The emergence of a new National party leader, seemingly out of nowhere, has – not surprisingly – raised a number of questions as to who Todd Mulller actually is and what makes him tick. He has been an MP for some time but seems to have hidden his light under a bushel until now and is still largely unknown.

    One early indication of what he stands for has, however, caught the eye, and been remarked upon. Television cameras picked up a MAGA (Make America Great Again) cap, prominently displayed in his home office – and it has apparently been proudly and conspicuously taken with him to his new office as Leader of the Opposition.

    A cap bearing the MAGA insignia is the hallmark of Trump supporters in the US and is, at first sight, an odd symbol for a New Zealand politician to choose. And, as some commentators have pointed out, the connotations are even odder. The cap is habitually worn by some of Trump’s more extreme supporters and carries with it, for many observers, overtones of a racially divided America in which US “greatness” is seen to be the concomitant and expression, not only of an extreme right-wing, but of a white supremacist, element in American society.

    Sitting as it does, displayed in Todd Muller’s office, the cap is presumably more than just an incidental piece of political memorabilia, chosen and acquired at random on a trip to the US. Muller can hardly be unaware of or unhappy about the interpretation that has been placed upon it. He will have displayed it for a purpose – but let us be charitable as to what that purpose might be.

    It might be that he is simply an admirer of the US and – even warts and all – of the US President. That would be consistent with the explanation he has himself offered – that, as a youngster, he wanted to be President of the United States. That, however, would have been an unusual (and unattainable) ambition for a Kiwi youngster, and would still not explain why a mature and (presumably) worldly-wise Kiwi adult would wish to pay homage so ostentatiously to the current occupier of the White House.

    It might, on the other hand, be a rather clumsy attempt by the new National leader to suggest that, by aping Donald Trump, he also sees it as his task to make his country “great again”. If this is nothing more than a rather empty plagiarism, (and an ill-judged one at that, given Trump’s manifold failures in office) so be it; but let us assume that Muller really does intend to indicate that he wants, in Trumpian style, to make New Zealand “great again”.

    Can he really mean that New Zealand has lessons to learn from the American President if it wishes to be “great again”? Has he not registered that New Zealand’s success in bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control has been universally recognised, praised and celebrated, while Donald Trump wallows ever deeper in a catastrophe of his own creation? While the US is the object of pity and derision in the light of its new role as the worldwide epicentre of the pandemic, New Zealand’s international standing, in recognition of our current achievements, is sky-high.

    It is of course the case that, following our world-leading success in controlling the pandemic, we now have a major reconstruction task ahead of us in terms of rebuilding the economy. But is there any reason not to entrust that task to a leadership that has achieved so much already?

    Muller’s predecessor discovered that there was a price to pay for sniping from the sidelines at a national mood of determination to stick together so as to defeat the virus. Muller may also be misjudging the national mood if he thinks that we are now in need of a Trump-like “saviour” to carry us forward and to make us “great again”.

    Instead of Make America Great Again, he might think instead of inscribing the acronym NZIGA on his cap, and then displaying or even wearing it with pride. What would NZIGA represent? Easy – that “New Zealand Is Great Already”.

    Bryan Gould
    25 May 2020

  • The Virus and The Election

    When we see how the pandemic is being handled in the rest of the world, we can thank our lucky stars that we live here, in New Zealand, and under our current government, led by Jacinda Ardern.

    The latest polls suggest that this is exactly how Kiwis feel. But the next election is still a few months away, and in the meantime, we have to ensure that the progress we have made in containing the pandemic is maintained, and that we do not allow any resurgence of cases.

    By the time the election arrives, though, we will know how successful we have been; and there is no denying that the two issues – the management of the pandemic and the government’s re-election chances – will be linked in the public mind.

    But it will not just be the government, and the Prime Minister, who will be subjected to the judgment of the electorate. Voters will have a chance to answer a slightly different question; how well would we have done, if someone else, rather than Jacinda Ardern, had been in charge?

    That is when Opposition politicians will have it brought home to them that criticising from the sidelines is the easy bit. The voters will then have to think about the question – how well would we have done if the roles had been reversed and someone else had had to take the hard decisions, keep everyone committed to the cause, and carry the country with them?

    It is of course never easy to answer such “what if ?” questions. But that does not mean that the question will not arise and will not be present in the minds of voters.

    What answer are they likely to give? Forecasting is a risky business but we can hazard a guess or two. If the current assessment – that we have been the most successful country in our response to the pandemic – is maintained and supported by the facts, we should expect – as the polls suggest – a ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister and her team.

    And the conclusions we are likely to draw from the coronavirus saga – the most serious challenge to any government since the Second World War – will not be limited to whether or not we have overcome the pandemic and saved, not only lives, but jobs and businesses as well.

    Given time to think about the implications of what we have been through, we will surely arrive at wider conclusions than those pertaining just to the pandemic itself.

    It would be surprising if we did not emerge from the crisis with a better understanding of how important the public services are – and of the high price we must pay if we let investment in our health services and our education fall behind what is necessary. Producing government “surpluses” is all very well, but not if we are left with underfunded services, just at the time that we need them most.

    And, when we reflect on how pleasant it has been to enjoy the cleaner air and the reduction in traffic noise, accidents and congestion, we might also pause to think more kindly about a “green” agenda, and recognise that economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of what we do. Working from home and learning online may have their own disadvantages, but we have learned that they are possible and can work well.

    If we are ready to endorse the government’s handling of the pandemic, we might conclude that the competence they have shown in the face of such adversity might also serve us well in less demanding circumstances. Why would ministers like Grant Robertson, David Clarke, Stuart Nash, David Parker, Chris Hipkins and others not show similar competence in facing further challenges and does not their willingness to defy economic orthodoxy in re-building the economy show that they have what it takes?

    It would be surprising, in other words, if the government’s performance in handling the crisis was not top of many minds, come election day in September. Elections are about choosing a good government, and one that faces up to its responsibilities. And that is as it should be.

    Bryan Gould
    26 May 2020

  • The National Consensus

    As we awaited confirmation that we would move to Level 2, my wife and I reviewed our experience of lockdown so far. We reached similar conclusions – that the lockdown had been a bore and a bind, but that we have been – living where we do – among the lucky ones.

    We felt very constrained by the rules restricting travel and social gatherings, and by the prohibitions imposed on the over-70s – and we were accordingly not able to do our own shopping or get to Tauranga to spend any time – even for birthdays – with our daughter and grandchildren.

    But, sitting on our deck and looking out over the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it was hard to complain too much. There was always the possibility of a walk on the beach in the sunshine with our little dog, and of coming across friends on the beach and having a chat while maintaining the correct social distance – and one of our lovely neighbours kindly did our shopping for us. And, as retirees, we did not have to worry about our jobs or getting to work or our incomes or businesses.

    None of this means that we weren’t glad to see the move to Level 2. Easing the lockdown will take away a psychological burden that, no doubt, many people will have felt – that sense that we are not free to do what we want or are normally able to do. And, paradoxically, the inability to keep busy and the need to fill our days in other ways made us feel more tired and lacking in energy than we usually do.

    But we were comforted by the knowledge that we, and our family and friends, were engaged in a great national effort – one that requires self-discipline and a sense of social responsibility and of keeping faith with others in a similar plight.

    It is not just the feeling of making common cause with others that has sustained us. A modicum of thought and rationality is enough to convince us that the lockdowns have not only been socially and morally required but are also the most effective response to the real prospect of economic damage to our country.

    We are sure we are not alone in recognising that the best and quickest – perhaps the only – way of minimising the economic price we must pay for the pandemic is to bring it to an end – and if that requires the lockdowns, then so be it.

    It is that realisation that makes it so difficult for us to understand the mentality of those who continue to criticise and snipe from the sidelines, in an apparent attempt to weaken, fragment and unravel the national consensus we have established as to what is required.

    Such critics cannot seem to grasp that the virus brings with it the threat of real damage to us in a variety of forms, not just the obvious immediate impact it has on our health and fatality rate, and that the cost – economic, as well as emotional and social – of defeating it is is part of the price it demands of us.

    Every attempt to weaken the national resolve, or suggestion that we might give up the battle, represents a victory for the virus, and ensures that the price it will make us pay grows larger. The national effort is a collective one; the more united it is, the more effective it is. It is weakened every time the claim is made that an individual interest has a higher priority and should take precedence.

    That is why it is regrettable that the Prime Minister, engaged as she is in a life and death struggle to help save us from the virus and from the damage of various kinds that it causes, was recently grilled by the Leader of the Opposition, without anything other than pure speculation to support him, on supposed plans she may or may not have to raise taxes of various kinds after the virus has been contained. This was merely an attempt at political point-scoring, more suited to a general election campaign rather than a campaign against the virus.

    The time for politicking will come in due course. It Is not now.

    Bryan Gould
    19 April 2020

  • Simon Bridges’ Bad Luck

    In the British House of Commons, Government Ministers sit on the “front bench”, and, as they rise to speak from the Despatch Box, they are compelled to face the serried ranks of the Opposition.

    The story goes that a young Minister, about to speak from the Despatch Box for the first time, confessed to the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, that he was nervous about speaking, with “the enemy” directly in front of him.

    “They are not your enemies, they are your opponents,” Macmillan assured him. “Your enemies are behind you.”

    Someone who will know the truth of that observation, without doubt, is Simon Bridges. As a recent opinion poll shows not only that his rating as preferred Prime Minister remains worryingly low, but also that National has slipped considerably in party support, he can almost hear the vultures wheeling above and behind him.

    He has little to fear from his opponents in government who will no doubt be happy to see him remain as National leader until the election is out of the way. The real threat to his leadership will come from those seated behind him.

    There is nothing surprising about this scenario. What is surprising, however, is that he is so lacking in the necessary instinct for self-preservation that he does not learn from his mistakes.

    It is only a week or so ago that he provoked an angry backlash, even from his own supporters, for remarks he made that were seen as disturbing and breaking ranks with the national consensus as to the best way to fight the pandemic.

    Yet he was at it again just a few days later, provoking the same reaction, and producing yet another round of speculation about his leadership.

    It is almost as though his anxiety about maintaining his position leads him to cast all calm judgment and good sense aside. He is by all accounts doing a good job as chair of the “scrutiny” committee set up to hold the government to account. And he is entitled, as Leader of the Opposition, to ask searching and critical questions of the government.

    But he seems to lack a “feel” for the national mood. That mood is one of determination to work together and to make the necessary sacrifices so that the crisis can be brought to an end and we can return to normal as soon as possible.

    Almost everyone – apart from a couple of high-profile exceptions, sniping from the fringes – understands that to relax too soon, in the supposed interests of the economy and small businesses in particular, would be to risk not only a further substantial round of cases and deaths, but also a prolongation of the lockdowns and therefore the prospect of even more economic damage.

    The lockdowns have had an adverse impact on virtually all of us – some, of course, more than others. We will all be glad to see them behind us. Inevitably, there are those who will see only the impact on them personally and who, without realising what others are also going through, will be quick to claim that they are suffering unduly or unfairly.

    Fortunately for us as a nation, there is plenty of evidence that the course we are following is paying off. Of course, there have been and will be occasional and minor hiccups in what has been a hugely complex medical and organisational effort, but we can be sure that the figures do not lie when they show that we have done better than probably any other country.

    And, in case we are in any doubt about this, the international media coverage has been unanimous in congratulating us on our efforts to bring the rate of new cases and deaths under something approaching control – and they have been equally quick to recognise the excellent leadership provided to us.

    And it is on this latter point that Simon Bridges’ vulnerability is at its most acute. He has had the great misfortune to have to shadow a Prime Minister who, by common and universal consent, has played a blinder. That is his bad luck – but the rest of us can be glad that it is so.

    Bryan Gould
    5 May 2020

  • Pity the Poor Americans

    Subject to all the usual warnings about unhatched chickens, it nevertheless looks, as we come out of Level Four, that we might have cracked it. Our figures – for the total number of cases and deaths, and for the incidence of new cases in particular – compare very favourably with those in most other countries; and, not surprisingly, our efforts have been commended by the WHO as “world-leading”. We are entitled to reflect on what has been so far a great national effort.

    We owe a great deal to what has undoubtedly been effective leadership; but we are also entitled to indulge in a little self-congratulation. Our leaders have been excellent in showing the way; but we have shown, as a people, a great collective spirit and social discipline in our willingness and ability to follow the lead they have offered.

    That might not have been entirely expected, given – as some overseas commentators have remarked – our reputation as a nation of rugged individualists, and our usual unwillingness to be told what to do. There have of course been those who have found reason to complain – “there are only a handful of cases!” one unthinking woman was heard to say; some sacrifices may have been greater than others, but most of us have accepted that we are all adversely affected in one way or another, and that the sacrifice is necessary in the common interest.

    We have also had the good sense to recognise that the sooner and more conscientiously we make those sacrifices, the sooner the need for them will be over.

    We have been particularly fortunate when we compare ourselves with other countries – not least the US – that usually set the standard. Whereas we have had calm and assured leadership that has worked well with, and followed the advice of, the best science available, the Americans have had to put up with leaders who are flaky and irresponsible.

    Even in that respect, however, we can afford to pat ourselves, as a society, on the back. Our leaders reflect us; they were elected by us, and accordingly reflect our values and the qualities that we think are important.

    The Americans, in other words, have no one but themselves to blame for Donald Trump. They – and no one else – have saddled themselves with a leader who advises them, against all medical evidence and advice, to inject themselves with bleach, and who actively encourages protesters to demand an end to the lockdowns imposed by their state governments.

    It is no accident that the US is the global epicentre of the pandemic and that more than 50,000 Americans have died from the virus. The Americans are paying, and will continue to pay, a heavy price for electing and listening to a leader who is deluded and self-obsessed.

    It is increasingly clear that Trump’s view of the crisis is that it is a nursery story that must have a happy ending and that is waiting for a hero to bring that happy ending about – hence his constant quest for a vaccine or cure that he can personally claim to have found.

    The simple fact is that a large sector of the American electorate is apparently prepared to trust and listen to him, however bizarre and irresponsible his behaviour – a judgment that must be seen as an indictment of American society. Democracy can be a dangerous form of government when the voters themselves are so ignorant, prejudiced and irresponsible.

    The Americans must ask themselves how it is that the society they have created could produce such an outcome. The possibility that they might re-elect a leader who has so damagingly failed to protect them and serve their interests – and who has presided over a calamitous and virtually unique (in international terms) national inability to handle a threat that others have been able to surmount – shows that American democracy is in a parlous state.

    We get the leaders we deserve. It is a feather in the cap of the New Zealand public that we have been able to equip ourselves with a government that we can trust, and one that we are ready to follow, because it has revealed itself to be both competent and empathetic. Pity the poor Americans.

    Bryan Gould
    4 May 2020