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The Road Ahead: Inside 'The Beltway' - where the real world meets politics

David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald

If you speak to people who haven't always called New Zealand home, our precarious isolation from a pandemic world is clearly more precious than we realise.

In Christchurch, this sunny morning, Aline Anhaia, 31, and Juan Ruas, 34, are taking a stroll past the ruins of the cathedral. Back home in Brazil, there are mass graves.

In Brazil, around three million people have contracted Covid-19 and 100,000 have died. In New Zealand, we don't do round numbers. There have been 1569 people who have had the virus and 22 who have died.

"So far there are no cases in our family," says Anhaia. Those back home haven't stayed virus-free by chance. It has become a vocation - wear masks, avoid public places, keep your distance, and self-isolate from the rest of their communities.

The couple came to New Zealand five years ago, worked in Queenstown for two years and now live in Christchurch. Their families, says Ruas, are relieved they are here.

Brazilan-born New Zealand residents Aline Anhaia, left, and Juan Ruas, in Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott
Brazilan-born New Zealand residents Aline Anhaia, left, and Juan Ruas, in Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott

In Brazil, "everyone is wearing masks and trying to do their best", he says. "They keep using public transport. It's dangerous."

"We send pictures of not wearing masks and they think we are crazy."

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This sunny day in Christchurch, families are out walking in Cathedral Square, running and walking through Hagley Park, sharing coffee over a cafe table. In the outside world, the death toll mounts. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has contracted the disease twice.

In all the world, we are possibly the only first world nation to be free of the virus. It's a high-wire act for our leadership - the fierce contest between life and livelihood - and the tension between the two is lost on those who do not look beyond our far horizons.

The world outside

Out there is a world where people watching movies still flinch at on-screen handshakes, or the casual embrace of strangers. It's a world which looks at our packed rugby stadiums in wonder, where our children go to school.

Dennis Gannin, 73, is at the Amberley Hotel. He's at the end of a jug of beer and another is paid and waiting to be poured. Covid-19 was a fresh inhibition on a life that has had few fetters.

"We lived the best years," he says of his generation. "We had the cream of it."

Those were the days when you could blast off fireworks, carry your slug gun through town, drive three cars abreast down State Highway 1. "You can't do that now."

Dennis Gannin, at Amberley in Canterbury, feels like he is from the generation who had everything. Photo / Mike Scott
Dennis Gannin, at Amberley in Canterbury, feels like he is from the generation who had everything. Photo / Mike Scott

Now, there's a virus in the outside world and the inevitability that our borders will open, he says. "I think the government is going to get too much pressure."

Gannin's on a journey through life in which every day that passes sees the end of a golden age.

North, where the Canterbury countryside surrenders its grip and the road meets the sea, is Kaikoura.

There, tourist charter skipper Ian Croucher, 61, highlights the scale of the 2016 earthquake against Covid-19. "This beast is different. Before, all we knew was we had a slip on the road and all we had to do was make a hole in that we'd be okay.

South Bay Fishing Charters skipper Ian Croucher hauls up and measures crayfish caught near Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott
South Bay Fishing Charters skipper Ian Croucher hauls up and measures crayfish caught near Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott

"How do we make a hole in this?"

Kaikoura doesn't consider itself obsessively focused on international tourists, for all that Croucher's business was dependent on the Chinese market. For $120, he can take you out to sea and return with crayfish that you can take home to cook.

On the day Croucher took the Herald out on the water, we watched a baby humpback broaching before pulling aboard laden cray pots.

Back ashore, watching the moorings, a bus delivered a boatload of sightseers to Whale Watch. One boat went out, three others sat empty, tied to moorings. There is a domestic market, at least for now, but business is not what it was.

New Zealand Herald senior writer David Fisher and Ian Croucher, from South Bay Fishing Charters, share a crayfish meal in Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott
New Zealand Herald senior writer David Fisher and Ian Croucher, from South Bay Fishing Charters, share a crayfish meal in Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott

The Covid-19 curve ball

It's not just charter businesses affected but those businesses that grew around Kaikoura's visitors. The impact of Covid-19 can be like a brick in the face, or a subtle curve ball that socks you from behind. When the first domino is tipped, it's hard to know where the last one will fall.

Quintin Hislop, 29, runs BeeBox, which sells bee products and organic honey sourced from small producers, alongside coffee and whole foods. His cousin Fergus Hislop runs the neighbouring barber shop.

"The thing that is getting us, my cousin and I, is the uncertainty. We don't have a template to go by. It's the uncertainty of looking forward."

Hislop's task is already enormous. Fighting his way out from under this mess is made harder by the red tape of regulation that is hard to fathom at times, and harder because it is not scaled by the size of his ambition or business.

Quintin Hislop, from BeeBox Kaikoura, with Cleo. Photo / Mike Scott
Quintin Hislop, from BeeBox Kaikoura, with Cleo. Photo / Mike Scott

"We have to pay the same as a big company does. There's no scale-down for small business."

The same issues bedevil Mel Skinner, 43, of Future Kaikoura, the town's business and enterprise association. She - and the town - are trying to build a scaffolding of offerings that will keep money flowing into the town.

"Kaikoura is going to see the full impact come summer," she says. That's the busiest season. Locally, there are good supplies of meat, including goat and venison, which would provide a strong sell if it were able to be processed then sold here. Likewise with cheese, and other local produce.

"Red tape stalls people," she says. Add to that the loss of locally sourced crayfish and fish - yes, the locally-bought crayfish are likely not caught locally - and you wind up with an area rich in supply yet suffering strangled output.

Future Kaikoura's Mel Skinner on the beach at Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott
Future Kaikoura's Mel Skinner on the beach at Kaikoura. Photo / Mike Scott

As we travel, it is difficult to understand how we would stop Covid-19 if - or when - it returns. Our social distancing practices are gone. We don't wear masks. Hand sanitiser isn't everywhere, as it was a few months ago. It is hard to see New Zealand as anything other than complacent.

The placement and use of QR codes for contact tracing is sporadic. Very few people scan and record their movements. There's a multitude of different apps and the lack of a coherent approach stifles citizen cooperation. It's as if we forgot how close we came; as if we don't realise we are teetering on the edge of everybody else's nightmare.

At Still Books in Blenheim, Bev Frost, 65, is taking no chances. There's the QR code at the door, sanitiser as you walk in, then more sanitiser and extra sanitiser on the counter. "You only need to see what's happening in Victoria to see it can all turn to mush pretty quickly."

Bev Frost, from Still Books, a second-hand book store in Blenheim. Photo / Mike Scott
Bev Frost, from Still Books, a second-hand book store in Blenheim. Photo / Mike Scott

The road takes us through Picton and across the only stretch of State Highway 1 - Cook Strait - truly safe from election hoardings.

From Bluff to Picton, the length of the South Island, politicians hustled for votes from the roadside billboards. There was some respite along the West Coast then it began again. They offered faces, sometimes slogans, but never arguments, never policies, never reasons to trust and vote.

The seat of power

Wellington is always a destination with heft. It is the fulcrum on which the country sits, which is actually how it became our capital. In 1865, after a decade of argument over where the seat of government should be, early European New Zealanders passed the decision-making to three Australian delegates who reckoned our capital should be in the middle of the country.

You can stroll off the ferry, across the lower city and straight up to Parliament and see - as we did - actual New Zealanders interacting with those elected to rule. The Heart Foundation was there, talking about how not to die young. Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield was leaving the daily 1pm briefing, taking a selfie with pro-cannabis campaigner Dakta Green, who was wearing a t-shift bearing Bloomfield's likeness.

Southland sheep farmer Amy Blaikie was on the steps of Parliament presenting a petition signed by 15,069 people to have wool used in government buildings, such as in carpet or insulation.

New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters accepts a petition pushing wool use from Southland's Amy Blaikie. Photo / Mike Scott
New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters accepts a petition pushing wool use from Southland's Amy Blaikie. Photo / Mike Scott

There receiving it was deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, with fellow NZ First MP Mark Patterson. Running around their feet were Blaikie's children Caitlyn, 5, and Josh, 8, while her husband, and the kids' father, Victor, 51, looked on somewhat bemused the petition his wife started a month ago had ended here.

Wool is in serious trouble. It can cost farmers as much to remove it from a sheep as they get for selling it, with synthetics offering a cheaper - although less effective and sustainable - option.

Peters spoke for a while, pointing to Covid-19 and a need for New Zealand to generate wealth and work internally. Patterson - a farmer from Otago - talked of the benefit of wool. There were other dignitaries and representatives of lobby groups present but it only happened because Amy Blaikie wanted Wellington to know something and set about finding a way to be heard,

The Blaikie family of Amy, left, Josh, 8, Caitlyn, 5, and dad Victor on the steps of Parliament, after presenting a petition to Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo / Mike Scott
The Blaikie family of Amy, left, Josh, 8, Caitlyn, 5, and dad Victor on the steps of Parliament, after presenting a petition to Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo / Mike Scott

"This," Peters said on his way back inside, "is unique worldwide. It speaks to a seriously well-functioning democracy."

Inside 'The Beltway'

Wellington is truly a remarkable city. On one corner, Parliament and the Beehive, petitioners and politicians. Diagonally across, the Supreme Court. All around, the business of courts and government consumes the city. Those who know it call this The Beltway. It's where our taxes go, to be redistributed as public services meeting society's needs.

It takes all forms. On Lambton Quay, in a nondescript office, there is a balance of sorts - a resistance - to the incessant pressure of a global pandemic. For years, those abused in the care of faith-based or state institutions have called for justice, and in 2018 it was announced it would take place.

Amid the roaring storm of Covid-19, the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care continues its work with a persistence propelled by decades of demands for justice.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care lead investigator Tom Powell in Wellington. Photo / Mike Scott
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care lead investigator Tom Powell in Wellington. Photo / Mike Scott

Tom Powell is the investigations team lead for the Royal Commission, charged with finding evidence the Royal Commission will use to fulfil its role.

Serendipity was his friend when accepting the job after a series of high-flying London roles. It meant he and wife Aimee returned to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, went into isolation for a fortnight then welcomed the arrival of their first child in a Covid-19 free land.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it was extraordinary timing." They stay in touch with friends and family in the UK. "New Zealand seems - and I know it's not like this for a lot of people - like there are aspects of life that continue as usual."

Throughout lockdown, the Royal Commission continued its work, gathering evidence. There were aspects made difficult, some impossible, yet those working set their feet again and continued to push forward.

The road ahead in the Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott
The road ahead in the Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott

The first major hearings begin on September 21. "With a project like this, you can't pause a month. Everything has a knock on effect.

"We've made so much progress in the last five months, despite the difficult circumstances."

Powell talks through the importance of this work in terms of New Zealand's history, and also the change to his life. He was working in the heart of British government in fascinating roles yet it was the lure of this, its monumental importance, that drew him home just in time.

Beyond all of this, though, is the importance of the Royal Commission to those damaged as children, seeking answers and healing as adults. As Powell says; "Some people have been waiting decades for this."

It's as if the weight of history, the inexorable need for resolution, the demands of justice, have established a bulwark of inevitability about the Royal Commission's work in spite of the battering the pandemic is delivering to the world. It will go on. It will find answers. Hopefully, it will find justice.

Growing Greta's world

This is the marvel of Wellington. When properly engaged, great things can happen. When not properly engaged, it spins rapidly with a high-pitched whine, achieving nothing and going nowhere. Then, the country throws up its hands at a self-obsessed Beltway and turns away.

Step outside The Beltway, even slightly, and themes emerge. Of those we met, there is broad satisfaction in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's leadership through the lockdown, even if there is occasional frustration it doesn't chart a path through our uncertain future.

At Nairnville Park in Khandallah, Kim Cormack, 37, is delighted Greta, 2, will grow up knowing New Zealand's first steps through the pandemic were under the guidance of someone she might recognise as not unlike her mother.

"I'm quite trusting and relatively apolitical," she says. "I felt safe with Jacinda, and feel safe with Jacinda. I think she's done a fantastic job bringing the country together.

Wellington's Kim Cormack Greta, 2, in Wellington. Photo / Mike Scott
Wellington's Kim Cormack Greta, 2, in Wellington. Photo / Mike Scott

"And it's empowering for me to see a woman, a little bit older than me, with a daughter the same age as Greta. For Greta, it's incredible she's going to grow up knowing that during this Covid time, the country was led by a woman just like her mum."

Beyond Wellington and into Wairarapa, the road passes through towns named for leaders of earlier years. Each could serve as a reminder that history judges with a keen eye.

The first such town is named for physician and politician Dr Isaac Featherston, who said in 1856: "The Maoris are dying out, and nothing can save them. Our plain duty as good, compassionate colonists, is to smooth down their dying pillow. Then history will have nothing to reproach us with."

Turn south and drive past Lake Wairarapa, Te Karu o Te Ika a Maui, the eye of Maui's fish, and find at Lake Ferry evidence of casually cruel indifference and unjust decision making out of Wellington.

The story of the duplicity inflicted upon the Rangitane people is epic among the stories of colonisation in New Zealand. The lake was drained, a fishery that brought food and wealth to Maori destroyed unlawfully when settler farmers manipulated the outlet to the sea. So-called recompense displaced affected iwi to lands far to the North.

Farmer, hunter, fighter - Raihania Tipoki at Onoke Spit, at Lake Ferry in south Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott
Farmer, hunter, fighter - Raihania Tipoki at Onoke Spit, at Lake Ferry in south Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott

Raihania Tipoki can be found here at the family-managed Lake Ferry Holiday Park. He is of Ngati Kahungunu and Te Wairoa descent, and speaks for marae at Lake Ferry through his affiliation to Ngāti Rakaiwhakairi.

Find your path to the future through the journey of the past. "Whakapapa is everything to Maori. History is everything to Maori."

When Covid-19 began pushing at our borders, he killed a pig and had it turned to sausages for those who would need help in hard times to come. Two deer recently joined the pig in the freezer.

Leadership is, at times, an exercise in faith. Those hard times are yet to come. Given the lessons of history here, Tipoki's faith isn't without a fallback option.

'Just get on with it'

There's a lesson, too, at Onoke Spit, where Kupe fetched up centuries ago. Here was once home to the katipo spider, now overtaken by the look-alike "false katipo", the black cobweb spider from South Africa. Unwelcome invaders will find their way.

Wairarapa unfolds like a wad of cash, flat and green, gentrification bringing life to old villas and fine dining to country pubs.

Outside the Martinborough Hotel, Leah Hawkins, 34, and baby Elise, 10 weeks, are catching up with Michelle Hight, 44, and daughter Abby, 10, who are visiting from Niue. Hight's journey to New Zealand was to celebrate her mother's 70th birthday - a three-week visit requiring two weeks isolation here and two weeks longer when she returns.

Michelle Hight, left, shares a laugh with Leah Hawkins, who is holding her nine-week-old Elise in Martinborough. Photo / Mike Scott
Michelle Hight, left, shares a laugh with Leah Hawkins, who is holding her nine-week-old Elise in Martinborough. Photo / Mike Scott

"I'd always wondered how dangerous the world would be at any point I'd had a child," says Hawkins. "It's scary but the world has gone through things. We always come out of it and adapt."

For Hight, that can't come soon enough. Her business, Niue's Namukulu Cottages, hasn't had guests since the end of February. She has shifted to appeal to locals, offering drinks and food with an outdoor cinema but that doesn't fill the gap of international tourism.

"I think it's time to loosen the reins with a Pacific bubble for Niue and the Cook Islands.

Decisions in Wellington are pebbles in a pond with ripples that spread across the country and around the world.

The travel restrictions bite into income, and also into life. Hawkins was off to France this year, Hight to Argentina. "We're not going anywhere now," says Hawkins. If Hight was willing to entertain further lockdown, Argentina currently has 240,000 cases of the virus, which has killed around 5000 people in the country.

The day ends in Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott
The day ends in Wairarapa. Photo / Mike Scott

And fewer and fewer people are coming here. Bookings for the three-piece covers band called Noodles, managed by Hawkins, have gone from two or three nights a week to just a handful of gigs each month. Many gigs were at weddings with many bookings now postponed until 2022.

"You can't get people from overseas to travel here, some because there's a cost for them to isolate. Some are Kiwis who were coming back here to get married."

Wairarapa's gentrification struggles to reach Eketahuna, where engineer Tony Corlett, 34, really winds up when asked what he wants from Wellington.

Tony Corlett, at Eketahuna Engineering, wants politicians to 'stop bickering' and get to work. Photo / Mike Scott
Tony Corlett, at Eketahuna Engineering, wants politicians to 'stop bickering' and get to work. Photo / Mike Scott

"That Todd guy," he says of Todd Muller, National's leader of 53 days, "when he stood up and said we need to stop the conflict, I thought, 'this guy is making sense'.

"It's just childish. What sort of day care are they running down there. And the nitpicking. There's a lot of unnecessary bickering."

There's Corlett at his business, Eketahuna Engineering, exasperated. He runs a complex business and has done for more than a decade.

He has a word of advice for those at the centre of power: "Just get on and run the country."