Fran O’Sullivan: Earthquake on top of Covid a reminder for Ardern to share the reins


Mother Earth sent a powerful reminder at 2.27am yesterday that the Covid-19 pandemic is not the biggest existential threat New Zealand faces.

That earthquake at a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter scale was rated severe.

Fortunately, it was located 105km offshore of Te Araroa at a depth of 90km.

But it was two subsequent earthquakes off the Kermadecs — one at 7.4 and another enormous shake at a magnitude of 8.1 at 8.58am — which generated the tsunami warning.

It is notable that it was Cabinet Minister Kiritapu Allan — rather than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — who led the Beehive communications over the tsunami through much of the day.

Allan doesn’t have Ardern’s charisma.

But her calm and workmanlike approach — and skilful praise of the media’s communications role in the emergency — was confidence building.

That Ardern trusted her minister for Emergency Management — who is still a relative novice when it comes to being a Cabinet Minister — to take a lead is a big step forward for both.

The Prime Minister has faced considerable stick in the last week. Getting into a public dispute with a hapless woman who went to work at KFC while infected with Covid-19, as to whether she was told to self-isolate or not, was hardly prime ministerial.

It made Ardern look like a bully.

Attitudes did shift against Ardern on social media after the KFC affair. But it was left to the bureaucrats to underline the essential truth of the KFC worker’s claim. There was no backdown from Ardern — just a softening of her stance too late in the piece to make a difference.

Ardern’s tendency to absolutism has worn thin.

At media conferences she frequently prefaces a reply to a question with an: “Absolutely.”

And if challenged: “I stand by that.”

It would be smart to occasionally admit she does not have all the answers.

It was notable yesterday the Prime Minister did not give a lengthy preamble before getting to the point and telling New Zealanders what they expected — that Auckland would move to level 2 from Sunday and the rest of the country to level 1.

Her advisers have clearly taken on board the nation’s weariness with Ardern’s politicking when people just want to know whether they can go to work or have to stay home in relative house arrest. This has been a testing week for her.

Her natural inclination would have been to front the earthquake and tsunami response.

But there has been a realisation she is over-exposed and her leadership will be enhanced if other Cabinet ministers step up.

Responding to open frustration from senior business leaders (and also the nation at large), the Prime Minister yesterday indicated in coming weeks she would lay out the Government’s plan for the Covid response for the rest of 2021.

Ardern needs to accelerate this.

Businessman Rob Campbell — who took issue with the thrust of a column I wrote earlier in the week — says the political leadership and management of Covidfrom Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson is not an issue.

“What is at issue is the quality of advice they are getting (does it draw openly on the widest range of skills available or only selectively?) and the quality of delivery (as we recognise that agencies are struggling to do functions for which they were not designed)?

He wants a more “open source” approach to how New Zealand handles the current Covid issues: “To do that requires what might sometimes be unusual and painful openness for ministries and other public agencies.

“And when we have a clear, agreed set of guidelines to which we are working (often called a ‘roadmap’) in this case for the nation as a whole setting out the principles and points of delivery to which we work and are accountable for.”

As Campbell put it: Right now we seem to have an arbitrary, government agency-driven, responsive approach which increases rather than manages uncertainty.

“We just need ministries and other public agencies being more open and inclusive to the skills outside of the public sector needed to solve our national problems, Covid first.”

The problem is the bureaucracy is not going to open up without a considerable nudge from Ardern.

Her feet should be held to the fire to get that roadmap out there.

New Zealand has been living with Covid for a very long time.

That leadership needs to be shared across politicians, community leaders, business leaders and bureaucrats.

As a comment, by 1pm yesterday, there had been 21 more earthquakes above magnitude 4; seven of them above magnitude 5.

These are substantial earthquakes by any means.

Luckily, none of them were on the New Zealand land mass.

We have it within us to get the pandemic under control, but earthquakes are of a different order.

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