Is Jacinda Ardern utilising taxpayer-generated revenue in order to run a “propaganda unit” under the cover of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet?
The spending of public money on so-called information campaigns to explain the policies of the party in power has long been regarded as being of questionable value and dubious merit.
Trying to justify such campaigns on the pretext that they are not political is the hardest of sells.
Such exercises are always political. This week’s example is far more political than most. For that reason, this latest effort demands scrutiny. So far it has received precious little.
So consumed were the populace with celebrating last Monday’s downgrading of the country’s alert level in the wake of the number of active coronavirus cases dropping to zero that the accompanying refocusing of the “Unite against Covid-19” information campaign garnered little by way of public attention.
That was hardly a surprise. The citizenry’s relief following confirmation that the Cabinet had granted the wish of the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders to shift to alert level one was palpable.
The virus had been vanquished — at least for now. Normality beckoned. The war might not yet be over. But the crucial first battle had been won.
And not only that. Victory had been achieved with relatively few casualties — thus boosting confidence that should the pathogen again breach the country’s borders, then the health authorities will have the capability and the know how to wipe it out with relative ease.
The country’s basking in the afterglow of Monday’s very good news was intensified by the stack of plaudits New Zealand received from overseas sources for having blotted out the coronavirus.
In that regard, Ardern’s disclosure that she had partaken in a “little dance” with her daughter on being told that news generated headlines all around the world.
The relaying of such a heart-warming moment struck a chord elsewhere as a much-needed antidote — if only briefly— to the ongoing horror of the global statistical count which this week had the number of cases of Covid-19 worldwide topping 7.5 million while the total deaths were just a shade short of 420,000.
As has become something of a habit during her tenure as prime minister, Ardern’s deft touch on the world stage was not replicated to quite the same degree on the domestic one.
The speed with which she can switch from saint to sinner was amply demonstrated by the overnight transformation of the “Unite against Covid-19” publicity campaign into a new-fangled beast which goes under the name of “Unite for Recovery”.
No-one would quibble with the “Unite against Covid-19” exercise. Indeed, had the authorities failed to mount such a pandemic-related advertising blitz, they would have exposed themselves to justified charges of gross negligence given the sheer killing power of the pathogen.
The dissemination of the detail of what was or was not permitted under the various alert levels was a vital cog in the machinery making the country virus-free.
There was broad agreement across the political spectrum during the lockdowns as to what needed to be done. Any argument was limited to the question of when it should be done.
That has all changed. After a brief hibernation, it is politics much as usual. When it comes to uniting for the recovery, there is huge disagreement between Labour and National as regards policy priorities, the desirable level of public spending and the extent of borrowing.
That's further reason why the notion that Unite for Recovery is somehow not political is a nonsense. The campaign’s website might serve a purpose of being a one-stop shop which details everything you need to know about the Ardern Administration’s response to the pandemic.
In particular, given the No 1 priority now facing the country is the tackling of the scourge of unemployment and the resulting slashing of incomes in many households, it is essential that people are aware of benefit entitlements, training and apprenticeship opportunities, the mortgage repayment deferral scheme, protection from sudden rent increases, and so forth.
You won’t find any mention on the website of National’s policies dealing with such matters, however.
You thus might conclude the Unite for Recovery information campaign serves as a surreptitious means to define and dictate the debate about how best to rebuild New Zealand’s ravaged economy.
The problem is that the boundary between “informing” the public of Government measures and “promoting” those measures in order to gain political advantage is not easily drawn.
Even when such a line is demarcated, it can become blurred. The net effect is to hand Labour a massive advantage.
That would matter less if September’s general election was still some distance away.
But it isn’t. Any government contemplating either establishing a new taxpayer-funded information programme or rejigging an existing one when the country is little more than three months away from an election ought to think very hard about the constitutional propriety of embarking on such a course.
It would be useful were Ardern for once to heed the advice of the Cabinet Manual. That guide as to what is expected of Cabinet ministers when confronted with questions about the acceptability of some taxpayer-funded publicity blitz is pretty clear.
It notes that “some otherwise unexceptionable government advertising has been considered inappropriate during the election campaign, due to the heightened risk of a perception that public funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes”.
Ardern might well interpret that as giving her license to carry on running the Unite for Recovery campaign until the election campaign gets under way approximately a month prior to Election Day.
If so, she should read further. The manual further observes that “in practice, restraints have tended to be applied from about three months before the general election”.
That timing is significant. When next Friday dawns, the election will be exactly three months away. Of equal, if not more importance, next Friday marks the beginning of the three month-long “regulated period” stipulated under the Electoral Act.
From then on, political parties and candidates fighting the election are subject to strict limits as to how much they can spend on campaigning for office.
To continue to run an information programme of the scale of Unite for Recovery during the regulated period is unacceptable. Doing so would make a mockery of those rules on spending.
It would also distort the separate procedure under which the Electoral Commission allocates varying sums of money to parties to spend on advertising on broadcast media.
To continue to run an information programme which canvasses matters at the very heart of what will be the uppermost issue in voters’ minds — namely how best to go about the salvaging those elements of New Zealand’s the economy — would likewise be intolerable.
So far, Ardern, other senior Labour MPs and the party’s election strategists have not shown the slightest inkling that they are even aware of the potential head-on collision between the party’s self-interest and the public interest of electoral fairness, let alone contemplate axing Unite for Recovery.
Ditching the programme less than two weeks after setting it up would be acutely embarrassing, however.
There can be no sympathy for Ardern. She has painted herself into a corner.
Fortunately for her, there is still means by which she can extricate herself from this pickle.
She could delegate responsibility for the operation of Unite for Recovery — or even merely the monitoring its operation — to some independent entity, such as the Electoral Commission.
Until that deficiency is addressed in a meaningful fashion, those who have voiced concern about the constitutional implications of Unite for Recovery — as National’s Gerry Brownlee, Act’s David Seymour, the Taxpayers’ Union and National Party-aligned blogger David Farrar have done — are fully justified in being suspicious of Ardern’s motives.
She is showing no sign of introducing some much-needed transparency to the workings of this monster of a publicity blitz, however.
If anything, the Prime Minister and her underlings have sought to keep obscured what they are doing by giving the impression that Unite for Recovery is independent of Ardern and her ministers.
It isn’t. Beyond an unobtrusive generic “New Zealand Government” logo at the top of each page on campaign’s website, there is no mention of where the material is sourced from or who is responsible for scripting it.
Apart from not being told just how long the Unite for Recovery website will remain on line, the public is being kept in the dark as regards how much money has been budgeted for the whole exercise, including how much will be spent on purchasing of newspaper, radio or advertising on other platforms.
All in all, this sorry state of affairs is unacceptable. It just isn’t good enough. One way or another, Ardern is duty bound to rectify matters.