NZ PM Jacinda Ardern during a press conference on June 17 2020 when, after 24 days without an active case in the country, two new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.
NZ PM Jacinda Ardern during a press conference on June 17 2020 when, after 24 days without an active case in the country, two new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.

‘She lied’: Week Ardern wants to forget

Jacinda Ardern must be wishing she could turn back the clock to June 8, when New Zealand was declared coronavirus free.

The next day she happily shook as many hands as she could, revelling in the ending of almost all social distancing restrictions.

The prime minister was a hero at home and lauded abroad.

A poll taken in early June showed two-thirds of New Zealanders trusted her leadership through the pandemic. US magazine The Atlantic gushed she was "the most effective leader on the planet".

Yet, in the last week and a bit it has all gone south for Arden and her Labour Party led government.

Her administration has been accused of being "bungling idiots", her coalition government of "tearing itself apart" and Arden herself - often seen as untouchable - was accused of having told a "complete lie" about her handling of the pandemic.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces a factory worker on June 9, the day after the country lifted all social distancing restrictions. Picture: Michael Bradley/Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces a factory worker on June 9, the day after the country lifted all social distancing restrictions. Picture: Michael Bradley/Getty Images

 

It's a worrying wobble she'll be hoping doesn't turn into an all-out slide at the next general election which will be held in less than three months.

Despite her popularity, Ardern has a surprisingly tenuous grip on power. Her government, which is in coalition with the conservative New Zealand First party, has exactly the same numbers of MPs as the opposition National party. Only a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens delivered her the top job in 2017. Just a small swing away from Labour could see her turfed out.

BORDER BLUNDER HARMING PM

There are a number of issues Arden is having to contend with. But at the heart of her woes is COVID-19 and a bizarre blunder which has seen the county go from coronavirus free to potentially having, once again, local transmission of the virus.

It started with two British visitors on June 7, who like all arrivals into the country, were placed into hotel quarantine for 14 days. But they didn't stay there anywhere near that long

During their time inside the Novotel hotel in Auckland, the health ministry decreed everyone in quarantine should only be allowed out after two negative COVID-19 tests.

Six days later, the two women were allowed to leave quarantine on compassionate grounds and drive 650kms to Wellington to visit a dying relative. They got lost and on the way met up with a couple of friends who gave them directions.

In Wellington, both tested positive for coronavirus. It has since emerged, neither was tested in the hotel - not even once. It was the nation's first COVID cases for three weeks.

The visitors were staying at this Auckland Novotel when they were allowed to travel across the country with coronavirus. Picture: Phil Walter/Getty Images.
The visitors were staying at this Auckland Novotel when they were allowed to travel across the country with coronavirus. Picture: Phil Walter/Getty Images.

'COULDN'T RUN A BATH, LET ALONE A BORDER'

Ms Arden said it was an "unacceptable failure" and that it "cannot be repeated". Dying relatives be damned, there would be no more early marks.

But there was a problem - there had already been plenty of early releases from quarantine. It soon came to light that the week after the two women tested positive, more than 50 other visitors had also been allowed out on compassionate grounds. Just four had been tested for coronavirus.

The ministry wasn't even following its own testing rules.

The bad news got even worse. Of the 2159 people who left quarantine between June 9-16 - most who had completed their 14-day stint - only 1010 were tested for coronavirus. Of these, around 800 essentially vanished, failing to get into contact with the authorities to arrange a test.

National leader Todd Muller said it was possible coronavirus was now back out in the community. The debacle was a "national disgrace".

David Seymour, the leader of minor party ACT was more direct. He said the Government was incompetent.

"These bungling idiots couldn't run a bath let alone a border," he said. "We're supposed to have the world's smartest borders. We now have the world's dumbest borders."

Ardern during a press conference on June 17 2020 when, after 24 days without an active case in the country, two new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.
Ardern during a press conference on June 17 2020 when, after 24 days without an active case in the country, two new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.

PLAN TO 'OUT JESUS' ARDERN

So far, Ardern has managed to avoid being in the centre of the maelstrom. Much of the talk has been about whether health minister David Clark should resign.

The prime minister's popularity, boosted by her handling of everything from the Christchurch massacre to batting away an earthquake on live TV, as well as her cosy bedtime chats on Facebook, have given her a cushion of political capital to lean on during this week's events.

In an opinion piece for analysis website The Democracy Project commentator Graham Adams said Nationals were wary of going after Ardern.

"Such is Ardern's popularity and mana (honour and authority) that most opponents consider it too risky to attack her directly by impugning her essential goodness - not least because there is a widespread belief that, unlike many elected representatives, she is always well intentioned, humble and honest."

So instead, Muller has been trying to "out Jesus" Ardern, he said, by pushing his own image of innate goodness to show the PM doesn't have a monopoly on being a trustworthy politician.

National Party Leader Todd Muller, and his wife Michelle, in Wellington. Muller has a plan to bring down Labour and grab the PM position. But it will take a lot of persuading for Kiwis to give up on Ardern. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.
National Party Leader Todd Muller, and his wife Michelle, in Wellington. Muller has a plan to bring down Labour and grab the PM position. But it will take a lot of persuading for Kiwis to give up on Ardern. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.

 

If the opposition can prove Ardern isn't the only pollie with empathy, then perhaps they can persuade voters she is "as flawed, calculating and prone to lying as any other politician," wrote Mr Adams.

Being trustworthy may be a huge boon for Ardern, but it may also be a poisoned chalice if she's seen to not be meeting the public's massive expectations.

Indeed, Mr Adams, Ardern may have been inadvertently doing the groundwork for this herself. For instance, she has avoided saying sorry for the border blunders, expressing mostly "remorse" and suggesting others were responsible.

'WE'VE BEEN LIED TO'

The gloves may be slowly coming off as election day nears. Senior Nationals MP Judith Collins called into question Ardern's character last Friday on morning program The AM Show.

"We have been lied to actually. We have been lied to about the quarantine, about the standard of care."

Asked who had lied, Ms Collins said, "the prime minister and the health ministry". If the quarantine debacle did lead to delays in opening the border, said Ms Collins, the Kiwi economy could suffer.

Labour MP Willie Jackson has defended Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's leadership in the wake of a series of quarantine blunders while National's Judith Collins claims New Zealanders are being lied to.

Posted by The AM Show on Thursday, June 18, 2020

Labour MP Willie Jackson was having none of the accusations.

"I think we are going a bit over the line if you are going to start accusing the prime minister of lying," he said on the same show.

"She is a person of huge integrity and very honest."

He hoped voters would "cut us a bit of slack given the integrity of the prime minister".

All smiles on the slopes. Jacinda Ardern is one of New Zealand most popular ever politicians. Time will tell if COVID blunders and policy fails dents that. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images.
All smiles on the slopes. Jacinda Ardern is one of New Zealand most popular ever politicians. Time will tell if COVID blunders and policy fails dents that. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images.

It's not just coronavirus that's proving troublesome. Lesser global issues are also taking their toll.

Last week, Labour's plan to build a tram to relieve congestion in Auckland was scrapped after NZ First refused to back it, chiefly because some of the funding was to come from overseas. Muller said it was a sign the government was "tearing itself apart".

Ardern was sanguine: "I am well used to governing a government of three different parties of three different positions. We've made remarkable progress on quite difficult areas - this just happens to be one where we were unable to form consensus," reported Newshub.

A cornerstone Labour policy to build more homes across New Zealand has also come up wanting.

Ardern's popularity is such that it would be a brave person to bet against Labour winning the September poll and she remaining as PM.

To the world it would seem startling that a person whose image was projected onto the side of as skyscraper in Dubai as a global symbol of empathetic leadership should be kicked out by her own citizens.

But Ardern will not want to have many more weeks as bad as the one she has just had.

Originally published as 'She lied': Week Ardern wants to forget


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