Watching TV last night, I couldn’t help thinking that the Prime Minister’s extraordinary luck is starting to run out. Every aspect of her lockdowns was questioned. Endless bungling over the South Auckland community outbreaks of Covid 19 were revealed, and she didn’t seem very happy about any of it. She has only herself to blame. After twelve months of wrestling day in, day out with the virus it was inevitable that eventually she would lose control of issues, given that so many other things have to be dealt with by any Prime Minister.
This is why successful leaders of governments have learned over the years to delegate. Jacinda Ardern has a bloated ministry of 26 members with two under-secretaries as well, but she insists on doing too much herself. She’s been told by her advisers that she is the surest pair of hands in the Ministry and that her popularity is vital to Labour’s standing with the public. For three years now that has been true, and even although she has sometimes seemed to be engaged in a running totter around the lip of chaos, she has remained upright. The overwhelming impression I gained from last night’s news was that if she insists on handling every detail and fronting every day on Covid 19 she will fall in. After twelve months of testing, getting the results takes far too long, contributing to the recent South Auckland problems; contact tracing has been haphazard of late; assurances the Prime Minister kept giving about lockdown rules and their enforcement proved to be wrong; her line on whether to pursue people who break the rules has been wobbly to say the least; and the silly decision to stop short of vaccinating front-line GPs in South Auckland, which wasn’t her call, reflected back on Ardern because her control of everything Covid is so omnipresent. The Auckland businessmen who want a forward plan that looks towards the vital opening of our borders can’t be dismissed. And the public in general needs a timetable for priority roll-out of vaccines which at present doesn’t seem to exist. It is starting to look as though half the world will have been vaccinated before our programme gets fully underway.
In somewhat the same way, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director General of Health, has been experiencing similar problems. The Ministry of Health has always had weaknesses as I know from my time as its Minister. They were revealed months ago when Bloomfield at the daily briefings would give assurances that proved unreliable. He, too, needs better delegation. A competent adjutant should have been appointed to ensure that the Director General’s instructions and public assurances were followed to the letter. That didn’t happen, and the Jacinda and Ashley show has been faltering as a result. If this carries on, the impact could be very serious for the government. The letters columns in the papers and comments on TV, even from Labour devotees, sound dangerous to me.
It is high time that a separate stand-alone ministry to handle the pandemic and develop future strategies is established with one reliable minister put in charge. Yes, I know that that is a problem with a ministry so woefully short on talent, but Jacinda needs to pull one of her senior ministers away from all other responsibilities and told to work with Bloomfield over problems in his department. Ideally, the Minister of Health should be that person. Without his other responsibilities, Andrew Little could concentrate entirely on these important tasks. Chris Hipkins fronts plausibly on Covid matters, but it’s clear that that is at the expense of his much-needed concentration on the Education portfolio. We wouldn’t have the proposed mumbo jumbo history curriculum for schools if only the minister was able to think clearly about his primary responsibility. And there would be some obvious progress dealing with our schools’ measurable failings with literacy and numeracy. Health and Education must be priorities for any Labour Government, not nice-to-haves.
Above all, Jacinda Ardern needs to become a Prime Minister who directs from above, as Helen Clark and John Key did, not someone mired in detail and trivia that should be straightened out by ministers and bureaucrats. If Jacinda Ardern keeps on rushing about like a flea in a fit, and fronting the querulous media when she can’t possibly be on top of all the detail, she will soon destroy her reputation. Good government is more than surviving from day-to-day. It involves steady progress towards clearly defined, and measurable goals. Some ministerial reorganization is long overdue. And prime ministerial oversight is vital.