MATTHEW HOOTON has raised the possibility of Jacinda Ardern being gone by Christmas. He puts forward the scenario (Paywalled) of New Zealand becoming as debilitated and beleaguered by Delta as New South Wales and Victoria. With the number of community cases surging above a thousand every day, the hospitals overwhelmed, and people dying for lack of ICU beds, Hooton insists that not only would Jacinda be obliged to go, but also, being a fundamentally decent person, she would want to go. The unfolding Covid disaster being of her making, the Prime Minister would see it as her moral duty to resign.
Sadly, Hooton’s scenario is by no means preposterous. Were New Zealand to be overwhelmed by the Delta variant of Covid-19, the Prime Minister and her government would have to accept that the disaster occurred on their watch. Jacinda and Chris Hipkins, her Covid Response Minister, would have no choice but to resign. The Right would, of course, be delighted at this turn of events, and the Left devastated. New Zealand would be in an ugly, truculent, mood. Many people would be very frightened. The future would be bleak.
How did it come to this? At what point did Jacinda’s extraordinary saga of Covid success suddenly pivot towards failure?
Most New Zealanders would identify the Trans-Tasman Bubble as the culprit. The whole idea was fraught with the most awful potential for disaster. Opening our borders, even to the Australians, was seen (by what the pollsters told us was a majority of the population) as an unnecessarily risky proposition.
Most Kiwis saw the Bubble as the product of incessant lobbying by the tourism and hospitality industries – egged-on relentlessly by the news media. Put to a vote, the proposition would, almost certainly, have been defeated. That Jacinda and her colleagues scorned the backing of the people, and succumbed to the pressure of vested interests, was taken, by her followers, as a very bad sign.
To some degree, the edge was taken off their disquiet by the Government’s repeated warning to those determined to take advantage of the Bubble that they were doing so against its advice and at their own risk. If the Bubble burst, and they found themselves trapped, then they would be on their own. The New Zealand state would not be sending planes to rescue them.
Why the Government didn’t stick to its guns when, inevitably, the Bubble did burst, is perplexing. Once again the majority wanted Jacinda to show the travel-gamblers some “tough love”. And, once again, she ignored them, and allowed herself to be pressured into sending rescue aircraft by the news media.
It was a fatal error. By refusing to stand firm, the Prime Minister had effectively invited the media and business groups to keep her and her government under constant pressure. If a politician shows that she can be moved, then she will be moved.
Inevitably, and as a huge number of Kiwis had predicted from the outset, those two decisions: to establish the Bubble; and then to bring the travel-gamblers home; brought the Delta variant of Covid-19 into New Zealand.
At first, Jacinda still appeared to know exactly what to do: Go hard. Go early. The world laughed at New Zealand: hurling itself into a draconian lockdown in response to just one community case seemed wildly excessive. But its citizens were quietly proud of their leader’s decisiveness. This was their country’s extraordinarily successful “elimination strategy” at work. This was how you “stamped-out” the virus – by staying home and staying safe.
It was at this point that the business community and the news media, confident that the Prime Minister and her colleagues could be spooked into doing exactly the wrong thing, unleashed a no-holds-barred campaign to abandon the elimination strategy. By “learning to live with the virus”, said the business community (ably assisted by their political and media mouthpieces) New Zealand could once again open itself up to the world. As soon as 90 percent of Kiwis got themselves vaccinated, the whole country would be able to relax and settle into a new normal.
It was dangerous nonsense, of course. Moving out of Level 4 before 95 percent of the country had been vaccinated, or, before the number of community cases had fallen back to zero, was asking for trouble – and the scientific community urged the Government to keep the country locked down tight. Tragically, Jacinda and her government were no longer being guided by “the science”. Somewhere along the way, Jacinda had lost faith in her “Team of Five Million’s” ability to stay the course. Somehow, a virus of political doubt and indecision had started spreading amongst her ministers and advisers. Fatally, she allowed herself to be persuaded to move New Zealand out of Level 4.
And the rest we know.
Yes, yes, yes! People were weary of lockdown. That is true. But they were also very wary of relaxing their grip. What they wanted, what they needed, was the sort of clear, calm leadership Jacinda had provided during the first nationwide lockdown.
New Zealanders needed to hear Jacinda take a firm line on vaccination, issuing stern warnings to those who threatened to refuse. Kiwis just weren’t in the mood to let lockdown evaders and anti-vaxxers free ride on their good citizenship. Google’s IT wizards confirmed that Kiwis were, overwhelmingly, staying in their bubbles. The lockdown was holding. They were keeping the Covid faith.
It wasn’t New Zealand who blinked, it was Jacinda.
In his vast epic poem, Paradise Lost, John Milton described humankind as “sufficient to have stood, but free to fall”. Those words may yet serve as the epitaph of Jacinda Ardern’s career. In 2020, the whole country witnessed the extraordinary sufficiency of her leadership, and how it allowed her country to stand against the Covid-19 virus. How tragic it would be if 2021 is remembered – as Hooton clearly hopes – as the year she freely chose to fall.
But, is “freely” really the right word? How long can any politician be expected to stand against the sort of political and media pressure our Prime Minister has been forced to endure? How strong can she be if her own colleagues are counselling her to take the path of least resistance? How would our wartime leaders have fared if they had been required to endure the same lies and half-truths; the same reckless appeals to base emotion; and the same shameful absence of patriotic restraint; as Jacinda Ardern? These are questions which the National and Act parties, along with the solipsistic show-ponies of the mainstream media, should be required to answer.
Because it is possible that, until very recently, Jacinda remained sufficient to have stood. Which means that, if all Covid hell does break loose, and she is forced (not least by her own conscience) to resign, then we should all ask ourselves: Did she freely fall – or was she pushed?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 7 October 2021.