Heather du Plessis-Allan: Time for Govt to take some risks

OPINION:

It’s a relief to have the election out of the way. For months now, the country has felt stuck in a holding pattern, led by a governing party hellbent on avoiding as much risk as possible.

Politically, the strategy makes sense. Labour’s main election platform was its cautious approach to the Covid response. It could hardly afford to undermine that message by taking risks in the months leading up to the election.

One of Labour’s biggest fears must’ve been a pre-election Covid outbreak directly attributable to a government decision. And thus there were few bold decisions. Those in businesses and industries that made requests for decisions or exemptions and were told “no” or “wait” consequently blamed the election.

But now that it’s done and dusted, there is a hope that this overly cautious approach will be relaxed. That’s not to say anyone seriously expects Labour to throw caution to the wind and completely change tack. But what is hoped is that Labour may tolerate a few more risks.

First up, health authorities must abandon this policy of leaving a third of the country’s MIQ capacity empty. That is just nuts. To have 2600 of our 7200-odd rooms left empty last week – just in case of an emergency like an earthquake or a diverted plane – is mind-bogglingly cautious. Whoever designed this strategy should be immediately examined by a doctor for a possible massive undiagnosed anxiety condition.

If taxpayers are paying for those MIQ rooms while they are empty – as some suspect – then our authorities are also being wanton with our money at a time when we cannot afford to keep squandering.

What’s more, the opportunity cost of those empty rooms is heartbreaking. Those are rooms we could be using to quarantine the 10,000-odd foreign fruit-pickers and hospitality workers that employers are begging the government to bring in. Or we could be reuniting families separated by the border closures. Or we could be bringing in skilled labour.

Bringing in fruit pickers workers must be one of Labour’s post-election priorities. In some cases – like workers in the Covid-free Pacific Islands – we don’t necessarily even need to use quarantine. If that doesn’t happen immediately, we risk losing huge amounts of fruit and the income that would generate through exports.

We can’t keep pretending that Kiwi workers will fill all of these jobs. That is a fantasy that will never be realised. Even if the pay rates were raised to meet Kiwi expectations, you’d hardly expect a NZ worker to uproot his or her family and relocate them to Hawke’s Bay or Nelson for a few weeks’ worth of picking work. As long as we keep pursuing that fairytale of full Kiwi employment, we are risking the collapse of employers around this country who simply do not have the labour to pick the fruit or clean the hotel rooms or manage the bars. They and their businesses will be the victims of a dream that cannot come true.

Finally, Labour must now start truly working alongside business. The party tried to pretend there was collaboration over the past three years but few were fooled by PR efforts like establishing the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council. The main problem doesn’t appear to be getting Labour Ministers to listen to Business. The problem seems to be getting Labour Ministers to hear Business. That is the overriding message, whether it be in the Herald’s Mood of the Boardroom survey or in pleas from SMEs through the media.

Covid is going to be a long slog. We face years of border restrictions before we can re-enter the world without imposing quarantine and isolation on travellers. If this is the marathon it seems it will be, then we can’t continue to be as risk-averse as we have been. The next election is now years away. It’s time for the Government to be bold so let’s actually start moving.

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