Though wary about forcing the vaccine-hesitant to the well, Labour has more freedom with councils on water reform. By Jane Clifton.
The pandemic is redefining some words out of all recognition – or rather, politicians are abusing commonly understood terms to suit their ever-changing policies.
To be fair, policies have to change to meet the constant fluctuations of infection. But it all takes some following, as elimination, social distancing, policing and even traffic light colours now have, as they like to say in the bureaucracy, "ever more granular" nuances.
The most commonly molested word is "not". The Government was "not" going to have widespread saliva testing, even while it was funding plans to have it, and it was "not" going to lift the ban on rapid antigen testing, even while it was secretly trialling it. It was certainly "not" going to make jobs or freedom of movement conditional upon vaccination – until last week, when it was suddenly "not not" doing so.
This brings us to the most confoundingly reimagined word: "voluntary". Getting vaccinated against Covid is still voluntary, but people will now be heavily penalised for failing to volunteer. Preliminary polling suggests this new, compulsory form of volunteerism is extremely popular, and the Government is amending several laws – having recently deemed this "not" necessary – to make the new parameters of volunteering absolutely clear.
These semantic contortions are infuriating but well intended. The one clear lesson the world has learnt about vaccine hesitancy is that heavying people is counterproductive, at least as an opening gambit. Most effective persuasion comes from an individual's peer group and the social leaders they trust. Only if that fails is it time for ultimatums such as "no jab, no job".
The Government was reluctant to portend sweeping restrictions on vaccine refusers – even while it was hatching such plans – without first giving influential organisations such as the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and the Māori and Pasifika communities a decent shot at getting vaccination rates up by using reason and persuasion behind the scenes. Early hopes that only some positions need be vaccine-mandatory were abandoned as impractical and unsafe.
The CTU now accepts that some workers will lose their jobs if they unreasonably refuse the vaccine. But its cautionary experience was that in workplaces forced early on to mandate vaccination, such as at the border, that prospect led some to say, "Stuff your job, then," exactly the response everyone was hoping to avoid.
The political challenge now is to reframe the current provocative media tagline of "two classes of citizen" as being a distinction between the vast majority, who accept they have a social responsibility to keep others safe, and the small numbers who don't.
There are good social cohesion arguments to refrain from divisive terms such as "vaccine refuser", but these compete with a strong temptation to start referring to such people as "pro-Covid".
Next comes the morphological transformation of "isolation" and "quarantine". Where, last week, officialdom was only trialling high-trust home self-isolation, this week it has acknowledged that this is the way of the future.
In the deep end
Meanwhile, the morphology of "volunteer" has hit local government especially hard. As councils long suspected, the verb as it applies to the Three Waters policy is both active and, though this is inherently self-contradictory, passive. One can volunteer or one will be volunteered to participate in the scheme.
The only faint softening is on the accounting treatment of the policy, which would consign the management – though not the ownership – of water assets to four new regional authorities.
The separation will go ahead, but an interim panel of stakeholders will refine the ownership nuts and bolts, including whether and/or how the assets will be reflected in the various councils' balance sheets.
Councils are being relieved of not just an asset, but what is, for some, a liability far beyond their competence. Even some large, well-funded councils have failed to manage water well.
That the Government is bulldozing on despite incandescent opposition from councils reflects the odium pecking order. If there's one echelon of power the public trusts less than central government, it's local government.
That locals can see how poorly managed those assets have been – to the point of sewage running in streets and tap water poisoning people – makes mayoral disgruntlement a small political risk. It's not popping up on the pollsters' radar as a vote wobbler.
Opponents calling Three Waters an assault on local democracy may be over-romanticising the concept. How many citizens have, or expect to have, any influence over local sewerage or river cleanliness investment? People want clean water, and as long as no one is raking a profit off it, most are agnostic as to the whos, hows and wheres.
Still, the Three Waters' marketing – if that's the word – has resembled a work by Harold Pinter or Franz Kafka, full of menace and people talking past one another with unaccountably furious intensity, often about issues of which the audience is left permanently ignorant.
The public, as with so many quietly stumped theatregoers and readers, can only guess whether they're witnessing comedy, allegory, travesty or fantasy.
National is right into the Pinteresque spirit, vowing to give back all the water assets the Government is confiscating. As they're not being confiscated but will stay vested in the councils as a form of joint share in one of the four regional entities, this will be a metaphysical sort of a restoration, to say the least.
The screenplay would go something like this:
National Government: "Here are your water assets back."
Councils: "But we've still got them."
National: "Yes, but not really, because all the problems of managing them have been taken off you, so we're giving them back to you."
Councils: "But we don't want those back. We just want the assets so we can raise more money against them – preferably to spend on things other than boring old pipes."
National: "Look, just belt up and smile for the damned cameras, would you?"
The real battle here is centralisation versus local control. The onus is on Labour to prove that its four new bureaucracies can provide cleaner water more efficiently than a mosaic of 78 existing bureaucracies.
Here, we can expect to see a fascinating mathematical morphology: the 78 bureaucracies relieved of the noble water management responsibility they're so covetous of won't get any smaller or cheaper as a result of not having to do it anymore.