Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Mass of documents dumped by government on Friday afternoon, pre-Budget announcements start rolling out, and Work and Income accused of not following the law.
On Friday afternoon, at the moment of the week the longest possible time away from the next scheduled press conference, the government released it all. If you go to the government response website, you’ll now be able to sort through thousands of pages worth of proactively released internal communications, public service advice and more, relating to how the Covid-19 outbreak has been handled to date. On one level, this sort of information release is a real win for transparency – there’s a lot of information in it that otherwise would have only come to light through an arduous slog through the Official Information Act process. But on another level, the tactic of dumping it all in one go, at the time that it happened, raises a few questions about how the government is going about governing.
First of all, why does the timing matter? The answer to that is in the cycle of how news works, and given large numbers of government communications staffers are former journalists, they’ll all be intimately aware of it. It was put succinctly in a tweet by NZ Herald journalist Chris Keall, who said “if you want informed coverage of a large amount of information, you release it under NDA [non-disclosure agreement] with an embargo so journalists can study it. If you want to minimise coverage, then you release it live and all at once on a Friday afternoon when you know audiences are at their lowest.” The nature of news means that stories from Friday don’t often make it to Monday, when the public starts to tune in again. There’s plenty to criticise about that, but it is what it is.
Then there’s the question of accountability for the information, and here’s where things get really troubling. A communications strategy was leaked to Newshub’s Tova O’Brien, who reported that ministers had been banned from giving interviews about the contents of the document dump – rather, they were instructed to give only short written statements, to be signed off by the PM’s office. Let me quote O’Brien’s story here to show how the government intended to manage any problems that arose with that – and here it’s not really about what the media get, it’s about what then gets to the public:
It says due to public buy-in the Government doesn’t have to explain its response.
“There’s no real need to defend. Because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Govt [sic] is doing. Instead we can dismiss.”
As for whether ministers should be gagged by the PM’s office, this isn’t exactly new. There is now a long history of intense centralisation of both decision making and messaging by New Zealand governments of both stripes. But it raises serious questions about why we bother to have ministers at all. As the NZ Herald’s Derek Cheng put it, “if they can’t be trusted to answer questions about their portfolios, they shouldn’t be ministers.” That whole piece incidentally is a must-read – it is critical and clear-sighted, but fair. Meanwhile, in an update from Stuff’s Thomas Manch this morning, it is revealed how much the PM’s office scrambled to try and prevent that particular document getting into the public domain.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this document dump is that on balance, the government has demonstrably done a fairly solid job of a terribly difficult situation. That case is put by former PM Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who argued on The Spinoff that the crisis has pushed the public service to instantly overcome problems that it had struggled with for a generation. Palmer also lauded the leadership and communication of Ardern in making that happen, and bringing the country along with it. We shouldn’t lose perspective of the success in staving off the worst that Covid-19 can do, as well as an economic response that has so far avoided extreme levels of unemployment. And as Duncan Greive touches on in this magnificent journey through the use of communication throughout this crisis, it’s easy to forget just how bad things were looking a few months ago, and how the trustworthiness of senior government figures mattered immensely in that moment. Tactics like this undermine the credibility that has been built up.
And it also shouldn’t be forgotten that these sorts of political tactics aren’t left or right issues, or ones where one major party happens to be better than another. However, as Tracy Watkins writes in the Sunday Star Times, it is relatively early in this government’s tenure for this sort of thing to come out – normally they are the preserve of governments much later in their tenures.
So is there anything worth doing about it? My suggestion is that the media and public should really make the most of the extra time given by this document dump. Don’t think about it in terms of news that needs to be turned around immediately, think about it as a set of primary sources for the first draft of the history of this time. And if you’re worried about stories or details getting lost, don’t worry – I’ll still be interested in sharing them.
For the next two weeks, there will be a special pop-up section of The Bulletin which I’ll be calling ‘From the Friday files’. And I want to really open it up to people who happen to have seen things in the documents – positive, negative, or simply interesting. It doesn’t have to be about finding scandals – rather, it’ll be about giving full coverage to the contents of the dump. They could be stories published in the media, or they could just be particular pages worth reading. If you see anything you think should go into it, please send it through – firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Spinoff also has some news from Friday that you might have missed. We’re hiring for not just one, but two new full-time senior journalism jobs, along with looking for journos who can do more casual shift-work. We’re also looking for a full-time office manager. None of this would have been possible without the support of Spinoff Members, so thanks so much to all who have contributed. And if you’re interested in applying, all the details can be found here.
From the Friday files: The first piece in this series is from One News reporter Kristin Hall, who has looked into the decision making around a range of food outlets staying open or not. Part of the advice given to the government was that takeaway shops staying open would help reassure the public that food security would be maintained. There was also a useful exploration of butcher shops. You might recall around the early days of the lockdown, there was a lot of criticism from butchers who thought they would be able to stay open, and then had to dump stock – incidentally, some of the primary source information around this particular decision remains redacted.
Pharmac is getting a funding boost over the next four years, in one of the first announcements of new spending ahead of the Budget. The NZ Herald reports it will total $160 million, comprising $10 million in the first year and then the remaining over the following three. The funding is not tied to securing a vaccine for Covid-19 if it becomes available, and the government has made assurances that money will be found for that.
A similar amount of money has been announced for combatting family and sexual violence. A total of just over $200 million will go towards a wide range of programmes and services, including a chunk of money that will go towards victim support and prosecution resources for cases of non-fatal strangulation, reports Newshub. This has been a particular focus of the government within the wider goal of preventing violence, because it is strongly correlated with escalating violence that can then lead to murders.
A pair of stories which lay bare concerns that Work and Income is not following the law when it comes to helping people in need. On May 8, Radio NZ’s Glen Scanlon reported that Work and Income have been telling people made redundant they aren’t eligible for benefits until their redundancy payments run out. Scanlon followed up on Sunday with an update that showed that had in fact been happening for decades. That goes against the Social Security Act, and poverty activists have described the practice as “unlawful.” Putting aside the legal question, there’s an obvious moral and cultural concern here, when the agency that supports those in need is instead giving them a kick in the guts.
Will we move to level two this week? That’s the question being considered by cabinet today, with a decision to be announced this afternoon. Toby Manhire has assessed the various considerations, and cautioned that the decision won’t necessarily be the automatic shift down that many are assuming. All will be revealed later today, and this will be on our live blog.
It’s pretty clear that the education of some (particularly lower-income) students has been badly stunted by the closure of schools. This report from Checkpoint’s Louise Ternouth goes into how some students had no access to devices over the period, and others ended up having to find work to support their families. In the case of Aorere College in South Auckland, the school requested devices for 50% of students – it only 10% ended up getting them. Now principals are warning that those who took up jobs won’t come back to complete the year.
The auditor-general’s report into the gun buyback scheme has been announced, and the findings aren’t exactly reassuring. As Newshub reports, there are two questions that remain unanswered – “how many prohibited weapons remain in circulation and is New Zealand safer as a result?” In terms of the scheme itself, about $103 million was paid out to purchase just over 60,000 guns, though the cost of administering the scheme was almost double the original estimates.
More detail has emerged on the allegations of widespread sexual harassment within Young Act, reports Josie Adams for The Spinoff. The culture has been described as one of a “pack mentality”, in which crude jokes and abusive comments are normal. Comments similar to those in question have continued to appear on social media pages loosely associated with the party, since the story came to light.
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Right now on The Spinoff: Max Harris and David V Williams write about the solid legal foundations for Iwi-led checkpoints, contrary to the claims of some that they are illegal. Dan Taipua writes about the resonance that themes in Star Wars have for indigenous people, and why it is exciting to see Taika Waititi at the helm. Emily Writes looks at marriage rates going down, and the different day to day experiences of marriage that women have. Hayden Donnell charts the journey of a tweet citing totally unverified suicide statistics, and how it ended up being amplified. Patrick McKendry has a long chat with Richie McCaw about being the best – or at least, having people think you’re the best. Emma Boyd has a recipe for those currently drowning in feijoas. Anke Richter speaks to scientists in Antarctica about what it’s like to be on the world’s only Covid-free continent.
This is a piece worth taking the time to read. Megan Dunn has written a moving essay about art on the walls at the hospital, particularly the Intensive Care Units, and how it feels to see it at a time of intense family stress and pain.
And lastly for this section, a warm welcome to The Spinoff’s new political editor and poutine blogger. Justin Giovannetti is currently holed up in a quarantine hotel in Auckland, after a two-month odyssey to get into the country from Canada, where he’s spent close to a decade working for one of that country’s biggest newspapers. In his introduction post, Justin tells the story of how he ended up here.
For a feature today, a look at several European countries where hard won but brief spells of democracy are being replaced with something more sinister. Balkan Insight has gone in depth on a report put out by a watchdog which argues that countries like Serbia and Hungary are effectively no longer democracies, being better understood as ‘hybrid regimes’ – in which a somewhat democratic veneer covers up authoritarian government and a politicised judiciary. Here’s an excerpt:
Zselyke Csaky from Freedom House said that the reasons for Serbia, Montenegro and Hungary being reclassified as ‘hybrid regimes’ rather than democracies are different for each country.
“Hungary has seen the biggest decline ever recorded in our report, it has exceeded the average eightfold. Still, its trajectory showed that it takes time and political will to fully dismantle checks and balances and democratic institutions in a country – close to a decade. By now, as the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, the country’s institutions are nothing more than a facade as power is centralised in the hands of [Prime Minister] Viktor Orban,” Csaky told BIRN.
Ostensibly to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the Hungarian parliament voted in March to allow Orban’s government to rule by decree without any time limit.
Your sports pick for the day: Perhaps the best thing you’ll listen to all year about the state of rugby in New Zealand. The Rugby Unwrapped podcast hosted by Scotty Stevenson has just launched, with an episode asking searching questions of what role different rugby institutions should have in developing players, but the social role of the game itself. Particularly listen out for the insights of Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara, who joins a cast that includes some of the most knowledgeable figures in the professional game.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.