• A Government System That Works

    The Covid-19 saga will no doubt produce many twists and turns for us before it is finally brought to an end. But one thing it has shown us – and what comfort it should bring us – is that our country’s government is in good hands. I am not thinking only of our political leadership but of our senior public servants as well.

    There can be no greater test (apart, perhaps from wartime) of the competence of our government than the current crisis – and every country, faced with the same challenge, is in the course of finding out whether it enjoys what is the basic requirement of a developed and civilised country – that is, a government that can function effectively under pressure.

    Some countries, including some unexpected ones, like the United States, have already failed that test. But we have had daily evidence, through the informative and therefore reassuring daily televised briefings provided to the public, that we have calm, decisive leadership to guide us through the crisis.

    I think particularly of Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director General of Health, who – like his colleague, Sarah Stuart-Clark, the Director of Civil Defence – has shown that, even in such a fast-moving situation, he is fully on top of his job. And we can add to that list Mike Bush, the Police Commissioner, and John Ombler, the head of the Civil Service, who have also been rock-solid sources of good sense, advice and action.

    And we have had the benefit of skilled professional service from the broadcasters on whom we rely so much for accurate information and interpretation of what is going on. Simon Dallow, Katie Bradford, Jessica Mutch McKay, and others, have been dispassionate, intelligent, accurate and helpful in all that they have done. And a word, too, for those stalwarts who have provided sign-language interpretation for the hard of hearing.

    Ministers, too, so often in the firing line for supposed failings, have stepped confidently up to the mark. Grant Robertson, David Clark, Stuart Nash, Chris Hipkins, Peeni Henare, and others, have all offered safe pairs of hands and engendered confidence that they know what they are doing.

    Most of us will by now have become well aware, too, of the hundreds – rather, perhaps, thousands – of health professionals and carers who are fighting the virus in the front line. These often unseen and unsung heroes are essential to the workings of a competent administration in such trying circumstances, to say nothing of the lifeline they provide to those most at risk from the virus. Nor should we forget those workers, in workplaces like supermarkets, who are keeping essential services available.

    And then, of course, there is the Prime Minister. We had already learned, from the Christchurch massacre, that she is good in a crisis, and she has again demonstrated a remarkable clarity, calmness and decisiveness, and – above all – an empathy with all those thousands currently afflicted with anxiety and uncertainty.

    We are lucky to have her – little wonder that the Australians would like to take her over.

    We should also recognise the role played by the Opposition. Simon Bridges has commendably decided to forgo the role usually played by an opposition and has lent his and the National Party’s support to the efforts the government is making to resolve the crisis – yet another indicator of a mature and well-functioning democracy.

    When the crisis is finally over, we will be able to look back on the whole episode with renewed confidence that our political leaders and our senior public servants were up to the task, and that we enjoy a governmental system that would be the envy of many other countries. We might also manage to give ourselves a big tick; with very few exceptions, Kiwis have shown a remarkable ability to pull together, and voluntarily to subordinate their individual and short-term interests to the common good – the true mark, after all, of a society that knows how to look after all of its members.

    Bryan Gould
    7 April 2020

  • What the Crisis Can teach Us

    The coronavirus pandemic has of course had a major impact on individual lives and on societies as a whole. But, long after the crisis has passed (assuming it does), we will begin to realise that its real and lasting significance lies in the lessons it has taught us, if only we can be bothered to learn them. It behoves us all to understand what those lessons are and are likely to be.

    We have been taught, first, that we are just another part of the natural world and are subject, like any other creature, to the way it works. We may think that we are the “lords of creation” and that we live at a more exalted level than other creatures do, and that, accordingly, natural laws do not apply to us. The virus has shown us, though, that we have no protection even against a life form as lowly as a virus, and, bearing in mind that the virus seems to have originated with wild animals offered for sale as food in a Chinese market, we might conclude that it would be a good idea to treat other creatures with more respect.

    And, similarly for the environment – we might note that the air in New York is suddenly much cleaner because the economic slowdown has reduced the number of cars in New York streets. Again, the finger can be pointed at human activity – activity that we can and must change.

    The virus has been no respecter of ethnic or cultural differences. It has infected us all, with a fine disregard for the differences that seem to matter so much to us. For the virus, we are all just humans; it is that “human-ness” that unifies and defines us – and our shared “human-ness” is evidence in turn that we are all born equal. If we are all equally vulnerable to the virus, what makes us think that some of us are “more equal” than others in supposedly more important respects?

    We are not only born equal – but, as the virus has demonstrated, we necessarily share with others the tribulations that life brings to us all. The virus has crossed national boundaries without a missed step. We need no better demonstration of the fact that, on this Earth, “we are all in this together”. Those in distant lands who have succumbed to the virus are our brothers and sisters and are deserving recipients of our love and concern. And, in purely practical terms, the virus has shown that what befalls them will befall us as well.

    We should also register that the virus seems to have taught our leaders a practical lesson or two about the task they undertake. After decades of being told that the central purpose and duty of government is to balance its own finances and to produce a “surplus”, we now see that government has a much wider and more important responsibility – to manage the economy as a whole and to ensure that it continues to function and serve us all.

    As government after government across the Western world has resorted, not only to borrowing but to “printing money” as well, in order to keep their economies functioning, we are entitled to ask why it has taken them so long to understand that a sovereign country need never be short of money. We may, in particular instances, be short of the materials, skills, and labour needed for production, but governments can create money whenever we want and wherever it is needed.

    At least the penny has dropped and governments have come to their senses when it was most needed. But let us remember this lesson when, at some future date after the crisis is over, we are again told that we “cannot afford” adequate investment in public services and infrastructure.

    But, on a more positive note, how uplifting and refreshing it has been to hear our leaders – and notably our Prime Minister – urging us to “look after each other” in this time of need and danger – and to “be kind” to each other. The capacity for “kindness” is perhaps the most human and important of all human attributes – and kindness in all its many forms is never more needed than now, when our fellow humans have their backs to the wall and are struggling to survive. That is one lesson, taught by the crisis, that we must learn.

  • For America Only

    I am not easily shocked – and certainly not when it comes to anything to do with Donald Trump. But I confess that I was shocked – and not only shocked, but disgusted and contemptuous as well – when I saw the headline reporting that Trump had offered large sums of money to a German company for access to a coronavirus vaccine they had developed – and not just any old access, but “exclusive” access, so that only Americans would benefit from it.

    The President’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and his evident unpreparedness had already come under heavy criticism from the American public and media. He had, as one of his first acts on taking office, closed down the federal body set up by President Obama to deal with any possible pandemic situation; the fact that it was an Obama creation was apparently enough to guarantee its abandonment.

    He then asserted that the coronavirus outbreak was a “hoax”, and that it had more or less been invented by his political rivals. He then assured people that it would “go away” and that there were in any case very few cases, and even fewer fatalities, in the USA.

    But a few days of turmoil on the stock exchange were enough to persuade him that he had to take the crisis seriously – hence his addresses to the nation from the Oval Office and his interest in a “foreign” vaccine to deal with what he had described as a “foreign virus.”

    But, even then, why was it not enough just to obtain access to the vaccine? Why did it have to be “exclusive” and available to Americans only?

    The answer to those questions tells us a great deal about how his mind works (assuming that it does), and about his priorities.

    To just deal with the virus was apparently not enough. In light of the criticism that he had been ineffectual in dealing with it, he needed to show that he was in charge and able to deal with the crisis and that he could resolve it in a way that would deliver a benefit and a solution to the American people that was not available to anyone else.

    In this way, he presumably calculated, he could turn what had become, for him, a bad news story, into a good news story, and thereby improve his chances of re-election later in the year.

    What seems to have been at the front of his mind, in other words, was not relieving Americans of stress and the threat to their lives and livelihoods, but showing himself in a good light, and earning their gratitude for a solution that he could assert was not available to anyone else. “Only I could have delivered such a solution,” is what he wants to be able to say.

    It takes a particularly warped mind to develop such an order of priorities – and it takes an even more warped and narrowly focused mind to deny a remedy that could be available to everyone worldwide, but to ensure that it was restricted just to those in his own country. The corollary of restricting it to Americans only is to deny it to the rest of the world.

    The world is in a truly parlous state if one of its most powerful leaders is able to think and feel in such a distorted fashion. What happened to the “moral leadership” that the USA claimed to exercise on behalf of the “free world”. Where is that sense of common humanity and “goodwill to all men” (and women) that we might expect from those who claim to lead us and to look after our shared interests?

    There are many reasons for regarding Donald Trump as unfit for his high office. But none is as compelling as the one he has exemplified in this unhappy episode.

    We can only hope that the American people can overcome their usual introspection and will be as shocked at their President’s self-obsession and lack of a moral framework as we – and, surely, the rest of the world – are.
    Bryan Gould
    16 March 2020

  • Surviving the Crisis

    Donald Trump may choose to see the coronavirus scare as a “hoax” perpetrated by his political opponents, but the rest of us are unlikely to derive much comfort from such egocentricity and self-delusion.

    It can come as no surprise that New Zealand, like so many other countries, has succumbed to the coronavirus. It was always a forlorn hope that we could avoid the virus making an appearance in our midst; the challenge now is to avoid the fate of other countries, like France and Italy – countries with fully developed public health systems, but nevertheless struggling to contain what has rapidly become in their cases a very serious epidemic. Italy has been compelled to close the whole country down, virtually, so that nothing moves.

    It remains the case that we must maintain the highest possible degree of border security (exploiting our natural advantage of having no land boundaries) and, in the case of those who have been shown to be already infected, that we track down those with whom they have been in contact, and that we insure that they self-isolate or otherwise remain in quarantine. We should also recognise that our health professionals – nurses, doctors, other hospital staff – will come under great pressure and will need as much support as possible.

    So far, there is no need to panic. The measures taken so far by our government have been effective in limiting the outbreak to a small number of individuals. We are nowhere near epidemic conditions, and the emphasis remains on precautionary measures – the maintenance of basic hygiene practices, the avoidance of crowds, a recognition of those, like the elderly and unwell, who are especially likely to become ill, and to suffer the most severe consequences if they do.

    Beyond that, it makes sense to stay at home as much as possible – apart, perhaps, from visits to the supermarket to build up store cupboards, though, let us be clear, the kind of panic stockpiling of tissues and sanitisers and so on that we have seen in some instances is not justified. We are fortunate in New Zealand to have domestic sources of supply, with well-established supply lines, for most of our basic necessities.

    Of rather greater significance is the economic damage that we are likely to suffer in both the global and domestic economies. The fall in stock markets worldwide is an indication of the impact there will be on asset values and on our savings – and we must expect further damage to our trade and business generally.

    It is at this point that government must step up to the plate. There will be no shortage of conservative voices, proclaiming that this is a time for retrenchment and belt-tightening – but that is exactly the wrong advice.

    Our government, and governments around the world, now have both an opportunity and a responsibility to use their powers to make good the loss of spending power in our economy, and to lift the level of business activity as a consequence.

    Although the scope for the usual stimulatory measure – cutting interest rates – is limited, the government have the possibility of borrowing further at virtually no cost, and can pump more money into the economy by using “quantitative easing”, a technique that was widely used to help out the banks following the Global Financial Crisis. The current developing crisis is no less threatening – and possibly more so – than the GFC.

    A willingness to use these powers would allow the government to compensate those businesses, particularly in areas like tourism and forestry, which have been and will be hard hit by the interruptions to international trade and travel, and – further – would allow some compensation and support for those whose jobs are at risk or already suspended. Lifting the level of benefits and the minimum wage, so that the less well-off can keep house and home together, and provide a more buoyant market for small businesses would also be very helpful, not only to those directly affected, but to the economy as a whole.

    Now is the time to cast political and economic dogma aside, and to do what works in the interests of all of us. We can survive the crisis largely unscathed if we all pull together.

    Bryan Gould
    16 March 2020

  • A Case of Attempted Extortion

    The last Saturday of February, the 29th, was of course an extra day, but that was no good reason for wasting half of it – yet, sadly, that is how it turned out.

    The day started off badly with the arrival of a letter from a major, internationally owned, service provider whose customer we had been for several years. The letter was unsigned and began by asserting, quite incorrectly, that “we have contacted you several times about your unpaid account of $308,74” – this was, in fact, the first communication we had received from them on the subject.

    The letter then proceeded to threaten that, if the $308.74 was not paid immediately, we would be faced with legal action and we would, at the least, be referred to a debt collection agency which would add to our costs and jeopardise our chances of getting credit in the future.

    I was so concerned that I immediately phoned the number provided for what was laughingly described as their customer service department. I then entered a nightmarish – not to say Kafkaesque – world of recorded voices, constant requests that I should choose to press one or another number, none of which seemed to be relevant to my inquiry, long minutes of recorded music while I waited to speak to someone – anyone – and then barely comprehensible conversations with people who had no knowledge of what my inquiry was about and in any case lacked any competence to deal with it.

    I should make it clear that my gripe is not with those I spoke to, who were on the whole courteous and helpful.

    My inquiry was simple enough. I wanted to know what the $308.74 represented and how it had been incurred – we had in fact terminated our contract with the provider some months earlier. It took several hours of increasing frustration on my part before we reached an agreement that they would e-mail me with details of how the supposed debt of $308.74 had arisen.

    When the e-mail duly arrived, however, it did no more than state that the $308.74 was owing. To cut this long story short, I was then able to check my bank account and to show that I had paid, at the time of closing the account with the provider in November, a sum of over $300 which had then been outstanding.

    My attempt to communicate this information by e-mail to the “customer service department” was met with the response that I had e-mailed a “no-reply” address. In the e-mail, I had mentioned my legal qualifications, said that if the matter was not resolved satisfactorily “forthwith”, I would “pursue my own remedies” for what seemed to be attempted extortion and harassment, and recommended that they show the correspondence “to their superiors”.

    The e-mail, whether received or not, seems to have been read. I was then telephoned with an assurance that the outstanding amount had ben “waived” and that our account had been closed. So ended a morning of unalloyed frustration, wasted nervous energy and emotional exhaustion. I had not only wasted a whole morning but had also suffered a most unpleasant experience.

    My reason for reporting this unhappy episode is that, as my wife and I reflected, we are both of advanced years, and ill-equipped to deal with such unfamiliar issues. As it happens, my legal background and occasional experience of dealing with stroppy people meant that I was able to withstand the attempt to bully us into paying a large sum that we did not owe.

    Other elderly people my not have had my defences available. And, as the management of their affairs – and particularly financial affairs – becomes increasingly something done online, they are unlikely to have the technical skills needed to do so. And that is to say nothing of the scammers whose efforts to con people out of their savings have recently been highlighted.

    There is, as far as I know, no ombudsman or industry watchdog available to consumers when they run into the kind of issue that faced us. Service providers, particularly when they are large International companies, may calculate that such tactics will pay off in the end. I urge customers, particularly elderly ones, to stand up for themselves.

    Bryan Gould
    8 February 2020