The Perfect Enemy | Week in Politics: The political implications of scrapping restrictions
February 23, 2024
- POOL - Photo by Mark Mitchell. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern smiling during the post-Cabinet press conference with Energy Minister Megan Woods and Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Parliament, Wellington. 14 March, 2022. NZ Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell

While there were sound public health reasons to scrap the traffic light system and get New Zealand back to normal, Ardern and her ministers must also have known their political survival could depend on it.

Analysis – The government will be hoping for a poll payback after scrapping Covid-19 restrictions; neither of the main parties are interested in republicanism and bullying in Parliament rears up again.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that Covid restrictions would be scrapped at midnight she talked about giving certainty. She said it several times.

Certainty about the future, certainty that people could go into summer without worrying about settings changing and ruining their plans, and certainty that they had control over their lives.

The clear impression was that restrictions were gone for good.

The Herald said in an editorial that Ardern, who had been so cautious for so long, had sounded so relieved when she made the announcement that some could accuse her of jumping the gun.

The paper’s political editor, Claire Trevett, said the prime minister wouldn’t be sorry to give away the powers she had wielded.

“She will also be hoping like hell that she does not have to reclaim them,” Trevett said.

She surely will be, and not least because there are political implications for the government.

Public attitudes changed after the Delta outbreak in August last year, which brought with it a level four lockdown after six months of freedom, and Labour’s popularity suffered.

The variant couldn’t be defeated and the government had to give up its elimination strategy which had held the country together and given Ardern her unprecedented single-party majority in the last election.

Lockdowns and restrictions were resented. National, which had recovered under Christopher Luxon, campaigned against them and started overtaking Labour in the polls.

More recently inflation has added to the government’s problems, and a third term now looks far from certain.

While there were sound public health reasons to scrap the traffic light system and get New Zealand back to normal, Ardern and her ministers must also have known their political survival could depend on it.

It will be hoping voters feel a lot happier about the government this time next year than they do now.

Questioned about the possibility of bringing back lockdowns, Ardern said even if new variants appeared it would take something “extraordinary” to again consider those measures.

She would be extremely reluctant to do that. National would blame the government and very likely ensure victory next year.

Luxon welcomed the government’s decision. He couldn’t do anything else after calling for the traffic lights to be switched off.

Only the Greens weren’t happy, saying people would think the government had “given up” on protecting vulnerable people. Ardern said she totally disagreed with that.

National Party leader Chris Luxon speaks during the response to the Governor-General's statement on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 13 September 2022.

National Party leader Chris Luxon speaks during the response to the Governor-General’s statement on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 13 September 2022.
Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

The death of Queen Elizabeth II brought about a sudden change in the plans of politicians this week.

Parliament sat on Tuesday, with the MPs dressed in black, for what was formally called an Address to King Charles III, mostly speeches about Queen, and then adjourned for the rest of the week.

On Wednesday Ardern and a New Zealand delegation left for London to attend the Queen’s funeral.

Inevitably, the republican issue was raised.

At her press conference on Monday Ardern was asked whether she thought the death of the monarch would ignite a “robust debate” about that.

Ardern said there had been a debate for a number of years and “it’s just the pace and how widely it occurs”.

She said she had made her own view known many times: “I do believe that is where New Zealand will head in time. I believe it’s likely to occur in my lifetime, but I don’t see it as a short-term measure that is on the agenda any time soon.”

Luxon said he didn’t feel strongly about it one way or another. “I’m very comfortable with our constitutional arrangements as they stand. I think the vast majority of Kiwis are too.”

Ardern said her government won’t be discussing it and National is more pro-monarchy than Labour – remember it was John Key who brought back Dames and Knights after Labour dropped the titles – so nothing is going to happen.

Ardern’s comments were picked up by CNN which was running an item about the Commonwealth, and followed it with an interview with Helen Clark. She said neither of the main parties really wanted to go near it and would keep it on the back burner for a long time.

There are good reasons for that, as Auckland Law School associate professor Dr Claire Charters explained to the Herald.

A split from the monarchy would open “a huge can of worms” involving not only establishing a new head of state but also new parliamentary and judiciary systems, and a new relationship with Maori, at least on paper, she said.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddes said key questions would include how to choose the new head of state and dealing with the many legal powers that rested on presumptions linked to the monarchy.

Also announced on Monday (everything happened on Monday) was a one-off public holiday on September 26, called “Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Day”.

That’s the day when there will be a State Memorial Service in Wellington. Only ACT and NZ First leader Winston Peters disagreed with it.

“The last thing the Queen would expect is for us to have another day off when our economy and businesses are in such a fragile state,” Peters said.

ACT has consistently opposed the creation of more public holidays, and objected to Matariki Day.

James Shaw

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Going back to last weekend, James Shaw got his job back as Green Party co-leader.

He was booted out in July when he failed to gain support from 75 percent of the delegates at the party’s annual conference needed to re-confirm him.

Nominations were re-opened but no one stood against him, and there was a remote election last week when all but four of the 142 delegates supported Shaw, RNZ reported.

He lost the first vote because of dissatisfaction with his attitude to climate change, it was felt that as Climate Change Minister he hadn’t been strong enough with his criticism of the government’s slow pace.

“Over the next year I will be pushing hard for action to rapidly cut climate pollution from transport, energy and agriculture,” he promised after being re-installed.

Expelled MP Gaurva Sharma was silent this week, having nothing more to say about his claims of bullying in Parliament, but the issue reared up again when Labour MP Anna Lorck said she was undergoing leadership training.

Two former staffers have told Stuff they were bullied by Lorck, RNZ reported.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The MP said in a statement she was “doing my best to be a better manager of staff”, including working with an experienced leadership coach.

She said she went out of her way to support the second staffer who never raised any complaints over concerns for his well-being during a difficult period of his employment.

“During his time working at Parliament the Parliamentary Service, Labour whips and I were all involved in extensive support to help him in his job, alongside his union,” Lork said.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.