Analysis – Auckland’s lockdown is extended but not the wage subsidy, which gives National new angles of attack as it tries to whittle away confidence in the government, Judith Collins pitches for rural votes by promising the new freshwater standards will be “gone by lunchtime” and Parliament’s Health Select Committee decides to reconvene and put Ashley Bloomfield in the hot seat.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the agenda for the week by announcing on Monday that Auckland’s lockdown would be extended by four days to midnight on Sunday.
Asked at her press conference what could stop that happening she replied “exponential growth outside the cluster”. By the end of the week that hadn’t happened and the city seemed destined to move down to level 2, the same as the rest of the country.
Ardern did her best to sound confident without giving any guarantees that the Auckland outbreak would be swiftly wiped out. There would be more cases over the next several days and the next several weeks, she said, but there would also be thousands of tests, hundreds of contact tracing workers on the job and “a team out in full force to stamp out Covid-19 in New Zealand”.
Her final words appeared to be an attempt to recapture the unity and commitment her “team of five million” showed during the nationwide lockdown: “In a world where 2020 has frankly been terrible, we are strong, we have been kind, and we are doing really well.”
National didn’t challenge the extension, although it complained that it hadn’t been shown the data on which the decision was based.
What it did challenge was a curious decision by Finance Minister Grant Robertson not to extend the wage subsidy to cover the extra four days.
Robertson said it would have been administratively difficult to extend it for four days, with fresh applications needed while those for the previous periods were still being processed.
He told Morning Report there had already been significant support for businesses and he had to strike a balance because every dollar that was handed out had to be borrowed. “We have delivered 22 weeks of payments… we know it’s tough but you do have to look at this in the total level of support,” he said. “We’ve got to get the balance right and we think we have.”
National’s leader Judith Collins jumped on it and told Auckland voters what they wanted to hear. “We’ve heard the government say it’s too hard for them to work out the admin on it – well, if it’s that bad let’s give it a week,” she said. “I’ve given them an alternative.”
Collins followed that up with barbs aimed at the prime minister. “It’s not kind, it’s very anti the New Zealand way,” she said.
She had an unusual ally. Greens’ co-leader James Shaw said his party favoured extending the wage subsidy which should kick in whenever there was a lockdown. Perhaps he had his eye on Auckland Central, which Chloe Swarbrick hopes to win.
National also blamed the government for the Auckland outbreak and its economic impact by linking the resurgence directly to a border security failure, although that connection has not yet been established. The apparent intention was to cause voters to question the government’s ability to keep New Zealanders safe, and it’s likely to continue running that strategy.
Collins told Duncan Garner on Newshub’s AM Show: “It didn’t come from the sky or from under a stone in your garden, it came from the border.”
Her finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith was on the same page. “It all comes back, ultimately, to failures at the border,” he said.
The government, said Goldsmith, was not taking responsibility for its whole response to Covid-19.
Robertson rejected that. “We have to keep the borders contained. We are doing our very, very best and I think overall New Zealand, when we look at the rest of the world, has done well in terms of our ability to get the economy going.”
Collins hadn’t finished fishing for votes, and she targeted farmers in a Facebook Live video with agriculture spokesperson David Bennet joining her.
The government’s new freshwater standards will come into force next week and they promised that a National government would repeal them.
Collins: “So, David, can we tonight promise… that we’ll get rid of them?” she asked. Bennett: “They are gone by lunchtime”.
Legislation allowing the regulations to be set was taken through Parliament by Environment Minister David Parker. It puts controls on winter grazing and other farming practices, and sets stricter limits on nitrogen pollution.
Parker said the comment was stupid. “It flies in the face of what most farmers and most New Zealanders want,” he said. “They’re trying to shore up their base and instead they’re evaporating it.”
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said the regulations didn’t go far enough. “National lost the last election in part because they failed so dramatically on freshwater,” he said. “If they want to turn the clock back to the old dirty polluting ways of the past that is up to them, but they lost on that basis.”
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor made some last-minute changes to the regulations on the basis that they “needed to be adjusted” to make them more practical.
Federated Farmers water spokesperson Chris Allen said the changes were positive but minor. “There are a whole lot of other changes that will be required to allow the document to make sense, for farmers to be able to implement it efficiently,” he said. “We are open to discussion with the minister.”
National’s environment spokesperson Scott Simpson appeared to soften the party’s stance. He described “gone by lunchtime” as “a colloquial way of putting it”.
“Essentially, there were nine issues that were passed by regulation and those issues we think need review and in some cases repeal,” he said.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health, has become experienced at handling journalists over the last few months but on Wednesday next week he’ll come up against an entirely different and potentially hostile group of questioners.
Parliament’s Health Select Committee has decided to reconveneand call in Bloomfield and Health Minister Chris Hipkins.
National’s initial request was rejected but things changed this week when NZ First joined the call. Committee chair Louisa Wall said that meant there was a majority in favour of it reconvening.
Opposition MPs are expected to interrogate Bloomfield on a range of issues including why testing wasn’t done at the rate the government asked for, why border staff weren’t being regularly tested when the public was told they were and exactly where the information ministers passed on came from.
The committee has eight members – three Labour, four National and one NZ First. National’s health spokesperson Shane Reti will lead the opposition’s questioning.
*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.