Heather Roy

26 August 2021

Every nationality has something it likes to be known for. For the Germans it is punctuality and quality engineering – think reliable trains on time. For the Swiss it’s precision and accuracy – think superior watches and army knives. For Kiwis it is No. 8 wire ingenuity and fairness. We pride ourselves on fairness and believe it is what sets us apart from others who look much like we do.

When New Zealand voters made their choice in 2017 (and likely in 2020 as well) they thought they were voting for a Jacinda Ardern who represented compassion and fairness. In the lead up to the 2017 election empathy and kindness and fairness were entwined in her answers to questions on the campaign trail. By extension, we assumed these attributes to be the hallmark of her government. However, saying the words and putting them into action are not the same thing.

When contesting elections politicians’ focus is on those living in New Zealand. It’s easy to forget the kiwis living overseas despite the fact many can and do vote in numbers that can have a significant impact on the result. In the ‘Fortress New Zealand’ approach to the COVID pandemic these kiwis living overseas have been forgotten again. When she coined the phrase ‘team of 5 million’ the Prime Minister automatically disenfranchised the one million kiwis living abroad. We are a team of six million but the government’s approach to controlling the border has left far too many of those wanting to come home out in the cold. Not only has this denied them the ability to reunite with family and friends, it may also mean they won’t be eligible to vote at the next election. There is nothing fair about that.   

That illusion of fairness has certainly been well and truly shattered with the broken Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) allocation system. Ordinary kiwis, from the beginning of border closure, have struggled to get places in MIQ. New Zealand citizens with valid reasons for needing emergency places (such as to be with dying relatives) are denied slots, with no correspondence entered into. Likewise, those with perilous situations overseas cannot get back into New Zealand so are denied the ability to comfort, grieve and support their loved ones. There is no kindness, compassion or fairness here.

Industries crying out for specialist workers have struggled to get MIQ places and maintenance in many areas has been delayed. RSE workers desperately needed to work in vineyards and pick fruit have been denied MIQ places. International students have been stopped from coming into the country with huge impact on schools and universities. The demand for MIQ places has completely outstripped the government imposed supply.

But the government has reserved MIQ places to use at its own discretion.  You can get MIQ slots if you are the Wiggles, or one of the 400 going to the Dubai Expo. The Wallabies were allowed to bypass MIQ altogether and quarantine as a group.  However, if you are one of the million kiwis living offshore and want to enter New Zealand for a visit or to come home permanently, good luck with that. The government is more concerned with providing live entertainment to children and sporting events for the adults than it is about welcoming citizens and permanent residents’ home.  Seriously – who is making these decisions?

One group not feeling any of the Ardern fairness is Grounded Kiwis, a diverse, politically neutral network of New Zealanders who call New Zealand home. They are seeking to change the MIQ system to reflect actual demand, have a fair emergency allocation system, ensure the system is accessible and deal with the multiple lack of transparency issues that dog the current system. They have set up a petition and have recently launched a survey asking for people to share their MIQ booking experiences.

I wrote recently that MIQ should be run by the airlines. They understand travellers needs and they understand logistics. They could be helping people to book their airline flight and their place in MIQ at the same time. They could match supply and demand because they know how to upscale and downscale as needed. I was amazed at the feedback saying MIQ shouldn’t be run by a commercial business. Whyever not? – the government is doing a terrible job of running MIQ and it should be handed over to those who understand the business. Just get the contract right and let them get on with providing a quality service and fairness for far more people.   

National pride means we kiwis also like to think we’re better (and fairer) than the Aussies – at rugby, netball and most other sporting codes, inventing pavlova and claiming ownership of Phar Lap. Many are feeling incensed at Scott Morrison’s comments likening New Zealand’s COVID elimination strategy to hiding in a cave. He was using New Zealand as an example of how elimination wasn’t working, with his commentary really aimed at the Australian States and Territories still trying to pursue elimination by keeping their borders closed to New South Wales. Not really a fair comparison, yet his comment about the perils of hiding in a cave does have some validity. In New Zealand our closed borders have been described as ‘Fortress New Zealand’. The message is the same – you can close borders and adopt isolation (keeping many of your own out) or you can use the best techniques available (vaccination) and be part of the world.

Not only are New Zealanders stuck in this here and now COVID related dilemma but the flow on effects mustn’t be underestimated. Just before the 2020 election – 6 months after the country went into the first lockdown – I was contacted by a kiwi citizen living in Australia. He had planned to come home in the middle of the year to visit family. This would also have allowed him to meet the three year criteria to be able to vote. The Electoral Act states if you are living overseas you can vote if you are a New Zealand citizen who’s visited New Zealand within the last 3 years or a New Zealand permanent resident who’s visited New Zealand within the last 12 months. New Zealand’s closed border and his inability to secure an MIQ place meant he was not eligible to vote. He wasn’t alone, but I couldn’t find a politician at the time who was willing to take on this cause.

The government must act to alter this voting provision for the 2023 election. That would not only be fair, but would satisfy the rights of New Zealand citizens and residents. How can you claim to be fair and kind if you’ve disenfranchised the democratic right of one million kiwis who can’t come home? To deny kiwis entry to their home country is unfair. To deny them the right to vote is undemocratic.

Governments are judged on their actions by their people. If the government thinks they’ve got the pandemic response right, what do they have to fear from letting the entire team of 6 million vote?