If a week is a long time in politics, then in a global pandemic, a single day is an eon.
Two Fridays ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern assured us that the weekend's Christchurch memorial service would go ahead at the 7000-seat Horncastle Arena. She reversed herself the following day. Now, the same Prime Minister has made it illegal for two old friends to shake hands or hug in the street.
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A week ago, Ardern was telling us not just that it was safe for children to keep going to school, but that it was the best way to prevent them spreading Covid-19. Today, the children of the middle class, at least, are starting their third day of online learning. In Australia, Scott Morrison remains flummoxed by the schools question.
Lest this be incorrectly read as criticism of the Prime Minister, recall that 10 days ago Opposition leader Simon Bridges attacked the Government for using Covid-19 as a cover to increase benefits by $25 a week. He was universally condemned for being partisan and mean-spirited. On Wednesday, his party joined all others in ramming through emergency legislation that will eventually put the whole country on some sort of dole.
"There's no National," Bridges told Parliament, "or Labour, or Green, or Act, or New Zealand First; [there's] just New Zealanders."
Intense political and perhaps legal debate will rage over the next 20 years about whether Ardern should have put New Zealand into lockdown a bit earlier or a bit later than 11.59 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2020. Did her giving students another two days to get home cost lives?
Academics in medical journals will still argue such things in 100 years as they plan for the great pandemic of the 2100s, just as today's epidemiologists have spent their lives studying the 1918 influenza pandemic and the various waves of polio outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1960s.
One thing is clear. Free-market capitalism is unsurpassed at inventing, creating and producing houses, cars, iPhones, cool sneakers and jeans. We need to get back to it as soon as we can. But if you're wanting to win a war, the system you're looking for is effectively communism.
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This refers obviously to the likes of Stalin, Mao or Ho Chi Minh, but not exclusively. Among his first acts as Prime Minister in 1940, the impeccable anti-communist Churchill rushed through legislation placing "all persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown". Roosevelt's War Powers Act 1941 was scarcely less extreme.
Without such draconian measures, and with the exception of the Falklands War in 1982 and the Gulf War of 1991, even the US and UK have failed to conclusively win any of the wars or "police actions" they have fought since 1945.
Supported unanimously by Parliament, Ardern's Government is being trusted with the kinds of totalitarian powers necessary in the current emergency.
The whole population has in practice been put on home detention for at least a month, a punishment more commonly associated with assault with intent or serious fraud.
The impressive Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black — now sadly well experienced at dealing with real-life emergencies — has been frank about the police and even the army patrolling the streets to enforce the rules. Just as people caught breaching home detention shouldn't count on being bailed back to home, those caught breaching Ardern's new rules must expect to find themselves locked up.
The situation in Europe is now very close to martial law. Whatever Donald Trump says about the US reopening by Easter, his country will soon move to something like martial law. Seeking herd immunity — as Boris Johnson sought at the outset — may very well be the most mathematically correct strategy but it is politically intolerable not just in a democracy, but even in China or North Korea.
Polling and online focus groups in other countries suggest an overwhelming majority of people are prepared to accept usually unthinkable measures if that is what is required.
The longer-term problem, therefore, is how long the lockdown will last. As suggested last week, we have an outside chance Ardern's latest radical new lockdown and border controls will eliminate the virus from the population over the next month. We will be able to enjoy an idyllic existence safe behind our 1000-mile-wide moat.
More likely, no matter how diligently most of us follow the rules and however harshly the police and courts treat those who don't, new cases will keep popping up. We may follow the Hong Kong experience where we think we have it beaten only to let down our guard.
Will Ardern then need to further tighten the rules? How long after the first four weeks will she extend the lockdown? Another two months to make it three? Three more after that to take us to October? It seems likely we can forget about holding the election planned for September 19.
Until a vaccine is developed, which could take a year, is there any point at which we would want Ardern to relax the rules?
Our Prime Minister may have turned out not to be so good at building houses but, having observed her career for more than 10 years, I can assure readers she is a genuine democrat with enormous personal integrity. Her right-hand man Grant Robertson is more Machiavellian but, having known him for nearly 30 years, I am confident in giving the same broad guarantee. We should give them every support.
Similarly, Simon Bridges may make a boob of himself from time to time, but can be trusted to get it broadly right when it counts. The new select committee he chairs is now the only legislative check on Ardern and Robertson. We should support him when he aggressively critiques their latest decrees, even when we think he's wrong. To maintain confidence in democracy, all the select committee meetings must be broadcast live on Parliamentary TV.
The speed of events makes it impossible to predict what I'll be writing about next week. But, while Ardern, Robertson and Bridges are all flawed, we can be optimistic they'll somehow get us through.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.