Claire Trevett: Government muscling on Covid, Auckland, and Three Waters

OPINION

If you can’t persuade the people to come with you, sometimes you have to force them.

The past week has delivered examples of the good, the bad and the ugly of Government muscle.

The Covid-19 response is at something of a precipice as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern slowly tightened the screws on the unvaccinated.

Then came the return of big issues that were causing Labour headaches before the Delta outbreak took the focus off them: the Three Waters, health reforms and Labour’s potential folly, light rail in Auckland.

All are fertile soil for Opposition parties National and Act. NZ First leader Winston Peters was back doing what he does best and tickling the disgruntlement, issuing thundering press releases about Covid-19, Government “power grabs” of water assets, and budget blowouts for the light rail project.

There are memes circling, predominantly in right-wing circles, about the “dictatorship” tendencies of Ardern and the Government.

It is true measures that would usually be associated with a dictatorship have been a part of the arsenal for dealing with Covid-19.They were used with the consent of the people and because they were necessary.

When China imposed lockdowns at the very beginning of Covid-19 in 2020, some noted that no leader of a democratic nation would get away with doing the same thing. Most countries then did exactly the same thing and got away with it.

Such measures are the reasons that in the final tally, New Zealand will come out better off than most other countries.

Now in a bid to get away from lockdowns, Ardern is taking other measures she never thought she would do: ever-increasing vaccine mandates.

The reason is the powder keg that is Auckland.

There is frustration about the international borders, but still some tolerance for being cautious (or slow) about opening those borders and easing back on MIQ.

But things are a lot more volatile when it comes to Auckland being able to open – both within its boundaries and to other regions.

The first depends on Auckland’s vaccination rates hitting 90 per cent. The latter depends on other regions’ vaccination rates hitting 90 per cent. The first will come first.

The question the PM will then face is whether to abandon the strict 90 per cent target for the rest of the country and push go. That will almost inevitably happen when she weighs it up in a month, even if some regions are still short.

Covid-19 has made a pragmatist out of her before and still is.

It is why she gave up on elimination in Auckland. It is also why she has now moved to introduce vaccination certificates – and a broad vaccination mandate to go with it, despite the impact it has on the freedoms of the unvaccinated.

She has gradually ratcheted up the pressure on the vaccine hesitant – from encouraging people on, to withdrawing from them the same pleasures of life as the vaccinated, to putting their jobs on the line.

There will soon be effective vaccines mandates over about 40 per cent of the workforce.
They are being considered for domestic flights, at the Auckland boundary, and an increasing number of businesses are making it clear they will apply.

Yes, there will be two classes of people – the vaccinated and unvaccinated – for at least a while. That might inflame things on the anti-vaxxer front.

Dover Samuels is not an anti-vaxxer, but he rang the other day to talk about those avoiding the vaccine in Northland. He said this: “it won’t be the virus that gets out of control, it’s the people’s response to it.”

But Ardern’s choice was between locking down 100 per cent of the people and enduring the anger of 85–90 per cent of them, or in locking down 10-15 per cent of the people.

It’s fair to say the majority are on her side on this one.

But there is Ardern’s Covid management and then there is the other business of Government.

A head of steam has built up around the Three Waters reforms in particular.

Some in Labour like to think all the objections to those reforms are only coming from the right, but that would be a foolish assumption.

The most prominent councils opposing it are led by Labour-aligned or left-leaning Mayors.

It has turned the prosaic world of sewage pipes and drains into a political hot potato.

Mahuta insists the regional entities will deliver both better services and better value for ratepayers who have been let down by some councils. She is probably right. At the moment, the councils embracing it are those that have dud infrastructure.

The programme is a get-out-of-jail-free card for some of them.

The Government’s failure on this has not been in the plan itself – there is some consensus that amalgamation is needed.

It is in the selling of the plan and in making councils believe that opting out of the reforms was ever going to be a reality. Nor has it managed to dispel concern among some about the role mana whenua will have in a partnership role alongside councils in overseeing the water assets.

Labour had initially hoped to get councils onside, offering them the option of opting out and offering them a wee cash sweetener to try and get them to opt in.

Too many councils went for the opt-out clause, so Labour is now simply muscling the reforms through regardless.

As a result, it has become about more than just pipes, drains and pumping stations.

It has become about whether central government is stripping local communities of voices and influence and is pursuing an ideological agenda of centralisation. It is also being seen as a harbinger of what might come in the wider local government reforms.

Governments should not resile from unpopular reforms just because they are unpopular. But they do have to make a good case as to why they are necessary, and sometimes compromise.

Sir John Key got away with increasing GST to pay for income tax cuts because of a good sales job. He did the same with National’s plan to sell off minority stakes in state energy assets – a policy Labour fought tooth and nail.

Ardern is so bogged down by Covid-19 she has not been the front-woman on other prickly issues which need a strong persuader.

It is not the only issue Labour will face a backlash to.

The health reforms will also need careful handling rather than a bullish approach. Aucklanders will need to be convinced light rail is worth the money and the disruption.

Climate change policy will step back into the limelight as the Government unveils its new targets ahead of COP26 in Glasgow – and the costs and measures needed to get there become clear.

To see these reforms through to fruition, Ardern will need to win a third term.

That is far from certain.

If National and Act ever come to remember that Ardern is their common enemy, rather than each other, it could get even harder for her.

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