It's Sunday, February 28, 2021. Officially the last day of a long, dry summer, although nobody believes the weather will cool anytime soon. Auckland is running out of water, but the beaches are crowded, as they have been every weekend and often after work.
In the central city and in many of the other town centres, the streetfronts outside bars and restaurants are also crowded: tables, chairs and umbrellas spread far and wide. In the late afternoon sun, hawkers move among them selling flowers, tickets to events and tourist attractions, discount retail vouchers, novelties and souvenirs, Covid masks.
February 28, the anniversary of our first confirmed case of Covid-19. One year on, New Zealand has remained among the most successful countries in the world at managing the virus, although that August outbreak did linger right through spring. Almost to Christmas, we all held our breath and hoped.
Some shops have closed: there's no question many businesses, workers and their families have done it hard. But the premises, thanks to council initiatives and the enthusiastic engagement of landlords, have been taken over by pop-ups: boutiques, galleries, showrooms, performance art spaces. There's a competition with public voting: who do you think pops the most wow?
Entertainers strut their stuff on street corners and in the parks. Singers, choirs, bands of all kinds, chamber groups; kapa haka; theatrical performances, everything from improv to pocket Shakespeare to puppet shows; magicians, daredevil buskers, stand-up comics; movies.
We live out of doors. The science, here and overseas, suggests the virus is much harder to catch in the open air, so that's where we go. In Queen St and Hurstmere Rd, Albany and Botany, New Lynn and Māngere, it's all happening. You can get all energetic, be part of the action, or you can just sit, watch and mind your own beeswax. The long Auckland summer is perfect for it.
We haven't had a third lockdown. Instead, as that winter outbreak whispered its way around the city, we got serious about containment measures and the Government pushed them to the max: masks in offices and shops as well as on public transport, and social distancing; contact tracking and tracing. And tests, tests, tests, which have finally got a whole lot easier – and more effective – with the introduction of saliva testing. Quick, easy and painless, and you get the result in minutes.
The outbreak was finally, officially, declared over in early December. The days were still getting longer, the sun warmer. As we came out to play, masks often stayed on in enclosed spaces and we kept recording our whereabouts on the contact tracing app. We discovered we had established a new normal.
We learn more all the time about the Sars-CoV-2 virus and the coronavirus disease Covid-19 it causes. And things keep changing. Although the death rate has remained low, we have grasped that death is not the only outcome to fear: it seems young adults may be more likely to suffer a lingering, debilitating illness with Covid than old people are of dying from it.
Greater knowledge also makes highly targeted responses more possible and helps with care of the ill.
The whole world wants to come here
2021, and the whole world wants to immigrate to New Zealand. That's good and bad, and we're talking hard about how to make the most of it.
We've gone a few months now with an MIQ regime we know is fully functional: managed isolation and quarantine, with all the health checks it needs, wrapped in reliable security. That's made it possible to increase the number of people allowed in.
Top of the list, the million or so New Zealanders living abroad when Covid struck. Strangely, they still don't all want to come home, but with the virus continuing to ravage health and economies in most of the world, an ever-growing stream of them do.
And they don't want to go back to their home towns. Mostly, having got used to big cities, they plan to live in Auckland.
We've also been steadily growing the number of "essential workers" allowed in, and not just to supercharge construction and infrastructure projects. Under the "build back better" mantra, the Government has recognised the need to seize the moment and become an international hub for many industries.
Agricultural science, the screen sector, satellites and rockets, alternative energies, and even the return of manufacturing, using 3D and other high-tech approaches. Entrepreneurs bang on the doors with new proposals all the time.
Sports organisations have been actively pursued, to play their competitions here. Places in the orchestras are fiercely contested, and that's been encouraged. Academics from prestigious institutions are lining up for jobs and, with support from a new Blue Skies fund, we've invited inventors to come and do their dreaming and experimenting here.
The thinking has changed on high-net-worth individuals. They still can't easily buy land, but if they can demonstrate a serious commitment to investing productively in the New Zealand economy, they're in. Philanthropists, who also creates jobs and enhance the lived experience for the rest of us, are especially welcome. Why not put all that money to good use? We know we can.
Similarly, the country will soon readmit foreign students: for the revenue, which props up academic quality, and for stronger relationships with their home countries.
All this immigration raises questions, most obviously about whether services and infrastructure can keep up. With the world's best and brightest clamouring at the gates, how are we going to stop them all just barging in and taking over? What's the future of New Zealanders born here: to be servants in their own land? How do we ensure the rights and aspirations of tangata whenua are not swamped?
Still, one thing Covid has taught us is that we can't go on as before. New Zealand as it was, the world as it was: they're gone.
And another thing it's taught us: we have to discover ways to think, and argue, and act, better than we used to. So we're learning how to have this debate without resorting, too much, to cliche and fear. We're inventing a new normal. We're up for it.
Now that it's February
Now that it's February, with the terrible year and the Christmas break behind us, the big task is to make this new normal work: for business and jobs, for education, for the elderly, for the life of the cities, for the reformed vitality of the economy, for the health of the whole population.
For communities that have missed out before. For our resilience in the face of the climate crisis. For our prosperity.
It's been a mixed bag for business. Food exporters have had an excellent time, making the most of New Zealand's enviable reputation as a healthy and reliable country. Many other exporters and importers have also done very well. The corporate sector, excluding those impacted by tourism and hospitality, and some construction companies, was insulated from major harm by the wage subsidy and many companies have posted healthy profits.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have done less well, but the number of business failures has been far smaller than expected. All those a la carte restaurants that clung on during levels 3 and 2 making sandwiches now look like a metaphor for SMEs everywhere. It certainly wasn't a viable model for the future, but those sandwiches, and the wage subsidy, kept them solvent.
SMEs have expanded their use of digital platforms and worked exceptionally hard to boost online sales, open new lines and promote themselves into new markets. Angel investors and entrepreneurs have been steered to help them, everyone learning how to push the limits of what "pivot" and "innovation" and "customer driven" might mean.
There's also been lots of talk about inequality. Thanks in part to the monetary policies pursued by both the Reserve Bank and the Government, the sharemarket has been bullish throughout and auction houses report high levels of investment in collectables like art, wine and cars. As for the property market, it's not just booming, it's blown off the roof.
Unemployment, meanwhile, hit low-paid wage and service workers in far greater numbers than professional and managerial salaried employees, so women have been let go far more than men and Auckland's south and west have suffered more than the rest of the city. Māori and Pasifika unemployment figures threatened to soar ahead of others.
Inequality never even became a hot election topic – on the whole, mainstream political parties revealed they did not know how to turn it into votes.
Soon after the election
But. Soon after the election, as business failures and unemployment started to rise sharply and a public outcry arose with them, the Prime Minister made an important speech.
Poverty and unemployment, she declared, cannot be allowed to get baked in. We cannot be the people who failed. It's hard now, she said, but we all know the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is our chance to fix these things.
And so they started to do that. SMEs now have access to a range of services, advice and funding, including interest-free loans, support for digital innovation and some targeted wage subsidies. Welfare payments have risen and welfare support services have been extended and refocused on service.
The stupid bickering about "shovel ready" projects has given way to an enormous rollout of Government-funded work. Bickering about whether people should "work for the dole" has largely disappeared, too.
It's accepted Government has the capacity to offer employment to many people who would otherwise be out of work, including entertainers and other artists, environmental workers on the streets and beaches and in the bush, and sports and recreation coaches and mentors. As well as people on the end of an actual shovel. It's all happening.
And, within another year, there will be a new public health army, well trained and rooted in communities.
Next, the Government cracked down on the banks.
Perhaps that's a little steep. But their success at riding the pandemic was noted. So was their astonishing decision to reinstate fees charged to retailers for Paywave. As Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr said back in September: "Banks must be part of the economic recovery and they must contribute to New Zealand's economic success because they benefit from New Zealand's economic success."
So banks were warned: work out how to become far more supportive of SMEs in relation to credit, loans and fees, or the Government will regulate to do it for them.
When it comes to inequality, though, it's all tinkering unless you create an equitable tax base, spread across all income streams.
Before the election, both Labour and National painted themselves into corners on tax reform. But just before Christmas the Government and Opposition jointly announced how they would get out of it: with a high-powered bipartisan tax reform committee.
It will seek consensus-based methods for tax equity and, with luck, the parties will commit to them for the next election. Or possibly even earlier. Because of his success gaining a consensus agreement for the Zero Carbon Act, Greens co-leader James Shaw will chair the committee , with help from co-deputy chairs from Labour and National.
Fresh new thinking at council
Fresh new thinking has also swept through the corridors of Auckland Council.
Much of what the city needs comes down to inspirational political leadership: from the mayor, councillors and local boards, backed by the Government. New temporary planning rules have been required, new regulations written. Creative thinking has come to the fore.
Insiders at council say a cultural sea change is underway: the best and brightest among the politicians and staff have taken the others in hand and are squeezing the best out of them.
It's true some remain obstructive. They've been found other things to do, or let go.
To create the outdoor living atmosphere needed for health and commerce, town centre roadways have been repurposed. Instead of cafes and shops having to keep out of the way of every other road and footpath user, their use of the space has been prioritised.
Shopping streets and centres, the big and the small, are becoming plazas in which people congregate, sit and shop, with entertainment. Carriageways are being narrowed to make it work. If traffic has to move through, it must do so with care.
Planting, art, spatial design and some of the best imaginations on offer have been used to make the streetscapes fabulous. The terrible thinking in the old days of lockdown, that because of Covid, Queen St had to be made ugly: that's been abolished. So have Dayglo plastic road sticks and everyone who clings to them as a good solution for anything at all.
It's as if the city is being transformed into a living organism of semi-connected markets. The streets are our public spaces and are being reimagined, so they can help us embrace the new circumstances of our lives.
This blossoming of inner-city life has grown the demand for apartments, so the council is helping property owners convert their surplus office space. There's a lot of it.
Auckland Transport, finally, has been instructed to make it much easier for people to leave the car at home. Generous funding from the Government helps. We now have many more arterial public transport services, shuttles hither and yon and a fast-growing network of pop-up cycleways.
Debate has been renewed about mass transit, prompted by the widespread understanding that buses are all very well for now but it won't be long before there's no room for them all in the central city.
The problem with the transit debate so far is that it's been defined by arguments for old-fashioned transport systems: heavy rail and trams. Now the talk is about what's new?
The German city of Wuppertal has been mentioned. In 1901 Wuppertal opened its "suspended railway", with immense civic pride. It's a monorail! It's been rebuilt since, with modern carriages, and is still going strong.
We don't need a 1901 solution, but one year after Covid struck we can learn something from a city that asked itself, well over 100 years ago: What's the best revolutionary transport technology available to us today?
That's not the only question
That's not the only question we're asking now. Summer brought us some time to think.
Three big ones:
One: Do we really want a return to "growth"? The argument against growth is pretty simple: it's destroying the planet. In ordinary times, the argument for growth is also simple: without it, people are thrown out of work.
But that's happened anyway. Is this our great chance to get back to work in more sustainable ways?
Two: Because we know the Covid crisis made inequality worse, is it time to redistribute not just wealth, security and opportunity, but at least some of the power? What are the constructive ways to do that?
Three: How do we build civic engagement and keep society from falling apart, while we find good answers to the other two? How, that is, do we not become America?
Auckland in a hot, dry February. There's a buzzy feeling now, especially downtown. The road cones on Quay St West have gone and the whole area, together with the space between Britomart Railway Station and Commercial Bay, has become largely a pedestrian plaza. So full of life. And in less than a week, Emirates Team New Zealand will line up on the Hauraki Gulf against the winner of the just-completed Prada Cup.
It's finally happening: the first race of the 36th America's Cup.
Is this all just fantasy? It doesn't have to be.