• Credit Where It’s Due

    The images and reports delivered to us by the world’s media leave us in no doubt that the rest of the world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of slackening, but is actually uncontrolled and picking up pace in many countries; and even countries, like Australia, which seem to have had some success in slowing its advance have seen a worrying spike in new cases and deaths.

    Against this backdrop, we find ourselves, here in New Zealand, in a curious position – or, rather, a curious state of mind.  We seem to take it for granted that we have – almost alone in the world – contained the virus and ended any community transmission, and that we have done so at the cost, by international standards, of a surprisingly small number of cases and deaths; we seem to say that our success is just par for the course, and to pay it little attention or attach much importance to it – or to give credit for it, to ourselves or to our government. 

    We seem unwilling to put a value on the thousands of lives we have saved by our prompt and effective action and the suffering we have, as a consequence, spared thousands of families.

    We take it for granted that we are now out of lockdown and that our lives have returned more or less to normal, that we enjoy a freedom of social interaction and economic activity that is the envy of virtually every other country and that we are now well-placed to take up the task of restoring the economy.  In undertaking that task, our success in controlling the virus stands us in good stead, reinforcing our reputation as a country that is competently run and where it is safe to do business.

    My sense is that individual people, in their conversations with each other, are happy to acknowledge these truths.  It is only in the public discourse, dominated as it is by politicians and commentators –  those, in other words, who have the luxury of criticising and are never put to the test themselves – that the hunt for negatives is pursued.

    With the world-wide pandemic still swirling around us (and there is little that our government can do to change that), it is of course inevitable that some of those returning to our shores from overseas will bring with them the risk of re-infection; that is simply an unavoidable fact of life.

    Once they are in the country, however, and if they test positive, they are added, – even if safely quarantined – to our (tiny) number of new cases.  The overseas media, keen to show their own countries in a better light, then proclaim that New Zealand “has a new spike of cases” – and, sadly, some of our own domestic ill-wishers, too, cannot resist casting a shadow over the fact that we have achieved a state of no community transmission.

    We have now entered a period, in other words, when sniping and taking pot shots from the sidelines is the name of the game.  Those who have done nothing – who have not had to demonstrate the sheer guts and determination that were required from our leaders as the crisis broke – now take it upon themselves to downplay our achievement and to claim that they would have done so much better.  Others go further, peddling unsubstantiated stories about quarantine arrangements in order to score political points.

    There are also those who, while recognising our domestic achievement, complain that more is not being done to offset the inevitable consequences, for the tourist industry in particular, of the worldwide dimensions of the pandemic – as though our government can defy reality and open up our borders without regard to what is happening beyond our shores.

    It is sad that political point-scoring takes priority over acknowledging our success in negotiating a huge national crisis.  We should, for once, be allowed to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, even while there is yet more to be done.

    We have shown how successful a united country can be in achieving the seemingly impossible.  Any fracturing of that unity for political purposes is both regrettable and unnecessarily harmful.

    Bryan Gould

    24 June 2020

  • Blue Birds

    I was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  I spent my early years with my mother and young sister in our little state house in Hawera, while my father was “away at the war” in the Air Force.

    I grew up with an awareness, as I listened to the news bulletins from the BBC and the speeches of Winston Churchill, that the world – our world – was locked in a life and death struggle.  And, even in New Zealand, there was Vera Lynn.

    “The white cliffs of Dover” may have been a long way away, but there could be no doubting, in the words of the song, that sense of soaring hope – that belief that a better day would dawn.  Nothing more directly reminds me of the despair and longing that we felt in those days, that conviction and hope that it would – one day – all turn out all right in the end.

    The news this week that Dame Vera Lynn had died at the age of 103 brought it all back to me. I can only think that the Queen felt similarly about the songs of Vera Lynn when, in a broadcast to the nation a few weeks ago, designed to cheer people up in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, she echoed another Vera Lynn song by saying that “We will meet again”. 

    Some of the British media have bemoaned what they describe as nostalgia and sentimentality, and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past, in the reaction to the news of Vera Lynn’s death.  But I welcome the reminder of that earlier crisis – one that was much more significant in innumerable ways than the current coronavirus pandemic; the struggle then was not against a virus, but against an armed and brutal enemy intent on destroying our civilisation and society, subjecting us to serfdom, and driven by a hateful ideology.

    That ideology embraced notions of racial supremacy, authoritarianism, violence and brutality.  It tried to use the force of arms across the whole world in order to establish itself.  It would have spelt the end of fellow-feeling, conciliation and, above all, kindness.  There would have been no going back, no looking forward to a release from servitude.  If that struggle had been lost, the world would have been a very different place; there would have been no freedom, no justice, no human rights, no democracy.

    Does any of that still matter today?  I think it does.  It is clearly desirable that younger generations should have some sense of what those who went before had to overcome, and should make a judgment as to whether what their forbears achieved is worth preserving and defending.  And if we are not alert to the dangers we averted, how can we be prepared to face them down again, if they should re-emerge?

    And how would we recognise them, if they were to rear their ugly heads again?  How would we understand that, even in our own societies, attitudes like these could again take hold?  How else are we to understand the reasons for the Black Lives Matter campaign springing up around the world?  How else to evaluate last year’s massacre at Christchurch mosques?

    If we are to be worthy of those who made such sacrifices last century to defeat fascism, we must be alert for any re-emergence, and also recognise the need for improvement.  We must learn to acknowledge that we are not perfect – not perfectly tolerant of others we think of as “different” and not perfectly ready to understand the slights and disadvantages that others in our midst are prone to suffer.

    And, sadly, although Vera Lynn promised that “Jimmy” “would sleep in his own little room again“, Jimmy today doesn’t always have “his own little room.”  

    We must constantly remind ourselves that, whatever our differences, we are all human and that, as Shakespeare asked, “do we not all bleed?”

    The blue birds (I’m not even sure what a “blue bird” is) did indeed fly again, as Vera Lynn promised, but not just for some of us – for all of us. 

    Bryan Gould

    23 June 2020 

  • Is National’s Leadership Up for Grabs?

    What a pity!  It hasn’t taken long for some commentators to start re-writing history. 

    According to those commentators, the government didn’t do what it has universally been commended for doing; they say that Jacinda did not call forth a great collective effort (the “team of five million”) to defeat the coronavirus – something we did more successfully than any other country.  No, what those perennial critics saw was, they say, a government that “treated us like children”, and that “threatened our democracy”.

    No effort will be spared in those quarters, it seems, to take the gloss off the government’s, and our, success.  That effort will no doubt continue till election day.

    But, for the student of politics, the interest is not always limited to the battle between political parties for the voters’ allegiance.  Some of the most interesting battles occur, not between, but within parties – and that may be where the most fascinating stories will unfold over the next few months.

    It would not be surprising if the National party, having gone through the messy business of changing its leader, were now beginning to wonder if it had done the right thing or had at least made the right choice.  The hoped-for boost in poll ratings has not yet materialised under their new leader, perhaps reflecting his somewhat unconvincing and unconfident start and tendency to put his foot in it.

    The keen observer will be alert for signs that some National MPs might be beginning to wonder about the possibility of a further leadership contest.   It would accordingly be worth keeping an eye on those who might be seen as possible contenders, to see whether they seem to be making unusual efforts to promote themselves by capturing and staying in the headlines. 

    What are we to make, for instance, of National MP and finance spokesman (and supporter of Simon Bridges in the leadership election), Paul Goldsmith, and his headline-grabbing advice to the Prime Minister to “stick to her knitting”.  He must have known that it would attract a great deal of comment, by virtue of its plainly sexist connotations, but it served its purpose.  He was able to posture as someone who had landed an unlikely blow, however ill-judged, on a popular Prime Minister.  He might well have hoped that his colleagues in the National parliamentary party would have taken note and would have drawn the contrast between him and his party’s apparently ineffectual new leader.

    What is even more interesting, however, to those who follow politics, was that he was immediately ticked off for the possibly sexist nature of his remark by one his own colleagues – but it is the identity of that colleague that is really interesting.  The National MP who took it on herself to rebuke Paul Goldsmith was none other than Nikki Kaye, the deputy to Todd Muller, and the organiser of Muller’s successful campaign for the leadership.

    The rebuke must be seen therefore as a “put-down” and a “warning off” from the new leadership, suggesting that I am not alone in sensing that not all is as it might seem in National ranks.  It may be that Paul Goldsmith is not the only former Bridges supporter who sniffs the chance of a re-run of sorts.  There may well be other well-performing National front-benchers and former Bridges supporters – Michael Woodhouse is another name that springs to mind – who might be seen more frequently on our television screens in coming days and weeks.

    If there is any substance to these suspicions, it would be bad news for National.  It would suggest that the wounds inflicted on party unity by the removal of Simon Bridges – a step taken only by the narrowest of margins – may not yet have healed.

    Labour knows only too well the damage that is done when a party in opposition is riven by division and faction.  In Labour’s case, it meant a lengthy spell out of government.  Could the same fate be in store for National if Todd Muller’s shaky grip on the leadership comes under challenge from former supporters of Simon Bridges? 

    Bryan Gould

    16 June 2020 

  • Stick to Our Guns

    As we begin to emerge out of lockdown, we can reflect that the coronavirus pandemic has been a once-in-a-generation crisis on a global scale – and, for New Zealand as well, it has meant a crisis of almost unparalleled proportions.

    To grapple with such a crisis, we have needed a government that is up to the task – and that has meant a government that has been willing to listen to advice, but has also been clear-headed and strong-willed enough to take its own counsel and do what it thinks is necessary.

    We have been fortunate that our government has stuck to its guns; but, just as victory over the virus is in sight, there has been a chorus of voices, prematurely urging that we should not have waited until we could be confident that a return to level one is safe, that we should have been ready to risk all that we have achieved.  The government has been told, as though there is a short-cut to protecting the economy without first defeating the virus, that we should prioritise the economy’s interests before we bother to put the virus to bed, once and for all.

    The reasons for this, and the motivations of those urging a relaxation of our efforts, are in most cases painfully clear.  In one case, it is the need felt by a new leader of the Opposition to overcome a shaky start and to make the claim that only he has the interests of small businesses at heart and that the decision go to level one was the result of his urging.

    In another case, it is the imperative felt by another party leader, as an election approaches, to differentiate himself and his party from his senior coalition partner, and to boost his poll ratings.  It is disappointing, in both of these cases, that the national interest has been subordinated to those of political parties.  

    And then there are the commentators, particularly those of notoriously clear political allegiance, who think that they owe it to their own views and prejudices to chip away at the government wherever possible.  What is surprisingly common to all of these dissident voices, both politicians and commentators alike, is their inability to grasp that the cause they have chosen to champion, the protection of the economy from the effects of the pandemic, is best – indeed, only – served by the strategy we have successfully followed so far.

    It is clearly too much for some of these lame brains to understand that, if we had relaxed before we could be confident that the virus was under control, the risk we would have taken would not have been just to lives, but to jobs, businesses and output as well.

    The emergence of just one further case, unconnected to any other case, would have been enough to put us back into lockdown, would have sacrificed all the gains we have made so far and would accordingly have done further untold damage to the economy.  The simple truth is what it has always been – there is not a choice to be made between combatting the health effects of the virus and limiting its impact on the economy. 

    The only way we can limit the economic damage is by ensuring that the virus is stopped in its tracks.  Any advice to the effect that we should jeopardise that objective is a snare and a delusion, and can lead only to further economic harm.

    We are lucky that we have had a government that is strong enough to resist such blandishments and has been able to recognise the political posturing and jockeying for position for what it is.  

    Politicians often get a bad report, and sometimes they deserve it.  But when we are lucky enough to discover that at least some of our politicians have had the strength of will and intellect to do what is needed, that is something to be celebrated.  Not everyone is so lucky.  

    Bryan Gould

    10 June 2020

  • What Happened to America?

    Like the rest of the world, I have been aghast at what I have seen of, and read and heard about, what is happening currently in the United States.  It seems incredible that a once great country should be suffering the worst effects and the highest number of deaths worldwide from the coronavirus pandemic, that there should be forty million who have lost their jobs, and that the country should now be engaged in a kind of informal and undeclared civil war, in which American cities are on fire and armed groups of white supremacists fire at and kill demonstrators protesting about the killing of an unarmed black man by the police.

    How did it come to this?  How did the world’s most powerful and wealthy country descend into such incompetence, division, chaos and violence – and disintegration?

    Who, it might be asked, is supposed to be in charge here?  Who should be taking responsibility for the manifold failures and mis-steps that have led to this painful breakdown?

    In most countries – democratic countries at least – the finger would have been pointed squarely at “the government”.  But, in America, the government is often seen to be a one-man band, and that is especially so when the President of the day acts as if he is the boss of a corporation and is able to rule by decree.

    The responsibility for the crisis, or rather, the crises, can be laid, in other words, only at one door.  Donald Trump claims to have unbridled power.  What has he done with the power he claims?

    One is tempted to say that he has done nothing, that his failures are of omission rather than commission, that there is a vacuum at the heart of Washington, and that he has preferred to spend his time playing golf and tweeting incessantly, rather than addressing the problems that confront him and the country. 

    But this charge sheet, substantial though it may be, covers only part of his derelictions.  It does not capture the full range of his failings.  He has not only failed to address, let alone resolve, the country’s deep-seated fault lines; he has actually made them – through his own words and actions – worse, more damaging and destructive.

    Instead of bringing his people together, as a true leader would have done, he has chosen to throw fuel on the fire and to focus on casting around for someone else to blame for the catastrophes (not too strong a word) that have befallen his country.

    The US is, in other words, suffering from a massive failure of leadership.  The man who has found himself facing these unprecedented challenges has been totally ill-equipped to deal with them.  His focus has been elsewhere – and much closer to home.  When he wakes up in the morning, his first thought is not for the millions of his countryman who are suffering or who have died, but for himself and his own chances of being re-elected.

    At a time when the country has desperately needed a leader who can create, lead and deploy a national determination to act constructively together, he has been preoccupied with his own personal goals; he has instead represented the divisions, prejudices and intolerance that distort American civil society and that so easily lead to violence, discrimination and anger.

    But the failure is not just his alone.  The failures that have brought about the current collapse and disruption are those of a whole governing class.  Trump occupies his current office and commits his damaging derelictions of duty only by leave of his Republican colleagues.  His failures are their failures too.

    And we too share in those failures.  When the US is wounded and weakened, we are all worse off.

    Bryan Gould

    9 June 2020