15 Mar 2020

How to run a country in a pandemic

From The House , 7:30 am on 15 March 2020

Quarantines, travel bans, lockdowns and self-isolation; we seem to be living in a smaller, closer, tighter world. 

But countries are not really designed to be run remotely. The rules of Parliament include no options for MPs voting remotely. So what would happen if there was a domestic lock-down and politicians couldn't easily get to Wellington to help run the country?

Parliament House and the Beehive wreathed in heavy mist during winter 2019

Parliamentary ghost town Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Broadly speaking there are three groups that sometimes get called the government, but they’re all different, and the situation would affect them all differently.  

Pick a government, any government

#1: The board of governors

The boss of them all is Parliament (all the MPs together). Parliament doesn’t actually do any real hands-on running of the country, and they are definitely not the Government. They are the ‘board of governors’, sitting in the background, watching things and asking tough questions, complaining, and changing laws to help achieve the proper Government’s plans (but arguing about it a lot first). 

Don’t tell the MPs but mostly the country can happily muddle along without Parliament - but only for a while. Which is when it all gets difficult. More on that later. 

#2: The Government with a capital G

The ‘capital G’ Government are the real government. They are the Ministers; the group of 30 or so MPs that Parliament chose from its own ranks and that the Governor General empowered to run the country. We call them the Cabinet but a few of the junior ministers aren’t inside the cabinet (but are still part of government). This is the proper government.

#3: The government’s brains and hands

The ministries and departments, agencies are all the extension of government; as are the hospitals, the police, the teachers, and all of the various arms of state that actually make things work in the country. 

The backroom staff in ministries are largely based in Wellington, but the coal face workers (running health, education, work and income, housing etc) are scattered around the country, so travel bans don’t really impinge on them hugely. Sickness obviously would affect their functioning though. 

The Beehive reflected in a Ministry building

The ministries are in some ways a reflection of government, in this case the literal reflection is in the new Ministry of Defence building.   Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

The practicalities of governing in a lock-down

The Cabinet meet on Mondays in a special room at the very top of the Beehive. I can’t describe it for you, I’ve never been there. But the room is not magic and the Cabinet don’t actually have to be in it to wield power. 

Meeting together is not even compulsory, it’s just an efficient way to keep everyone informed and running in the same direction (especially when there are coalition partners).

The power is actually vested individually in the various ministers and in the Prime Minister (according to their individual warrants), and obviously with the Governor General.

According to the Cabinet Manual cabinet is the “central decision-making body of executive government”, but it is “established by convention, not law.” 

So, if necessary, the Cabinet could run the country from Auckland, or Rakiura, or a scattering of nice baches and cribs on the coast. They could all be at home, self-isolating in their Jim-Jams and still govern quite effectively.

Sure, running the country might be easier with everyone in the same room, but who knows, the Prime Minister may think otherwise. 

In reality cabinet ministers spend so much of their time slogging in their Wellington offices that a travel ban would probably catch them all in the capital anyway.

To summarise, most aspects of running the country can be decided by the ministers and put into effect by the backroom staff and worker bees without anyone needing to get on a plane (and with some still in bed). And without Parliament getting involved.

And that works fine until the government runs out of money. Then they need Parliament. Government spends the money but Parliament supplies it.

Copies of the Budget 2019 documents on the table in the middle of the debating chamber.

Copies of the Budget 2019 documents on the table in the middle of the debating chamber. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The cash trap

As the ultimate boss Parliament is in charge of the purse strings.

The Minister of Finance decides where to spend it but he needs Parliament to approve his plan and to provide the cheques.

Here’s where it gets slightly tricky. Only Parliament can approve the cash, but unlike cabinet Parliament has to be in Wellington to do things. MPs can't phone in their votes to the Speaker of Clerk and toddle off back to bed.

A few MPs are allowed to be away and have their votes counted in a party vote, but only a few. Each party is only allowed to have 25% of their MPs away. Any other MPs that are away can’t have their votes included in a party vote.

There are four ways around this rule though:

  • Parliament can change its own rules via a sessional order. A rule change could increase the number of  MPs allowed to be absent and still have their votes count. Say move it to 80% and only 24 MPs would need to be present and could vote on behalf of all of their party brethren.
  • Bills could pass with very few votes, (say 8 votes for and 7 votes against). This is within the rules. The House can pass laws with only two MPs in the chamber so long as they are a minister and a speaker. There’s no requirement for anyone else to be there. On paper, just two MPs are capable of providing the Government with money, or passing laws or a budget. 
  • Declare an emergency. If a National Emergency is declared the 75% present rule is ignored. The Government running out of money would be a literal national emergency.
  • Have everyone agree. Counted votes don’t even have to occur if no MP disagrees with a proposal. Yes they do all agree sometimes. 

Some of those plans work better if pre-prepared, but it’s not essential.

As Speaker Mallard noted “Parliament could wait until [travel] bans were in place before instituting a rule change so long as the parties agreed. So you could pass a new rule without voting, to allow fewer MPs to vote.”

National MP Brett Hudson in the House

National MP Brett Hudson in the House Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Which tactic is likely?

Which option is more likely if MPs are stuck at home and it becomes necessary to get things through parliament?

You might think the first option feels more democratic or representational, it may also be more likely and could be agreed beforehand by the powerful cross-party Business Committee.

Probably the Government would agree with the Opposition that Parliament could operate on reduced numbers so long as it only passes necessary legislation. 

But the Speaker, Trevor Mallard told RNZ's The House that Parliament also needs to continue with its oversight function.

“I think the main purpose of having the Parliament sitting will be to pass… any emergency legislation that’s needed, that flows out of the Coronavirus.” said Mr Mallard, “But probably, more importantly, to provide an opportunity for the Opposition to ask questions and to hold the Government to account for doing the things which are necessary. I think totally shutting down the Parliament and not providing that opportunity would be a mistake.”

So expect Question Time to continue in some form, even if there are only a handful of MPs in the debating chamber.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Chair of the Officers of Parliament Committee and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard listens to petitioner Martin Matthews

Chair of the Officers of Parliament Committee and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard listens to petitioner Martin Matthews Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox