Week in Politics: The border bubble bursts

7:11 pm on 19 June 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Border security breaches shock the prime minister and the nation, the government unveils its first fast-track infrastructure projects, gun laws are passed by Parliament after New Zealand First gets its way and free trade talks with the UK are formally launched.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as they head to the House to present the 2020 Budget.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Border Botch-Up, Covid Shambles, Catalogue of Cock-Ups.

Headlines this week that revealed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her team of five million had been let down by shocking incompetence.

After it was reported that two women who had been allowed out of managed isolation in Auckland drove to Wellington and then tested positive for Covid-19, the stories of lax and lackadaisical administration started rolling in.

People who had recently arrived talked of not being tested at all, and on Friday one woman told RNZ she had to badger officials to get tested because she had been on the same plane as a passenger who had Covid-19.

There were reports of people mingling in bars in the hotels used for managed isolation, and TVNZ reported one establishment held a birthday party for one of its young guests, attended by children who had arrived on different flights.

This has been happening since Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced more than a week ago that under level 1 the testing regime for new arrivals would be ramped up and no one would leave before they had tested negative.

That clearly hasn't happened. Bloomfield and Health Minister David Clark have admitted they don't know how many left managed isolation untested.

The prime minister, angry and frustrated, called a press conference to describe the situation as totally unacceptable and announced she had put Deputy Chief of Defence Air Commodore Digby Webb in charge of border security.

Ardern felt badly let down. She said several times that ministers had been told safety protocols were being followed when they were not.

The evidence of what was happening on the ground was in stark contrast to Bloomfield's messages over many weeks that border security was absolutely vital and needed to be, in his words, 'watertight and airtight'.

Politically, the result was that the government lost control of the narrative. After front-footing the crisis for so long and being in charge of beating the virus, ministers found themselves trying to explain why the plan to keep it out had gone so badly wrong.

Bloomfield, a health war hero, was forced to tell Newstalk ZB he was not going to resign. "I haven't quit. I am not going to quit. I have worked hard to keep New Zealanders safe," he said.

The opposition seized its moment.

National leader Todd Muller told RNZ: "I am as furious as I suspect most New Zealanders are."

The party's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse told Parliament the claim that the two women who had driven to Wellington did not have contact with anyone on the way was wrong.

He said they had met two friends and there had been "a kiss and a cuddle". The Ministry of Health subsequently confirmed they had been "in limited physical contact with two friends for approximately five minutes".

Ardern needed someone to get a grip on all this and force it into shape. Her man is Air Commodore Webb. As Defence Minister Ron Mark told Morning Report on Friday, one thing the military is really good at is making people do what they're told.

The border security debacle wrecked what was meant to be a good week for the government. It began by announcing on Monday details of the first fast-track infrastructure projects which will create jobs and help kickstart the economic recovery.

The 11 projects range from housing developments to cycleways and roadworks, promising more than 1200 jobs. Parliament will pass a bill allowing them to get through the RMA consenting process quickly.

Environment Minister David Parker said they would get the green light within 40 to 75 working days compared with the many months under the usual process.

Parker, as Trade Minister, was joined by Ardern and UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke for the formal launch of free trade negotiations with post-Brexit Britain.

With two-way trade running at around $6 billion a year there's significant potential for New Zealand exporters to reap rewards. Both sides appear eager to get going but the FTA can't be finalised until the UK's Brexit negotiations with the EU have been completed.

After months of haggling, Labour and its coalition partner NZ First reached an agreement on the final form of the government's second tranche of gun law reforms.

Most of NZ First's objections to the original plan were sorted out and the bill was passed into law on Thursday.

Labour gave way on making it easier for farmers to use prohibited weapons for pest control and an independent authority to manage licensing and gun law administration will be set up.

The bill also paves the way for a firearms registry, but that's a few years away. Did Labour give in to NZ First pressure?

"Oh, I wouldn't say pressure at all, I think we worked constructively," Police Minister Stewart Nash said.

A report on the health service, two years in the making, was released this week and would have been the most important story had it not been for the border security breakdown.

Put together by Heather Simpson, an economist and former prime minister Helen Clark's chief of staff, it recommends reducing the number of DHBs from the current 20 to eight, with all their members appointed rather than elected. That caused immediate controversy, with concerns expressed that the boards would change every time a new government was elected.

The DHBs would report to a new entity separate from the ministry, and overall the changes represent the biggest shake-up of the health service in a generation. The government has endorsed the report but National is sceptical about its ability to carry out the reforms. "It hasn't delivered anything else," Woodhouse said.

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

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs