Heather Roy

29 May 2020

Strangely (because it doesn’t happen often) I find myself agreeing with Winston Peters. We’ve been far too slow to get the country back to normal from COVID-19 lockdown. The economic effects are now much more serious than the physical health impacts and it’s time to ease off and drop back to alert level one. We’re now accustomed to social distancing and Kiwis recognise the dangers the coronavirus poses, exhibited by the terrible toll on lives internationally. Measures in New Zealand have been successful in keeping COVID-19 at bay, but it has come at great cost – loss of jobs, failing businesses and an economy in crisis.

Social distancing has its advantages. Colds and other winter ailments would normally be doing the rounds by now. It’s easier to get to supermarket shelves without locking supermarket trolleys with others making a bee line for the same item. And those who annoyingly like to have a conversation nose to nose have finally developed an appreciation for personal space. Despite this, I’m finding it very tiresome watching the ducking and diving by many as they are approached by others, often so dramatically there is danger of personal injury, to ensure a two metre distance is maintained at all times.

The truth is the two metre rule, like many other rules imposed in the name of COVID safety as if they are law, is arbitrary. The WHO recognises one metre as the danger distance for passing bugs by breathing, coughing and sneezing, but to be safe they have recommended staying two metres from those not in your bubble. However, droplets from a particularly vicious unguarded sneeze can travel three metres. Please, can we drop the hysteria? Instead we should all engage some common sense, keep a reasonable distance and cough into our elbows. We’ve had no active cases of COVID-19 detected for six straight days now so it is most unlikely walking past someone is hazardous.

The opposition has been singing the common-sense tune for the past two weeks, but in government it is Peters who is holding the common-sense card. Peters responded to the NZ Herald today when asked about Ashley Bloomfield’s recommendation we stay at level two for another month that “Bloomfield was an expert, but health was only part of the equation.”

Advice is one thing, but we have to make decisions about something else – the absolute crisis we’ve got with our economy. The faster we turn that around, the better.”

Peters also said New Zealand could safely receive international students immediately – with an appropriate quarantine – and it should be given the greenlight “as fast as possible”.

He is right, in my view, but he’s broken Cabinet rules by speaking out against government decisions in the past few days. This is Winston Peters of old, showing complete disregard for Cabinet etiquette ahead of an upcoming election. The Cabinet Manual says:

Discussion at Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings is informal and confidential,” and “Ministers and officials should not … disclose or record the nature or content of the discussions or the views of individual ministers or officials expressed at the meeting itself.”

This is at the heart of collective responsibility, including for a coalition government.

We should be under no illusion. We are already in the midst of an election campaign. In this helter-skelter dash to the ballot box on Sept 17 it surely can only be a matter of time before Shane Jones invokes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and declares “the quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth like the gentle rain from heaven”. The pound of flesh versus the spilling of blood moment will likely be central to this campaign.

Breaking Cabinet rules by speaking out against the slow move to alert level 1, Peters is stamping out his election territory. History is repeating itself. NZ First has never been in coalition and made it to the end of the parliamentary term. He’s either been fired or left the government – depending on your point of view. Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark were both meted out the same Peters’ behaviour he is now delivering to Jacinda Ardern. He is rewarded by his supporters for standing up to government and is the master at finding the right buttons to push to highlight electoral concerns.

Don’t be fooled, Winston Peters declarations are not about principle. His game is political expediency. The problem for Ardern is what is she to do? So far, she reports she is very relaxed about Peters’ breach of Cabinet rules. She has Hobson’s choice. Reprimand Peters and face a mutiny which will go better with voters for him than her? Or let Peters continue to speak out and be considered a weak leader, unable to control her coalition partner.

Will Winston Peters last the distance or are we seeing the tactic that’s been so successful in the past being reeled out for a third time? Peters shows yet again he will call the shots and for a party polling well below the 5 percent threshold he has nothing to lose.