Bryce Edwards: NZ’s Covid-19 strategy looks successful, but we must safeguard democracy

Bryce Edwards: NZ’s Covid-19 strategy looks successful, but we must safeguard democracy

Civil society, the media and the parliamentary system – which normally keep a check on government – are now seriously weakened


The New Zealand government and prime minister deserve the plaudits they are receiving for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis. At this stage, their elimination strategy appears to be working.

But any political system is bigger than those making decisions at the top. In truth, the government’s decision to take the country into lockdown was made after pressure was applied by civil society, the opposition, and the media, which channelled epidemiologists and other experts making the case that the government’s containment strategy wasn’t working, and insisted New Zealand urgently needed to change tack.

The political system worked. But one of the ironies of putting the country into lockdown is we now have a system in which democracy is being debased. Civil liberties have been significantly curtailed, parliament adjourned, and the normal operations of the media are greatly restricted, meaning less public access to information.

That means the combination of civil society, media and the parliamentary system that normally keeps a check on government and authorities is now seriously weakened. This may be necessary given the dire threat posed by Covid-19, but it’s also dangerous for democracy and decision-making while the crisis is unresolved.

There were already serious democratic deficits in New Zealand – most notably, a concentration of political power, access for vested interests and a lack of public participation in politics. These have been accelerated.

The state of the media is especially troubling. The business models of most media companies were already in crisis. Journalism is being steadily downsized, with former journalists moving to lobbying and PR roles. Covid-19 has only made the situation worse, with more media layoffs and closures during the lockdown, and likely more to come. The imbalance between those with power, and those trying to hold them to account, is getting worse.

Senior journalists complain that under the new crisis conditions, authorities and politicians no longer provide the public with adequate information. Although there are daily public media briefings – usually given by Jacinda Ardern and the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield – these do not satisfy journalists wanting to question and test the official statements of politicians and public servants.

Investigative journalist Michael Morrah alleges authorities are using the sole daily press conference to avoid transparency. He argues there “appears to be a massive disconnect with what the public is being told, and what is actually happening on the ground”, there is not enough time allocated for questions, and “getting clear, timely answers to questions has frequently been an arduous and deeply frustrating process”.

Another senior journalist, Andrea Vance, also suggests the daily briefings are inadequate: “… it’s unsatisfactory because, at present, it’s really our only chance to ask questions. They can’t be detailed, they can’t contain specific answers, and they are rarely allowed to be followed up. They concentrate all newsgathering from official sources into one narrow time slot, and into the hands of a few figure heads.”

This concentration of power in the prime minister’s office is coming under increasing criticism, and our parliamentary system of government has quickly become more presidential. The PM is essentially running the health portfolio from Wellington while the minister of health, David Clark, has been locked down at his home in the far south of the country. Clark’s lockdown-breaking trip to the beach, which led to his demotion and being stripped of other cabinet roles, concentrated her power even further.

Of course, the intense consolidation of power within the government is hardly surprising in a crisis of this magnitude. The dominance of the prime minister and her few trusted advisers and colleagues – the minister of finance, Grant Robertson, in particular – was already established well before the crisis emerged. And with continued questions about the performance of other government ministers, it’s natural that the powers of Ardern should be elevated further.

This approach is working – a new poll shows that 88% of the public trust that the government is making the right decisions. This figure compares well with the other countries – the average poll rating for G7 countries is only 59%.

Yet in times of crisis we need more scrutiny, not less. The country’s anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International New Zealand, has warned that billions of dollars are vulnerable to being diverted for personal gain as some people take advantage of the crisis.

The organisation has welcomed the establishment of a select committee chaired by the leader of the opposition, but warns it needs to be much more than a rubber stamp on the government and must prioritise scrutiny and monitoring that Parliament would normally provide.

The committee is only a partial replacement for scrutiny by parliament. It does not have its full powers to scrutinise urgent government regulations, and it lacks any way to recall the House to act if it thinks it necessary.

Attention needs to be given to fixing this political malady. Otherwise we might well fight off the health crisis, and end up with a political system that is much less democratic, with the likelihood of even more suffering as result.


Originally published on The Guardian