When former prime minister John Key referred to New Zealand as a “smug hermit kingdom” in his widely disseminated op-ed, I thought it was pushing it a bit, but not completely off the mark – we closed our borders to outsiders, after all. What I didn’t expect was for him to start calling the government’s response “North Korean”. This isn’t just lazy rhetoric, it’s obviously wrong.
This is what North Korea’s been through: it closed its borders at the beginning of 2020, before most of the world put itself into lockdown. It stopped all shipments in and out of the country, including China, which is its largest trading partner and aid donor. Fishing in its surrounding waters and even salt harvesting was halted, for fear Covid may be transmitted that way. Foreign diplomatic staff left on one-way tickets: one group of Russians took a hand-powered rail cart out of the country.
Reports from inside include the administration asking for donations of clothes to the military, whose sentries patrol in -15C weather in winter; the prices for food on the black market have rocketed upwards, as have those for already very scarce fuel. This is all on top of the standard life of a North Korean citizen, who can’t connect to the rest of the world.
Compare that to New Zealand. Businesses can still ship goods to and from overseas. New Zealand still allows people to come and go (albeit it’s been a lot harder to get in, but I think we all agree MIQ is a mess, regardless of how we think the rest of the country’s Covid management is performing). We’ve turned to the internet to connect with those overseas. Businesspeople are still able to do deals from New Zealand.
The lockdown is also contained, here, to the Auckland region. We’re still able to eat indoors everywhere else, and have been able to for weeks – going to a restaurant is a luxury for many North Koreans in the best of times. Even those in Auckland are able to get deliveries – I remember seeing a certain cupcake store was able to do so even in level 4. The lockdowns here are better than usual life in North Korea, where taxis are a rare sighting, let alone Uber Eats’ existence.
Calling what New Zealand has done “North Korean” is not just inaccurate, it also feeds the lockdown deniers who believe that their rights have been taken away (they haven’t).
But in an interview with Corin Dann on RNZ’s Morning Report, Key doubled down on this take. He said “ruling by fear” was bad, but then advocated taking away young people’s “rights”: going to new year’s festival Rhythm and Vines, nightclubs, bars, flying on Air New Zealand (though apparently Jetstar’s fine). Even though what he described were privileges – and we already regulate partying through alcohol licences – it’s ironic that even though he’s calling the government’s actions “North Korean”, he’s the one calling to strip people’s “rights”.
In the same interview, Key said he hadn’t consulted National party leader Judith Collins before launching his missive. Had he, he would’ve known she was going to put out her own plan days later. The timing is more than strange. Just as the National party is struggling to figure out where it fits on the political spectrum as Labour and the Greens push in from the left, and ACT moves in from the right, Key grabs headlines, destabilising Collins’ already shaky ground.
In a recent poll, ACT party leader David Seymour was ranked as the country’s second most preferred leader. Ceding as much ground as the National Party has – it had the most number of votes two elections ago, even though it didn’t make it into government – must have alarmed the party’s administration – those who pull the strings behind the scenes. It seems a convenient time to bring back a prime minister who reliably ensnared voters’ confidence.
But the biggest failing of his op-ed is that his ideas aren’t bad: they’re actually so good that they’re already being implemented. New Year’s festivals are starting to say attenders must be vaccinated (on the hope the vaccine passport is ready in time). Shortly after his opinion piece ran, Ardern announced a pilot programme to trial self-isolation. Since the latest lockdown began, some vaccination centres have been running lotteries to entice people to get jabbed.
Few want New Zealand to keep its borders closed, not least the Ardern government. In recent days, the government has been reassuring people that vaccination will lead to the country’s opening; health minister Andrew Little has indicated a national 90% vaccination rate will mean no more hard, level 4 lockdowns.
If anything, the government looks like it’s trying to avoid having to do more lockdowns, and to open up, to no longer “rule by fear”, as it were. And, it bears mentioning, the fact Key can even say such nonsense on a public platform shows this is not a North Korean administration.
Brian Ng is a writer currently living in Lower Hutt