopted by Winston Peters and his NZ First Party. While that particular soufflé may not rise a second (or should that be a third?) time, the option remains open for anyone with sufficient charisma to launch a radical populist party.
A “Freedom Coalition” committed not only to the individual’s “freedom to”, but also to securing people’s “freedom from” poverty, homelessness, discrimination and exploitation, could attract the sort of double-digit support that gives incumbent governments nightmares.
Kindness is as kindness does. And the one thing kindness cannot do is force people to be kind. Understanding that was the single most important factor in the Prime Minister’s success at stamping out the Coronavirus. She took New Zealanders with her; she encouraged them to “Unite Against Covid-19” for their own good.
Now, in 2021, she must encourage them to do the same against poverty and homelessness.
This essay was originally published in the Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 January 2021.