From the left: Jacinda Ardern's former chief of staff Mike Munro joins the Weekend Business Herald as a monthly columnist from today.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered another masterclass in crisis communications as she advised Aucklanders on Monday that they faced just two more days at level 4 lockdown. Or, more pertinently, two more days until they could enjoy a takeaways fix.
Her adroit performance at the post-Cabinet press conference was what we've come to expect. From the moment she reached the lectern, de-masked and apologised for being delayed by a frozen computer, it was textbook stuff.
Her trademark empathy and keen intuition were on show as she gently coaxed her million-plus audience to hang in there.
Aucklanders were applauded for their "tireless" work in the face of "strict and hard" lockdown rules. She beseeched everyone to be stay mindful of the seriousness of the current situation. Businesses resuming trade were urged to watch out for the welfare of staff. And throughout she kept beating the vaccination drum.
In these uncertain, Covid-19 times, the (mostly) 1pm press conferences have become the equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats. Ninety years ago the US President introduced his radio broadcasts to calm national anxieties over the many issues vexing Americans at the time, in particular a banking crisis. He was able to reach out to voters directly, his words unfiltered by media. Roosevelt would be comforting and reassuring, praising the people for their fortitude in troubled times.
For Ardern and her Government, the daily briefings are serving the same purpose. Press conferences have long been an essential part of the communications mix in political life. But in the grip of this pandemic, with national life severely disrupted, anxiety levels rising and so many questions arising, they assume an even greater importance.
In the political domain, media scrutiny is but one of a suite of accountability mechanisms that also include the Opposition, the Official Information Act, judicial reviews and, most critically, elections.
Opposition MPs like to believe they're the ringmasters when it comes to keeping the Government honest. We saw this when Ardern — citing reservations about the safety of MPs and parliamentary staff travelling during lockdown — recently suspended Parliament for a week. Some reacted as if she was emulating Guy Fawkes and plotting to detonate the place.
The bellyaching included: the PM is stopping the Opposition from fulfilling its democratic function. We're not taking democracy as seriously as we should. A virtual sitting of Parliament is no substitute for the "real thing".
This flood of crocodile tears overlooked a stark reality. As the Government grapples with the pandemic, the most important accountability forum in town, by a wide margin, is the daily Covid-19 press conference in the Beehive theatrette. It is there, and not in Parliament's debating chamber, that the Government is being held to account, exhaustively and rigorously, over its pandemic decision-making.
Ardern and her able stand-ins, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins, are bombarded with journalists' questions on the whole gamut of pandemic-related topics: vaccines, the elimination strategy, mystery cases, lockdowns, alert levels, MIQ failings and much more. No Covid rock is left unturned.
What is noticeable when Parliament sits is that the Opposition is reduced to re-heating questions already asked by journalists at the 1pm briefings.
Not once in the nine parliamentary Question Times since the August 17 lockdown has the Opposition scored a hit on the Government. They are simply picking over the bones after the media has feasted.
The fact that massive audiences are tuning in to the daily briefings, and seeing Ardern and her lieutenants handle the crisis so adeptly, will be adding to the despair of a battered National Party.
It is possible as many as 2 million people were following the Government's briefings during the early weeks of the current outbreak. On August 20, TVNZ's peak day, it had an average audience of 908,000, while TV3 attracted 226,572 — add to that the numbers watching the New Zealand Herald and Stuff livestreams, plus RNZ's radio and online audiences, and you have vast numbers tuning in.
The PM's media activity elsewhere also helps to deepen trust in the Government's ability to handle the pandemic. Her weekly appearances on the likes of breakfast television, RNZ's Morning Report, Maori TV and Mai FM means she is constantly answering for her Government's decisionmaking.
Recent polls illustrate the political upside that flows from Ardern's competent and calm leadership being perpetually on display. UMR, Labour's pollster, scored Ardern's preferred PM rating at 55 per cent, a rise of five points.
Curia, National's pollster, also had Ardern as the runaway leader in the preferred PM stakes, her rating nudging 51 per cent. Everyone else was in single figures. Curia's soundings also showed a chunk of the true-blue brigade has switched camps, with Ardern now the preferred PM of 7 per cent of National voters.
Governments instil voters with greater confidence when their approach to media scrutiny is "bring it on". With its most gifted communicator leading the charge, that formula is working for the government right now.
As Newshub's recently returned UK correspondent Lloyd Burr observed, 16 months of enduring Boris Johnson's blather at Covid-19 briefings made him realise how refreshing Ardern's communications approach is.
The latest polls tell us most New Zealanders are thinking the same thing.
- Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and served as chief press secretary for Helen Clark.