By Peter Wilson *
Analysis – Border control and deciding who comes into the country shapes up as the government’s next big problem, a stocktake reveals how bad the hospital buildings are, National tries to escape from Strike Force Raptor, and the government is accused of breaking a promise.
The day after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the country would move to alert level 1, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield announced new border control restrictions and emphasised how vital it was to keep Covid-19 out.
He was making a simple point. With no restrictions on crowd size, the risk of someone coming in with the virus and starting widespread community infection was much higher. Because of that there would be a strengthened testing regime for new arrivals and no exemptions from isolation for attending funerals and weddings.
Ardern backed him up: “This freedom from restrictions relies heavily on the ongoing role that our border controls will play in keeping the virus out.”
From the beginning, Bloomfield has taken a hard line on border controls and the government has backed him all the way.
The prime minister refuses to put a timeline on when borders might re-open.
“I don’t want New Zealand businesses in particular, or even Kiwis who might be wanting to travel across the Tasman, to be given a false start,” she said. “I’d rather share timelines when we have much more certainty… we do need to act cautiously.”
She is testing the patience of the business sector and giving the opposition a new opportunity to score points and get media traction as the election approaches. It’s not just about throwing open the border to save the tourist industry, it’s also about the decisions being taken on exemptions for groups and individuals.
Aviation NZ chief executive John Nicholson said a trans-Tasman bubble was critically important and politicians talking about opening the border “ASAP” wasn’t helpful.
The chief executive of Trusts Arena in Auckland, Mark Gosling, said while the new freedom was great for domestic businesses it was little comfort for venues which relied on big international acts.
Gosling said venues could host sell-out gigs now – if the talent was allowed in. They might be under new rules announced today, although Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway highlighted that the bar for border exceptions must remain high.
Gosling wanted more transparency around the rules for entry.
The National Party, which can no longer criticise the government for not moving to Level 1, has switched its attention to the border.
“We need a better plan than just government spending on an industrial scale and waiting for a vaccine,” finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said. There had to be “an absolute focus” on opening the border for certain groups or countries.
The decision to allow an Avatar film crew into the country remains a big bone of contention, and this week it continued to feed the controversy over the decision-making process.
Stuff reported on the plight of a British Transmission Gully engineer who went home for a holiday and had four applications for re-entry declined. “A Transmission Gully engineer is not critical to New Zealand. The relative of a film worker is,” the report said.
That neatly summed up the government’s predicament, and it needs to get its act together before resentment turns into an election issue.
If a reminder was needed that we are back to normal, or nearly there, it was the release this week of a hospital infrastructure stocktake and the considerable publicity around it.
The Ministry of Health report, published on Wednesday, was an indictment on decades of under-investment and inadequate infrastructure management. It said $14 billion was needed over the next 10 years to repair buildings and their infrastructure, and another $2.3 billion to replace ageing IT systems.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the revelation that some hospital switchboards dated back to the 1950s was startling.
The report was described by RNZ as the closest-ever look at the country’s hospitals, and it revealed many intensive care units and emergency departments were in “poor or very poor” condition.
Health Minister David Clark’s reaction was predictable. “The findings are not surprising given the accumulated under-investment and problems that were ignored by the previous government,” he said.
National’s health spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, disputed that and said Clark had done absolutely nothing for three years.
The website Politik reported a second report, potentially even more controversial, is with the Cabinet. Heather Simpson, an economist and former prime minister Helen Clark’s chief of staff, was in charge of the health service investigation.
According to Politik the second report advocates shrinking the number of DHBs (currently 20) to around eight, and over time appointing rather than electing more of their board members. The DHBs would report to a central body separate from the Ministry.
As protests against police violence erupted around the world this week it was interesting to watch National trying to walk away from its Strike Force Raptor proposal.
It was announced by police spokesperson Brett Hudson, with much fanfare, in November last year. An elite force which would target gangs. The party’s then-leader, Simon Bridges, vowed that gangs would be harassed every day when he was prime minister.
At the time, Bridges said a similar strike force had been “devastatingly effective” in Australia, although that was disputed by Australian criminologist Terry Goldsworthy who told RNZ there had been no reduction in gang membership.
National has now decided the Police Commissioner is responsible for “operational proceedings” and, if elected, it would not direct the setting up of Task Force Raptor.
“It’s not really about whether you have a specialist unit, it certainly isn’t about a name,” Hudson said.
As RNZ pointed out, that isn’t how it was marketed. On 26 November, Hudson issued a media statement headlined “Strike Force Raptor unit proposed to tackle gangs”.
The week ended with the government being accused of breaking a promise. The Auckland Light Rail project won’t be signed off before the election because New Zealand First objects to its scale, cost and the potential involvement of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, RNZ reported.
The promise to build the link between downtown Auckland and the airport was made by Jacinda Ardern at her first campaign rally as Labour Party leader, ahead of the 2017 election.
National’s transport spokesman, Chris Bishop, said it was a flagship policy promise that hasn’t happened.
Auckland’s Mayor, Phil Goff, who has been around politics a long time, said he would wait to see what happened after the election.
* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, spent 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.