Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Matthew Hooton: My reflections of 2021 – and why John Tamihere is my New Zealander of the Year


This was meant to be the year of the vaccine. In the nick of time, it was. In January, in my first column of the year on New Zealand politics after the Trump insurrection, I forecast 2021 would unfold roughly like 2020. Public health experts and the Opposition would demand radical action against a strange new virus, but the Government would initially dither.

It would only be when the virus turned up in the community that the Government would — as I put it — “finally act authoritatively to protect public health”. Then the Opposition would start opposing the very same measures they first proposed.

So it transpired. The Government did nothing to prepare for Delta. Its promise that we would be at the front of the vaccine queue became its second-term equivalent of KiwiBuild.

Even in January, it was obvious we wouldn’t be at the front. I wrote then that “New Zealand is not an urgent priority and local vaccination is not a silver bullet … anyway”.

I also accepted that “there will be plenty of stuff-ups, which the Opposition and media must highlight to keep the pressure on, but it will ultimately not matter if the vaccination programme takes all of 2021 as long as it proceeds in line with the rest of the world”.

But did it occur to anyone that it wouldn’t be until the second half of the year that the programme would begin to be rolled out with any urgency? Or that we and Australia would get so far behind the rest of the world?

Still, I was confident that “everything will be all right in the end” — and for the most part, it is. We now have a very respectable vaccination rate.

In the meantime, I could watch the America’s Cup out on the water and the All Blacks beat the Wallabies twice at Eden Park. The family holiday to Italy planned for right now was cancelled, but would have been a fiasco had it not been. Just in time, it seems the Northland replacement will go ahead.

Despite the failure to order the vaccine early enough and to prepare for Delta, the Prime Minister has every right to boast about our remarkably low infection, hospitalisation and death rates.

Thanks to farmers, other exporters and the blue-collar workers who kept going to work each day while the managerial class were safely in lockdown, the economy remains strong. The major problems are it overheating and the house- and consumer-price inflation caused mostly by Adrian Orr turning on the Reserve Bank’s virtual printing presses along with supply chain disruptions.

By early March, I was writing about the Prime Minister’s wrath towards the Ministry of Health after poor information forced her to impose the short Auckland lockdown.

By then, Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche were already delivering their damning reports about the pandemic response. I quoted Auckland mayoral hopeful Efeso Collins condemning the Wellington bureaucracy for being out of touch with South Auckland and excluding grass-roots organisations from the vaccination and wider Covid strategy.

Little did I know thatJohn Tamihere and Whānau Ora providers had already been rebuffed in their offers to be part of the vaccine rollout.

It got worse. By June, data provided by the Prime Minister and confirmed as accurate by officials indicated we would run out of the Pfizer vaccine within days. The data was wrong.

Then Delta came in August, with us the least vaccinated country in the developed world. Nor had intensive care services been expanded. Those failures meant Auckland endured the long four-month lockdown, escaping just in time for Christmas, but with Omicron ahead.

Nonetheless, vaccination had finally overtaken boasting about New Zealand’s low mortality rate as the number one priority for Wellington bureaucrats.

Yet it soon became clear neither the Wellington bureaucracy nor even the local district health boards really know how to connect with the Māori underclass.

A few words of te reo in advertisements targeted at Grey Lynn liberals is no substitute for local people going street by street talking with their neighbours in Clendon.

By September, Whānau Ora providers had had enough of the Wellington bureaucracy and prepared to sue the Ministry of Health for the data they needed to reach unvaccinated people in their communities.

Led by Tamihere, they beat the Ministry of Health the first time, with the High Court saying the ministry had made errors when deciding to deny the providers the data they needed to do their jobs.

The ministry redid its decision process, but still withheld the data.

Tamihere sued again, and this time the High Court left no ambiguity about the decision it wanted the ministry to make. Nearly a year after first trying to engage with the Wellington bureaucracy, Whānau Ora providers were finally allowed to be full partners in the vaccination effort.

There were legitimate privacy issues the ministry needed to balance. It would have been wrong just to hand over the data when Tamihere first asked for it. But as the courts found, the ministry was equally wrong to have withheld it after giving the matter consideration.

Tamihere is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some on the political right attack him and Whānau Ora for being “race-based”. Similarly, Hone Harawira’s efforts to protect his communities have been slammed.

But there is another way to look at this, on both sides.

Tamihere and Harawira shouldn’t be too upset with how they are treated by the Wellington bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are perfectly egalitarian. It doesn’t matter if you are a billionaire or a tiny community health provider in the poorest town. If you have a good idea to improve New Zealand, the Wellington bureaucracy can be relied on to tell you to get stuffed, and that they know best.

The success of much of her Covid response has created an obsequiousness towards the Prime Minister and a braindead obedience of central authority that are unhealthy in a democracy.

So, for taking personal responsibility for keeping his community healthy rather than waiting on Wellington, and for refusing to back down when treated with the usual contempt by the bureaucracy, John Tamihere is my New Zealander of the Year. More of us should do the same for our own whānau and communities, however they are defined.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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