Monique Poirier: Politicising a crisis

Monique Poirier: Politicising a crisis

“Don’t politicise it.” You hear this the moment a crisis comes along. And, in those first few moments, the sentiment behind this statement is usually well meaning and widely shared, regardless of who has said it.

However, everything becomes political eventually – and, often quickly.  What’s more, it’s usually those accusing others of politicising events who engage in political point-scoring themselves.

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, you always think those with opposing views are doing the politicising, behind which the intentions are, at the very least, misleading or disingenuous.  Rarely would you consider that it could be your own tribe politicising such matters. After all, our personal views usually reflect the politician or party we most support, making them morally superior; while the opposing party might engage in such cynical behaviour, we believe our own never would!

Inevitably, both the government and the opposition of the day will be accused of politicising a crisis. However, what does this actually mean?

The nature of the crisis itself is important: was it an act of God, or was it the result of a policy decision?

There are some crises that can only be viewed and understood as unfortunate events that nobody had any control over. The Canterbury earthquakes and the eruption of Whakaari/White Island are good and recent examples. Either natural disaster could have occurred under any government, and no policy could have prevented them.

The terrorist attack on 15 March, 2019 in Christchurch is another example of an event that New Zealand could never have foreseen. It’s true that in the days and weeks that followed, there was some discussion on previous gun control policy and the lack of action undertaken by the previous government. However, while there may have been an implication, it was small, and the closest the crisis itself came to being politicised.

In these three situations, it’s clear there was no political blame and thus, no real opportunity for politicisation. This doesn’t mean political opportunism and cynicism didn’t follow, of course, but the events themselves were not politicised.

So, when is it appropriate to say that a crisis is being politicised? Likewise, when is it actually acceptable to politicise said crisis?

We’ve been told by politicians and journalists not to politicise COVID-19 – heck, I even made that request myself early on! However, as time has passed in lockdown – albeit, at pace – it’s become increasingly difficult to refrain from doing so. The reason, it would seem, is because policy decisions that were or were not made by the government have undoubtedly had a considerable impact on New Zealand’s present and future situation, both negatively and positively.

We, as a country, had no role in the original outbreak of the virus and its subsequent spread across the rest of the world. No one can argue that position, nor are there any attempts to. In this sense, the virus was an act of God. What our leaders did have control over, however, was its spread to New Zealand.

Policy did not allow for an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a terrorist attack to occur. Policy did allow for COVID-19 to spread throughout the country via relaxed border measures, encouraged mass gatherings and limited testing, to name a few. That means National, as the Opposition, has warrant to politicise the crisis by criticising the Government’s immediate response. After all, we could all see what was happening to the rest of the world. Despite increasing calls and cries for action from both experts and members of the public, we were assured by the Government that the situation was under control and there was little to worry about.

Equally so, other policy decisions such as the Level 4 lockdown, eventual quarantining at our border, and the wider testing criteria have meant that New Zealand is in a far better situation than much of the world. Within days of the announcement of an alert level system, we were in lockdown, and our infection and death rate have remained low. The Government is well within its rights to politicise their response in a positive way, pointing to the decisiveness of their actions from which the results so far prove are correct.

The position you take will likely align with your political leanings or will be the one most convenient. You’ll either think early policy decisions could have avoided this whole debacle, or you’ll see how much worse other countries are and be grateful for the policy decisions that were eventually made. Either way, both the Opposition and the Government have legitimate scope to politicise the issue.

If you have taken a certain position on the actions of the Government, it’s worth considering the logic behind it – something you should probably do with every position, to be fair. If you 1) have opinionated or strong views on how COVID-19 should be handled in New Zealand, 2) believe the Government’s approach aligns with your own, 3) support the current Labour/New Zealand First/Green Government, and 4) think National is being unnecessarily critical of the Government, then you probably have enough justification for the position you hold.

However, if you could imagine a National government was taking the same course of action, would you be similarly supportive? Logic would say yes, human nature would suggest no.

We are living in the midst of a crisis. This isn’t like the earthquake, or the volcano eruption, or the terrorist attack, all of which ended quickly and before policy could affect their outcome. The COVID-19 crisis has been prolonged and will linger for quite some time. Policy decisions contributed to its arrival in New Zealand. Equally, policy decisions have contributed to the fast flattening of the curve in relation to other countries.

So, if you’re going to accuse the other tribe of politicising the issue, be aware that your own is politicising it too.


Monique Poirier is a conservative writer,  small business owner and former Parliamentary staffer