New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s very bad week
After months of positive press, a monumental blunder has led NZ PM Jacinda Ardern to come crashing down to earth this week.
Jacinda Ardern must be wishing she could turn back the clock to June 8, when New Zealand was declared coronavirus free.
The next day she happily shook as many hands as were thrust her way, revelling in the ending of almost all social distancing restrictions.
The prime minister was a hero at home and lauded abroad.
A poll taken in early June showed two-thirds of New Zealanders trusted her leadership through the pandemic. US magazine The Atlantic gushed she was “the most effective leader on the planet”.
Yet, in the last week and a bit, it has all gone south for Ardern and her Labour Party led government.
Her administration has been lambasted as “bungling idiots”, her coalition government of “tearing itself apart” and Ardern herself – often seen as untouchable – was accused of having told a “complete lie” about her handling of the pandemic.
It’s a worrying wobble she’ll be hoping doesn’t turn into an all-out slide at the next general election which will be held in less than three months.
Despite her popularity, Ardern has a surprisingly tenuous grip on power. Her government, which is in coalition with the conservative New Zealand First party, has exactly the same numbers of MPs as the opposition National party. Only a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens delivered her the top job in 2017. Just a small swing away from Labour could see her turfed out.
BORDER BLUNDER HARMING PM
There are a number of issues Ardern is having to contend with. But at the heart of her woes is COVID-19 and a bizarre blunder which has seen the county go from coronavirus free to potentially having, once again, local transmission of the virus.
It started with two British visitors who on June 7, like all arrivals into the country, were placed into hotel quarantine for 14 days. But they didn’t stay there anywhere near that long
During their time inside the Novotel hotel in Auckland, the health ministry decreed everyone in quarantine should only be allowed out after two negative COVID-19 tests.
Six days later the two women were allowed to leave quarantine on compassionate grounds and drive 650kms to Wellington to visit a dying relative. They got lost and on the way met up with a couple of friends who gave them directions.
In Wellington both tested positive for coronavirus. It has since emerged neither was tested in the hotel – not even once. It was the nation’s first COVID cases for three weeks.
‘COULDN’T RUN A BATH, LET ALONE A BORDER’
Ms Arden said it was an “unacceptable failure” and that it “cannot be repeated”. Dying relatives be damned – there would be no more early marks.
But there was a problem – there had already been plenty of early releases from quarantine. It soon came to light that the week after the two women tested positive more than 50 other visitors had also been allowed out on compassionate grounds. Just four had been tested for coronavirus.
The ministry wasn’t even following its own testing rules.
The bad news got even worse. Of the 2159 people who left quarantine between June 9-16 – most who had completed their 14-day stint – only 1010 were tested for coronavirus. Of the rest, around 800 essentially vanished, failing to get into contact with the authorities to arrange a test.
National leader Todd Muller – who covets Ardern’s PM gig – said it was possible coronavirus was now back out in the community. The debacle was a “national disgrace”.
David Seymour, the leader of minor party ACT was more direct. He said the Government was incompetent.
“These bungling idiots couldn’t run a bath let alone a border,” he said. “We’re supposed to have the world’s smartest borders. We now have the world’s dumbest borders.”
PLAN TO ‘OUT JESUS’ ARDERN
So far, Ardern has managed to avoid being in the centre of the maelstrom. Much of the talk has been about whether health minister David Clark should resign.
The prime minister’s popularity, boosted by her handling of everything from the Christchurch massacre to batting away an earthquake on live TV, as well as her cosy bedtime chats on Facebook, have given her a cushion of political capital to lean on during this week’s events.
In an opinion piece for analysis website The Democracy Project commentator Graham Adams said the National Party was wary of going after Ardern.
“Such is Ardern’s popularity and mana (honour and authority) that most opponents consider it too risky to attack her directly by impugning her essential goodness — not least because there is a widespread belief that, unlike many elected representatives, she is always well-intentioned, humble and honest.”
So instead, Muller has been trying to “out Jesus” Ardern, he said, by pushing his own image of innate goodness to show the PM doesn’t have a monopoly on being a trustworthy politician.
If the opposition can prove Ardern isn’t the only pollie with empathy then perhaps they can persuade voters she is “as flawed, calculating and prone to lying as any other politician,” wrote Mr Adams.
Being trustworthy may be a huge boon for Ardern, but it may also be a poisoned chalice if she’s seen to not be meeting the public’s massive expectations.
Indeed, Mr Adams said, Ardern may have been inadvertently doing the groundwork for this herself. For instance, she has avoided saying sorry for the border blunders, expressing mostly “remorse” and suggesting others were responsible.
‘WE’VE BEEN LIED TO’
The gloves may be slowly coming off as election day nears. Senior National MP Judith Collins called into question Ardern’s character last Friday on morning program The AM Show.
“We have been lied to actually. We have been lied to about the quarantine, about the standard of care.”
Asked who had lied, Ms Collins said, “the prime minister and the health ministry”. If the quarantine debacle did lead to delays in opening the border, said Ms Collins, the Kiwi economy could suffer.
Labour MP Willie Jackson was having none of the accusations.
“I think we are going a bit over the line if you are going to start accusing the prime minister of lying,” he said on the same show.
“She is a person of huge integrity and very honest.”
He hoped voters would “cut us a bit of slack given the integrity of the prime minister”.
It’s not just coronavirus that’s proving troublesome. Lesser issues are also taking their toll.
Last week, Labour’s plan to build a tram to relieve congestion in Auckland was scrapped after NZ First refused to back it, chiefly because some of the funding was to come from overseas. Muller said it was a sign the government was “tearing itself apart”.
Ardern was sanguine: “I am well-used to governing a government of three different parties of three different positions. We’ve made remarkable progress on quite difficult areas – this just happens to be one where we were unable to form consensus,” reported Newshub.
A cornerstone Labour policy to build more homes across New Zealand has also come up wanting.
Ardern’s popularity is such that it would be a brave person to bet against Labour winning the September poll and she remaining as PM.
To the world it would seem startling that a person whose image was projected onto the side of a skyscraper in Dubai as a global symbol of empathetic leadership should be kicked out by her own citizens.
But Ardern will not want to have many more weeks as bad as the one she has just endured.