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Dunne Speaks: An Unpopular View?

This is likely to be an unpopular column. But there are some things that need to be said, and some debates that need to take place. Over a year into the Covid19 crisis there is an unnatural air abroad where it is still not at all acceptable to question or criticise aspects of New Zealand’s handling of the virus. Yet our lives have been changed and customary freedoms impacted upon to the greatest extent imaginable outside of wartime.

Let me make it clear at the outset that I am not questioning the broad sweep of New Zealand’s response to Covid19, nor am I making a political attack on the government or Ministers within it over the way they have handled things. My concern and puzzlement run deeper than that.

One of the great things I have always admired about our national character is our inherent scepticism and talent for spotting cant a long way away off. We have always been a nation of doubting Thomases, wary of anything that looks new or different but more than willing to embrace change if the evidence justifies it. And even then we have always reserved the right to question and to probe as the journey unfolds, to make sure we are satisfied it is broadly taking the direction originally indicated.

This agnostic scepticism has permeated our national consciousness for generations, it has been a constant theme in our literature and culture throughout. Our natural intolerance of people who are “up themselves” or think “they know what is best for us” is legendary as is our hitherto derisory dismissal of too much government interference in our daily lives as “Nanny state”.

All this seems to have gone by the wayside in the wake of the arrival of Covid19. Any criticism now is quietly and apologetically whispered only, then quickly replaced instead by the near constant nauseating incantation of belonging to the “team of five million.”

Some will point the finger at the government over this – I do not. They are doing their job, and are doing it well, although somewhat dishonestly. Despite their constant denials, they are treating the response to Covid19 in an inherently political way, from the staged daily press conferences that say very little, through to the tight control over the release of information, and the very small echo chamber of selected health professionals who, having had a hand in designing the policy approach, can then be relied on to endorse it uncritically. Whenever a dissenting health professional view has been presented, no matter the eminence of the commentator, it has been quickly dismissed and shut down as ill-informed or irrelevant.

But the government is doing what any government would do in such circumstances – making sure that its decisions and actions are also good politics. That is what all governments do, and those that are good at it – like ours – get re-elected, while those that are bad at it do not survive. For example, contrast the differing fates of the Trump Administration and the New Zealand government at their respective elections last year.

By way of balance, enabling us to assess whether the government of the day is performing well and deserving of continued support, we rely on the Parliamentary Opposition and the news media to analyse what is happening and provide alternative viewpoints for us to weigh up and decide on their validity.

This is where things are failing at present. Two of our major media outlets – the state-owned Television New Zealand, and the Stuff network – have become mere mouthpieces, and in the particular case of Television New Zealand enthusiastic uncritical cheerleaders, for virtually every action that the government has taken. Even when the Director-General of Health changes tack on mass community lockdowns and insists there has been no change of approach, when clearly there has been, his assertions are reported faithfully without challenge, despite the evidence to the contrary.

At the same time, whenever the Opposition has arisen from its heavy slumber to offer a viewpoint, these outlets have either largely ignored what it has to say or presented the story in the most negative and critical way. I am not defending any comments they might make, rather their right to speak out and be treated the same way as the government in the presentation of their views. The usual criticism from governments has been that the media were almost another version of the Opposition, something that could not be said at present.

Worse than all of that, though, is that we as a population have acquiesced in all this. Our natural wariness and scepticism have given way to what amounts to an unhealthy fear of “rocking the boat” if we dare query what is going on.

That has been accompanied by a new sense of officiousness from people like transport officials or airline staff who feel they can bark instructions at their customers about what they can and cannot do in a way that would never have been tolerated as appropriate or even courteous a year ago. The “sheeple” are being skilfully herded into one narrow compliance pen, and, more is the worry, they do not appear to be objecting.

With the advent of a vaccination programme here (at last) and small signs that the grip of the virus is lessening abroad, meaning something akin to life as we once knew it might be about to return, we need to recapture our proud national spirit of healthy scepticism and independence. That has been our national hallmark and our challenge now is to reclaim that, rather than continue to rely meekly on the government to tell us what we can and cannot do.

The media has a critical role in ensuring that the diversity of national opinion can be heard again, without being immediately dismissed as negative or unhelpful. It is not its role to decide the value or merit of particular opinions – that is our right to decide for ourselves as citizens and voters, based on the impartiality and accuracy of the information we get from the media. It needs to recapture the capacity to constructively critique and stop treating all questioning as negative criticism.

But above all, the community generally needs to snap out of the of mood of national sycophancy and uncritical compliance that has taken over the country in the last year. As New Zealanders we have been and are much better than that, and the time has come for us to start showing it again.

This does not mean any lessening or wilful defiance of our national compliance response, nor that the government should change what it is doing. Rather, it is a straightforward case of calling for a return of the days where critical analysis and tolerance of independent thought were valued as important – the things we used to pride ourselves on – rather than more of the unadulterated, mealy-mouthed propaganda that has passed for news in recent months. We are a far more aware and intelligent country than the errant child the authorities have been happy to treat us as over the last year. It is high time we were treated as adults once more.

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