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Dunne Speaks: Welcome Back Parliament!

The welcome and overdue resumption of Parliament next week will be another step-up in our Covid-19 response. The days of virtual one-party government we have endured in recent weeks will be at an end, and Ministers (even the long absent Minister of Health) will have to front up and be accountable to the House on a daily basis, required to give answers to the difficult questions the lockdown has so far enabled them to avoid. Also, the government will be able to progress some of its other legislative initiatives that have been languishing because they are not Covid-19 related, and the Minister of Finance will be able to deliver the 2020 Budget on May 14. Altogether, this more democratic process will mean the dynamic under which the government has been operating since the imposition of the lockdown will have to change.

Since the middle of March, the government has been following pretty much the usual political norms for dealing with a major crisis, albeit with the few inevitable slip-ups along the way.

First, was the identification of the crisis. From the time Covid-19 burst on the scene and the seriousness of the threat it posed to the whole world started to become obvious, the government began, slowly at first, but then steadily thereafter, framing its narrative in terms of the threat the virus and its rapid escalation posed to New Zealand. By early March it was moving to the types of solution New Zealand might have to look to imposing, if the virus continued its rampage. Soon thereafter, the Alert Level system was mooted, and the possibility of closing borders raised, although the tardiness with which the latter was implemented is still hard to understand.

By the time the move to Alert Level 3 followed by the almost overnight transition to Alert Level 4 occurred, the seeds that the country was facing a major, hitherto not experienced crisis had been well and truly sown in the public mind. That made the next stage of the suspension of Parliamentary government and its replacement by government through emergency regulations easier to bring about. At the same time, this was cleverly covered by the resort to inclusive language – like “we are all in this together” – both emphasising the extreme nature of the crisis the country was facing, and making compliance with the impositions on freedom about to be made that much easier. It also made it that much harder to be critical of what was happening, and it was no coincidence that public tolerance for dissident views or awkward questions fell sharply.

All this was reinforced by the daily press conferences with the Prime Minister, the Director General of Health, and initially the Commissioner of Police, to make clear in the early stages where the true authority lay, and to become the sole and dominant means by which official information was conveyed. We were even told not to believe things that had not been stated at the press conference. As time has gone on, and the numbers of new cases have dwindled, so too has the relevance of this daily event, which should disappear altogether once Parliament resumes.

Far preferable and more accountable that the Prime Minister make her regular announcements to the House where she can be questioned with more precision than at a press conference, where she controls who asks the questions and any follow-up. That change alone will start the process of winding back the highly centralised and controlled nature of our Covid-19 response.

Of course, critical to this whole process of crisis management is there being an actual crisis to manage. That has been clearly the case in places like the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain, for example, as the numbers of cases and deaths have been spiralling out of control and the public reaction has been one of desperate panic. While the potential impact for New Zealand was just as serious, the perverse consequence of acting early to avert the extent of the crisis has been that the extremes seen overseas have been averted. But an inevitable consequence is that some now question whether there was ever a crisis here in the first place.

Yet it is a more than reasonable conclusion that without the actions taken, the number of cases here could have been at least ten times higher than they are. On relative population terms that would have been about on a par with the United States and Britain. Which is why in its public presentations the government has been treading a fine line between too much celebration of our unexpectedly low numbers and continued warnings of the need for ongoing vigilance. It will need to maintain that balance for some time to come.

Nowhere will the line be more tested than in the process of withdrawing from the various Alert Levels. In many senses, that will be the hardest part of all. Winding back the emergency regulations and structures will not occur overnight. That is why the exit process will be gradual, no matter the decline or even ultimate absence of cases. The government will be reluctant to relax too much of the control structure built up in recent months but will have to adapt to doing so. It will also have to be seen to be looking beyond the Covid-19 outbreak and shifting its future focus to the enormous economic and social restructuring that now lies ahead. So, it will have to reshape its narrative in the same clear way it did at the outset to meet the new situation.

In short, next week’s events will set off a further process of major adjustment for the government, just as it will for every other New Zealander, so pervasive has been the impact of Covid-19 to date.

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