Mike Munro: Repressed by vaccine rules? Tell it to Monty Python

OPINION:

There’s a scene in the classic movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur finds his regal authority being challenged by a peasant working in the field.

As he passes by, King Arthur tells the story of his sword, Excalibur, which he says has come from the Lady in the Lake. The peasant, resentful at being treated as an inferior, scoffs at the idea of “some watery tart” having gifted a sword with special powers. The king loses patience with his insolent subject and grabs him by the shoulders, demanding that he be quiet.

“Help, help, I’m being repressed,” the peasant cries out. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Did you see him repressing me, you saw it, didn’t you?”

I am reminded of this comedic outburst as opponents of the vaccine mandate have been raging at government moves to protect people in those sectors deemed to be at greater risk of severe illness from Covid-19, and at restrictions in general.

Some of the vaccine mandate antagonists appear to believe that a form of severe repression is being imposed upon anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant.

Their histrionics about the Government’s use of its coercive powers are laced with talk of tyranny, fascism, state heavy-handedness and even a ludicrous charge, in the case of one placard-waver, of health and education workers being “slaves to the scam”.

And while the protesters haven’t yet rivalled Monty Python’s Arthurian peasant and made claims of systemic violence, they are certainly asking the rest of us to believethere is an excess of authoritarianism — that the jackbooted bullies in the Beehive are denying people their freedom.

The truth, as you would expect, is far less lurid.

All governments usecoercive power, to varying degrees. It is the authority to compel people to follow the rules by threatening them with some sanction or punishment if they fail to do so. It is a key part of the toolbox that political rulers have for influencing those whom they govern.

The tax system, for example, relies heavily on coercive force. The state cannot function without taxes, which are necessary if the core services upon which the population depends are to be maintained. So a failure to pay taxes can result in financial penalties, while more serious misdemeanours can lead to jail sentences. A good dollop of coercion brings about the compliance that makes the system work.

When it comes to coercive power, what matters is how it is used. And that the electorate understands why it is being used.

It is important to remember that one of the core functions of government is to ensure the safety and security of citizens. In modern times, the challenge of keeping New Zealanders safe and healthy has probably never been more daunting than it is today.

The deadly Covid-19 pandemic mightn’t have ravaged New Zealand to the same extent that it has other countries, but the impacts are serious nonetheless. With the death toll having now surpassed 40, rising numbers of infections, mounting pressure on hospitals and ongoing impacts on daily life, in particular workplaces and schools, there are high levels of fear and unease.

Among most people, the polls suggest, there is an expectation that the Government must do whatever it has to in order to curb the spread of the virus.

The Government’s challenge then becomes one of responding in a way that puts the common good above everything else, using a mix of coercion and persuasion to maintain people’s trust and confidence.

An unswerving focus has therefore been kept on getting people vaccinated and slowing the rate of infection, which helps to engender a shared sense of duty.

The Government has used Parliament to give itself the powers to take the necessary steps. This week, amidst much Opposition yowling, the House went into urgency to create the legal framework for the so-called traffic light system. Earlier it passed the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, which has since been amended a number of times. A principal purpose of the Act is to give Cabinet the ability to issue and remove orders at relatively short notice to limit the spread of the virus.

Acquiring the power to issue such orders might seem Draconian to some. However, opinion about the overall pandemic response remains strongly net positive. According to soundings this month by Labour pollsters Talbot Mills Research, the “total good” numbers are 46 per cent, while “total poor” are 26 per cent, though the gap between the two has admittedly closed as border and other restrictions have dragged on.

What the Government must be careful to avoid as it juggles pandemic-related priorities is being drawn into an ideological approach, rather than a common good one.

Of course, that hasn’t always been the case in New Zealand in times of crisis. If anyone wants an insight into what an ideological response to an emergency looks like, they need only cast back a political generation or two.

As Robert Muldoon’s 1975-84 Government faced a worsening economic crisis, its leader became increasingly autocratic. Muldoon decreed a freeze on wages, prices and rents. There were also controls imposed on interest rates when thoserates did not fall as he wanted. Then carless days were enforced as an oil shortage began to kick in during the late 1970s.

Further back, in 1951, a waterfront dispute paralysed ports for 151 days. Determined to smash the unions, Sid Holland’s Government announced emergency regulations that gave police the power to break up meetings, search houses without a warrant, censor public debate and to open mail. The directives were so harsh that they theoretically made it an offence to give food to wharfies’ children.

Now, those were times when a pythonesque cry of “help, help, I’m being repressed” would have been entirely justifiable. Not so today.

– Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and served as chief press secretary for Helen Clark.

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