The Muller Trap

A speech by Todd Muller at the Te Puna Rugby Club last June told voters everything they need to know about the New Zealand National Party. It was, arguably, the most coherent statement on political philosophy by a National leader in the MMP era. Interwoven with the usual platitudes about small business and family was a quaint, 19th century vision of ‘the self-made man’.

“My passion in politics is that all of us can choose our own paths and stand tall as New Zealanders in whatever we seek to do, fulfilling our own dreams and our own potentials,” Muller told the adoring crowd. He might have been pigeonholed as a ‘social conservative’ for his views on abortion and euthanisa but Muller’s outlook was inherently liberal. 

Everyone should have their basic human needs met, he clarified. But we are not all the same. And once given an opportunity to grow, individuals should go out into the world and compete. Tellingly, Muller did not see New Zealand under Labour as ‘internationally competitive’ or ‘agile’ enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

Kindness, he said, was not enough. One must also be competent and bold. Here was a leader who embodied the spirit of his party’s founding fathers – names long forgotten, like Forbes and Hamilton. These were men who extolled the Protestant work ethic and opposed the corrupting influence of welfare. 

A thoroughly modern Catholic, Muller would never be accused of puritanism. But his speech was a reworking of the imagery, themes and arguments that have defined National for 85 years. Yet there was a palpable sense that Muller and his speechwriter, Matthew Hooton, were stuck in the past. 

Having tapped into a rich political tradition, they failed to adapt the language and thinking to new realities. This became clear when Muller gave a sermon and reaffirmed his belief in ‘New Zealand’s basic macroeconomic framework’. The articles of faith were low taxes, near-zero inflation, balanced budgets, and cheap labour. 

Muller’s political identity had congealed around the legacy of decades-old ‘neoliberal’ orthodoxy. He personified better than Simon Bridges, or even Judith Collins, the ideological cul-de-sac National found itself in. His dramatic resignation just one month later would have no impact on the party’s direction. National is yet to escape the Muller trap.

A quarter of the electorate might have shared Muller’s romanticisation of individuality, and the moral imperative behind it. However, most New Zealanders yearned for something else in 2020. Jacinda Ardern did what Bridges, Muller and Collins never could – refurbished the neoliberal state with a veneer of kindness and instilled new confidence in the status quo.

Her greatest accomplishment has been to give most New Zealanders a sense of security within the Mullerian ‘macroeconomic framework’. House prices are testament to this. While thousands sleep rough, and many others struggle to pay the rent, a narrow majority has seen its wealth and privilege entrenched under Labour, despite a global pandemic and the worst recession in living memory.  

Homeowners cannot be said to lack a social conscience. Whereas Sir John Key once persuaded New Zealanders there was no housing crisis,  Ardern has fulfilled a different psychological need. The Prime Minister’s compassion, and her belief that we are ‘making progress’, absolve the middle-class of responsibility. Having elected a kind government, they have done their part. The only thing left to do is acquire hard-earned capital gains. 

Unsurprisingly, the market has failed to provide social and economic security for those in the lower strata. Housing costs relative to income have soared in the past 20 years. While the average house price has quadrupled since 2000, household incomes have merely doubled. Leaving aside the Kiwi dream of homeownership, this unequal growth has made life incredibly hard for those on the margins.

A significant number of New Zealanders rely on government subsidies to pay their rent or mortgage. More than 370,000 received the Accommodation Supplement in 2020 at a cost of $2.6 billion. While having a roof over their heads, many still experience material hardship and financial stress. But that is to say nothing of the countless people now living in emergency accommodation or on the street. 

The most obvious solution is for the state to use its immense power and financial resources to develop low-cost housing on a massive scale. But doing so would almost certainly lead to a fall in house prices and, in effect, the transfer of wealth from existing homeowners to the unpropertied. That idea is anathema to right-minded centrists who believe there is virtue in doing nothing.

Thus, Labour has outdone National in its defence of the status quo. It might not have been obvious at the time, but Muller’s Te Puna speech was the perfect eulogy to Sir John’s National Party. Having failed to offer an alternative to Labour’s ‘kinder’ approach, at a time when so many feared for their livelihoods, National ceased to be relevant in the public mind. 

Judith Collins, or her successor, will need to be imaginative if they are to escape the Muller trap in 2023.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

Bloomfieldian Optimism – The Tragedy of Case M

In the United States, naive optimism was at the heart of the Trump Administration’s failed response to Covid-19. The same kind of wishful thinking may now characterise the Ardern Government. While the Prime Minister is adept at dealing with complexity, some of her officials are not. No one has given New Zealanders more cause for unfounded optimism in the last 12 months than Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Even after the World Health Organisation officially declared a pandemic, and local epidemiologists pleaded for action, the good doctor was on television to reassure New Zealanders that there was no community transmission here. 

Back then, a restrictive ‘case definition’ meant few New Zealanders met the criteria for a test, even if they had flu-like symptoms. The absence of evidence was presented as evidence of absence. Weeks later the Director-General of Health would advise the Cabinet that a narrow focus on international travellers meant it was likely some cases were missed. By then, the high risk of undetected community transmission necessitated a full nationwide lockdown. It is now clear that the experience did not fundamentally change the way New Zealanders live. Rather, we became a nation of Bloomfieldian optimists. 

And so it was last week. On Monday, the serene Dr Bloomfield recommended to Cabinet that Auckland return to Level 1. By Wednesday, life was back to normal again. The Director-General himself used the phrase ‘business as usual’ in his daily press conference. Aucklanders could look forward to a weekend of revelry and sports. Many would make the short trip to Hamilton for the iconic Six60 at Claudelands. Several thousand, including the Leader of the Opposition and a Cabinet minister, packed Spark Arena to see heavyweight champions Joseph Parker and Junior Fa duke it out. 

Once again, Jacinda Ardern could turn her attention to other matters of state. Social justice and environmentalism were finally back on the agenda. While Aucklanders returned to their schools and offices, the Prime Minister confirmed that the government would issue free toothbrushes to preschoolers in an effort to address the country’s oral health epidemic. Later in the week she unveiled a new plan to save the Māui dolphin. She also sat down for her first major television interview of the year with Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien.

After traversing the subjects of immigration and child poverty, the interview circled back to pandemic management. It was the anniversary of Covid-19 arriving on these shores. O’Brien quoted public health advice from 12 months ago dismissing the likelihood of a community outbreak in New Zealand. The statement had been issued after the country reported its first case on 28 February 2020.  ‘We got totally blindsided and underestimated Covid, didn’t we?’ It was a remark that Ardern clearly did not appreciate.

‘I think it would be really unfair to anyone to look back on statements made a year ago with all of this hindsight and make a judgement on that,’ she objected. ‘I think all of us, at some point, would have read, very early on in the outbreak, stories abroad and would never have anticipated the scale of what we’re up against.’ The Prime Minister also felt the need to defend her officials. ‘I’ve found the Ministry of Health and the people they work with completely dedicated to their jobs.’

The Prime Minister’s faith in the Director-General and the Ministry was rock solid. Indeed, she had carefully followed their advice from the beginning. But as the interview went to air, events were moving in an unforeseen direction.  Before the day was over, a 21 year old student at the Manukau Institute of Technology would be notified by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service that he had tested positive for the new B117 strain of Covid-19. Most concerningly, ‘Case M’ had gone to a gym while he awaited his result.

No one could have been more outraged by Case M’s disobedience than Ardern herself. Having flown back to Wellington for an emergency Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister called a sensational Saturday night press conference to announce that Auckland would again return to Level 3. This time the lockdown measures were to be in place for seven days. With a scowl and sharp intake of breath, Ardern told the nation she was ‘frustrated’. The frustration soon turned to righteous anger.

‘We cannot exist in an environment where we set rules and they [are] breached consistently.’ It was a good telling off. Although Case M would bear the most criticism and scrutiny, his flouting of the rules were by no means discrete. At least two other members of the Papatoetoe High School cluster went to work while they were supposed to be isolating. Hence the emphasis on ‘consistently’. However, despite her public reprimand of Case M, there was a glaring inconsistency in the government’s message. 

Case M is the sibling of a ‘casual plus’ contact who thrice tested negative for the virus. According to the Ministry website, the family of casual plus contacts are not required to do anything. While it is true that Case M should have isolated when symptoms developed, the onset of these came as Auckland returned to Level 1. The government may have urged those with any known links to the Papatoetoe High School cluster to remain isolated and vigilant but, in the same breath, it told Aucklanders to go about ‘business as usual’. 

Bloomfield’s nonchalance to the possibility of hidden transmission was evident throughout last week. After all, he had allowed a return to Level 1 despite the fact that 11 close contacts were yet to be tested. He must have been confident. Even on Saturday night, Bloomfield was reassured by wastewater testing and dismissed the likelihood of ‘false-negatives’. However, the source of Case M’s infection was still unknown. Genomic sequencing confirmed that Case M was indeed part of the Papatoetoe High School cluster but an epidemiological link could not be found. It was not until Monday that the truth was revealed. 

Case M’s mother, who also tested positive on Saturday, confessed to going for a walk with one of the other infected households during the previous Level 3 lockdown. At the time, this may have seemed innocent enough. We do not know what advice the families received. But it appears that they were reluctant to disclose this walk to contact tracers over the weekend. Ardern’s wrath might have compelled them to do so in the end. However, it is doubtful this information would have averted a return to Level 3. 

Case M’s decision to go to the gym on Friday afternoon was almost certainly the trigger for another lockdown. We may ask what was going through the young man’s head? His earlier decision to get tested for Covid-19, in the knowledge that family members had socialised with infected individuals, must have given him a sense of foreboding. But recall that his sibling had tested negative for the virus three times already and there was no indication his mother had been infected yet. It is likely that Case M believed the risk was negligible. 

What did health professionals advise him? Was communication a factor? These are questions that may further help understand his actions. But we will never know. Whatever the reason, Case M is a lesson in human psychology. It demonstrates our low capacity to understand and evaluate risk. All of us are susceptible to cognitive biases that distort our thinking. Even the most intelligent and educated person can be a victim of faulty reasoning. This is especially true in business. But it has taken a global pandemic to reveal the true extent to which human beings are irrational and self-destructive. 

As the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, most of our decisions are intuitive. We rely on past experience and mental short-cuts to inform us about the future. These inevitably lead to errors of judgement. One such tendency is for individuals to overestimate their ability to control a situation and downplay risk. It is called ‘optimism bias’. The result can be catastrophic, as we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, New Zealanders had good reason to feel optimistic. But our victory was never permanent. 

Bloomfieldian optimism most likely encouraged Case M to believe he and his family were free of the virus. In truth, we have all suffered from a collective delusion that life in New Zealand can be ‘business as usual’ again. The latest outbreak is a tragedy of no individual’s making. If there is one lesson we can all learn from 2020, it is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. We should not depend on the government for that.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Queen’s Gambit

According to epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, the decision to end the second Auckland lockdown after just three days was a ‘calculated risk’. The possibility of undetected community transmission cannot be ruled out. In the United States, modelling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the virus is mostly spread by asymptomatic people. This means that the real infection rate could be much higher than the official count. For example, a study by researchers at the Australian National University estimated that up to 70,000 Australians were unknowingly infected.

While these findings are contested, the reality of hidden transmission is inescapable. But the Ardern Government is reluctant to acknowledge its existence. In January, the Ministry of Health finally admitted that there ‘probably’ had been undetected cases in the community last year. With the most recent Auckland outbreak, a relatively small number of tests has given public health officials confidence that the virus is once again under control. This must surely allow for the chance that some of the tests have returned false-negatives. However, according to Worldometer, the current rate of testing in New Zealand lags well behind Australia.

As the Prime Minister explained on Wednesday: ‘Just remember, of course, Level 2 is designed to have situations where we are contact tracing individuals who are casual or close contacts in the community’. It would appear that Jacinda Ardern is comfortable with the likelihood that the number of cases will increase under Level 2. This is at odds with her stance in 2020. Back then, the Prime Minister declared there would be ‘zero tolerance for [community] cases’. Lockdown measures were to be in place for at least a full infection cycle. The hardline response to the August outbreak reinforced her government’s precautionary approach. 

While the situation in August was more urgent, it is clear that Ardern sees the world differently now. What explains this change in outlook?

At the height of the epidemic, Ardern revealed herself to be a conviction politician. She made elimination into a moral crusade and inspired the ‘Team of Five Million’ to rally behind her. New Zealanders were willing to sacrifice their freedom to protect the old and immunocompromised. Her edict to ‘be kind’ became our national motto. The country united to defeat Covid-19, and won. Twice. It was a source of pride for Ardern. ‘Your efforts continue to set us apart,’ she told us in September. ‘You’re being adaptable, patient and determined – this has all been critical to our stamp-it-out approach.’

But that ‘stamp-it-out’ approach was not on display this past week. If it had been, the Ardern Government would have listened to the advice of experts like Professor Baker, who recommended mandatory mask use indoors and new rules for social distancing. Instead, the Cabinet preferred to work on the assumption that there is nothing more to stamp out. Behind this decision is a tacit understanding that the adaptability, patience and determination of New Zealanders may be wearing thin. 

If the virus does reappear in the community, public health officials will recommend a further lockdown. By then it could be too late to prevent a major outbreak. This must have been weighing on Ardern when she spoke of her ‘indescribable anxiety’ following Cabinet’s decision to end the second Auckland lockdown. Anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty and the fear of losing control. We have all experienced it. In psychology, most experts would agree that anxiety can be a good thing. The nationwide lockdown in March saved many lives but it would not have happened without collective fear. 

That fear has now subsided. It is only Ardern, her officials, and a few scientists, who lie awake at night. The rest of New Zealand very much sees the virus as someone else’s problem. Of course, everyone wants to keep it out. But the notion of another major outbreak is generally dismissed as fear-mongering. There is a restlessness to move on. Given so few cases, and the apparent success of containment, it makes sense that New Zealanders are prepared to accept greater risk. They have been encouraged by an illusion of control. Until now, the occasional border ‘leakage’ has been managed. 

Ardern’s personal anxiety has given way to this illusory sense of control. Her government is now more influenced by optimism than precaution. Ministers have a high degree of confidence in the future. Any community cases will be identified and isolated before there is a ‘superspreading’ event. The vaccination of border and quarantine staff will be effective. If, despite these successful measures, there is a new outbreak, it will be contained without the need for another nationwide lockdown. There must also be confidence that no New Zealanders will die of Covid-19 in the community this year.

There is good cause for optimism. New Zealand has led the Anglo-American world in its pandemic response. But we cannot know the future. Covid-19 is likely to be with us for many years. Thus far, New Zealand has relied on geography to protect itself. With the arrival of a vaccine it is hoped that we may soon reopen the border. Even then, it is plausible that the virus will continue to spread and new variants may grow resistant to the vaccine. In pursuing the elimination strategy last year, Ardern believed that life would soon return to normal. She did not anticipate a future of recurring lockdowns and no travel.

‘I will never be comfortable with Covid-19,’ Ardern reiterated on Wednesday. ‘But you do learn things’. It is the closest the Prime Minister has come to admitting that events may not be in her control after all. And yet, she has gambled on the best possible outcome. There can be no going back.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Year of Reckoning

For most New Zealanders, the Covid-19 pandemic ended on 8 June 2020. That was the day Jacinda Ardern declared New Zealand had ‘eliminated’ the virus.Tragically, 22 people were dead but 1,482 others had recovered to full health. For the first time since February there were no more active cases in the community or at the border. The announcement was met with surprise and jubilation. The Prime Minister herself confessed to marking the occasion with a ‘little dance’ at home. While most other countries struggled to contain the virus, New Zealand would return to a state of normality.

Having done its part, the ‘Team of Five Million’ was encouraged to get out and see the country. Parties and concerts were back on. Strangers were allowed to mingle again. Social distancing became a nicety rather than a matter of life and death. Although public health experts continued to warn about the ever-present risk of another outbreak, the government assured us that strict border measures, and a state of the art contact tracing system would keep New Zealand safe. The belief that New Zealand was ‘Covid-free’ persisted for more than 100 days before a mysterious outbreak in Auckland led to a second lockdown and another death. 

Even then, an illusion of control reassured New Zealanders that normality would soon return – and it did. But wilful ignorance may also have played a role. Last month, the Ministry of Health admitted that undetected community transmission likely did occur back in June. According to one study, the false-negative rate for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is 20% when performed five-days after infection. The rate can be much higher when the test is performed earlier in an infection. Perhaps this is why the so-called ‘burning ember’ hypothesis to explain the August outbreak was never entirely ruled out. Rather, we forgot about it.

Six months later Auckland is once again in a Level 3 lockdown while health officials investigate the source of new community cases. It was always a fantastical notion that the problems of 2020 would disappear at midnight on 31 December. The reality of life in 2021 is that New Zealanders must accept further disruption and uncertainty. Travel restrictions will remain. Entire industries have been decimated, and thousands put out of work. It is true that government intervention has staved off the worst. However, it would not take much to upset this equilibrium. If new cases emerge outside of Auckland then a second nationwide lockdown is possible.

Until now, public health officials have worked on the assumption that multiple lines of defence at the border are sufficient to prevent a major community outbreak. Past experience appears to support this. But regardless of whether the latest index case was infected at the border, we should not be surprised if there is now a chain of transmission in the community. Even if we stamp it out again, the border is not impenetrable. There will be a next time. The vaccine may significantly reduce the public health risk but we do not yet know how effective it will be in the long-run. After all, the vaccine has not been evaluated on its ability to prevent transmission. 

So long as Covid-19 remains endemic in the world, New Zealand has no choice but to live with it. If the objective is to prevent loss of life, then the Ardern Government’s elimination strategy is proven to work. But it has come at the expense of livelihoods, not to mention psychological and emotional harm. Yet most agree the short-term cost was worth it. As the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of politics, ‘We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss’. For elimination to work long-term, New Zealanders must accept a permanent change in their way of life. Social distancing and mask use would need to become culturally ingrained, international travel a relic of the past. We might also need to give up some of our privacy for contact tracing.

It is unclear if New Zealanders are willing to live in such a regimented society. While many have felt pride in the country’s ‘Covid-free’ status, few have considered the long-term implications of elimination. There has always been a sense that, sooner or later, life will return to ‘normal’. The promise of international travel again has felt tantalisingly closer with each vaccine trial. This delusion is encouraged by politicians and the media alike. When a community case was reported in Northland, two weeks before Waitangi Day, the government urged people not to change their holiday plans. It was business as usual. For their part, journalists have presented the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as if it were a panacea. 

But there are no panaceas and life can never be the same. The last 12 months should have been a lesson in humility for our species. Despite technological wonders and immense knowledge, there is much about the natural world that eludes human control. It is not within the power of any government, or science, to make the virus go away. When it comes to dealing with this existential threat, the Prime Minister must give up on the illusion of control and persuade New Zealanders to live differently. It would be her greatest accomplishment. If she fails, this will be a year of reckoning.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.