John Armstrong: It may be time for Government, Opposition to unite in war-like cabinet amid coronavirus

Is what is a national emergency in all but name now of such magnitude that Labour and National should forge some kind of Grand Coalition or Government of National Unity to combat the rampant, rampaging coronavirus pandemic?

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Mr Bridges says GPs are telling him they can't test people with symptoms unless they meet strict criteria. Source: 1 NEWS

There is already chitchat around the political fringes pondering whether the time has arrived for the country’s two major parties to put their ideological differences and tribal loyalties to one side in the national interest, if only temporarily.

There are certainly precedents in New Zealand’s politics for such a rapprochement and the consequent establishment of an all-party Administration to run the country.

From Jacinda Ardern downwards, Labour Party ministers have unofficially declared war on Covid-19. 

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The Prime Minister wasn't impressed with Mr Bridges’ line of questioning in Parliament. Source: 1 NEWS

Does it follow therefore the nation could or should be placed on a similar footing to that pertaining in New Zealand during the two world wars?

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In both cases, the two parties who were the principal parliamentary players at the outbreak of conflict — Reform and the Liberals in 1914 and Labour and National in 1939 — briefly allowed bygones to be bygones and set up formal coalition governments.

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Jacinda Ardern was trying to ease the concerns of nervous New Zealanders. Source: 1 NEWS

There is another example, however, which might perhaps seem more relevant to the extremely dire circumstances prevailing in 2020.

Just as the Great Depression of the 1930s was starting to bite — and bite hard — Reform and the United Party agreed to form a governing coalition.

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That political marriage was motivated more by those two parties’ desperate desire to stunt Labour’s rising popularity than acting in the common good.

The obvious question is what purpose would be had in forming a modern-day equivalent? 

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Jacinda Ardern says workplaces need to implement plans to work from home if possible. Source: 1 NEWS

What could a Labour-National combo do that the existing Labour-led three-party governing arrangement does not already have the power to do? 

The track record of grand coalitions operating in oversees jurisdictions is not good. They are recipes for governmental paralysis — often at the very moment that urgency is of the utmost priority. Anyway, it is a fair assumption that National— apart from not hiking benefit rates — would not be doing a lot that was much different from what Ms Ardern’s outfit is already doing.

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Why would Ms Ardern even bother contemplating the notion of a power-sharing arrangement with National? Her handling of the second major crisis that she has been forced to confront as Prime Minister has been as flawless as was her similarly impeccable performance during the March 15 terror attack in Christchurch last year. 

The big difference is that the latest tsunami affects everyone directly and in so many ways.

Unlike the Christchurch mosque murders, the myriad number of implications of the coronavirus menace will fill the news bulletins from here until Election Day in September.

The only reason to invite Simon Bridges and company into her Administration would be as insurance and spreading the risk should something go horribly wrong and the blame is left at Labour’s door. 

That worry is inconsequential in comparison to the huge political advantage that has come with enjoying monopoly rights to how the scourge of Covid-19 is best contained and the economic impact lessened at least to some degree.

Ardern’s previously ramshackle-looking three-party Government has been reinvigorated.

No-one is complaining any longer about Labour “failing to deliver” following last week’s $12.1 billion business rescue package.

The trials and tribulations of New Zealand First and its leader no longer hog the front pages or dominate the news bulletins.

With the not inconsiderable assistance of Grant Robertson, the Prime Minister has wrenched back control of the political agenda.

Ms Ardern is dictating events — though only to the extent that the unpredictability of the virus will allow her.

Mr Bridges and his colleagues are mere bystanders to all this. Listening to what National thinks and what National would do if it were in the position of Ms Ardern and Labour is about the least of voters’ priorities right now.

No matter, Mr Bridges cannot allow himself to be relegated to the sidelines of what has become the biggest crisis confronting the country since WWII.

In many, if not most people’s eyes, however, Mr Bridges can get nothing right. His detractors have long pigeonholed him as a hack politician devoid of vision and consumed solely with returning National to power merely for power’s sake.

As far as his critics are concerned, such a verdict has been reinforced by what they describe as his “politics as usual” approach to the national emergency.

In short, he stands accused of exploiting people’s misery for political gain.

That is a heavy charge to make. It is made even heavier by the fact that it is wrong. 

For this time, someone damned for getting nothing right has got things very right.

Mr Bridges is doing what he should be doing.

So far, he has cold-shouldered Ms Ardern’s rather shallow and clumsy attempts to shame National’s leader into giving his party’s blessing for her Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Mr Bridges will continue to take no heed of such pleading. It is essential that he continues to ignore it. As the Leader of the Opposition, it his right to ask the hard questions that need to be asked about the adequacy of New Zealand’s response to the crisis.

It is not just his right to do so. It his duty to do so. It is a long-established convention in New Zealand’s unwritten constitution.

Those hurling brickbats at Mr Bridges need to be reminded of that obligation — and no-one more so it would seem than the Prime Minister.

Ever since Covid-19 made its first and unwelcome arrival on these shores, Ardern has endlessly repeated her refrain of ‘“we are all in this together”.

She has stressed these are times when New Zealanders expect their politicians to come together regardless of their political labelling.

Such 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.

A politician of Mr Bridges’ experience does not need to be told that in such times as now, the public gives short shrift to those who are constantly carping from the sidelines.

He has accordingly carefully targeted his criticism into matters of concern, most notably the number of tests being conducted by health authorities when faced with possible cases of coronavirus.

In Parliament last Wednesday, Mr Bridges bombarded the Prime Minister with questions about the amount of testing that had been done. Ms Ardern’s response was to ignore those questions. She instead accused Mr Bridges of being “borderline irresponsible”. 

Her parting shot was to tell him that “this doesn't have to be political”. Coming from someone who had presided over the release of an economic rescue package the day before which included a $25 increase in welfare benefits, that was a bit rich.  

Sure, the consequent $2.8 billion cash injection over four years is in line with the Government’s fiscal pump-priming. 

The unexpected handout bore all the hallmarks of an election-year Budget sweetener, however, with the additional purpose of salving the consciences of Labour and Green Party MPs.

For his part, Mr Bridges cited the increase in benefit rates as indicative of the “confused priorities” and the money should have been diverted to expand the payment of wage subsidies.

That is a valid argument — and one which is hardly “irresponsible”. 

It won’t be rewarding, but Mr Bridges has little choice but to keep plugging along in such fashion. He might be shut out of government at a time in history when Opposition parties can make a contribution at least in presenting a united front to an enemy. He cannot afford to be shut out of the debate at a time of national crisis.