Chris Penk

First published by The BFD 30th June 2020

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

Self-isolation self-delusion

We’ve already looked at self-isolation in the context of the practically non-existent border controls.  This was another missing piece of New Zealand’s puzzle of health protection.

The Prime Minister described self-isolation as a practice working “successfully” in “a high-trust environment”.  

Ardern didn’t make it clear how she knew that the “vast majority” of travellers were complying with the plans they’d presented.  Given that the virus was spreading rapidly in New Zealand at the time that such faith was being placed in this system (if it can be called a system), I’d say she may have been mistaken.

It may or may not have been true that “the vast majority” of returnees did indeed self-isolate to the letter of the non-existent law, as Ardern claimed.  But even if so, among the 10,000 plus travellers the remaining minority still represented plenty of coronavirus candidates.

The phrase “high trust” was also a favourite of the Director-General of Health in relation to self-isolation:

It’s a high-trust environment. The vast majority of people understand their role and comply,” Bloomfield told the Epidemic Response Committee yesterday.

“I have a lot of confidence in that. We rely on them to do that because we can’t police every person.”

In other words, trust needed to be so high because the government’s determination to protect its citizens was so low.

From the same account of that meeting, the New Zealand Herald reported that:

[Professor] Skegg had earlier told the committee about the risk of people arriving from overseas.

“Every effort must be made to prevent spread from New Zealanders returning from overseas. As each day goes by, the probability of those people carrying the virus increases.”

Was that realistic, though?  It turns out that the leadership of other countries did make checking a priority, again as advised by Professor Skegg:

He noted that Australia was putting all people arriving from overseas into quarantine, and he thought New Zealand should do the same.

But that quarantine had to be enforced and checked, as it is in Singapore by requiring those in quarantine to send text messages multiple times a day.

“I just don’t think we have that level of checking going on”, he told the committee.

Across the South China Sea from Singapore lies Taiwan, whose success story was able to be told because its leaders wished to rely more on IT than intuition:

Phone tracking was also used to ensure travellers in mandatory 14-day quarantine were sticking to their isolation conditions.

If anyone strayed too far from home, they would receive a call or text to trace their location. In some cases, the police would also come knocking, with the power to fine residents up to NT$1million (NZ$55,200) for breaching the rules.

Burning down the House

First, let’s see if you can guess who made this statement:

As a country, we need to come together during this difficult time. We need to unite, to support each other and show each other compassion.

Simon Bridges was making a good point, whether or not you correctly guessed his identity.  In that same op-ed published in the Guardian he also made a couple of other good points:

But that doesn’t mean that our decision-makers should go without scrutiny. As the opposition and the largest party in the New Zealand parliament we want to be constructive in helping the country recover but we also have a crucial role in holding the government to account. 

This is especially important at a time when the government has more powers than usual as we are under a state of emergency.

If you don’t believe us, then you may instead to choose to believe the same sentiment, expressed more firmly if anything, from one of New Zealand’s longest serving MPs.  Peter Dunne served in Cabinets both Labour and National (and was the very model of a moderate major general, as fans of Gilbert & Sullivan might be tempted to add).

Around the time the country was being run by fiat, Dunne had this to say:

Parliament is the proper place for the Prime Minister’s daily statements to be made, and then be debated as need be, and questions asked by the people’s representatives.

It is Parliament where decisions about the duration of the lockdown and what comes next should be made and challenged. It is Parliament where the level and duration of impositions on the future lives of citizens should be discussed and decided upon, not the small group of officials currently doing so by way of Regulations. It is Parliament, not the Director-General of Health and the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, that should be debating whether Covid-19 should continue to be treated solely as a public health issue or whether it is now time to start taking greater account of the long-term economic and social consequences, and where the line needs to be drawn.

And it is Parliament that should be deciding for how many more times the weekly state of emergency should be renewed, not just the Minister of Civil Defence acting on the advice of the very officials the state of emergency empowers.

Some might have been tempted to argue that a properly functioning Parliament is a mere nicety and nod to constitutional correctness.

But as we shall see, mistakes are liable to be made when shortcuts are taken by those more sure of themselves than surefooted.

After some weeks, a version of Parliament did return but it was one severely depleted in numbers.  Lower-ranked MPs, especially those outside the Wellington region, were not invited to attend.  My own invitation must have been lost in the post somewhere between Wellington and Waitakere.

The hollowed-out House then began contemplating legislation urgently brought before it by the government.

“What could possibly go wrong?”, I hear you ask.

Plenty could go wrong and plenty did:

Thursday’s urgently passed tax legislation contained the surprise inclusion of a previously unannounced scheme to make the tax department an interest-free lender to small and medium-sized businesses.

To the considerable embarrassment of the government (if it is capable of feeling such emotion) it accidentally tabled – and therefore passed – legislation unlocking billions of taxpayer dollars in lending.

The discovery of this error by Jenée Tibshraeny is recounted brilliantly by her in an article published shortly afterwards on  I recommend that you read it in full, partly because I’m interested to know whether you laugh or cry more while doing so.

From the highlights (or rather lowlights) reel:

We had the extraordinary situation on Thursday, where the Government gave itself the power to issue billions of dollars of loans to small businesses, without realising it. […]

The version MPs thought they were passing was one that enacted all the tax changes the Government had already announced to ease the pain of the COVID-19 crisis.

The version that actually passed was a draft that also included clauses giving the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) the authority to issue small businesses loans on behalf of the Crown.

The crazy thing is, MPs didn’t know what they had just rubber-stamped until I reported it on Thursday afternoon. […]

As I have since found out, the debacle caused Cabinet to meet on Thursday night to approve details around how the scheme would operate – the Bill simply gives the IRD the power to issue loans, but doesn’t detail loan values, eligibility, interest rates, etc. […]

The Opposition is rightly upset.

National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said: “New Zealanders expect its Government to have gone past the panic stage of the crisis and to be capable of carefully thinking through detailed policy that will target assistance to those most in need.” […]

Robertson couldn’t, in the press conference, provide satisfactory answers on how much he expected taxpayers were putting on the line for these loans.

The result isn’t just awkwardness for the government, it’s awfulness for the governed:

The consequence – people are left confused and then upset the “support” offered to them isn’t what they thought it was.

The information media provides is incomplete in the first instance and banks’ phone lines get jammed as they’re swamped with enquiries.

Reflecting on the sorriest of Parliamentary sagas, Tibshraeny acknowledged the mitigating circumstances but correctly concluded that other aspects were far from satisfactory:

Oddly, I can dismiss Thursday’s passing of the wrong legislation as an extraordinary genuine mistake.

But the lack of transparency around decision-making and incoherent way of announcing a billion-dollar policy change, are inexcusable.

Speaking of transparency, we were reminded by the ever-vigilant Taxpayers’ Union in early May that a report into the state of our health services – being compiled by Heather Simpson – was long overdue.

As Jordan Williams noted in the union’s email, the issue of the report’s non-appearance had been raised by Professor David Skegg in an appearance before the Epidemic Response Committee.

At a cost of $9.5 million, this report (which had been due for release in March) had better be a pretty good read.  From the outside it’s impossible to know whether the report’s release is being delayed to allow the re-writing of pre-pandemic history or if it’s a more mundane matter of missed deadlines.  Whether due to conspiracy or cock-up, delaying our understanding of the capacity of our health system in this way is rather untimely, to say the least.



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Self-Isolation Self-Delusion
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,...