Winter is usually a time of rising national grumpiness. Cold days and nights, peppered by adverse weather events generally account for much of that. But it is normally tempered by the prospect of spring and summer, and better days to come.
However, this year winter’s grumpiness seems greater than usual. The combination of the sudden rise in Covid19 cases and deaths, the economy teetering on the edge of recession, the ongoing housing crisis, and the emerging health crisis the Minister of Health cannot yet bring himself to acknowledge, are all contributing factors. Add to that the rapidly rising cost-of-living, including the sharp increase in fuel prices, the Reserve Bank’s hiking of interest rates, and sensitive political issues like Three Waters, and the nett result is a level of public grumpiness not seen in many years.
Making things worse is that grumpiness giving way to genuine fear about what lies ahead, as struggling households contemplate the mounting challenges of making ends meet. This anxiety is aggravated by uncertainties over jobs, and continuity of schooling for children. And increasingly, as random violence becomes more pronounced, a more visceral concern about public safety is starting to arise.
In short, it is a perfect storm of discontent. Normally, the rage that follows could fairly be directed at the government, but it is not that simple this time. While the government will ultimately be held responsible, it is not completely to blame for the current situation. The ongoing spectre of Covid19 and its constantly emerging new variants is sapping the strength of many governments around the world, slowing down their economies, and placing unforeseen pressures on their public health systems. Then there is the war in Ukraine, and the flow-on effect it is having on world trade and commerce. Because of our geographic isolation New Zealand is arguably as severely affected as any nation by that.
The problem for the government – the same for any government elsewhere in the world in similar circumstances – is determining what it can usefully do right now to stem the loss of public confidence that is taking place. Our government hopes that its “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World” policy which has been to the fore in recent weeks will be an important element in restoring public confidence and optimism, but it is unlikely.
Important as a free trade agreement with the European Union is, even the very average agreement New Zealand has just concluded, for our long-term trading future, the benefit is insufficiently immediate to overcome the current mood of pessimism. It is the same with the improvement in relations with Australia where the benefit is unlikely to be sufficiently widespread to be felt positively by most people.
It is undoubtedly extremely frustrating for any government when apparent successes on the international stage do not translate into popular support at home. But then, as former United States House of Representatives Speaker “Tip” O’Neil once famously said “All politics is local”, claiming for himself a phrase first used in American politics in the 1930s.
Therefore, as well as its “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World” policy, the government ought also to be focusing on a “Reconnecting with New Zealand” approach. And so should the National Party for that matter – just continuing to criticise the current situation without offering solutions is as aggravating to grumpy and weary voters as pretending that all our problems are either because of what is happening overseas, or the inactions of previous governments.
The starting point for “Reconnecting with New Zealand” needs to be a relentless focus on the crises that matter – the cost-of-living; staffing in the health and education sectors; housing, and upholding personal safety, in the main. The time and tolerance for finger-pointing about what happened in the past is over – the emphasis needs to shift to practical policies to deal with the critical problems the country now faces.
While they have different ways of addressing these issues, both side of politics need to move on from shallow points-scoring to debate about the options ahead. In many cases, that will mean ditching previously rigidly held positions in favour of pragmatic solutions that will work. For example, a far more flexible approach, including faster pathways to residency, is urgently needed to immigration settings to attract and retain the nurses and doctors our public health system needs to function effectively. A similar strategy needs to be in place to ensure we have enough teachers in our schools.
Instead of continuing to shout past each other on law and order the political parties need to come together to first agree on what the core of the actual problem is, and then develop durable solutions. On the cost-of-living, the government needs to look beyond its belief in centralised regulation and more and more government-led committees of inquiry and instead embrace boosting competition and reducing barriers for both new and established businesses.
The housing basket cases that are Kiwibuild and Kainga Ora – the latest revelations show it is financially overcommitted for the next sixty years – need to be abandoned completely. It is time for a new strategy, more actively involving the major building companies – some of whom are now offering fixed price contracts to try to curb unacceptable mounting building costs – and the trading banks and building supply companies in a national strategy to build more homes for New Zealand families at prices they can afford to pay.
Everyone knows the next few months will be difficult, uncertain, and challenging. There are no instant or easy answers, but politicians focusing on real solutions and engaging the public on these matters could be a useful step forward to lifting the current pervasive national gloom. It would certainly be better than continuing the pretence that everything is under control, or that our problems are about to overwhelm us, as seem to be the two prevailing national messages at present.
Beyond that, there is always the hope of a win against Ireland this Saturday to cling to.