The Year in Politics: 'Be strong but be kind'

2:54 pm on 30 December 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The year 2020 was the most challenging year any New Zealand government has faced. It was the year of Covid, the year of economic recession and the beginning of recovery.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern not only led the country through it, she won an unprecedented election victory at the end of it.

When Ardern held her last post-Cabinet press conference of 2020 she recalled that when she held the first one she had spoken about the New Zealanders in China's Hubei Province where a new and deadly virus was reported to have broken out.

That covered the entire year, and when she was asked to describe 2020 in two words, she said she could do it in one: "Horrendous."

It was. The first cases of what was to become known as Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan City in December 2019 and began to spread around the world.

New Zealand's first cases were reported in early March and quickly increased. The government brought in travel restrictions from some countries and on 19 March closed the border to everyone except returning residents. It had never happened before, and the economic impact was immediate, particularly on tourism.

Ardern was resolute: "I'm not willing to take risks here."

The four-level alert system was introduced and as the number of cases continued to grow so did the severity of the measures taken to contain the virus. On 25 March Ardern announced an alert level 4 lockdown with the words: "Be strong but be kind, we will be okay."

It was set for a month and extended for five days. It worked, and cases decreased. Alert levels were lowered until there were no new community cases being reported. The government had decided on an elimination strategy, it wasn't going to try to contain the virus and live with it.

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Dr Ashley Bloomfield at the back, and David Clark at the fore. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, became a household name and a trusted communicator - T-shirts with his face on them started to appear.

David Clark, the health minister who should have been in charge, didn't appear to have a grip on what was going on and was at home in Dunedin during the lockdown while other key ministers were in Wellington.

He then broke the travel rules by going to a beach with his family, and that was the end of him. Ardern kept him on despite opposition and media pressure, but Clark eventually resigned on 2 July saying "it's best that I step aside". It was, and Chris Hipkins took over the health portfolio.

He wasn't the only ministerial casualty of the year. Workplace relations and immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway was dismissed by Ardern on 22 July after it was revealed he had carried on an affair with a woman who had previously worked in his office and was based in one of his agencies.

"His position as a minister was untenable," Ardern said. "The minister has shown a lack of judgment over a period of 12 months."

These were brief distractions from what was really concerning the nation and the government. The Ministry of Health had set up testing and contact tracing systems which at first were problematic. Border security was vital and managed isolation facilities were set up for people entering the country. There were issues there as well, but they were worked through.

The economic impact was appalling. The government's debt reduction targets went out the window as it borrowed $60 billion to cover the cost of assistance to keep businesses open and a wage subsidy to avoid lay-offs.

It seemed awful, but most of the rest of the world was in far worse shape. The government's strategy was praised internationally and New Zealand was held up as an example of what could be achieved through strong leadership, honest communication and public support for emergency measures.

Ardern put it down to the efforts of her "team of five million". There were subsequent outbreaks, notably in Auckland, but vigilance won and they were dealt with.

The prime minister also dealt with non-Covid issues, she apologised to victims, families and the broader Muslim community for failings that created an environment in which the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks could be carried out.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the killings reported in December concluding there was "no plausible way he [the gunman] could have been detected except by chance" by state agencies.

It put up 44 recommendations on issues ranging from gun law administration to hate speech law, and the government accepted them all.

The 'Covid election'

The election which had been scheduled for 19 September was delayed until 17 October because a two-week lockdown in Auckland had restricted campaigning.

The prime minister said it was going to be "a Covid election" and, as well as campaigning, held frequent pandemic briefings usually carried live by TV networks and media websites. Opposition parties didn't like it but couldn't do anything about it.

Ardern never said "trust me to keep you safe" but that was the message and it helped Labour win 65 seats in Parliament. Ardern formed the first majority government since MMP was introduced in 1996.

National suffered a dreadful defeat, its caucus reduced from the 56 seats it won in 2017 to 33, and there's little doubt the party's self-inflicted disasters were a factor in Labour's unprecedented victory.

Simon Bridges was its leader at the beginning of the year. Despite his low personal popularity ratings, National was strong in the polls and some surveys showed it could win an election.

When the pandemic struck and the government began taking strenuous measures to control it, Bridges decided to go on the attack. He criticised the severity of the measures and the economic impact they were having. He persistently and unfavourably compared those measures with Australia's less severe restrictions and blamed the government for the vast debt that was being incurred.

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Simon Bridges and Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Bridges had read the public wrong. People were more concerned about not catching Covid-19, and his popularity sank even further.

Todd Muller decided it was time to strike. With popular Auckland MP Nikki Kaye by his side he forced a caucus leadership vote and on 22 May became the leader of the National Party with Kaye as his deputy.

It was reported, but never confirmed, that the result was very close and there could have been just one vote in it.

This was happening in the middle of a pandemic when people were worried about catching a potentially fatal disease and whether their jobs and businesses would survive. Seeing National totally absorbed with itself didn't impress them.

That was bad but there was worse to come. Muller's leadership lasted just 53 days and on 14 July he resigned saying: "It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and leader of the National Party."

Mental health reasons were cited, some critics said he couldn't stand the heat so decided to get out the kitchen.

Muller had not done well. His leadership was beset with problems from the beginning when in a TV interview at his home a red cap carrying US President Donald Trump's slogan Make America Great Again was prominent on a shelf in the background.

He was criticised for a lack of diversity in his shadow cabinet and made a hash of dealing with the fallout when one of his MPs, Hamish Walker, admitted leaking Covid-19 patient information to the media. Walker withdrew from re-election.

National sealing the leaks

Former party president Michelle Boag confessed to being the one who sent him the information, gained through her position with the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. She had also sent it to Michael Woodhouse, National's health spokesperson, but he didn't do anything with it.

Muller had been under intense media scrutiny since winning the leadership, and it was becoming obvious he wasn't up to it.

His resignation threw National into disarray with the party looking as though it couldn't run itself let alone run a country. The rot had to be stopped, and an emergency caucus meeting was called on the night of Muller's resignation.

The MPs turned to Judith Collins, who had stood for the leadership in the past and failed.

Collins came out swinging, vowing to hold Ardern to account and saying her party could "crush" the government in the election.

The next day she found out she was going to have to do it without two of her strongest MPs. Kaye and Amy Adams, another Muller supporter, announced they were quitting. That meant a rush to find new candidates for their seats, particularly Auckland Central which was held by Kaye. National lost Auckland Central to the Greens' Chloe Swarbrick.

Collins then found herself dealing with another scandal. The parents of a young woman aged over 18 notified the prime minister's office that their daughter had received an indecent image sent by National's Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon.

Ardern's office forwarded the information to Collins' office. She dealt with it and Falloon resigned on 20 July. Police investigated, announcing in December that charges wouldn't be laid.

Collins scrambled to put a campaign together but time was running out and there was a pitfall ahead. Denise Lee, one of her Auckland MPs, sent an email to the entire caucus complaining about Collins' leadership style.

It was leaked to the media, along with disparaging comments from other, unidentified MPs also unhappy about the way Collins was running the show.

Collins hammered Ardern over the plight of the economy, border security breaches and her government's failure to meet its child poverty reduction targets. She gave it her best shot but against the backdrop of internal mayhem and damaging leaks she was heading for a hiding.

"Disunity is death," she said after the election, promising there wouldn't be any more of it and she would show New Zealand "a new National Party".

Collins also said Covid-19 and the government's focus on it had obscured important issues such as the economic recovery, infrastructure and child poverty. She was right, but it was too late. Ardern had decided it would be a Covid election, and it was.

David Seymour's ACT Party benefitted greatly from National's misfortunes. After being his party's sole MP since first being elected in 2014, Seymour now had nine colleagues. This remarkable surge in support is likely to have come largely from National supporters disenchanted with the leadership chaos - a drift towards ACT which Collins identified and tried to counter during the campaign.

The Greens gained two seats and came back with 10, but their influence over the government for the next three years will be essentially meaningless. It doesn't need their votes. Ardern decided co-leader James Shaw should continue as Climate Change Minister and gave the other co-leader, Marama Davidson, the portfolios of Associate Housing (Homelessness) and Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence. Shaw and Davidson are not members of Cabinet.

The Greens signed a co-operation agreement with Labour which will keep the parties on good terms up to the next election, when a coalition partner could be needed.

Māori Party in, NZ First out

The Māori Party re-entered Parliament when co-leader Rawiri Waititi won the Waiariki seat from Labour's Tāmati Coffey. It gained enough party votes for the other co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, to join him as a list MP. They promised they would be "the unapologetic voice for Maori" and Ngarewa-Packer showed what that meant when she made her maiden speech.

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Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

She described early New Zealand governments as monsters, murderers and rapists. "I stand here as a descendant of a people who survived a holocaust, a genocide sponsored by this House and Members of Parliament whose portraits still hang from these walls," she said.

If 2020 was a bad year for National it was even worse for New Zealand First, the party led since its creation in 1993 by Winston Peters. Winning only 2.6 percent of the party vote when it needed 5 percent, it was kicked out of Parliament. Its hopes of winning an electorate seat and avoiding the threshold were dashed when Shane Jones ran a poor third in Northland.

The party was an often troublesome coalition partner for Labour in the last Parliament, refusing to support a capital gains tax, blocking infrastructure projects it didn't like and refusing to allow a settlement of the Ihumātao land dispute.

Peters campaigned on the vital need for a "handbrake" on the reckless policies of a Labour/Greens government but voters didn't buy it. It was essentially negative campaigning about how he would prevent things from happening. It clearly didn't work but there could have been another element - perhaps voters had finally had enough of the kingmaker deciding who should lead the next government.

*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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