Gordon Campbell on why the public doesn’t always do what its told, even in 24 different languages

446cff405dca04cfd62bToday we were told that the Covid vaccines available to New Zealand are both halal and kosher. Good to know. And good to officially recognise that we’re no longer living in a monoculture. Reportedly, the government is putting its Covid messages in 24 different languages on its website. Yet according to its critics that’s not enough. Supposedly, we could have avoided the need for the latest lockdowns entirely if only the government had shown better communications skills. If only the government had put its Covid public service messages on TikTok, then everything might have been OK.

This belief in the public’s willingness to absorb and obey whatever government advises it to do would be touching – or frightening – if it were true. The truth, as Paul Simon said long ago, is that people routinely hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. In my experience people have quite a high “tune out, drop out” rate whenever government starts telling them to do anything. Chances are, if Ashley Bloomfield had turned up on TikTok with his cap on backwards to tell everyone to stay cool and stay home yo, he might well have been accused of trying to be down with the kids, even before he started dancing. Besides, the case that triggered the latest lockdown was 21 years old. Not exactly Tik Tok’s prime audience.

This expectation that government is the source – and the solution – to all of our Covid anxieties says a lot about the nation. In our version of the nanny state, the state is responsible for getting all of us nannies across to the other side of the street. Nowhere has that dependence been clearer than in the tourism sector. Yesterday, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash visited Glacierland on the West Coast, and got an earful:

The meeting did not go quite as Rob Jewell from Fox Glacier Guiding expected – about 97 percent of his business is usually focused on international visitors. “I actually arrived with high expectations that the tourism minister had taken that time to come and travel all the way down to Glacier country and that he would have something for us very tangible in terms of support but unfortunately he’s come down here, he said the main purpose of his visit was to listen and there wasn’t anything forthcoming so … he’s left and we’re empty handed and there’s no additional support at this point. Disappointed.”

He thought 12 months into the pandemic the government would be on top of things.

Yeah right. That’s the sturdy sense of independence for which Coasters are famous. Nash was being expected to magically produce – for the foreseeable future – a replacement for 97% of a business formerly dependent on international tourists who won’t be coming back in comparable numbers for the best part of a decade. That’s why Nash was also gently saying this yesterday:

“It is time to have that very difficult discussion with your bankers, your employers, your creditors and your community because we cannot save every business.”

That isn’t meant to sound callous. It must be horrible (and worrying)to see the pandemic destroy your income stream. Yet blaming the government for not keeping private tour operators in the manner accustomed is a case of living in denial. After all, for all the lamenting about the demise of international tourism, it still constituted in the good times only a minority of the tourism spend. Prior to Covid-19, 60 per cent ($23.7 billion ) of New Zealand’s tourism dollars came from domestic travel, and the task facing those tour operators surely, is to find sustainable ways to capture a sizeable chunk of the $9 billion annually that Kiwis used to spend on overseas travel. Tourism operators and suppliers of related accommodation etc could start by not charging domestic travellers through the nose. In the December quarter, costs related to domestic travel rose by a stunning 20 per cent. We’re a pricey country, getting pricier by the minute.

Talking of tourism handouts
Need one also mention that the government has already allocated a $400 million Budget package to the tourism sector last year, including a $311 million package of grants and loans for tourism firms that could demonstrate a viable plan for the future. Tourism and hospitality firms also made extensive use of the wage subsidy scheme that expired in September, and have availed themselves of other government avenues for loan assistance.

Compare this relative largesse to (a) the paltry $51million allocated last year to the international education sector, and (b) the belated entry allowed for a 1,000 tertiary and post graduate international students, 300 of whom will begin to arrive in April, provided they scan book and pay for slots in managed isolation. According to December 2020 data, international student spending in this country (by those studying less than 12 months) was $4.2 billion. In sum, plenty of the private education providers in this country were just as dependent on fee-paying international students as the tour operators were on international visitors but so far, they’ve been told: tough luck.
As other countries move to revive their international student programmes, New Zealand may come to rue the misplaced emphasis we have put on tourism (ahead of international education) as a potential earner of export dollars.

Footnote One : One virtue you used to be able to rely on from conservatives was their consistency. Some truths were held to be eternal Not these days. National and its Act Party ally have been for and against the need for Covid lockdowns; for and against that duration of them; for putting the health of the economy ahead of public health goals, but only as long as that was done “safely” in terms of public health; in favour of government support for business but against the borrowing that would make such support possible. Why isn’t the government doing more for business – but hey at the same time, why is it “printing money” and (allegedly) burdening future generations with the cost of keeping firms afloat? Why is it racking up debt – but why isn’t it bankrolling the entire wages of everyone required to practice self -isolation?

Footnote Two: Just this week, conservative voices on Kiwi social media have been touting the state of Victoria as the Covid lockdown model that New Zealand should be following Huh? There’s far stronger evidence that Victoria has been imitating us. Last year, Victoria had a couple of periods of runaway community transmission that resulted in over 800 deaths. Victoria learned the hard way. Its success since then has been largely because – like Brisbane, like Perth –the state has more recently pursued our strategy of short, sharp five and seven day level lockdowns to stamp out community outbreaks as soon as they surface. Doesn’t this message from a fortnight ago sound familiar?

Victoria will enter a “short, sharp circuit-breaker” lockdown for five days to respond to fears the highly infectious UK strain of coronavirus has spread throughout the community, says Premier Daniel Andrews. Exercise and shopping will be limited to within 5km of the home. Face masks will need to be worn indoors and outdoors if you are outside your own home, and no visitors will be allowed in homes. Under the rules, schools and tertiary education will be closed, public gatherings are banned, people must work from home when they can, and weddings will be banned except for on compassionate grounds. Places of worship and religious gatherings and ceremonies will not be permitted, and funerals will be capped at 10 people.

Footnote Three: Inevitably, these ping-ponging messages have made the Opposition look rather like a bunch of opportunists. That’s a bad look during a pandemic. (The normal routines of adversarial politics become seen as an irritant.) Mindful of the risk, National’s Covid spokesperson Chris Bishop has been trying to insert positive ideas into the Covid narrative, rather than fall back on the usual nit-picking. Not surprisingly though, this recent Spinoff poll showed 89% of the public still rank the government’s handling of the Covid threat to be somewhere between “good” and “excellent”. (A whopping 59% rated it as “excellent”) Conversely, only 8% of the public regarded the government’s performance as “ terrible” – which is roughly the same size as the 7.59% share of the vote that the Act Parry won at the last election. For a niche point of view, it gets a lot of airtime.

Footnote Four: Still, the Act Party is one place where you can find a reliable adherence to tradition, and to bygone beliefs about economic reality. Surely, Act Party leader David Seymour’s prime achievement has been that he’s taken the 50 year old policies of Margaret Thatcher and somehow convinced quite a number of young fogeys that he’s onto something new and exciting. Thatcherism forever! It’s a hot new thing among the trust fund kids.

Labour’s puny welfare response

Thatcherism of course wasn’t just about the privileged giving themselves big tax cuts and buying cheaply the state assets that other people had created. (The Rogernomes were always hopeless when it came to creating wealth, but were terrifically talented at shifting it upwards.) Thatcherism was also about slashing benefits, in order to give the poor the “incentives” to work. Back in 2017, many of us voted for the centre left option in the belief that if elected, a centre-left government would come to the aid of those very low income New Zealanders harshly treated by the benefit system for the past 30 years.

We’re still waiting. A few days, ago Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni announced that benefits would henceforth be linked to average wage rises, and not to inflation. Huzzah! Here’s how Sepuloni spun this news of this meagre form of assistance:

Around 385,000 families and individuals will be better off getting more than double the annual increase they’d have received using the old Consumer Price Index measure. For example, a couple with children could get $13.24 more Jobseeker Support a week from 1 April in line with the average wage increase. Under the previous system indexed to the CPI increase of 1.15 percent, they would receive only $4.95.

So…that’s a net gain for those on the dole of exactly $8.29 a week. Io that enough to cope with the rising costs of rent, transport and food ? In the coming year, inflation is being tipped to spike, and wages– especially in the private sector – will struggle to keep up. Keep in mind that two years ago, the government’s own Welfare Expert Advisory Group had recommended that even back then, benefit increases of up to 47% would be needed to enable very low income families to live adequately. Shamelessly, Sepuloni has spun the current pittances as an example of Labour keeping its promises :

Combined with this Government’s 1 April changes to income abatement thresholds, helping incentivise those who are working to remain in work, underlines our promise to help low income New Zealanders. This is another step towards lifting wages and making our welfare system fairer so that people and families on benefits don’t fall further and further behind other New Zealanders.” said Sepuloni.

Yep, because so many people need to be “incentivised” to stay in work. ( The ghost of Thatcher would applaud Sepuloni’s logic.) Sure, lifting the level of income you can earn before benefits begin to abate is a good thing, but it is not an adequate response to a problem of this scale. People in the poverty firing line don’t need “incentives” to get off the couch, they need opportunities. In particular, they need an allegedly sympathetic centre left government to get off the couch and help them to afford the essentials.

Covid SalivaTesting ( a footnote)

Further to Werewolf’s article last week on the attempted monetisation of Covid saliva testing in this country, let it be noted that the Chicago Tribune has just reported today that the Illinois University saliva test (licensed here by the NZ firm Rako Science) has finally won emergency use approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, nearly six months after Yale’s (freely available) SalivaDirect saliva test won its FDA emergency use approval. And this comes several months after Ryman Healthcare began offering Yale’s test on a voluntary basis to staff at some of its rest homes.

Reportedly, the MoH has been putting saliva testing to the test, and will shortly announce its findings. Question: has it been testing the Rako Science /Illinois U product, or the Yale University test, or both? And has the MoH been comparing and contrasting the two products as to which gives better efficacy rates and better value for money, in the NZ context? One would hope so. Anything less would be corporate welfare.

High on downers

Someone said this track sounds like Avril Lavigne produced by Enya and…that’s both accurate and a compliment. Ethel Cain’s (suspended in time and space) take on “Michelle Pfeiffer” is stylishly lovely in a “been down so long it looks like up to me” kind of fashion.. Loved the guitar tone and the sludgy drum sound, too:

In a different version of the “down is up” ethos, this chemically saturated version of Townes Van Zandt’s country song “ No Place To Fall” uses the melodic strengths of the original to double down on its “lets share the nothingness that I bring to the table, while we still can” sentiments :

I ain’t much of a lover, it’s true
Well, I’m here, then I’m gone
And I’m forever blue
But I’m sure wanting you