The message from the Prime Minister is clear - stay home - yet a smattering of MPs met in the debating chamber today. Daniela Maoate-Cox explains why.
In an emergency the Government steps in immediately to respond - that’s its job. But there are still things only Parliament can do.
Today, with hours to go before the lock-down, Parliament met to tidy up last minute business. MPs were few and peppered around the chamber in their own bubbles. Last week the Parliament changed the rules for attendance so more MPs could stay at home inline with the rules of self-isolation.
The remaining MPs began their day with a briefing on the emergency and the Government’s responses.
Telling it like it is - a Ministerial Statement
One of the rules for an emergency situation is that the House of Representatives must be told about it as soon as possible. This is one reason Parliament was called back from its recess.
This is done via a Ministerial Statement which has been used in the past at the outbreak of war and in response to natural disasters like the earthquake which struck Canterbury in 2011.
It’s normally up to a Minister to decide what is worthy of a Statement in the House but in the case of an epidemic, the Government has little choice.
On Monday the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued the Epidemic Preparedness (COVID-19) Notice 2020.
“An epidemic notice further strengthens our response,” Ms Ardern told the chamber.
“It does a number of things, including allowing for special powers for medical officers of health, and immediately unlocks powers under the Corrections, Health, and Electoral Acts. “
Those powers included enabling dormant powers like the ability of the medical officer to require people to report or submit themselves for medical testing and allow the Chief Electoral Office to switch from voting at polling places to alternative options like postal votes.
In the case of a state of emergency (which was declared today) or an outbreak of a quarantinable disease the House has to meet within seven days so the Government can tell it what’s going on and give it a chance to respond.
The House was in recess and not due to meet until Tuesday 31 March but the Prime Minister asked the Speaker to call the (smaller) House back to hear this statement and consider other Covid-19 related legislation.
A statement isn’t voted on so there’s no chance for the Opposition MPs to block any Government decisions at this point but they are able to put their views on the official Parliamentary record. They could have blocked the other measures.
Emergencies are expensive.
Last week the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson announced a $12.1 billion response package to Covid-19 to ease the financial burden on businesses, bump the amount for those on benefits and boost health services like extra intensive care capacity and more staff for Healthline. That total has since gone up.
When it comes to money the House is in charge of approving the Government’s allowance and criticising how it spends it. This is referred to as Parliament’s financial scrutiny cycle and is one of its core functions. The most popular feature of this cycle is the Budget (this year’s budget is scheduled for May 14).
Today, the Government asked the House to pass an imprest supply bill (a regular event which provides the Government with cash), which would approve $52b of spending on its immediate Covid-19 response.
“This bill will approve capacity for $52 billion of spending on our immediate COVID-19 response. This is, essentially, an emergency backstop, not a prediction of exactly how much will be spent,” said Robertson.
“The money we set aside and spend on the response to this pandemic cannot just be looked at in terms of dollars and cents. The price we would pay as a country for not acting, for not putting aside this money, is absolutely unthinkable.”
Normally a bill cannot go through more than one stage per sitting day so, for example, it couldn’t be introduced and then have its first reading straight away.
But the House agreed to do things differently and skipped the usual two hour debates at the Bill’s first and third reading and halved the number of speeches from 12 to six for the second reading debate.
There are few surprises in the House as most of what happens is procedural and the parties agreed beforehand how today would go ahead.
To get things moving more quickly the Government decided to have the House sit under urgency.
Urgency means the House can work at a much faster pace and two bills were passed through all their stages instead of one stage per day. The urgency and the bills to be passed under it were already agreed by a cross-party committee.
The first one is the COVID-19 Response (Taxation and Social Assistance Urgent Measures) Bill which deals with money matters particularly covering both tax and social assistance.
The other is the COVID-19 Response (Urgent Management Measures) Legislation Bill which includes rent freezes, and extra powers for District Court Judges and for the Secretary for Education.
Setting up an ad-hoc Parliament
The House is planning to practice what it preaches and will not meet to sit again in person until Tuesday 28 April. MPs, even ministers are going into lockdown and will work remotely.
But the House still has to be able to keep an eye on the Government to make sure it doesn’t go crazy with its recently enabled powers.
The Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said shutting Parliament down for a period of time makes him uncomfortable.
“I passionately believe in the role of parliament in scrutinising the actions of the executive and running a very fine ruler over any law changes that take place in this country,” he told the House.
“But I think it’s a sign of the extraordinary times that we find ourselves in... there are people who don’t know where they’ll be when this period ends and Parliament to some extent finds itself in this position as well.”
The solution is to set up a special Epidemic Response committee to examine and critique the actions of the Government.
“[It’s a] mechanism whereby the Opposition in particular will be able to continue to scrutinise the Government and the actions that the Government is taking even though the House will not be sitting.”
There are 12 standing subject select committees at Parliament which are groups of about 10 MPs from a mix of parties who meet to examine legislation, petitions, write reports for the House, and hear from the public.
If needed, the House can set up ad-hoc committees and did so recently for the Abortion Legislation Bill.
Today the House approved the set up of the Epidemic Response Committee which will have an Opposition majority (five National MPs and the one ACT MP) and be chaired by the Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges.
Some of its powers will be similar to the Privileges Committee which can summon people to give evidence (via phone or video-conference for the time being), and request papers or records. Other committees have to ask the Speaker for permission before doing this.
The meetings will be via teleconference and shared online.
“So that people can see the Opposition is doing its job and that the Government is doing its job as well,” said Hipkins.
Shadow leader of the House and National MP Gerry Brownlee said his party supports the setup of the Committee.
“It recognises that all governments take their legitimacy from Parliament,” he said.
The Committee will make sure to examine the Government’s Covid-19 spending said Brownlee.
“Alongside that will be the role to listen to what New Zealanders are saying and to hopefully encourage or find solutions to those emerging problems because nothing is going to be as it was before as we go into this four week period.”
Mā te wā - the House adjourns
The final job for the small group of MPs in the chamber was to agree for the House to wait until Tuesday 28 April before it meets again.
As the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins is the MP who asks for this to happen by ‘moving that the House do now adjourn until 2pm Tuesday the 28th of April 2020’.
He said he wandered through the lobbies which hold transcripts of all the speeches ever delivered in the House and the record from 1918 struck him as appropriate to the hour.
“You’ll only find one volume of Hansard from that year... Parliament did not sit much during 1918 due to the combined factors of the (First World) War and of course the (Spanish Flu) Pandemic.
Mr Hipkins said more than 8,600 New Zealanders died during that pandemic and a third to a half of the population was infected.
“The reason that we are now going into recess, the reason that we are adjourning, the reason that so many businesses and other organisations up and down the country are closing down from midnight tonight is so that we can ensure that we do not see devastation on that scale again in New Zealand” he said.
Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee adjourning is the right thing to do.
“By closing the House down, for having a process that is a new innovation for keeping that scrutiny, then this place is showing the rest of New Zealand what needs to be done at a time like this.”
The work that the House completed today can be seen on Parliament’s website here.