13 Aug 2021

Week in Politics: Fortune favours the Opposition

2:09 pm on 13 August 2021

Analysis: The National Party's annual conference ends in disunity as a well-known board member quits but it's the government that's under the gun after power blackouts and the revelation that unvaccinated port workers boarded an infected ship. The Skegg report on reconnecting New Zealand to the world is released and the prime minister lays out a roadmap for opening the border.

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National leader Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Judith Collins made the sort of speech that's expected from a Leader of the Opposition at an annual conference - the government was hopeless and the next election could be won if National stayed focused.

Unity was on display and Collins was at her most assertive. "No, I won't be rolled. I'm going to go into the next election and I'm going to win it. I'm absolutely, totally focused on it," she told media

The unity she so badly needed didn't last the distance. David Carter, long-serving former MP, cabinet minister and Speaker of the House, abruptly resigned from the board after challenging for the presidency and losing to incumbent Peter Goodfellow.

His reasons: Zero confidence in Goodfellow, the party would never rebuild under his watch, the board was run in a dysfunctional manner and the money was no longer flowing in.

The impact of Carter's resignation should not be under-estimated. He's a South Island farmer, a former agriculture minister, and his network must run deep.

Politik's Richard Harman pointed out that by the close of the conference, South Island representation on the board had gone from three to one, and a party that has been described as the political wing of Federated Farmers was left with no farmers on its board.

(There are nine members on the board, currently eight because of Carter's resignation).

Harman said there were already reports of farmers resigning from the party.

"The danger for National is that those resignations become a flood and the former members go to ACT," he said.

"The party turned its face away from its rural and provincial heartland and embraced a high tech urban future for the country."

Former Speaker of the House David Carter.

David Carter resigned from the board citing no confidence in Peter Goodfellow. Photo: YouTube / NZ Parliament

His "high tech urban future" comment was a reference to Collins saying the party would hold a tech summit in September "so the tech experts can tell us what we need to be doing as a country".

Whatever comfort the government may have taken from this disarray was dispelled overnight.

On Tuesday it was in damage control after rolling power cuts on Monday night, one of the coldest of the year.

Energy Minister Megan Woods and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went on the offensive, describing the situation as unacceptable and demanding answers.

Collins was rampant. It was an outrage. "I would sack Megan Woods. She's hopeless. She knows the issue… and has stood by while this very important area of natural gas has been allowed to basically be destroyed as an industry," she said.

"We had a situation where the minister and the prime minister are yet to answer why it is that just because it was cold in winter they couldn't keep the lights on."

During the uproar Collins several times linked the power cuts to the government's 2018 decision to ban new oil and gas exploration permits.

It wasn't relevant, and as Woods pointed out any discoveries since 2018 would not have been on stream now.

The government needed culprits, and Woods blamed the generators. She singled out Genesis, saying it had made a commercial decision and decided not to turn on its third generator at Huntly. "Genesis made a decision that there wasn't going to be that much demand in the system."

Genesis chief executive Marc England didn't take kindly to that, telling Checkpoint his company was being scapegoated. He denied it made a commercial decision to have less supply.

"Genesis is just one of several generators. We actually lost a lot of money yesterday… more than $1 million."

Woods fired off letters to generators Genesis, Contact, Meridian, Mercury and Trustpower demanding answers.

Minister of Housing Megan Woods

Energy Minister Megan Woods. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Transpower, the state-owned enterprise that owns and operates the national grid, apologised for the power cuts. It sent out a notice to the generators at 6.42am on Monday saying there was going to be a problem, and another at 1pm calling for more electricity. It wasn't forthcoming.

The public wasn't warned there were going to be power cuts across central North Island, which was seen as another failure.

Woods insisted it wasn't a supply problem. There had been capacity to handle the demand and the situation could have been prevented, she said.

By the end of the week there were no clear answers as to why it wasn't prevented, although reports had emerged indicating a combination of circumstances.

The storm stirred up weeds preventing generation at Genesis' Tokaanu hydro station, Stuff reported. Wind speeds dropped during Monday evening, reducing the contribution of wind generation.

Although Transpower sent out warnings, it wasn't until 5.10pm that it advised of a grid emergency and told power companies to reduce demand. Genesis said by then it was too late to fire up its third turbine at Huntly.

The complex electricity market probably isn't well understood by most people and it's doubtful Woods will get answers that allow her to pin down responsibility for what happened.

Stuff helped to de-mystify it by publishing an article - NZ's electricity market explained - which is on its website.

In Parliament, Collins and her colleagues hammered the government and it wasn't just about the blackouts.

Last week's events in Tauranga where port workers boarded a ship that had 11 infected crew members became a horror story after Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed on Monday that 98 workers were involved and 87 were unvaccinated.

How could so many frontline workers in the most high-risk of situations be unvaccinated? Weren't they supposed to have been an absolute priority? National and the media demanded answers.

Ardern provided this explanation. "Barriers to those individuals having a vaccination… includes, unfortunately, misinformation, hesitancy and, of course, from the ports themselves a concern that mandating would destroy, potentially, supply lines."

Hipkins said conspiracy theories appeared to have taken hold, and it needed one-on-one

Intervention by health workers to persuade the port workers that the vaccine was safe.

Most of them were privately employed, he pointed out, which made things much more difficult. Taking them off the job because they hadn't been vaccinated could bring exports and imports to a grinding halt.

But where was the urgency? Hipkins said the government acted a month ago when it issued an order requiring port workers to get vaccinated. Government employees covered by the order have to have their first dose by August 26, while private employees have to have theirs by September 30.

Ardern insisted there had always been a sense of urgency about getting port workers vaccinated.

National didn't buy that. Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said it was seven months since Group 1, of which port workers were part, began to be vaccinated.

"Back in February the prime minister said all frontline workers would be vaccinated within two to three weeks," he said in a statement.

"In April she said 'time had run out' and unvaccinated frontline workers would need to be moved to low-risk roles."

Bishop said he had been told some frontline port workers in some DHB areas had been turned away when they tried to get vaccinated.

"It's clear port workers have been pushed down the queue because of our slow vaccine rollout - earlier in the year there simply wasn't enough vaccine to go around," he said.

As with the blackouts, the government wants answers and is investigating why the port workers were allowed to board the ship.

To its immense relief, they have all tested negative.

Port of Tauranga

Port of Tauranga. Photo: Supplied / Port of Tauranga

The Herald's Audrey Young said Ardern had been lucky to avoid political disaster this week.

On top of the power blackouts, she said, the Delta variant of Covid-19 could have been silently infecting Tauranga after the port workers boarded the infected ship.

"These two massive problems involve Ardern's most competent ministers, Energy Minister Megan Woods and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins," Young said.

"And they are about failures to deliver the absolute basics, heat and light in winter and border systems to keep out Covid."

Young concluded those two failures had helped National into a stronger position.

"National had one of the worst conferences in recent years," she said.

"Most stories about it were about divisions, the party looked weaker after the conference than before it.

"Within a day, Judith Collins, a former energy minister, suddenly sounded competent rather than a dysfunctional leader of a dysfunctional party. It was her best day in a long time."

By the end of the week the blackouts and the port worker debacles had been eclipsed.

After the report on reconnecting New Zealand to the world by Professor Sir David Skegg's team of experts was released, Ardern announced what the government was going to do.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this morning responds to a report from its Covid-19 advisory group on re-opening Aotearoa's borders. 12 August 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sets out a roadmap for re-opening the border. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

She set out a roadmap for re-opening the border, but before it can be used the vaccine rollout has to be completed.

"The advice is clear. If we open our border now we will lose the freedoms we have gained," Ardern said.

The government intends using the second half of the year to vaccinate as many people as possible, and trial having returnees isolate at home instead of in MIQ if they have been vaccinated.

Vaccinations will be fast-tracked and from 1 September everyone aged over 16 will be able to book. The gap between vaccinations will be extended from three to six weeks.

There will be a new risk assessment structure. All the details are on RNZ's website: [Risk-based border to open from early 2022 Risk-based border to open from early 2022].

National didn't oppose the plan but Bishop had plenty of questions: "How exactly will it work? How will the trial operate? Who will be selected? How long will it operate for? How will the effectiveness be assessed?"

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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