• The Virus and The Election

    When we see how the pandemic is being handled in the rest of the world, we can thank our lucky stars that we live here, in New Zealand, and under our current government, led by Jacinda Ardern.

    The latest polls suggest that this is exactly how Kiwis feel. But the next election is still a few months away, and in the meantime, we have to ensure that the progress we have made in containing the pandemic is maintained, and that we do not allow any resurgence of cases.

    By the time the election arrives, though, we will know how successful we have been; and there is no denying that the two issues – the management of the pandemic and the government’s re-election chances – will be linked in the public mind.

    But it will not just be the government, and the Prime Minister, who will be subjected to the judgment of the electorate. Voters will have a chance to answer a slightly different question; how well would we have done, if someone else, rather than Jacinda Ardern, had been in charge?

    That is when Opposition politicians will have it brought home to them that criticising from the sidelines is the easy bit. The voters will then have to think about the question – how well would we have done if the roles had been reversed and someone else had had to take the hard decisions, keep everyone committed to the cause, and carry the country with them?

    It is of course never easy to answer such “what if ?” questions. But that does not mean that the question will not arise and will not be present in the minds of voters.

    What answer are they likely to give? Forecasting is a risky business but we can hazard a guess or two. If the current assessment – that we have been the most successful country in our response to the pandemic – is maintained and supported by the facts, we should expect – as the polls suggest – a ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister and her team.

    And the conclusions we are likely to draw from the coronavirus saga – the most serious challenge to any government since the Second World War – will not be limited to whether or not we have overcome the pandemic and saved, not only lives, but jobs and businesses as well.

    Given time to think about the implications of what we have been through, we will surely arrive at wider conclusions than those pertaining just to the pandemic itself.

    It would be surprising if we did not emerge from the crisis with a better understanding of how important the public services are – and of the high price we must pay if we let investment in our health services and our education fall behind what is necessary. Producing government “surpluses” is all very well, but not if we are left with underfunded services, just at the time that we need them most.

    And, when we reflect on how pleasant it has been to enjoy the cleaner air and the reduction in traffic noise, accidents and congestion, we might also pause to think more kindly about a “green” agenda, and recognise that economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of what we do. Working from home and learning online may have their own disadvantages, but we have learned that they are possible and can work well.

    If we are ready to endorse the government’s handling of the pandemic, we might conclude that the competence they have shown in the face of such adversity might also serve us well in less demanding circumstances. Why would ministers like Grant Robertson, David Clarke, Stuart Nash, David Parker, Chris Hipkins and others not show similar competence in facing further challenges and does not their willingness to defy economic orthodoxy in re-building the economy show that they have what it takes?

    It would be surprising, in other words, if the government’s performance in handling the crisis was not top of many minds, come election day in September. Elections are about choosing a good government, and one that faces up to its responsibilities. And that is as it should be.

    Bryan Gould
    26 May 2020