Opinion Piece - Uniting a Divided Society

What’s really going on outside Parliament? What does it tell us about where New Zealand is going? How do we heal the chasm of division that has opened up our country?

These are the questions New Zealanders are asking me and that our country must grapple with.  They are not questions the Speaker can drown-out with sprinklers or loud music. Good policing can’t resolve them.

What we are seeing outside Parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time.

Two years ago when the Prime Minister made the wise decision to put New Zealand into lockdown we were united in our resolve to combat Covid-19, and we felt good about it.

What was simple then is messy and complicated two years on. 

Over that time, many people have had their lives inexorably altered by the restrictions used to combat it – some losing jobs and livelihoods, others missing special time with loved ones, still more of us exhausted by ever-changing rules.

The reality of New Zealand’s inability to escape Covid’s grasp has well and truly sunk in.

The “team of five million” has fractured and we all want to see a pathway out, together.

Some would have you believe that the current health response is without fault, while others would deny the challenges posed by Omicron which will result in growing numbers of hospitalisations and illness. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

We must chart a path back to that middle-ground that unites us, and not allow ourselves to be divided into warring factions.

Kiwis should be able to question the current health response while also agreeing that some restrictions are still required to minimise deaths and ensure our health system is not overloaded.

Kiwis should be able to sympathise with some of the issues being raised by protestors without being framed as condoning illegal behaviour or siding with anti-science conspiracy theorists.

Kiwis should be able to ask whether the Government is striking the right balance between individual rights and public health imperatives without being dismissed as pandering to extremists.

The Government’s unwillingness to engage with these issues has amplified division. The dismissal of anyone who questions their approach has fed a growing distrust.

The results are there to see outside Parliament and throughout communities up and down New Zealand.

A response is required.

It is not sufficient for the Government to stand to one side while the protest rages, sheeting responsibility to the Police and ignoring the wider debates that fuel it.

This debate should not take place between politicians and law-breakers on the forecourt of Parliament while roads are illegally occupied and death threats hang in the air.

But there is an urgent discussion that we as elected representatives must face up to.

We must discuss the pathway that lies ahead for our country as we grapple with the reality of Covid.

There are three key issues the Government must address to bring our country back together:

First, what is the plan for phasing out vaccine mandates?

It is reasonable for non-vaccinated Kiwis to ask what conditions must be met for them to once again be able to go to work, go to restaurants and participate fully in civil society. The plan to phase out mandates should take into account both the evidence about Omicron and the need to protect our health system from being overwhelmed.

Second, when will the Government make rapid antigen tests available to everyone? The Government must allow all New Zealanders to purchase rapid tests to take personal responsibility for their own health.

Third, when will the Government move from emergency restrictions to a risk-management approach? As Covid becomes endemic Labour must allow Kiwis more discretion about how they respond to the risk of virus exposure.

Some will say we can’t have these discussions while protest is raging. That is naïve.

These are not the concerns of just a small group of protestors, they are the concerns of a growing and increasingly alienated group of law-abiding New Zealanders who have fully complied with and followed the rules. 

A better balance between public health needs and individual freedoms is possible. It is necessary if we are to remain a socially-cohesive nation. Striking that balance will require a more sophisticated approach than we have seen from the Government so far.

This shouldn’t be a “for us or against us” debate, characterised by fear and division. Faced with growing anger, civil disobedience and an increasing breakdown in law and order there is a responsibility for political leaders not to drive people further into divided camps.

It is our job to find a way through that brings everyone back together.  To address the principled and practical questions being asked. To acknowledge the pain being felt by many.

National urges the Government to join us in taking up that challenge.