A number of government announcements in the last week or so give the impression the wheels are starting to come off at the Beehive.
It's not just that Covid decisions are increasingly erratic, though they are. Ministers have also lost the room, particularly in Auckland, and seem to have no ability to do the things that will win it back.
It started last Friday with the confusing and indecisive traffic lights announcement. Cynically held until the eve of a long weekend, it raised more questions than it answered.
The one thing Aucklanders and Waikato people really want to know is "when do we come out of lockdown?" There wasn't even a target date.
The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming for weeks to announce a vaccination target. When they finally did, they set an almost impossible one in a vain and quixotic attempt to recover the "world-leading" tag so important to the Prime Minister.
Aucklanders don't want to be world-leading any more. They just want to be able to go to the shops and meet their mates without feeling they might be breaking the law.
In other jurisdictions, leaders announce target dates and scales of freedom that increase at waypoints, like 70, 80 and 90 per cent double-vaxxed, but not here. We stay hair-shirted and locked down because that is what Wellington thinks is good for us.
Wellington, of course, being one of the places that isn't locked down.
According to current vaccination projections, Auckland won't hit the 90 per cent target until the end of November, by which point it will have spent more than 100 days in a lockdown doing huge damage to the city and its people.
The Prime Minister does herself no favours in refusing to address a timeframe, and even less so in telling people cheerily that the city is nearly at 90 per cent single-vaxxed, as if that means anything for people's freedoms. Taking the voters for fools is not a sustainable strategy.
It's made worse when the reasons for the lockdown — a slow vaccination rollout, no urgent hospital upgrades, delayed vaccination certificates, no rapid antigen testing — are obvious to nearly everyone.
Things haven't got any better for the Government since. At the end of a week of big political announcements, people are more confused and directionless than at the beginning. That takes a special political skill.
The nadir was Chris Hipkins' non-announcement of any changes to education settings on Wednesday. After spruiking an MIQ announcement and then delaying it, he spruiked instead an education announcement and then announced precisely ... nothing. There was a vague reference to primary schools possibly opening in Auckland in the middle of November, but that was it.
Education is one of the areas where policy contradictions are most obvious. Why is it that year 9 and 10 students aren't allowed back at school when they are as vaccinated as years 11 to 13? Why does the vaccination mandate not apply to teachers until January, when it applies to other mandated employees earlier? Who knows?
Contradictions abound everywhere. The eventual MIQ announcement was a silly half measure that pleased no one. It is apparently okay for people living here who have Covid to isolate at home (some 280 at last count), while double-vaxxed Kiwis with no Covid who have had myriad tests still have to spend seven days in MIQ prison on their arrival into New Zealand. Retaining the MIQ bottleneck is nonsensical, inflexible and inhumane.
The internal border is another hive of contradictions. Auckland and Waikato are locked off from each other, yet both are in lockdown. The police set up roadblocks to stop Aucklanders leaving, but not in the Waikato. Northland and now Christchurch are not in lockdown despite now having community cases.
The internal borders are rapidly becoming an unsustainable artefact. Everybody knows they won't be here by Christmas, so why not sooner? All they likely do is reduce the urgency in regional New Zealand to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, individuals and families carry the pain. This week we heard about the heartless decision to prevent a grieving father's sister from flying from Blenheim to Auckland to comfort him at the funeral for his 8-year-old son. He went to the media in desperation and the decision was finally turned around but it was too late. Asked what he would do on the day of the funeral, he simply said he would cry.
We also heard of the son stuck in MIQ as his father lay dying in Tauranga. After pleading, he was finally driven to Tauranga by MIQ staff for two hours, and then dragged back to Auckland in time to make his scheduled release from MIQ the very next day. This is becoming one of the least compassionate governments we have seen.
In non-Covid news, the Minister of Local Government, having failed to persuade people of the merits of her plan to reorganise the three waters, announced that she will unilaterally confiscate the water assets of ratepayers up and down the country despite the opposition of nearly every council. A sensible, politically adept government would have crafted a reasonable compromise. Not this one.
To top the week, the Transport Minister announced the latest plan to spend a whopping $15 billion on "light" rail to a small labour-voting slice of the Auckland isthmus.
Announcing you will spend the equivalent of 6 per cent of our country's whole economic output on one local transport project in the midst of a pandemic which is already blowing debt out towards 50 per cent of GDP is completely tone deaf. It beggars belief that Grant Robertson let this out the door.
The underlying thread to this week's frenetic activity is random decision-making and no strategic leadership. Every announcement seems to add to the pile of problems and questions, rather than shrink it down. That's bad for any government.
Ministers need to straighten up the ship and start focusing on what's important to the public now, before it is too late. People in Auckland, Waikato and across the country need a clear path out of this. The Government does too. When the wheels start to come off, the people in the Beehive are often the last to realise it.
- Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.