Political Roundup: The Challenge of speaking “truth to power” in a time of crisis

Political Roundup: The Challenge of speaking “truth to power” in a time of crisis

The line between “political point-scoring” and “speaking truth to power” can be a fine one. No one likes to see people opportunistically using a time of great tragedy and danger for their own political advantage.

That doesn’t mean we should become intolerant to questions about the actions of those in power, regardless of whether this is about the Police, Jacinda Ardern, the Ministry of Health, or any other authority. Scrutiny of those wielding incredible power and making huge decisions is vital.

A mood against questioning and challenge

There is a climate at the moment in which the public seem averse to negativity or criticisms of the way New Zealand has dealt with the Coronavirus crisis. Recent opinion polls show there is extraordinary faith in our government, alongside increased support for the police and other institutions of power. There have also been recorded rises in patriotism and nationalism.

Yesterday Colmar Brunton put out a new poll reporting that 62% “feel a greater sense of national pride than they did before the crisis”, and this was up from 47% at the start of the month – see Toby Manhire’s Public backing for NZ Covid-19 response rises to 87% – new poll.

Similarly, the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study reported this week that the most significant finding of its latest survey was an increase in patriotism, as well as “higher levels of institutional trust in science, government, police and health authorities” – see Ripu Bhatia’s Kiwi patriotism, trust in institutions rise amid pandemic, major study finds. It reported University of Auckland psychology professor Chris Sibley saying that “when facing an external threat, humans tend to tighten bonds – including bonding on a national level – to repel the threat the virus poses.”

It’s in this context that the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, has twice been widely condemned for his questioning of the Government over their management of the pandemic. Back in March, when Finance Minister Grant Robertson unveiled his $12bn rescue package, Bridges gave a critical speech in Parliament. And this week he posted on Facebook his criticisms of the Government, such as their lack of work on contact tracing, which he argued had led to the Level 4 lockdown being extended unnecessarily. In contrast, he praised Australia as the model to emulate.

The latest Facebook post has been widely criticised, including by the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, who has told Bridges off for “politicising” the lockdown extension this week. And it has sparked a further round of rumours of a leadership coup in National.

Bridges out of sync with the public mood

Many commentators have pointed out how Bridges has been out of sync with the public mood. Most point out that Bridges’ criticisms had merit, but his tone was not sufficiently in sync with this mood of patriotism, fear of the virus, and positivity about New Zealand’s success in combating it.

RNZ political editor Jane Patterson discussed how “patriotism trumps politics” and Bridges is a victim of this: “Unfortunately for him, the current climate means many New Zealanders don’t want to hear direct criticism of the government as it offends that sense of patriotism” – see: A war footing from Ardern and misstep from Bridges.

She speaks about the “almost reverence” for the PM at the moment, and how although Bridges’ criticisms have been “valid”, “he misjudged the tone” with “his natural instinct to go on the attack”.

The NBR’s political editor is even more sympathetic to Bridges’ plight, saying the National leader “has raised legitimate questions about testing and contact tracing”, and “New Zealand is entering dangerous times, as people become increasingly intolerant of voices not in tune with the government” – see: Bridges over troubled water (paywalled).

According to Edwards, Bridges is doing what is required of him: “That is the opposition’s role: to criticise and challenge the government. That is not petty politics and is probably even more important in times of crisis.” And he’s wary of this message that we should all unite politically: “The government has run an effective public relations campaign on the pandemic based around the call to arms to ‘unite against Covid-19’. Uniting against Covid-19 should not mean, however, having to agree with everything the government does.”

Edwards also points out that, as well as Bridges basing his criticisms of decisions on the submissions of a number of “leading epidemiologists and other health professionals”, the unions for teachers and nurses were also critical of similar issues. And he says the media are under pressure not to be too critical: “Journalists are also routinely attacked for their questioning of the prime minister.”

Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper also felt the reaction against Bridges’ criticisms were over the top: “Fact is, Bridges said what many of us have been saying; the Government was ill-prepared by not moving the country out of level 4 this week, which is surely stating nothing more than the bleeding obvious” – see: It’s absurd to suggest Simon Bridges’ lockdown criticism is politicking.

Soper says such questioning is still important: “It seems to be forgotten that he’s the Leader of the Opposition and as such is not only entitled but is expected to oppose what the Government is doing. To suggest that now is not the time for politicking when the fearful nation has been cowed and forced into submission is absurd. We still live in a democracy even though at times it might not seem like it. Even though Jacinda Ardern may have done a good job preaching from the pulpit every day, she’s not infallible.”

Stuff newspaper editorials also backed Bridges on the issues that he raised, and said the backlash was unfair: “Ardern rightly gets the benefit of our goodwill, co-operation and tolerance for mistakes. But anybody who responsibly suggests she and her team have got it wrong deserves a better hearing than to be shouted down on Facebook or national radio” – see: Bridges had a point on unpreparedness.

The editorial also acknowledges the difficult climate that now exists for challenges to authority: “Any criticism or bellyaching about a leader doing her best in dealing with a catastrophe is going to sound petty and ungrateful. When the leader is as exceptional as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the criticism sounds even worse. Carping opposition politicians find themselves in an impossible position – compounded by the fact their motives are always under question.”

It’s a question of timing and tone, according to the Herald’s Claire Trevett, and she says Bridges got it wrong last month and this week: “Bridges’ strident response was at odds with public sentiment and he suffered as a result. It is rather surprising he does not seem to have learned his lesson. In both cases, Bridges raised points that were legitimate. He just raised them at the wrong time, and in the wrong way. People felt raw and uncertain, and needed reassurance. There was a hyper-sensitivity to anything that looked like political game playing” – see: Covid 19 was bad for Simon Bridges, he just made it worse (paywalled).

She points out that even National supporters are favourable at the moment to the PM: “People have a sense of fairness, and many believe Ardern is doing a pretty good job at a tough time. There is a feeling that this should be recognised, rather than being lambasted.”

Trevett suggests that, in future, criticisms will be more favourably received: “The time for Bridges to make his points will come. Seven weeks of a state of lockdown will take its toll.”

Similarly, writing on the Spinoff, rightwing commentator Ben Thomas argues that as we get closer to the election, and as we shift from a focus on the health crisis to the economic crisis, the public will be more primed for Bridges’ messages, but for the moment his criticisms are “serious tonal missteps” – see: One giant misstep: Simon Bridges’ flailing attack was too far, too soon. He says that such criticisms can be “received as some kind of sedition or even treason.”

Thomas outlines how out of sync Bridges was: “Self-congratulation is part of the New Zealand psyche and has been a salve for flagging spirits in lockdown, and Bridges suggesting Australia is doing better strikes a bum note.” What’s more, the messages were out of line with a country dealing with a crisis: “This may be a function of the public gearing up for a ‘war’ against an invisible enemy. If we’re all in this together, the public needs someone to fight, whether it’s the 10,000 suspected rule breakers dobbed in by their neighbours in two days, or the politician they never really liked anyway.”

Bridges simply hasn’t caught up with the fact that the landscape has changed, requiring less oppositional type politics according to Anna Rawhiti-Connell – see: Read the room, Simon. She says that, although Bridges had some fair points to make, “the threat of Covid-19 has made the nation extremely sensitive and tolerance thresholds for negativity, much lower. Matching time, place and messaging has become crucial.” She argues “Kiwis are traumatised and needing reassurance right now, so Simon Bridges needs to wait with his criticisms until the nation is ready”.

Democracy can’t just wait for the right public mood, according to John Armstrong, who says that although it won’t be very rewarding, “Bridges has little choice but to keep plugging along in such fashion” because it is his constitutional duty to do so – see: It may be time for Government, Opposition to unite in war-like cabinet amid coronavirus.

Armstrong was writing a month ago, when Bridges was first in trouble for criticising the Government’s response to the crisis. He argued it was wrong for people to accuse Bridges of “exploiting people’s misery for political gain” and the PM needs to be reminded that “it his right to ask the hard questions that need to be asked about the adequacy of New Zealand’s response to the crisis”. He says “calls for national unity ring hollow, however, when used to deflect criticism of some pretty obvious failings and flaws in the country’s strategy for confronting and countering the pandemic.”

The need for media questioning and challenge

Also writing early in the crisis, Andrea Vance warned that “now more than ever, decisions of this magnitude must be questioned and picked over and challenged”, and there was a danger that such questioning would be suppressed – see: Our panic makes us more inclined to conform: here’s why we need to push back.

Vance’s main point is worth quoting in full: “We treat outsiders and non-conformers harshly. That’s helpful if you are a government and a police force trying to get a society to adhere to the rules, even if it is to protect life and health. But that fear also makes us less questioning. We place more value on obedience and more trust in our political leaders. That’s what makes critical, free-thinkers so important at a time like this. It’s not the job of journalists or commentators to support or applaud politicians, or to be stenographers for official messages.”

There has now been more concentration on the role of the media in questioning the Government about the crisis. Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan has written on this, arguing “it’s time to start questioning whether our response really was as robust and effective as our low number of cases and fatalities would suggest. The angry and aggressive commentary directed at the media and the Opposition for raising questions about the response suggests New Zealand isn’t quite ready for such probing questions” – see: We need to learn to be critical of Ashley Bloomfield.

Just because an authority figure is a good communicator doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be strongly scrutinised. And this is also the message from Claire Trevett, writing a month ago: “Whenever somebody argues that there should be “unity” and no criticism from the media or the Opposition, it brings to mind the days after the Pike River Mine disaster. Then there was a similar approach to the mine management during the press conferences: that it was not the time for criticism or hard questions, but for support. Peter Whittall was the good guy. The ones asking hard questions in those press conferences were the Australian journalists. It transpired those journalists were right all along. Now a similar sentiment seems to exist over Covid-19” – see: A rare defence of Simon Bridges’ Covid-19 criticisms (paywalled).

Trevett points out that it can also be difficult for Opposition politicians in these crises; was the same for Labour when National was in power: “As a general rule, voters do not like negative Neddies. It did not work out well for Labour when they took swipes at National over its decisions after the Christchurch earthquakes or the Global Financial Crisis. But they were right to challenge issues affecting New Zealand.”

Writing this week, RNZ’s Hayden Donnell also pick up on the Pike River Mine example: “It’s instructive to look at the case of Peter Whittall to see the dangers of sycophantic coverage. The former Pike River mine chief executive won plaudits for his clear, articulate communication in the aftermath of the disaster which killed 29 of his employees in November, 2010. Herald readers called for him to be named New Zealander of the Year, despite him being Australian. He sat next to prime minister John Key at the national memorial service for the Pike River victims. It later emerged that Whittall had overseen a negligently run, dangerous work environment in the leadup to the mine explosion” – see: Increasing media resistance to the deification of Ashley Bloomfield.

Journalists will continue to be criticised for the pressure and difficult questions they are asking of the Government. And today Herald political journalist Jason Walls provides his defence of “New Zealand’s most loathed essential workers: the Press Gallery journalists”, pushing back against the “tirade of complaints on social media about ‘idiotic questions’ and shouting matches between reporters” in the PM’s press conferences – see: Inside NZ’s favourite reality TV show – the 1pm press conference.

Finally, for a more general discussion of the accusation that opponents are taking advantage of a crisis for their own ends, see Monique Poirier’s Politicising a crisis, with the argument being that everyone tends to tribally blame those in opposing camps for the petty point-scoring.