The Week in Politics: Ardern, Luxon, Peters and the protesters

7:15 pm on 25 February 2022

Analysis - Another week of protest politics as Jacinda Ardern describes Christopher Luxon's comments as "dangerously close to sympathy". The prime minister sets out a plan for easing restrictions and ending mandates, Winston Peters gets in on the act and the country moves to phase 3 of its Omicron response as cases explode.

Winston Peters visits protestors at Parliament

NZ First leader Winston Peters visited the protest site and talked to the protesters this week. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The government this week signalled an easing of restrictions and the gradual lifting of vaccine mandates, the closest it has come to setting out a timeline.

At her post-cabinet press conference on Monday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Omicron outbreak first had to reach its peak and cases start to decrease.

That could be "roughly late to mid-March, only three to six weeks away," she said.

"At that point, if we follow the pattern of other countries, we'll likely see a rapid decline followed by cases stabilising at a lower level. That is the point when we can start to do things differently."

RNZ's report has full details of her speech.

Parliament was in recess this week but outside the building the protest against mandates, driven by numerous other grievances as well, maintained its noisy presence.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon decided to enter the debate around it, first with a statement on Sunday and then a speech delivered just before Ardern's post-cabinet press conference.

The Herald's Audrey Young said he was attempting to insert himself into the agenda as a unifying figure and criticised the way he went about it.

"Christopher Luxon's latest contribution to the occupation of Parliament grounds and the surrounding streets reeks of opportunism," Young said.

"'This is a situation entirely of the government's making,' he said on Sunday. Nobody believes that."

She then quoted from his speech on Monday: "We must chart a path to that middle ground that unites us, and not allow ourselves to be divided into warring factions, inextricably and increasingly opposed."

Young saw that as "an attempt to elevate the demands of the protesters to end vaccine mandates to some kind of groundswell in the broader population".

Luxon said the government should set out a plan to end mandates - "that's my challenge to the government: 'You've got to do better than saying at some point they'll come to an end'."

He said the mandates had caused "real hardship and despair".

Responding to Luxon's comments about the country being divided Ardern said: "I don't see differences in opinion as being a sign of widespread division. I do believe there is majority support for the way we are handling what is one of the hardest parts of the pandemic."

And her response to his comments about protesters and mandates was to point out that all the parties in Parliament had signed a statement, released last week, saying none would engage with what was illegal activity.

Luxon had come "dangerously close to sympathy" for the protesters, she said.

Christopher Luxon and Jacinda Ardern serious face

National leader Christopher Luxon said the government needed to set out a plan to end mandates as they had caused 'real hardship and despair', however Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said a majority of New Zealanders supported the government's handling of 'one of the hardest parts of the pandemic'. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National's leader came back on that: "Just because you're criticising doesn't mean that I'm with the protesters - I've been rock solid with the government all the way through that and rejecting the protesters."

Luxon said he should be able to criticise the government and say it should do a better job.

One party leader who hadn't signed the statement was Winston Peters, and he got into the act as well.

Peters visited the site and talked to the protesters, identified with them and said political leaders should be talking to them. They were reported to have swarmed around him, and he probably picked up a few NZ First votes.

Peters didn't wear a mask - he could hardly have done so because they abuse anyone who does.

Asked about that, Peters replied: "The masks being offered these days, unless they're highly surgical masks of a certain scientific and medical content, are a waste of time."

Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson took him on over that.

"Winston has no idea what he's talking about," Jackson told Newshub.

"N95 and equivalent masks are now widely available and you don't need a specialist to fit them. Also, no mask is useless. Any mask is better than no mask."

On Thursday, as the Ministry of Health reported 6137 new cases over the previous 24 hours, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced that phase 3 of the Omicron response plan would start at midnight.

Professor Tony Blakely, watching it unfold from Melbourne University, told Stuff it was more likely there were 25,000 new cases.

He said Omicron's ability to evade detection meant there were likely tens of thousands more infections a day.

Prof Tony Blakely

Melbourne University's Professor Tony Blakely said it was likely the real number of Covid-19 infections in New Zealand was many thousands more than were being reported. Photo: Billy Wong/University of Auckland

New Zealand would likely hit a peak of 80,000 infections a day but it would show up at 20,000 to 25,000, Blakely said.

"My estimates suggest New South Wales had 200,000 cases a day at its peak so putting that into a NZ pro rata context would make a peak of 120,000 cases a day."

Phase 3 is designed for very high numbers. There are so many cases that contact tracing is impossible, only very high risk locations are published and only household contacts of a case have to isolate by law.

To find out what it means, read RNZ's Omicron phase three - what you need to know.

The only good side is that other countries have seen huge increases in numbers and then a peak and a slow-down. The big question for New Zealand is how long it's going to take for that to happen.

Hopefully Ardern got it right with her three to six weeks estimate.

All this was happening against the backdrop of one of the most dangerous international situations in decades.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine demanded a response and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave it. She called in Russia's ambassador to hear New Zealand's strong opposition to what was happening.

Mahuta told Morning Report New Zealand had the power to introduce travel bans and some export controls but not its own economic sanctions against Russia.

Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta holds a press conference in the Beehive Theatrette on the Three Waters reform.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta issued a joint statement with the prime minister, confirming the government was implementing a range of measures against Russia. Photo: Pool image / Robert Kitchin /Stuff

She didn't think this weakened New Zealand's position. Standing alongside other Western nations sent a strong message that there was a united front opposing Russia's actions, she said.

New Zealand can only impose economic sanctions through the UN, and National called for a law change which would enable it to do so autonomously.

Foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said Russia was a permanent member of the Security Council and would veto any UN sanctions against itself.

Travel bans were "a nonsense" and there should be a law change that would allow autonomous sanctions. National would work with the government to get it through as quickly as possible, he said.

There were no indications the government was considering that.

Late on Thursday night Ardern and Mahuta issued a joint statement confirming the government was implementing a range of measures including a travel ban on Russian officials and limiting diplomatic engagements.

"This is an unprovoked and unnecessary attack by Russia," Ardern said. "An unthinkable number of innocent lives could be lost because of Russia's decision."

*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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