Analysis – Politics has started the year in a way that’s almost certainly going to continue throughout 2021, dominated by Covid-19, vaccinations to save us from it, and the housing crisis.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the government’s vaccination programme the main issue for her first post-cabinet press conference on Tuesday and it was given an unexpected, unwelcome focus.
The first community case of Covid-19 since November had been detected two days earlier. It was unusual because the 56-year-old Northland woman tested positive after leaving managed isolation in Auckland’s Pullman Hotel, where she had twice tested negative.
On Wednesday two further cases were found, a man and his young daughter who had also left the Pullman Hotel. Testing showed the same source for all three.
They caught the South African variant in the facility and an intense investigation began to find out how that happened.
The possibility of lockdown loomed, and the country was shaken out of the complacency Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins had warned about just before the Christmas break.
During December and January New Zealand was under Alert Level 1 but for most people life seemed to have returned to normal. Scanning of QR codes for contact tracing fell significantly and so did the testing rate.
Warnings about new and highly transmissible variants made little difference. On January 15 Stuff launched a campaign urging people to use the scanner app and reported it had watched as 130 shoppers walked into a city centre supermarket. Just 10 of them used the app or signed in.
After the Northland case became known the change was dramatic. People were complaining about having to wait to get tested, masks were seen again in streets and on buses, there were thousands of new registrations for the app and the scanning rate soared.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Ardern to tell her his government was suspending the arrangement that allowed New Zealanders in without going through quarantine. He wasn’t going to risk the chance of importing infected Kiwis.
Ardern took issue with that, saying she was “disappointed” and had told Morrison New Zealand’s pandemic precautions and systems were robust.
At her post-cabinet press conference she said the success of a two-way bubble would depend on both countries resisting suspension at the first sign of a community case.
A two-way bubble with Australia doesn’t exist because Ardern won’t allow people to come in without quarantine, and the Herald’s Claire Trevett posed the question: PM’s frustration at Aussie leader a little rich?”
In her article she said Morrison’s decision had been perfectly reasonable.
“Having opened the borders to New Zealanders, Morrison risked a political backlash if there was another outbreak in Australia as a result of that move – especially because New Zealand has not reciprocated,” Trevett said. “It is, to be honest, something Ardern herself would probably have looked at if the tables were turned.”
The community cases and the possibility of a serious outbreak have given new emphasis to the government’s vaccination programme which Ardern and Hipkins outlined this week.
New Zealand has ordered several different vaccines and approval for the Pfizer product is expected next week. Vaccinations will be able to start as soon as the first order arrives, the big question is when.
Hipkins wasn’t prepared to answer that with any certainty. He said an initial batch was expected during the first quarter – by the end of March. It would allow the most at-risk workers to be vaccinated and their close contacts.
After that deliveries would ramp up and a mass vaccination campaign would start mid-year.
Ardern, at her post-cabinet press conference, insisted New Zealand would receive vaccine around the same time Australia did. Hipkins said he wasn’t going to put out any dates until he was absolutely certain about delivery.
He is wise to be cautious, because there is lot riding on this. Governments around the world are clamouring for vaccines, there are shortages and production problems, competition is intense. Political leaders – one of them US President Joe Biden – have made commitments they are desperate to keep.
In many countries, thousands are dying. New Zealand’s situation is vastly better than most and it would be really surprising if vaccines start arriving here while there is a scarcity elsewhere.
Ardern and Hipkins could soon find themselves having to explain why the vaccine hasn’t arrived, and it’s easy to imagine opposition reaction if Australia gets it first.
The other big issue which marked the beginning of the political year wasn’t a new one – the housing crisis.
Ardern spoke about it after Labour’s first caucus meeting of the year, giving details of where a previously-promised 8000 public and transitional homes would be placed.
She referred to the “cracking pace” the government was setting, but it’s against a background of a waiting list which Stuff reported stood at 22,409 at the end of November.
One of the reasons for that is the shortage in the housing market which is pushing rents to levels low-income families can’t afford.
That’s the real problem the government has to address this year, and the pressure is going to be intense.
Ardern knows this, and she has given a timeline for key announcements:
In February Finance Minister Grant Robertson will announce initiatives to ease the property market and “tilt the balance toward first home buyers”.
High-level announcements will be made about the Resource Management Act with draft legislation outlining major reform released in May.
The May budget will contain further measures, and local councils have to free up new land for housing in July, as required by the National Policy Statement on Urban Development.
National Party leader Judith Collins is just as aware as Ardern that housing could be a make-or-break issue for the government.
She seized the initiative by writing to Ardern suggesting setting up a special select committee to develop legislation giving the government the power to re-zone council land for development.
Collins told Morning Report: “It’s very clear when we’ve got the state house waiting list having increased by four times in the last three years, when we’ve got rents now $100 a week more on average than they were three years ago, house prices continuing to rise and not sufficient houses built, that we do need to free up land and get houses built.”
Ardern was cool on the idea of working with National although she said she would consider Collins’ approach “in good faith”.
It’s not unusual for opposition parties to try to get a piece of the action by offering to work with the government, and it is nearly always ignored.
But if anything needs a bi-partisan effort in New Zealand, it’s finding answers to the housing shortage.
*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.