20 Aug 2020

Test fail: Is Labour bordering on trouble?

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 20 August 2020

These are testing times for New Zealanders, as Auckland spends two weeks at level three. But news over the past week that the testing at our borders has fallen far short of what the government promised has put Labour on the back foot and opened the door to its opponents.

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Police at the Grand Mecure Hotel in Wellington, which is being used as a managed isolation facility.

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

National and New Zealand First have stepped up with border protection policies that seek to out-tough each other. While Winston Peters said he’d “take every step” to improve our management of Covid-19, Judith Collins played to her “crusher” reputation insisting, “tough times need tough measures”.

Both parties are looking to capitalise on Labour’s growing reputation for porousness – from people escaping from isolation facilities to a failure to test all workers at the border. While Labour is the face of mismanagement – and it’s noticeable the party is trying to keep Jacinda Ardern’s face away from the tough questions, with Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods stepping forward to take the flak – the temporary wire fences surrounding quarantine hotels are becoming emblematic of a government still in makeshift mode, having to make up a response as it goes along. Such is the danger of incumbency; ministers this week are looking tired.

New Zealand First, by contrast, is promising to bring in the military to take over quarantine facilities, moving those in isolation to existing military bases at the likes of Ōhakea and Waiouru. They want a new Border Protection Force reporting to one Cabinet minister to lead New Zealand’s Covid-19 response. Voters have to decide how credible it is that a party sitting around the Cabinet table can point the finger at “the government”.

Winston Peters got his announcement out just ahead of National, which is also promising a new Border Protection Agency and one dedicated minister. National would also require all people travelling to New Zealand (including citizens) to be tested before they board the plane (or boat), mandate contact tracing for frontline border workers, aim to cut test waits to one hour and require rest-home workers to be tested regularly. Both parties are stressing that their plans are long-term and sustainable.

As Lisa Owen pointed out in this week’s Caucus podcast, it shows how concerned the public is about their health and safety when the parties of the centre-right and individual responsibility are so eager to introduce compulsion. Even ACT is stressing that the government’s one job is to protect the border. “No-one’s a libertarian in a crisis,” says Guyon Espiner, adding that both National and New Zealand First are instinctively conservative parties happy to appear tough on law and order.

The election campaign – though technically suspended – has focused on border controls because of revelations that as of 3 August, 63.5 percent of all border and hotel isolation workers in Auckland had never been tested for Covid-19. The now famous David Clark press release of 23 June promised “regular health check and asymptomatic testing of all border facing workers” and in a 15 July speech Ardern said the government had “ensured our frontline workers at the border are… getting regularly tested”. But they weren’t, until Newshub reported the fact and the government quickly issued an order to make weekly testing compulsory.

As a result, Labour’s spent the week on the defensive. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s weekly media appearances on Tuesday morning were something of a broken record as she stuck strictly to her prepared lines that she had understood everyone was being tested, her expectation had been made clear and that one of the reasons people hadn’t been tested was a “reluctance” among border staff. Except union leaders denied that and some workers have come forward to say they have been asking for tests but were told they were not available.

To add to Ardern’s woes, those lines lacked internal consistency. She claimed on one hand that she thought the universal tests were happening (as per the 23 June statement and 15 July speech). On the other hand she recalled conversations about staff being reluctant to be tested. Both can’t be true. If the prime minister was being briefed about reluctant staff, she knew that not everyone on the border was being tested and that the statements she and her ministers were making about all frontline workers being tested were false.

For a politician whose reputation is based on trust and who has said she would never lie, it’s been a damaging week.

The one bright spark for her this week has been the widespread praise for her decision to delay the election until 17 October – the fourth delayed election in New Zealand’s history. The decision is not one she would have wanted to make, given Labour’s current poll lead and the dangers of incumbency in a pandemic. National gets to put more distance between itself and its leadership upheavals and dirty politics scandals while the minor parties get to put their buses – and campaigns more generally – back on the road. But the good bit for Labour is that the delay reinforces the image of Ardern as ‘above politics’, willing to be kind to her opponents and do the right thing, when in truth she had very little choice.

A key question for the coming week will be whether National and the minor parties can build momentum on the back of Labour’s border botch-ups or if Labour can regain some lustre by managing a smooth, safe transition back down the alert levels.

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