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Covid 19 coronavirus: Damien Venuto: Has Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lost the room?

4 min read

OPINION:

Listen carefully and you might hear an uncomfortable cough, the clink of a glass and the shuffle of some patrons heading for the exit.

The 1pm Covid show goes on as scheduled, but the audience has heard all the same lines before and the impact isn’t quite as strong as it was the first, second or third time.

This latest lockdown feels different. Cracks are starting to show in the team-of-five-million solidarity that has carried us this far.

Evidence of the fissures can be seen in the emergence of victim-blaming severe enough that Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault had a frank discussion with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the narrative surrounding the infected families.

It can also be seen in councillor Efeso Collins’ impassioned op-ed on the Guardian website, calling on the country not to wag a disparaging finger at the people of Manukau.

The details of what a KFC worker was or wasn’t told have also been centre stage in the strange search for answers on how things went wrong so quickly.

The old “be kind” mantra doesn’t seem to appeal quite as much when you have a villain to blame for your frustration.

This lockdown was always going to be a tough ask. With only a few weeks having passed since the previous one, there was always going to be a greater degree of difficulty in convincing the country to buy into the latest round of restrictions.

The problem, however, is that the narrative wasn’t adjusted – at least not sufficiently – to account for the growing sense of fatigue that was setting in.

This has been some time coming. The hints of a public becoming accustomed to a new normality were evident in the app scanning numbers that dropped every time there wasn’t a clear threat. The growing complacency was indicative of people moving on – only to then be dragged back into the reality of the global pandemic that we’ve always been part of.

The level of frustration and outrage at the moment is in many ways a direct product of the comfortable position we’re in compared to the rest of the world.Our economy remains in arguably the best shape in the OECD and while lockdowns are expensive in the short term, they are still the best longer-term economic strategy we have in terms of combating the impacts of the virus.

These facts all still apply to the current context, but they seem to have been jettisoned in the climate of annoyance.

The thing with the pantomime of politics is that your facts are only as strong as your ability to get the information across to the people. And there is a growing disconnect between the sentiment of the people and what the Government is trying to say.

This disconnect isn’t limited to the anonymous disgruntled voices jumping on their social media soapboxes.

This week, a group of business leaders – including Chorus NZ and Auckland Airport chairman Patrick Strange; Mercury Energy chair Prue Flacks; The Warehouse Group chairwoman Joan Withers; chairman of SkyCity, Summerset and Tourism Holdings Rob Campbell; and University of Auckland chancellor and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare chairman Scott St John – called for greater clarity on the Government’s strategy to reach “Covid normal”.

This call was reinforced later in the week when Finance Minister Grant Robertson had to defend the Government’s Covid-19 response during a livestream into the New Zealand Economics Forum hosted by the University of Waikato.

It’s not the first time business leaders have called for greater access to information on the strategic decisions being made by the Government, but this time the public nodded in approval. Having had their lives and jobs disrupted yet again, many Kiwis aligned with what they saw simply as a call for greater clarity on the decision-making processes.

This feeling of disconnect, the victim-blaming and the growing sense of fatigue all boil down to the issue of communication – an area where this Government has excelled, until now.

The National Party certainly smells blood in the water, using Twitter to challenge the Prime Minister in the area that has been her greatest strength: media prowess.

“On Monday the PM had time for interviews with RNZ, Breakfast, The AM Show, The Hui, Newstalk ZB, a 45-minute press conference and a Facebook Live – all on a day when Cabinet was meeting. But today she apparently didn’t have time to do interviews or front the 1pm press conference,” the office National account tweeted.

The Opposition then continued: “You can’t use your powerful platform to blame your own Government’s failures on a south Auckland shift worker and then go to ground when it looks like you might have to apologise.”

There is obvious political point-scoring in these jabs, but they come at a time when the Government’s so carefully-constructed communications armour is showing signs of wear and tear.

This is not to say the Government isn’t able to pull people back onside. It still has a compelling story to tell about how well New Zealand has done in getting this far. But it won’t achieve this by running the same lines over and over again.

Any entertainer who has lost the audience will tell you that you need to tweak the script if you want to get their eyeballs back on you. Failing to do so just leads to a growing stream of people heading for the exit door – and most of them won’t bother to look back to offer a loving nod acknowledging how good the show once was.

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