How should an opposition party respond to COVID-19?

I feel like New Zealand has struggled to figure out what the opposition’s role in this pandemic is. Simon Bridges was eager to hold the government to account, but struck the wrong chord just when he thought it was safe to speak out. Left-wing partisans have called for national unity, taking anything not supporting the government as irresponsible politicisation. Right-wing partisans, well, they’ve struggled to find a raison d’être, especially with a government that on the whole isn’t doing too badly.

I’m not really prepared to believe that the opposition exists for decoration just because of a pandemic. With an election coming up, I wanted a fair yardstick against which to assess the party wanting to replace the government. So I wanted to unpack what I think the opposition should do, as well as what they shouldn’t.

Before we continue, a disclaimer. I was going to avoid concrete examples, to avoid unintentionally fueling partisan responses. But I decided that would be too abstract, so I’ve included examples of things opposition politicians have said. Nonetheless, while I’m sure you’ll be able to read between the lines (or will you? I’m curious, let me know what you think I think!), please understand that this is meant to be a piece about what to expect of oppositions, not whether our current one has lived up to the task.

First, it’s not the job of the opposition to offer the government unconditional support, not even in a crisis. Criticism isn’t the antithesis of unity. In our system of government, it’s the foundation of unity. Keeping the government on their toes, by a party who wants to replace them, is how we make them better. This idea has a long history, going back to when the opposition was called “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The opposition doesn’t even have to “win” their attacks — putting the government on notice that their mistakes will be noticed, sending them scrambling to fix them, is an important contribution to the nation’s COVID-19 response.

Moreover, the opposition should be able to find something to criticise. Every system run by humans will have problems, because humans aren’t perfect. In a crisis where everyone’s forced to improvise, there should be especially many. COVID-19 is no exception. Making criticisms clear and precise takes hard work behind the scenes to pinpoint issues — I don’t want to underestimate that. They might often feel like minor details rather than king hits, and the public will understandably cut the government some slack. But there’ll always be plenty on which to hold even the most successful government to account. If an opposition can’t find anything concrete to complain about, I’d label them incompetent.

You might be dying to distinguish between “criticism” and “scaremongering”. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine what that would look like, and honestly, I don’t have very much. Any criticism necessarily requires contemplating negative outcomes in some way. There is a line between productive and irresponsible criticism: oppositions should keep their critiques clear and precise. But it’s not possible to steer clear of any words that can’t be construed as at least mild scaremongering.

Similarly, I’m not sure what line there is between “criticism” and “politicisation”. Any criticism necessarily requires saying negative things about what your political opponents are doing. If that’s not politicisation, I don’t what is. Refusing to tolerate any of it is tantamount to giving the government a free pass, which is a poor way to run a democracy.

So I expect oppositions to hammer the government on mishaps in testing and MIQ, and to pin it on ministers even when the failures are “operational”. It’s fine to try to portray the government as inexcusably unprepared for the economic impact of a second lockdown. It’s fair game to tear into ministers for being unable to say whether the tracer app has helped trace contacts. (It would be legitimate to criticise the government for being flippant with the rule of law, though at least one party would be in quite the glass house if it tried to throw that stone.) Importantly, I don’t have to agree with all the critiques. I expect a few to overstep the mark a little. I just want to hear opposition parties finding clear, precise errors to make noise about.

On the other hand, it doesn’t make a party look like a government-in-waiting to lay out “an interesting series of facts” and leave us to make our own dramatic inferences. I expect opposition politicians to be clear and precise about what they mean. If you’re making me do your brainwork for you in opposition, I’m not trusting you to do your job in government, either.

People tend to want to see “fresh ideas” from an opposition party, or at least policies. Given the conventional wisdom about voting on policy, I see where this comes from. But I’ve already written about how I now think this is misguided, and when it comes to managing an unprecedented pandemic, I think it’s especially unwise to demand detailed policies from oppositions.

To understand why, it’s worth starting with the question: What makes a good pandemic management policy? Most people would probably say that it should be guided by science, or more precisely epidemiology and public health. (I’d include other expertise too, like economics.) Pandemics are, by nature, rapidly evolving, so you want policies to be agile, responding to new developments and opportunities as they arise. For the same reason, the technical advice that pandemic policy should rely on isn’t static, and decision-makers should be relying as much as they can on real-time information.

There’s more to managing a pandemic than just policy. Implementation and communication matter as much, if not more. But as far as the policy part goes, it’s fair to judge governments by that yardstick. Oppositions, on the other hand, don’t have access to current technical guidance. They don’t have the civil service — officials in the health ministry and other departments who prepare advice for ministers based on what’s happening on the ground. Oppositions can consult independent academic experts for a broad perspective, and they can get official briefings from time to time, but that’s no substitute for working closely with the civil service engine.

For this reason, any idea that oppositions propose for COVID-19 will necessarily be half-baked. I mean, government actions will also be frantic improvisation, but at least we resource them to find the best guesses we can get. It’s absurd to expect oppositions to do the same. So I’d actually rather than they recognise their limits, and not try too hard to present a detailed alternative vision, except for those elements that become obvious.

I don’t mean that oppositions can’t inject ideas into the discussion. I’d just judge them as suggestions, not proposals. I don’t know whether butchers and greengrocers should be able to open under level 3 or whether a slightly reduced Auckland boundary would’ve worked. But I can see a case for the government to answer, which shows that these opposition politicians are thinking about what they’re saying.

If a party is going to suggest that the entire organisational structure is the sticking point, I expect to hear them articulate how. It’s not enough to vaguely accuse an “ad-hoc” system of a “disorderly and confused response”. (Maybe it is disorderly, but how does that come about?) It’s more promising to discuss what organisations’ disciplinary strengths are, or better still, to elaborate on how the existing patchwork fits together.

On the other hand, when an opposition leader answers multiple questions about whether returning travellers can feasibly find a pre-departure COVID-19 test with rhetoric amounting to “we don’t care”, it’s a bad look. I don’t have to agree with every proposal, but I do expect a government-in-waiting not to be so proudly dismissive. If you boldly announce a policy in opposition without having worked through even basic details, I’m forced to assume that you’ll be similarly impulsive in government, too.

There are, of course, principles that can guide your approach. But good ones will be so vague they’re almost empty, like “transparent” or “balanced” or “always learning”. Scientific and economic evidence on a novel virus isn’t static, so good policies won’t be either. What I want to understand about a government-in-waiting is that they’ll ask useful questions of and listen to their advisors, and make carefully considered decisions based on up-to-date knowledge. Committing to a detailed plan before an election is the opposite of this style of responsibility.

It might seem counterintuitive not to want oppositions to produce policy to rival the government’s in the run-up to an election. But if you think it through, there’s literally no meaningful COVID-19 blueprint that an opposition can produce that wouldn’t be either pointless or kneejerk. If it’s the same as the government’s, it’s not an alternative. If it’s vague, it’s not a plan. If it’s detailed, it’s sure to make some calls rashly, or at least prematurely.

And if I think about what sort of government I want in a pandemic, it’s not one with a comprehensive rigid strategy that I affirmed in a triennial election. It’s ministers who wrap their heads around complex issues, adjust to changing needs and evidence, and take responsibility for their portfolios. So in a government-in-waiting, I’m looking for signs that that’s what they’ll be.

Sometimes policies offer a hint as to how this might go. But in a climate as rapidly evolving as the COVID-19 pandemic, they don’t tell us much, because it’s not possible to write a plan that’s both credible and fresh. Better to pay attention to the quality of their critiques of the government. Problem-finding in opposition isn’t the same as problem-solving in government, but clarity and precision in the former gives better hope for competence in the latter.

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