COVID Australia, New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern is leaving but the virus hasn’t gone – The Australian Financial Review

In the early days of the pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was held up as a gold standard for her uncompromising leadership. Ardern was seen to be personally driving her country’s COVID-19 response.

While other world leaders were still faffing about indecisively in early 2020, Ardern went in hard and early, closing the country’s borders and implementing a government support package which dwarfed Australia’s in relative terms. New Zealand’s lockdown was a serious lockdown. You couldn’t even leave the house for a takeaway coffee.

We’ve gone from wall-to-wall daily press conferences and statistics, to crickets.

And Kiwi voters endorsed what she had done. In May 2020, polls showed Labour, and Ardern personally, with 60 per cent support in the electorate. The highest score ever for a preferred prime minister.

In the October 2020 election, Labour won a landslide so large it became the first party to hold majority government in its own right since New Zealand moved to a mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system in 1996.

The party’s campaign had focused exclusively on Ardern and her leadership. She was contesting the poll against her third opposition leader in four months, after the National Party lost a leader weeks before the election for some mildly critical remarks about Ardern’s handling of the crisis.


“We can see what we can do with a plan,” Ardern told the people of New Zealand.

Ardern’s delivery of policy in other areas has often floundered – partly because of excessively ambitious goals and promises to fix things like New Zealand’s savage housing affordability crisis.

Hounded out of office

But when she announced her resignation on Thursday, political figures from former prime minister Helen Clark to some of her rivals said she had been hounded out of office – even though Ardern denied she was leaving because of the increasingly aggressive personal attacks she faced.

There had been growing anger from those opposed to mandates and rules. There was an ugly protest in the grounds of the parliament last year, which went on for three weeks, and ugly vitriol directed at Ardern, which had raised questions about her personal safety.

In January, the van in which she was travelling was chased and forced on to a curb by anti-vaccination protesters.


The co-leader of Te Pāti Māori (the Maori Party), Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, said on Thursday that Ardern had been driven from politics because of constant personalisation and vilification in the most “demeaning form of politics we have ever seen”.

While Australia saw the same sort of protests against lockdowns, the political – and, for that matter, medical – debate about COVID-19 seems to have gone almost underground amid apparent pandemic-weariness among politicians, the media and large sections of the community.

We’ve gone from wall-to-wall daily press conferences and statistics, to crickets.

Wary of rules

Yet even without the detailed data we once had, figures for excess deaths and hospitalisations show COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc. The independent OzSage group of COVID-19 experts noted earlier this month that it was the third-highest cause of death in Australia in 2022, running at 12 times the annual road toll.

Even those have received all their vaccine boosters now face waning immunity.


But it feels as if our politics is still stuck in a place where it is wary of being seen to impose rules and lockdowns on a weary electorate and, as a result, is not reading the room’s anxious demands for access – by choice – to vaccination and antivirals.

On Tuesday, ABC’s 7.30 tweeted part of an interview in which Health Minister Mark Butler was asked whether he was considering making a bivalent booster available as a fifth dose to Australians. As of Friday, the tweet had been viewed more than 83,000 times.

Butler’s answer was that the advice from ATAGI (the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) was that “we should expect advice from them very early this year about additional booster dose”.

ATAGI and governments, he said, “are thinking about our need to be prepared for the next winter”.

Next winter? Since when did anyone think COVID-19 was a seasonal thing? No one who has lived through a summer of rife infections, for starters.

This is one of those areas where the virtues of listening to the experts come into question under the weight of the history of an advisory body that has been notoriously slow to adapt to the challenges of a pandemic.


The impression gained was that Butler sounded, at the very least, like a prisoner of the same channels of official advice that had proved less than ideal under the former government.

His response to the suggestion that Australia had dropped most of the rules for dealing with COVID-19 and instead adopted a public health strategy based on vaccines and antivirals, which gave as little as possible to as few people as possible, was a phrase quite a large proportion of the community probably never wants to hear again: “I don’t accept the premise of that question.”

Economists as well as health experts are now trying to work out the costs and risks of long COVID for the economy too. But once again we hear so little about something which is deeply concerning.

Losing the Voice debate

The Albanese government finished 2022 having achieved significant legislative reform. But it is starting 2023 looking like it hasn’t really thought through what it has to say about COVID-19, let alone what it might do about it.

And that is an issue which seems to be on the backburner.


The question of an Indigenous Voice to parliament is very much front and centre, yet both the prime minister and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus seemed unable to articulate this week what exactly the issue is that Australians need to consider in a looming constitutional referendum.

Those opposed to the Voice seem to be winning the argument that there is some deep conspiracy or risk attached to a proposal which ultimately says that there should be a body that only has the right to advise the parliament and executive government on the views of Indigenous people – not to insist upon them; not to dictate them.

And it is a proposal for constitutional reform which acknowledges no more than the right of First Nations people to be heard.

Why is it so seemingly difficult to convey these points? And why is the Albanese government apparently already losing this most important debate?

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