17 Mar 2020

Business as normal for Parliament despite Covid-19

From The House , 6:55 pm on 17 March 2020

The Government has unveiled a $12.1 billion rescue package as the country responds to Covid-19 but Parliament will carry on largely unaffected says Leader of the House Chris Hipkins.

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins answers questions in the debating chamber.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins is in charge of deciding the order of business the MPs will debate Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The Government has described it as "the most significant peace-time economic plan in modern NZ history" and the first act of Parliament this week is a debate on this package.

"Business at Parliament will continue as normal this week although there will be time set aside to debate the Government's announcement around Covid-19," said Mr Hipkins.

"It will be a longer ministerial statement then normal so I'm anticipating probably around an hour and a half for discussion on that. It's a very big announcement and I think it's important that Parliament has the opportunity to debate it."

So important that it's happening before the usual 2pm Question Time and required Mr Hipkins to ask for permission (seek leave) from the other MPs.

"I seek leave for a Government statement and responses on the Government's emergency economic package, consisting of two 15-minute speeches, seven 10-minute speeches, and one 5-minute speech, as agreed by the parties."

Journalists were given a heads up on what the package would include a couple hours before Parliament started sitting at 2pm but the Government's public announcement took form of a ministerial statement which is what Mr Hipkins was asking for.

A ministerial statement is an official way for a Minister to inform the House of Representatives (that's all the MPs) of something important.

Statements have been made on the outbreak of war and during to keep the House up to date. They’ve also been used to tell the House about natural disasters and civil defence emergencies like the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake and more recently the eruption of Whakaari/White Island.

Today's statement was given by the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson.

The Government can make major decisions about redirecting money into services responding to the spread of Covid-19 and implement measures like mandatory self isolation for people arriving in New Zealand without needing the approval of Parliament.

Parliament doesn’t actually do any real hands-on running of the country but functions more like a ‘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 - this is referred to as holding the Government to account and is why question time and debates are considered a key part of the country's democratic processes.

The debate on the Minister of Finances ministerial statement will not change whether the Covid-19 rescue package is implemented and mostly serves as an official record for MPs to lodge their views.

Business as usual

Minister of Justice Andrew Little answers questions on the 2020 Cannabis Referendum

  Minister of Justice Andrew Little is in charge of the Abortion Legislation Bill Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

After the 10 speeches on the ministerial statement question time finally took place at quarter to four, kickstarting the House's return to its usual work.

"We move into question time and then after that Government business and the first order of Government business for the day is the Abortion Bill," said Mr Hipkins.

The Abortion Legislation Bill is at its second to last stage in the House - the committee stage - which is a process that can take a while because MPs debate the details of the bill.

The committee stage for this particular piece of legislation takes even longer than usual as MPs are voting according to their personal views and have to walk through a Yes (Aye) or No (Noe) door to cast their vote.

"It's obviously a very controversial bill, it's a conscience vote, so there'll be more in-person votes. That's likely to run in to Wednesday morning."

Mr Hipkins said it's unlikely the Bill will not be passed through all its remaining stages this week.

"I'm reasonably optimistic it will finish this week. In terms of the committee stage the most controversial parts are in Part 1 and Part 1 is now all but finished. We've moved on to Part 2 which is technical amendments like the 'Title' and 'Commencement'," he said.

"The guts of the debate has been had. There's still of course a little bit more water to flow under the bridge but I don't think the next part will take as long as the first part did."

For a full list of business before the House visit Parliament's website here.

Transcripts of the what is said in the House can be found here

Video can be watched here.