A Beautiful Cage: But Bernard… You Say It Like It’s a Bad Thing

Commentator Bernard Hickey has a pretty astute piece on New Zealand’s predicament in a Coronavirus world:


The core of Hickey’s argument is that New Zealand can’t re-open its borders, because our health system would be shortly overwhelmed by the virus. Ergo, the borders must remain closed for the foreseeable future. He criticises the “Magical Thinking” behind any assumption that we can actually disestablish Fortress New Zealand, at least until more effective vaccines become available.

Hickey is entirely right, of course. Israel’s experience shows that even with high vaccination rates, letting the virus in is a matter fraught with danger, while our medical authorities will be closely watching death-rates in Sydney, Melbourne, and the upcoming Northern Hemisphere winter, to get a taste of what we are potentially dealing with. Which indeed means that New Zealand is rather stuck, safe behind walls it cannot ever escape from.

Where I feel Hickey errs, is that he imagines the public won’t stand for two more years of closed borders. That we are somehow thinking that “if only we can hold out until the New Year, everything will be fine.”

Well, no.

As strange as it sounds in a world where the narrative of globalisation still rules… I’d suggest that the New Zealand public actually likes having the borders shut. Specifically, that we’re so convinced that the plague is a Bad Thing (and so proud we’ve kept it out), that life in a Hermit Kingdom where it’s still 2019 is preferable to any suggested re-connection. Recall that during the late and unlamented Trans-Tasman Bubble, it wasn’t New Zealanders going to Australia. It was Australians coming here. New Zealanders are fine with staying put, and based off polling, about a third of the country thought that Jacinda Ardern was moving too fast to reopen – before the current Delta outbreak. Given events in Australia, I’d suggest that number is only going to increase.

(Which in itself suggests that the 1984-1993 economic revolution did not fundamentally shift the underlying psychology of New Zealand. We are still, at heart, an insular people. Or maybe in a strange way, this separation from the world is a culmination of an ongoing trend away from the geopolitical West, and towards New Zealand becoming a Very Big Polynesian Island – with Pakeha becoming White Polynesians. It’s the same impetus that made us Nuclear Free over thirty years ago, and one quite alien to Australians).

To which one hears the screams from the ex-pat New Zealanders: “You’ve abandoned us, you inhumane monsters.” A look at the comments on Hickey’s piece shows them out in force, complete with their complaints that no-one at home cares. Again, they are quite right – we don’t care, and for good reason.

You’re potential disease vectors, you numpties. Keeping the disease out is more important than your short-term holidays, and if you want to come back properly, we’ll pay for you to spend a fortnight in Quarantine. Meanwhile, the Internet exists, if you want to talk to your families.

So yeah… Hickey is perfectly right in the points he makes, except insofar as he assumes that the New Zealand public somehow wants to rejoin the world. Unthinkable, but true: we like our little cage.

How long could this status quo last? Hickey anticipates 2023 or even 2024. I actually think he’s understating the case. It’s not the sort of thing any politician would say aloud, not yet anyway, but I actually think it’s entirely plausible we spend the rest of the decade with closed borders. It’s not like old people (a vulnerable age-group, and highly enthusiastic voters) want to reopen, or that the Labour Government’s own voter base (poorer, less likely to travel) want it either. Even business groups have found work-arounds in the era of Zoom and Skype, and it’s not as if the borders are closed to goods. We can still send the world milk-powder.

As a footnote: Hickey omits one other consideration in his discussion. New Zealand is not strictly alone here – we’ve got the disease-free Pacific Islands (Samoa, Tonga, et cetera) to worry about, and their ability to protect their populations very much hinges on Fortress New Zealand standing firm.

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