Chris Penk

First published by The BFD 15th June 2020

The BFD is serialising National MP Chris Penk’s book by publishing an extract every day.

Flattening the Country

It was only supposed to be the curve that got flattened, not the whole country.

This is the real story of Labour’s lockdown: how poor preparation then panic set them on a course that none of us could avoid.

And so, as history will record, they promptly set about destroying the village that is New Zealand in order to save it.  Before we get into all that, however, I should be clear about a few things.

Was a lockdown necessary?  Yes.  Was the timing of New Zealand going into lockdown roughly right?  Yes.  Was it inevitable that our tourism industry would be decimated by the coronavirus?  Yes.  Was a considerable amount of economic disruption more generally also inevitable?  Yes.  And are there some countries whose covid-19 results have been worse than ours (as well as some whose are better)?  Yes, definitely yes.

Now, having acknowledged all that upfront, it’s also important that we turn to some other evidence-based home truths.

By the way, relatively few of the points that you’re about to read are original to me.  That’s a good thing, as I’ve naturally been keener to rely on the judgement of experts in various fields than my own, particularly when it comes to specialised knowledge or experience on the ground.  (Naturally I’ve provided footnotes and acknowledged sources throughout to ensure I fall on the right side of the research/plagiarism divide.) Complaints about the lack of flu vaccines, for example, are credible for having been made most loudly by the health professionals expected to administer them.

What you are about to read is, however, a unique compilation of the difficulties and dangers experienced by New Zealand throughout the crisis that was our government’s response to the coronavirus.  It’s by compiling that we see patterns played out.  These patterns exists across different aspects of the government’s actions and across a timeline of several months.

So, how did we do?

In health terms, our current situation is better than it could have been in some ways but worse in others.  There is a huge cost to life and limb that we’ve only just begun to pay.

So while it’s true that New Zealand’s losses could easily have been higher, government inaction created the conditions in which we’re even having that conversation now.

Simply stated, our government’s initial reaction to news of this global pandemic was shockingly slack.  They told us that they were “alert but not alarmed”, when “conscious but incompetent” would have been closer to the truth.

In this book we’ll look at a collection of inter-connected issues, starting with a couple of international comparisons in the name of introducing some balance to the debate.

As a nation, our day of economic reckoning grows ever nearer.  The seeds of decades’ worth of soul-destroying debt have been sown.

In attempting to pick winners, the government gambled and lost on behalf of us all.  The Ardern administration did not merely attempt to make educated guesses about which sectors of the economy could succeed.  Instead, it dictated that certain categories of human endeavour were entirely expendable.  Whole industries have been led like so many lambs to a no-longer-non-essential slaughterhouse.

That’s the big picture on the economic front.  It’s not as though a detailed examination makes for any more pleasant viewing, however, as we’ll see.

For one thing, placing almost all the business-backing eggs in the basket of wage subsidies betrayed alarming ignorance.

While locking down the nation was necessary at some level, as I’ve already acknowledged, the emphasis was entirely misplaced.

Those in the Beehive who thought they knew better than the rest of us created an artificial distinction between “essential” and “non-essential”.  This distinction damned a huge number of services, employment and even people.

Instead the line in the sand should have been drawn to keep clear the “safe” from the “unsafe” from the very first day of Alert Level 4.  This was belatedly acknowledged, in effect, by the government in its adoption of that distinction for the Alert Level 3 phase.  No-one in New Zealand’s government – from the Prime Minister down – ever mustered the intellectual honesty to admit that the basis of Level 3 should have been the basis of Level 4 all those weeks prior.

As we will discuss, the eventual arrival of Level 3 was like a lifeline thrown to a drowned man.  The government had maintained restrictions for far too long in the face of mounting evidence that these should be relaxed or at least re-worked.  Not only did the lockdown endure at Level 4 for days longer than necessary, it had remained for all the wrong reasons.

During the lockdown a fatuous fiefdom was brought into being by a government that, for some reason, believed that supermarkets could never become cluttered, crowded or cruddy.  That seemed to be their assessment of small local retail businesses such as butchers and greengrocers, however, as these were denied any opportunity to implement equivalent safety measures.

For some reason, precautions that were entirely acceptable in supermarkets could not possibly work in smaller outfits.  Whereas dairies were (quite rightly) able to remain open on the basis that they would allow customer presence on a one-in-one-out basis, the butchers, bakers and any remaining candlestick makers of the realm were not trusted in the same way.

Other crass distinctions were also created and this was no more stark anywhere than in the media sector.  Let’s go there.

Migrant misery is now multiplying as the government’s ineptitude has seen thousands of lives disrupted for much longer than necessary due to its failure to process visa applications during the lockdown.

Teachers were told – along with all other Kiwis – to act as though they had covid-19.  Fair enough.  Teachers were also told, however – unlike most other Kiwis – to go back to work during Level 3 lockdown in environments where the chance of maintaining physical distancing was so laughably remote as to be practically non-existent.

Listening to lectures daily at 1pm you could have been forgiven for thinking that, as a nation, we had gone hard and gone early.  If only the “early” bit were true.

Repeated refusals by ministers to contemplate even basic protections for this country at our border doomed us to the destruction that will follow, as surely as night does day.  It did not have to be like this.

Almost as frustrating to hear was the baseless and graceless chorus of self-congratulation from Cabinet.  New Zealand’s story was one of an open stable door through which relatively few horses bolted.  It was good luck, in other words, as much as good management in the early days.

To be lucky in a global pandemic, you want three things.

First, you want home to be more a thousand miles from the next nearest human.  Check.

Second, you want to have a really low population density.  Compare Broadway in Newmarket, Auckland with Broadway in New York, America.  Check.

Third, you want the pandemic to have the good grace to emerge at least a few months prior to the start of your winter flu season.  Check.

Despite all these natural advantages, our government managed to allow the virus to import itself to these shores.

To compound its error, the Beehive then blithely blustered through shortages of testing capacity, personal protective equipment (PPE), contact tracing, flu vaccines and any meaningful monitoring of “self-isolation”.

So what have we to look forward to?

We’ve emerged blinking into the sunlight of relative freedom, unsure even what that looks like now.  Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant but can it cleanse our national character?  For a while there it seemed – through facebook frenzies and twitter tirades – that every man jack of us had been transformed into either a reckless rule-breaker or a tiresome tattle-tale.  

Fortunately, social media is nothing like real life but it’s easy to forget that when the virtual lynch mobs are gathering in groups of much more than ten online.  And of course social media is only rarely “social” and never “media” (in any reasonable use of that word) but that’s another story for another day.

Decisions were made in a way that was not only undemocratic but actively anti-democratic.  Some of the loudest howls of outrage were reserved for the Leader of the Opposition going the extra mile to perform his constitutionally crucial role.  You’ll recall that it was partly that he’d had the temerity to turn up to his place of work to, you know, work.

The government drew from a bottomless well of top-down decision making throughout, grudgingly allowing Parliament to resume eventually, on a skeleton staff basis right up to the week of the Budget.

Who among us was surprised at the first-week farce that was the erroneous passing of a law enabling hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to be loaned?  It was a moment to make last year’s botched Budget look well executed.  And executed is exactly what those responsible for such an error would surely have been in centuries past.

They promised Keynesian capacity.  They delivered Keystone cops.

All in all, it’s almost been enough to make one think unkind thoughts.  But of course the mantra “be kind” was soon elevated to the status of Confucian wisdom applied to Sun Tzu’s strategy.

Read and weep.


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Flattening the Country
Chris Penk

Chris Penk

Chris Penk is the MP for the Kaipara ki Mahurangi electorate (previously Helensville), having entered Parliament following the 2017 retirement of John Key in that seat. Prior to Parliamentary life,...