Some are hoping that we are going to emerge from this Covid-19 pandemic into a brave new world, where lessons learned will be taken to heart and we will mend some of the bad habits we have developed over less trying times. So what have we learned?
For one, we now know that many of us struggle to do without fast food and coffee made by someone else. We were told last week that one in six of us had queued for McDonald's on the first day of lockdown level 3, some of us many hours before the restaurants opened. And we know that this virus has made little difference to the way some of us expect others to pick up our rubbish.
Perhaps one day nature will come up with a virus that targets the selfish, pig ignorant among us who will happily queue for hours to get our fix of not so cheap sugar-laden food but won't spend a few seconds looking for a rubbish bin, despite, presumably, understanding that those who run around after us have their own bubbles to maintain.
We have learned that despite the hugely positive impression made by the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the civil service is seemingly no more competent than it has ever been. We know that politicians are prepared to take the word of those who assure them, and us, that everything is under control, when actually it isn't.
We know that those in the medical profession, for example, who complained for weeks that we were in danger of running out of flu vaccinations, knew what they were talking about, and those who contradicted them didn't. We should perhaps be leaning towards the view that running this country's health system via a network of district health boards is not especially efficient, and that we should be looking for a much better system.
We learned that there is good reason for the government's insistence that we obey lockdown rules seemingly designed for undisciplined five-year-olds, because the first slight relaxation of those rules produced mayhem. Level 3, which basically allowed some businesses to open, providing there was no physical contact with customers, and very little else, was interpreted by some as life returning to normal, allowing mass gatherings at beaches, in parks or outside hamburger joints, and organising parties.
Those who burst from their bubbles last week might not have posed any great risk of a further outbreak of Covid-19, but they did encourage Wellington to impose its will upon all of us with even greater enthusiasm, and Wellington surely needs no excuse to to that.
We learned that those who make the rules are not necessarily blessed with common sense. Like whoever it was who decided that fast food was back on the menu, but only for those who could drive to their outlet of choice within a maximum of eight minutes. We will be waiting in vain for an explanation as to how it is safe for someone to drive from Awanui to Kaitaia for KFC but not safe for someone from Waiharara.
It doesn't seem to have occurred to those who make the lockdown rules that they need to be seen as making sense, or they run the risk of being ignored. The majority of people might be expected to obey rules that they understand are designed for their protection and the protection of others, but stupid rules have never achieved much, and are unlikely to be obeyed. Some of the rules that have been imposed upon us over the last six weeks are ridiculous.
And we have learned that some New Zealanders are extraordinarily well-paid. The maxim that those who pay peanuts get monkeys seems to have taken a real hold in this country, although astronomical salaries clearly do not guarantee commensurate performance, or even accountability. Just bigger, better-fed monkeys.
The Prime Minister's decision to take a six-month 20 per cent pay cut, not with any thought of helping to balance books that have gone out the window but as a gesture of solidarity with those who don't have money to burn and were (are) doing it tough, and that her Cabinet ministers and (some) public sector CEOs would be doing the same, has exposed just how generous we taxpayers, and ratepayers, have become, whether we can afford it or not.
According to the Taxpayers' Union, those civil servants who were not included in the initial 20 per cent pay cut sacrifice, all of whom earn much, much more than the Prime Minister, included the CEO of the Super Fund (who , it was announced yesterday, would be taking a 20 per cent cut, on $1,065,000), the CEO of ACC ($841,000), the Reserve Bank Governor ($825,000), the CEO of Housing New Zealand ($791,000), Auckland University's vice-chancellor ($760,000), and the Police Commissioner ($709,000). All those salaries were the going rate in 2019.
(While ACC was not included in the initial pay cuts, ACC's Board of Directors and Chief Executive Scott Pickering are taking a 20 per cent pay cut for the next six months in recognition of the financial challenges facing New Zealanders during the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Then there were the district health board CEOs, six of whom, according to the Taxpayers' Union, earn more the Prime Minister's $471,000, and Dr Bloomfield's $528,000. In fact Dr Bloomfield is a lowly 40th on the list of our highest-paid civil servants. The Prime Minister is 53rd.
The boss of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet — who knew we had one? — is paid $603,000. How on Earth do they qualify for 22 per cent more than the person who actually runs the country?
Ratepayers aren't immune from this enforced largesse either. According to the Auckland Ratepayers' Alliance, the Auckland Council pays more than 80 of its employees more than $250,000 a year. That's at least 53 per cent of the PM's salary. Forty-eight council employees are reportedly paid more than the Mayor's comparatively miserly $296,000. Six of them earn more than $500,000 a year, and seven are paid more than the Prime Minister.
How did we get to the point where people who do important, no doubt, but relatively ordinary jobs are paid this sort of money, in what, we will all agree, is a low-wage economy? How can anyone justify paying the CEO of a district health board more than the Prime Minister of New Zealand? Who, incidentally, is very generously remunerated in OECD terms.
According to Wall St, the New Zealand Prime Minister's salary of just under US$340,000 is the seventh-highest in the world. Only one world leader, the Prime Minister of Singapore, earns more than the CEO of the Super Fund. Yet we are fixated on 'greedy' landlords who have not dropped their rents, landlords who, one imagines, have mortgages and other bills of their own to pay.
When we emerge from this pandemic, and begin looking at how we might do things differently in the future, how we might reorganise our priorities, perhaps we should think about why people who struggle to pay the rent and feed their families are supporting such a bloated bureaucracy. And what we should be expecting of those who are overseeing civil service and council activities, and what they deliver in return for what they are costing us.
Clearly, the salaries of some have been allowed to creep — bound might be a better word — beyond all explanation in terms of what they might or might not be contributing to our collective health, wealth and general well being. Or, for that matter, accountability.
Twenty-per cent pay cuts? Let's start with 80.