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A year on from New Zealand’s big lockdown the ‘team of 5 million’ needs a new story

A year after Aotearoa New Zealand went into full lockdown for a month (it felt like longer, but lasted from March 25 to April 27), the country has without doubt fared better than many other places.

True, the cost of buying (or renting) a house is terrifyingly high, the capital city’s infrastructure is crumbling (literally bursting, actually, in the case of its water pipes), and young people are disproportionately affected by unemployment and the wealth gap.

But on the up side, Team New Zealand retained the America’s Cup, Crowded House has been playing to sold-out crowds, and a trans-Tasman travel bubble is pending — we hope.

Unfamiliar working conditions and several short spells in lower alert levels aside, most New Zealanders spent the past year doing pretty much what they would have been doing had COVID-19 never arrived.

That has generated a lot of things: gratitude, pride, appreciation, indifference, complacency — and (in response to some ill-informed foreign commentary) some excellent ironic memes about life in the “hellhole” that is Aotearoa. Cue selfies on the beach, in the mountains, knocking back flat whites at the local café, swimming with the local dolphins, etc.

Most attributed this good fortune to a government that is both competent (mostly) and cares about its citizens, led by someone who knows what she is doing. While the edges might have frayed a little during the last level 3 lockdown in Auckland, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour majority government has stayed high in the polls.

It also helped that the health bureaucracy is both competent (mostly) and cares about the people it serves, led by someone who also knows what he is doing (although director-general Ashley Bloomfield’s halo slipped a little when he accepted free tickets to a cricket match when he probably shouldn’t have).

A temporary social cohesion

As a consequence of all of this competence, New Zealanders’ trust in their governing institutions remains high. Not counting some disgruntled anti-vaxxers and COVID-sceptics, our democracy appears to be in rude good health. From the outside we must positively exude social cohesion. So that’s all right then.

Except it isn’t, not really. Because beneath the surface, daily life for a lot of New Zealanders is a long way away from those sunny beaches and witty memes.

Let’s start with those without work. Credit where it’s due — many people will concede that Ardern’s governments have done a better-than-expected job of keeping the economy ticking over in challenging times. It might not feel that way, though, if you are Māori, Pasifika or a woman, all still over-represented in unemployment figures.

Read more: A year on from the arrival of COVID-19 in NZ: 5 lessons for 2021 and beyond

As to housing, the only way you cannot know about the extreme unaffordability of home ownership and renting is if you are the kind of person who remains convinced smashed avocados are the reason young New Zealanders are locked out of the housing market.

Despite its latest attempt to dampen real estate speculation, it remains fashionable to blame the government for this state of affairs. But rarely do those with the means to purchase a second, third or fourth house as investments appear to point the finger at themselves.

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield walking together in a parliamentary corridor
Competence and reassurance: Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield head to a COVID-19 briefing in Wellington. GettyImages

A reckoning to come

Above all, the country is well and truly betraying its young people. Disproportionately higher rates of unemployment, exorbitant housing and rental prices, and long stretches of learning via Zoom have left many feeling real psychological distress.

Older generations who expect young people, once this is over, will blithely continue to fund government superannuation and subsidise property speculation need to think again. There is a righteous anger smouldering among the young of Aotearoa, and there will be a reckoning. Or there should be.

Read more: COVID-19 is predicted to make child poverty worse. Should NZ's next government make temporary safety nets permanent?

The causes of some of these faultlines reach back to the colonial violence done to the economic, social and political fabric of Māori.

Other explanations are more recent, traceable to the choices of the neo-liberal cultists of the 1980s and 1990s. Their creaking policy diagnoses and prescriptions remain dogma for too many in this country. The coronavirus has simply made matters worse.

So, yes, perhaps from the other side of an ocean Aotearoa New Zealand does appear socially cohesive. But social cohesion is an aspiration in this country, not a state of being.

Read more: With a mandate to govern New Zealand alone, Labour must now decide what it really stands for

Time for a new narrative

Life here has rarely approximated the self-serving egalitarian myth that is the nation’s origin story (least of all for Māori), and which is the closest thing we have to a sense of exceptionalism.

The narrative of the “team of 5 million” is the latest iteration of this. There is no question Ardern’s catchphrase has been a great rallying cry. But neither can there be any doubt it obscures the extent to which we are not really a team at all.

Some of us are on the bench, some are non-travelling reserves. And some are not even remotely interested in team sports (or, indeed, sport of any kind).

But the notion “we are all one people” runs deep in this country. It is risky to gainsay the forced cohesion of the team of 5 million. To break with team culture is to risk being labelled a “dickhead” — breaking the champion All Blacks’ informal rule of “no dickheads” — and who wants to be that person?

But the splits in the dressing room are there, if you care to see them. Maybe a year on from that first lockdown it’s time for a new national story, one that makes room for all of us, whether or not we make the team.

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