Gordon Campbell on the politics of anger, plus a music playlist

7544d5f1e5bb21f17561Angry? Are you talkin’ to ME? Of late, the Code Red levels of resentment inspired by the government’s Covid policy almost make one hanker for the days when people could write best-selling books about New Zealanders being The Passionless People. Not anymore. A hissy fit arms race seems to be happening out there. Some of the disgruntled appear to be intent on outdoing one other in performative acts of rage. Restrictions supposedly meant to protect the lives of everyone and their loved ones are being treated as the political equivalent of under-arm bowling.

In the midst of the criticism coming at her government from all sides PM Jacinda Ardern has tried to re-define this as a virtue. Some people think the government is moving too fast, she said on Wednesday, and some think it is moving too slow. To her, this indicated that her government has got the pace of the difficult decisions just about right. She’s wrong about that, of course. If your critics on the right think you’re going too slow and most of the people who voted for you think you’re going too fast, this means you’re going too fast.

Sure, Delta has changed things. However, responding to Delta did not require the screeching U-turn the government has taken over the past two months. Currently, there are dozens of people – hundreds even – who are alive today who would not have been if National/Act had been in power, and if the borders had been thrown open to the extent that National was urging over a year ago. Whether those people will still be alive in another year’s time is another story. Under pressure, the government appears to have decided that its No 1 priority is to ensure that the relatively few people who can afford a holiday in Queenstown won’t have to endure a sad Christmas at home.

In reality, some Aucklanders have indicated they would prefer to stay at home, rather than risk carrying the virus with them into regions where the vaccination rates are still dangerously low.

Running the Reds

Labour has been running several red lights on the traffic lights system. As Greens’ co-leader Marama Davidson pointed out earlier this week, dates have been set for re-opening for business and travel without the new system having been trialled, and before the vaccine certificate programme that’s central to its safe operation is up and running. Similar haste has been evident at the enforcement end. Under pain of a $1,000 fine for non-compliance, travelling New Zealanders will have to be either fully vaccinated or have recorded a negative Covid result within 72 hours beforehand.

However, the Police checking the vaccination paperwork and enforcing the vaccine certificate system in bars, cafes and restaurants do not (yet) have to meet the sane requirement to be fully vaccinated. As Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has readily acknowledged, the public should be able to expect that the officers policing the rules would also be abiding by them. Currently though, Police conformity seems to have got tangled up with the working out of vaccine mandates within the wider public service. One further point about enforcement: proportionally, fewer Maori are fully vaccinated, so relatively fewer again are likely to have a vaccine certificate at hand over summer. What then, is there to stop the Police from using ethnic profiling as part of their enforcement of the certificate checks and fines?

To be optimistic for a moment: let’s all hope that some of these matters may turn out to be just ‘bedding in’ problems. Ditto for the app technologies required on site in bars and cafes for the checking of vaccine certificates. Such hurdles will be surmountable, given time. Other countries are deploying job mandates and vaccine certificates, despite having to iron out a few implementation problems along the way. So shall we. And after clamouring for so long to re-open, hospitality outlets can hardly baulk at doing what’s needed to make the new system work safely and smoothly, for customers and staff alike.

But here’s the thing. In the face of the political pressure to re-open, the government is now running a serious risk of looking incompetent by racing to meet an artificial timetable. In particular, vaccine certificates could easily prove a bottleneck, especially for people who are not smartphone adept. Sure, there will be 0800 numbers to call – good luck with that – and other routes to prove one’s identity and access one’s vaccine track record. But there’s not a lot of time left before December 15 rolls around, and all the barriers get lifted.

The significant concerns about moving ‘too far, too fast’ arise from the persistently low vaccination rates among Maori, and also in some rural/provincial parts of the country. There’s a chicken and egg quality to some of this, in that one key motivator in getting people vaccinated is their proximity to a community outbreak of the disease. In rural areas, Covid just doesn’t seem real until it arrives at the gate. Will enough rural people then be able to get vaccinated and/or treated in time, given that at best, it takes another 14 days for full immunisation to kick in? Like most of this stuff, it’s a roll of the dice.

Faith in numbers

In justifying the rush to the traffic light system, PM Jacinda Ardern continues to claim that New Zealand is now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Yet as this column has mentioned before, the constant citing of our 80%+ full vaccination rates and over 91% first dose figures is pretty misleading. That’s because those ratios measure only the eligible 12+ population. But if we measure the total population that’s vulnerable to Covid, merely 69% of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, and this country ranks only 20th among 39 OECD countries on a vaccination per capita basis.

In other words, the traffic light system is being implemented (a)when only 41% of the total Maori population are fully vaccinated (b) before we have started to vaccinate the under 12s, and (c) before a booster programme is in place to protect people with waning immunity levels. Is the ability of some New Zealanders to spend a Christmas holiday somewhere else really worth piling up these levels of cumulative risk ?

Footnote One: Why are we so angry/so divided? IMO, it isn’t the fault of the Internet or because people do hot takes on social media. It may have more to do with the fact we’ve had nearly four decades of successive governments that have directly – or tacitly – promoted policies that have atomised every single aspect of New Zealand life. Along the way, people have been schooled to compete aggressively and to regard government as the Big Bad. In the light of that history, it seems absurd to blame THIS government for our inability to act collectively in the face of a hideous external threat. The distrust began with the rosy promises about trickle-down economics.

Footnote Two: Even so, it is downright weird that the same people who complain of the jackbooted tyranny of the Ardern government, also demand that the government has to spell out in explicit detail every conceivable aspect of the Covid regulations. Anything less and they claim to be “confused.” (How on earth do these people manage to read their own spreadsheets?) Basically, people complain when the government tells them what to do. But unless the government tells them exactly what to do under every conceivable scenario, they will complain just as loudly. Covid Minister Chris Hipkins has the patience of a saint.

Footnote Three: In case you wondered where I got the 41% figure for the Maori population, this was by taking (a) the total Maori population, estimated to be 854,700 and (b) the number of Maori who are fully vaccinated (353,097) and expressed that as a percentage.

Footnote Four: The Act Party’s David Seymour has suggested that vaccine certificates should be mailed out to everyone over 65 who has been fully vaccinated. That may sound like a sensible idea, until you consider the security/identity theft risks in entrusting such precious documents to a mass mailout to open letterboxes. If the government had gone down that route, one can safely predict that Seymour would be mocking it for relying on ancient snail mail, and for not being hip to 21st century online realities.

Footnote Five: Finally on the anger front… Routinely, the Ardern government can be its own worst enemy, credibility wise. All the same, it also gets whipsawed by contradictory claims. It is either too prescriptive or not prescriptive enough. When it engages with gangs to deliver Covid programmes it is allegedly being soft on crime; if it doesn’t it is accused of snootily ignoring the essential social role that gangs play in Maori communities. It is accused of delaying solutions to glaring problems. But simultaneously, it is accused of imposing solutions when it finally says “enough” after engaging in four years of negotiations with councils about the Three Waters reforms. Anger, as Facebook long ago recognised, can be its own reward.

The Playlist

Finally… The weekly playlist. Mainly mainstream pop this week, including the comeback song by Melbourne’s finest, Camp Cope. It concludes with the magnum opus remake by Taylor Swift of that song from her Red album about the non-return of her scarf by Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom she had a three month fling ten years ago. Reportedly, the scarf

has since been returned, after a massive fan pile-on. Those urging Jake to do the right thing included Dionne Warwick, 80, who tweeted that if this young man has her scarf he should return it and she will pay the postage. If you have no idea what I’m talking about it doesn’t matter all that much…

Other tracks: putting the Spanish superstar Rosalia together with Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd was a stroke of genius, and the “La Fama” single has coms out on the eve of the release of her new album Motomami. “Van Gogh” is a song about how the Moroccan born rapper Amine would like to party at the kind of parties where people make love on top of a Van Gogh painting. Add that to your Tinder profile. Here’s the list :