Bursting our political bubble

By Rowan Light May 05, 2020

Last month, Opposition Leader Simon Bridges provoked a national controversy when he denounced, on his Facebook page, the Prime Minister’s decision to extend the lockdown.

Nearly 30,000 comments, most of them condemnatory, quickly lit up his page.

Although Facebook comments are not exactly a perfect metric for measuring public opinion, the tone of many of these comments suggest it’s time to pop our political isolation bubble as New Zealanders prepare to make some hard choices heading into a post-lockdown world.

Some took issue with his tone or “opportunistic timing,” but many of Bridges’ detractors painted a neat picture: Bridges was soiling national unity with his “politics,” opposing science and the saving of lives for economic gain. Ardern, conversely, was above “political games,” having simply followed the facts given by experts. The Government’s decisions around lockdown, in this reading, were no longer a matter of politics but of morality.

New Zealanders prepare to make some hard choices heading into a post-lockdown world

At first glance, this moral reaction captures something of how we’ve been feeling in the first weeks of the pandemic. In the face of a threat that is outside our understanding, we’ve looked for reassurance from experts who can tell us how to protect ourselves and survive.

The Prime Minister, reacting to an evolving crisis, chose her experts and followed their advice, and she speaks skillfully alongside these experts to reassure the nation. Just look how Ashley Bloomfield, in the daily briefings, became our de facto Health Minister. We’ve eagerly waited for our 1pm sermons from on high to give us a sense of control, our bubble layered with warm messages. Kia kaha. Stay home. Be kind.

As we prepare to leave our bubbles, it’s important that we pop this moral fable we’ve been living in during lockdown. We certainly shouldn’t let it be used to shut down legitimate debate.

We elect the Government to make decisions, and it is our responsibility to respect the measures they put in place and to be ready to inspect and debate if it was the best course of action. We can recognise Ardern’s decisions for what they are—an educated guess, based on value judgments and political calculation between conflicting expert opinions—without condemning her or elevating her as a messiah.

Bursting this bubble is vital to returning our political discussions to full health.

In fact, as Winston Peters advanced—in his own political opportunism—last week, “the experts” had advised closing the borders to New Zealanders living overseas, something that would have been a betrayal of citizenship, even if it made perfect sense from a health perspective.

This captures the definition of a politician: decision-makers whom we trust to keep the national interest in view across all the competing needs and elements of society. Political compromise and calculation are part of their job description.

As we move from our early reaction bubble to this realm of real politics, we can stop pretending that our response to the lockdown is simply a matter of listening to “the experts” or a straightforward question of right or wrong. Bursting this bubble is vital to returning our political discussions to full health.

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