Simon Wilson: No, Christopher Luxon and protesters, mandates are not the issue

OPINION:

“Faced with growing anger, civil disobedience, and an increasing breakdown in law and order,” declared National Party boss Christopher Luxon yesterday, “there is a responsibility for political leaders … ” To do what? How did the leader of the self-styled law-and-order party complete the sentence?

Not as you might have expected. The responsibility of political leaders, he said, was “not to drive people further into divided camps”.

Good on him. And good on him for not banging the “police are softies” drum, which some of his caucus would undoubtedly have preferred. Simon Bridges, for example, is fond of sneering at anyone he thinks is looking for a “kumbaya moment”.

The police have mishandled this protest, particularly by not acting decisively against the cars and tents right back at the start, but their intention is a good one. They want to de-escalate, avoid violence and not turn the protesters into victims. That’s admirable.

Good on Luxon also for moving his party along from the “lift all Covid restrictions on December 1” call it made in October last year. National wanted that to happen regardless of how many people were vaccinated or what might be happening with Delta infections and hospitalisations at the time.

Easy to forget, but the core demand of the protesters at Parliament today is much the same as National’s just four months ago.

“It is our job,” said Luxon yesterday, referring to Parliament as a whole, “to find a way through that brings everyone back together. To address the principled and practical questions being asked. To acknowledge the pain being felt by many.”

Everyone except the people still saying they want to storm Parliament, presumably. But how does Luxon think this should happen?

One way to look at the protest is that the local versions of Trumpians and a bunch of Bernie Bros have come together in common cause.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. In the US, populist leaders on the left and the right have attacked the gap between “elites” and the poor and the marginalised. Their analysis of why that gap exists are markedly different, but quite a few supporters of Bernie Sanders voted for Trump in 2016, rather than the arch-establishment Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps the comparison is a little unfair. Trumpism thrives in attacks on democratic institutions and the chaos it causes, whereas Sanders has been consistently pro-vaccine, pro-mandates and pro-democracy. And there are no organised groups on the New Zealand left supporting the protest.

Still, as journalists on the ground have told us, the protesters cross the political divide. Many see themselves as progressive.

So who is going to tackle what Luxon called “the principled and practical questions being asked”?

Just yesterday, Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick succeeded in persuading the Government to announce targeted support for “music venues, bars, cafes, theatres and the people who bring them alive”. Some effective lobbying, right there.

Luxon, however, is talking about vaccine mandates. He wants to know what the plan is to phase them out, when rapid antigen tests will be available to everyone and when we will give up on emergency restrictions altogether, to “allow Kiwis more discretion about how they respond to the risk of virus exposure”.

The issue is not that simple. To start with, are we really in a hurry to phase out mandates for frontline workers in health, education, public security and emergency services?

There’s a good case to be made that we will never want unvaccinated nurses, teachers, Corrections officers and police, and it’s not only because of the risk of infection they pose to others. Don’t we need to know that our frontline workers accept the value of public-health rules in a pandemic? Because there will very likely be more pandemics.

And what about the gyms, beauty salons, barbershops and all the other “close proximity” workplaces that currently impose restrictions? Some will welcome having no mandate. But others will want to use the “discretion” valued by Luxon to keep them in place, for the sake of their staff and customers and with the support of both groups. Is someone going to say they shouldn’t be allowed to do that?

But why the focus on mandates? We’re heading upwards into a scary Omicron outbreak and the time for decisions on what to do next, and how to do it, will come when that trend has peaked. Even Luxon seems to accept that.

Besides, mandates are not the biggest Covid-related issue we face right now. The important “principled and practical questions” run much deeper.

Last week the Salvation Army released its 15th annual State of the Nation report. There was the goodish news that “we have seen limited but steady progress in reducing child poverty”, although that was tempered by the phrase “by some measures”. And, said the report, the data had “an unacceptably high starting point”.

But while it gave credit for “clear progress with the increase in the number of houses being built, including social housing”, the report was in despair about the continued crisis in affordable housing.

In fact, it said, “Maybe it is time – after looking at these housing supply, affordability and debt challenges – to consider elevating the term to something more than ‘crisis’, possibly towards ‘catastrophic levels’, particularly for those facing housing deprivation, homelessness and those on the social Housing Register.”

There are more than 25,000 on the register, a direct result of housing becoming less affordable and new supply not keeping up. This is bad enough in itself, but in a pandemic, containment strategies that work reasonably well for households with a spare bedroom can be disastrous for those not well housed.

Why is housing construction still so slow and so expensive? Here’s one answer: while the Salvation Army talks about “debt challenges” and a “catastrophe”, the banks have reported record profits. The biggest of them, ANZ, went close to $2 billion last year: a 44 per cent increase on its 2020 result.

All the banks, including the small ones, are breaking records. The big four, all Australian owned, reported a combined profit last year of $5.5 billion.

Here’s another answer. Fletcher Building has just reported its own record profit for the first six months of the current financial year.

Fletchers is our largest residential builder, by far, and is also the largest manufacturer of building materials in Australasia. The company controls or plays a leading role in the supply of Gib Board, concrete, timber, steel, pipes and insulation.

It’s expecting a $750 million profit for the full year, which equates to about 20 per cent of expected revenue. That’s massive.

All these things are related. While the pandemic has spread misery to many, parts of corporate New Zealand have never had it better. And they’re making their money because of that misery.

The fact is, despite appeals like Luxon’s to “bring everyone back together”, we are not all in this together. The pandemic didn’t create the divide but it should not have made it worse.

Meanwhile, some radical activists, some concerned middle-of-the-road Kiwis and many far-right extremists are protesting at Parliament about the evil Government and a lack of personal freedom – at a time when most people understand deeply the need for social responsibility.

And Russell Coutts, with what seems like far too much wind between his ears, has joined them.

Yet some of the people watching all this want to keep talking about mandates.

What a distraction. There are real injustices to complain about in this country right now. But the Trumpians are having a great time. And I daresay those benefiting most from this catastrophe are not really worried that so much of the anger is directed elsewhere.

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