If a vacancy emerges next year or in the future, Chris Hipkins is surely the leading candidate to become Labour’s leader.
After Wednesday’s Omicron scare involving a British DJ who calls himself Dimension, the Covid-19 Minister’s cool, calm and collected performance at his park-side press conference settled worries of another snap lockdown and new internal borders.
Even though Omicron is so much more contagious than Delta, albeit perhaps not as dangerous, Hipkins’ decision not to respond with any new rules underlines how far we have come since August 17. Back then, a single case of the new variant was enough for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to rush back to Wellington to announce an immediate nationwide lockdown.
As the Herald’s Derek Cheng has revealed, Ardern has been much more cautious than Ashley Bloomfield and the Ministry of Health’s public health experts over the Delta response. A similar but undocumented gap between Ardern and Hipkins has also been widely rumoured in Wellington.
Those taking to social media to thank Ardern for personally saving their lives may sound a bit North Korean in their adoration, but Cheng’s work reveals their point is not without evidential support.
In the post-2008 era, the old designations don’t mean as much, but Hipkins has always been more on the Labour right than Ardern. His mentors were people like Annette King, once a staunch Rogernome, rather than Helen Clark who so strongly influenced Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Of Ardern’s senior ministers, Hipkins paid the most heartfelt tribute to former Prime Minister Mike Moore when he passed away.
Roughly, Hipkins and Bloomfield lean more towards the “live with it” side of the argument than Ardern and her personal advisors from the universities of Auckland and Otago. Earlier in the week, they dared dream Ardern might be about to eliminate Delta the same way she beat the original strain in 2020.
Let’s not make too much of internal divisions. Hipkins is hardly allowed to act unilaterally.That he responded to the Dimension case with not a single new measure means he has won the argument that we are indeed in a “live with it” phase, at least through the summer.
That – and a potential return to lockdowns in the winter as is happening in Europe – will require much more Hipkins’ factual style of communication than the Prime Minister’s greater reliance on personal warmth and slogans.
Unlike Ardern’s people, Hipkins’ strategists are much more focused on getting information to the domestic audience than managing a global prime ministerial brand.
Yet Hipkins also deserves credit from his boss for managing what was a major threat to that same brand.
Nobody is New Zealand politics is more associated with the events industry and its celebrity culture than the Prime Minister.
Since it became apparent in September that the August lockdown would not be “short and sharp”, as Ardern initially promised, the summer music festivals have been a weirdly specific policy focus for her Government.
Less than a month into what became a four-month lockdown, Ardern reported her ministers were working with the music festival industry to ensure their big events could go ahead.
As she put it: “Some of my very close friends work in the creative and events sector, but that’s not the only reason I am determined that we will find a way to make sure that, regardless of the circumstances globally and domestically, that we are able to have the events that make New Zealand summers.”
According to the Prime Minister, the festivals were “about people’s livelihoods” but also “part of who we are”. Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash was put to work designing a special insurance scheme for festivals selling more than 5000 tickets, under which taxpayers would cover 90 per cent of their unrecoverable costs if they were cancelled or postponed due to Covid measures.
The industry’s lobbyist, Brent Eccles, praised Ardern for being “very helpful” ahead of the 2020/21 summer and publicly welcomed her commitment for 2021/22.
This is not unreasonable. Ardern had previously personally intervened to ensure the Wiggles could entertain young New Zealanders in 2020. Over 1000 foreigners were designated “critical workers” for the America’s Cup, and many other foreign sports teams have been let in.
These decisions are made by ministers. After the Beehive indicated it wasn’t interested in SailGP in Christchurch, officials didn’t even send over the applications.
In contrast, more than 100 foreign musicians have been given critical purpose visitor visas. More than 80 have then come to New Zealand after apparently winning the same MIQ lottery that has stopped so many Kiwis returning home.
Dimension has been especially lucky with the lottery, now being on his third visit to New Zealand since last December.
That makes even more inexplicable his decision not to follow the rules and instead head out with people from the Auckland creative and events sectors to bars, restaurants and shopping malls, and to perform at fashionable Shortland Street nightclub Impala, while unknowingly infectious.
It must have been strange him hitting the decks at Impala given the Ministry of Health says nightclubs are limited to just 100 people, who must be seated and separated and with dancing specifically banned.
Nightclubbers must also wear masks and show vaccine passes on entry. Again, how strange that Dimension was allowed in to any of the venues he visited since foreigners are not usually issued with vaccine passes until they are legally allowed to leave self-isolation.
So far, it seems fewer than 50 people were at Dimension’s Impala performance and he may have encountered no more than 100 people the whole time he was infectious.
Hopefully none of them working in the creative and events sector are close friends of the Prime Minister, which could also put her health at risk.
The clash between Ardern’s Covid-saviour and foreign-entertainer-enabling brands risked yesterday’s press conference being a political fiasco.
Hipkins’ decision to play with such a straight bat and not to announce any new restrictions meant journalists could barely explore that clash. It is also meant he was not put on the spot over whether the Ministry of Health had made any new preparations for omicron or is just following the old delta script.
Hipkins’ communications skills are those Ardern will need as Omicron now spreads through the community and as the toughest decisions yet must be made and sold to a Labour base still committed to her previous cautious line.
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