By Peter Dunne
One of the lessons the Government learned early in the Covid response was the importance of ‘controlling the narrative’.
The flow of information was quickly centralised and controlled. The daily 1pm media conference became institutionalised. Information, scientific, medical, or otherwise, that did not come through this channel was both scorned and dismissed.
The then Prime Minister even went so far as to say; “We will continue to be your single source of truth … unless you hear it from us it is not the truth”. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ could not have parodied centralised control of information better than the reality New Zealanders faced in 2020-21.
Yet, because of the urgency of the situation, and the widespread fear of the pandemic and its potential effects, the Government’s strategy worked, and New Zealanders by and large complied.
While those extraordinary days seem far off now, and while we are perhaps more cynical and wary about the blanket exercise of government power than we were then, elements of the Hipkins’ Government’s response to Cyclone Gabrielle look like direct lifts from the Covid response playbook.
Following the bumbling response of Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown to the year’s first cyclone, Cyclone Hale in January, the Government has been looking for a way it can get more directly involved in managing the response to disasters of this scale. Normally, the power to declare a state of emergency rests with the affected local authority.
But, when Cyclone Gabrielle struck the Government moved quickly to declare a national state of emergency. In part this was due to the sheer scale of the event and the damage it was causing, and in part to government frustration that it had been largely shut out of any role in the response to Cyclone Hale until it was too late.
This is not at all unreasonable and follows the pattern set by the Covid outbreak and the Christchurch earthquakes, the only two previous occasions when a national state of emergency has been declared.
However, one of the more unsavoury aspects of the Covid response, and the determination to centrally manage the dissemination of information to the public, was the suspension of Parliament for several weeks, despite the availability of communication systems that would have enabled it to continue meeting on a virtual basis.
The intention then was to shut down any avenue for critical scrutiny of the Government’s actions, lest the exercise of that accountability expose cracks in both the veracity and substance of the “single source of truth”.
It was a state of control of public discourse unmatched since the emergency regulations promulgated during the 1951 Waterfront lockout, which made it illegal at that time to publish material critical of the government’s actions, or supportive of the locked-out water-siders.
Parliament was due to resume in mid-February, but in an eerie reminder of what happened in 2020, the government quickly deferred that until the following week, curiously with the support of the National Party this time.
It meant, as in 2020, for the critical period of the initial response to the crisis, the Government escaped the scrutiny of Parliament for its actions. And, as in 2020, without that Parliament sitting, the Opposition was deprived of its best forum to hold the Government to account for what happened.
By the time Parliament resumes [late February], the immediacy of the current crisis had passed and the Government, through monotonous, regular media conferences and interviews, was able to establish the legitimacy of its narrative as the one true version of events. And any divergence from that line from any of the local authorities, emergency agencies, or the thousands of directly affected citizens were able to be dismissed as mischievous and inaccurate.
But the right of Parliament to meet is a fundamental part of being a parliamentary democracy, dating back to the days of King Charles I, nearly 400 years ago.
The New Zealand Parliament has previously met in dark days – throughout World War II, for example, and Britain’s House of Commons even continued meeting while it was being bombed during the Blitz in 1940. Governments then, would never have dreamt of suspending Parliament in a crisis, however inconvenient full scrutiny and accountability might have been at the time.
It was wrong for the Government to suspend Parliament in 2020, and it was wrong for it to do so again [in February], especially when, as it turned out, most MPs, including the Prime Minister, were in Wellington. There was no threat to public health or safety, as could have been argued in 2020, and therefore no compelling argument why Parliament could not have met.
This smacks of the Government seeking to control the flow of public information and limit its own exposure to criticism and accountability, just as it did in 2020. Unfortunately, that detracts from other positive aspects of the response to Cyclone Gabrielle, notably the unflinching, brave, and selfless work of the fire, emergency and urban search and rescue services.
However, it is not acceptable that in two of the three national states of emergency declared in our history, both times under Labour-led governments, Parliament has been so quickly pushed to one side as the response unfolded. There needs to be urgent agreement between all the political parties that in future states of national emergency Parliament will not be suspended for the sake of the government’s convenience.
Hipkins was a senior Minister during the 2020 Covid response. He was frequently alongside the former Prime Minster at the “podium of truth” and directly knows the power of controlling the flow of information and the political dividend it can pay.
He well remembers that in 2020 the Government was teetering on the brink of defeat until the pandemic came along, and that skilful management of the response produced a landslide election win.
Aspects of his response to Cyclone Gabrielle suggest he has his eye on producing a similar effect for this year’s election.