Analysis – The government’s mandatory vaccination regime is backed by businesses but provokes a curious response from National, and Nanaia Mahuta’s announcement that councils will have to join Three Waters is described as “an act of breathtaking determination”.
After a cabinet meeting on Tuesday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that vaccinations would be mandatory in any workplace that required a certificate of vaccination for entry.
It’s a vital part of the next phase of protection against Covid-19, the “traffic light” system that will come in when all DHBs have reached 90 percent full vaccination and lockdowns end.
Under the system even close contact businesses such as hospitality, hairdressers and gyms will be able to operate at all levels – red, orange and green – if they ask their customers for vaccination certificates.
Ardern said it was only fair that if they were doing that their staff should also be vaccinated, and a new law would provide a clearer and simplified risk assessment process for employers to follow when deciding whether they could require vaccination for different types of work.
Employees who refused to get vaccinated and lost their jobs because of it would get four weeks’ notice.
Nearly all businesses which interact with the public are going to have to decide whether to allow only vaccinated people in, and those that don’t will have to operate under trading restrictions.
Ardern said digital certificates would be ready “in November” but she didn’t give a date. The government, and everyone else, is hoping that the 90 percent target is reached before Christmas.
The government worked closely with BusinessNZ and the CTU to develop the mandatory vaccination regime and both organisations said they supported it.
The Restaurant Association backed it as “a positive step” and Retail NZ said it was a good thing for employers and workers.
Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood said 15 percent of the country’s workforce was already covered by vaccination mandates and the new rules would bring it up to around 40 percent.
Against that background the National Party’s response was curious, and the media was clearly puzzled.
“National Party leader Judith Collins has come out firmly against creating a ‘two class’ system by bringing in vaccination certificates, but she also wants to bring in vaccination certificates,” RNZ reported.
The report said Collins was repeatedly asked who those two classes were but she would only refer to reports quoting Ardern as saying the traffic light plan would create a two-tier system.
“However, she did not oppose vaccination certificates and indeed seemed to call for the vaccination certificates to be brought in as soon as possible,” the report said.
Collins had been referring to Ardern’s comment in an interview with the New Zealand Herald, which helped by putting the quote up on its website: “Ardern was asked explicitly whether the system creates two different classes of people, to which she replied: ‘That is what it is – yup’.”
It’s blindingly obvious that the two classes of people are the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It’s not so obvious why Collins was unwilling to say that. If vaccination certificates are issued and used, there will inevitably be different types, groups or classes of people, whatever they are collectively called.
Vaccination status is going to be a fact of daily life for as long as the virus presents a serious risk.
Stuff also noticed the peculiar nature of Collins’ comments.
“Her party has rapidly shifted its position on the issue of vaccine certificates and mandates in the last 24 hours, after calling for more use of them for months,” Henry Cooke said.
“Collins now says she is worried about the government creating a ‘two-class society’ that alienates those who choose not to be vaccinated.”
When Stuff asked her about this, Collins said the “new positioning” was in response to a step-up in rhetoric from the prime minister. Ardern was now saying it was people who were the problem “and I think we need to be very careful about that rhetoric”.
Collins later told Morning Report the vaccination mandates should be dropped when the 90 percent target was reached.
All this could be seen as Ardern sticking up for the vaccinated while Collins worries about the unvaccinated, and there’s politics in that.
Commentator Matthew Hooton, writing in the Herald, said Labour would be more interested in what BusinessNZ had to say about vaccinations than whatever Collins came up with.
“Ardern is focused on the median voter and the overwhelming majority who are already vaccinated and becoming enraged about being held hostage by those who are not,” he said.
“Public opinion will be strongly with the prime minister.”
If the government scored points off its announcement on Tuesday, it could lose them because of what it did on Wednesday.
Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta announced the Three Waters project, proposals to create four huge entities to manage the country’s river, drinking and storm water, was going ahead and councils would be forced to join.
They had previously been told they could opt out and news that legislation was going to be passed making their participation mandatory came as an unwelcome surprise to most.
“This government has just proven themselves to be a revolting pack of thieving liars,” said Christchurch City Councillor James Gough.
In Parliament, National’s Nicola Willis held up the front page of the Wairarapa Times-Age which quoted Masterton councillor Tina Nixon: “A deceitful, lying pack of bastards.”
Newshub reported that 60 of the 67 councils opposed the proposals.
Not even the Labour mayors of Auckland and Christchurch were in favour. Auckland’s Phil Goff said the city would lose more than a quarter of its assets with little benefit, and Christchurch’s Lianne Dalziel described it as “a breach of natural justice”.
A Stuff editorial said the government was wading against powerful currents with its “act of breathtaking determination”.
“Opposition parties, and more than a few local bodies, will portray this as a jackbooted disregard for democratic accountability and an unconscionable seizure of assets that had been built up by generations of ratepayers,” it said.
It got that right.
The editorial concluded that what the government proposed was far from the disintegration of a functioning system. “It’s integration to redeem a malfunctioning one. To this end, much will depend on whether the working group gets its act together.”
Mahuta presented a raft of statistics and tales of water woes when she explained why the status quo – councils in charge of water – could not continue. Also, there was no way they could afford to fix the infrastructure themselves. The figure had been put as high at $185 billion over the next 30 years, and only the Three Waters entities would have the financial clout to raise the money, she said.
Mahuta insisted councils would continue to own their assets within the entities and a working group would be set up to consider how governance and control would work.
There were enticing figures about how much ratepayers would save through lower water charges, and how the working group would include council representatives and iwi.
The bottom line, however, was that the entities would call the shots and set the water charges.
Under fire in Parliament, neither Mahuta nor Ardern were fazed by opposition attacks.
“I believe that 34,000 New Zealanders get sick from drinking water every year and, in the 2019-2020 year there were over 3000 overflows from sewerage networks,” Ardern said.
“No one would say that that is OK or right, or can continue.”
At the end of the week there was talk of protest marches, but the strength of public reaction wasn’t clear. Councils aren’t held in universal high regard.
The timeline envisages a transition period of about three years, which seems optimistic given the huge task that the working group has ahead of it followed by Mahuta putting an enormous piece of legislation through Parliament.
National and ACT pledged to repeal it and hand water back to the councils.
The Greens wanted a pause, saying there hadn’t been time for communities to have their say.
Labour doesn’t need the Greens or anyone else to get this through. It’s the brute force of a majority government in action.
While the government made some non-Covid headlines with its announcement on Friday afternoon that it was setting up a new Ministry for Disabled People, the week ended, as it began, with the pandemic. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced that MIQ stays would be halved from 14 to seven days followed by isolation at home for three days.
The change comes in on 14 November. Arrivals will have to be fully vaccinated and will be tested on day zero, day three and day six with a rapid antigen test before leaving MIQ.
Hipkins said about 1500 MIQ rooms a month would be freed up. Some would be taken up by community cases while some would be used for returning travellers.
While he was announcing this the minister was also coping with two cases in Christchurch as the South Island got a nasty wake-up call.