7 May 2020

Attacks and ripostes: highlights from Question Time

From The House , 6:55 pm on 7 May 2020

During the current Covid Parliament both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have been practically ubiquitous, including fronting up at Question Time on Thursdays when both would usually be absent. 

The combat between the leaders is the main event at Question Time and it sets the tone and trajectory of attack and response across the House. The topic this week was of course Covid-19. It’s not for nothing that the prefix in pandemic means every. 

Below is a quick summary of Simon Bridges’ attacks and Jacinda Ardern’s ripostes during the week. 

No caption

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Too hard, too long

One recurrent theme has been the suggestion that New Zealand went too hard, and stayed too hard. 

Simon Bridges argued that Australia has had “similar health outcomes”, but gentler lockdowns and New Zealand should be out of lockdown already.

Jacinda Ardern argued that at the time we went into lockdown New Zealand was on a worse trajectory, (an infection rate modelled by the likes of Rodney Jones of five—that was higher than Australia). Also that we have a different population base, and that “there is more in common with our response than there are differences”. 

Are we there yet?

A related refrain is the one parents hear from the back seat a lot - are we there yet? But with the more parliamentary addition - if not why not.  Simon Bridges argued that each extra day in lockdown another thousand people lose their jobs (with the unspoken argument being that leaving lockdown would end that). 

“Does she accept that every day we remain in lockdown, more businesses will collapse and more people will lose their jobs?” - Simon Bridges.

The Prime Minister’s response was that jumping out of lockdown too early endangers even more businesses and jobs. Especially if going too soon forces a return to lockdown. 

“I will not gamble their jobs by taking risky, knee-jerk decisions that don't protect their long-term futures.” - Jacinda Ardern.

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges (left) and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right) during question time.

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges (left) and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right) during question time. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The lives/jobs trade-off

Appearing to borrow a page from the American President’s playbook, Simon Bridges argued that we were losing the lives/jobs balancing act. 

“Does she accept that having a low number of cases isn't success if you've got exponentially rising unemployment?” - Simon Bridges.

Jacinda Ardern responded (with an assist from Grant Robertson) that the government has been very focussed on protecting jobs and the economy. Here the Australia-New Zealand comparisons came from the government.

Yes, New Zealand has lost jobs but by 24 April, Australia had "added 500,000 people to unemployment assistance". And while New Zealand has already paid out billions to businesses, in Australia “no cash has been paid yet for their equivalent of a wage subsidy”

Who will suffer most (jobs-wise)?

Development that argument further Simon Bridges again compared New Zealand and Australia and argued we would sustain more economic damage than Australia:

“Does she agree with the IMF's estimate that New Zealand's unemployment rate will rise by twice as much as Australia's this year?”  

I think this is a reference to modelling of 7.6% in Australia and 9.2% in New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern saw his IMF stats and raised him some IMF stats.

“The member, I see, is being very selective with the IMF forecast because, for instance, when you look at their estimates of what unemployment might be in, say, 2021, they're estimating New Zealand at 6.8 percent and Australia at 8.9 percent, the US at over 9 percent. My point here is that many institutions and economists are forecasting; not all of it will necessarily be accurate, but we went in strong and our intention is to come out as strong as possible.”

And you ask where do MPs get IMF prediction numbers from? 

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during Question Time.

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during Question Time. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Was it all illegal anyway?

Simon Bridges has tried a new tack this week arguing that initial government legal advice might suggest that the lockdown wasn’t actually legal. He has been pushing for the Government to release those legal opinions. 

A Note: closed door legal opinions provided to a client are generally regarded as ‘legally privileged’ (protected from the public gaze). The reason is that no lawyer would ever honestly advise a client that ‘you look guilty and you’ll go down badly if you plead otherwise’ if they then had to admit to that advice in court. Governments would shy away from asking for honest advice if all the varying opinions and arguments must then be made public. For such reasons governments rarely allow privileged advice to be released. Asking for a release is a time-honored tactic because the likely non-release is likely to make things look shady.

The to and fro included these interchanges:

“Has she seen advice to police that states that an isolation campaign by police "is unlikely to meet the high statutory threshold for the exercise of these powers. Standard police powers to stop, search and surveillance must be exercised for their statutory purpose, and may not be used to assist police in the enforcement of the isolation campaign?" - Simon Bridges 

“I have seen final Crown Law advice, and I note the Attorney-General, with the advice from Crown Law, has indicated there are no gaps in the enforcement arrangements that have been used, but, of course, as the member well knows, a section 70 notice was issued to provide additional clarity.” - Jacinda Ardern

And also,

“Why did police ignore advice they'd received and proceed with an isolation campaign?” - Simon Bridges.

“Again, as I have just said, with advice from Crown Law, the indication, obviously, from the Attorney-General publicly has been that there are no gaps in enforcement, and, again, all of the underpinnings for our enforcement powers are public. The epidemic notice, state of emergency, section 70 notices, even the Cabinet paper on which these powers were based are all in the public domain. With regard to legal advice, the member well knows the position of the Crown. Ultimately, it's a decision for the Attorney-General, but I would reflect that, when the member was last a Minister, he himself said, ‘In terms of making legally privileged documents public, no Crown has ever done that’.” - Jacinda Ardern

Question Time in the House sometimes feels like a high stakes face-off between battling foes.

Question Time in the House sometimes feels like a high stakes face-off between battling foes. So why not Marvel it up? They may need superhero names though. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Who will pay?

And lastly - who is going to pay for it all? Note that budget day is next Thursday, and it is traditional for oppositions to unsuccessfully try to cajole governments into the early release of plans. 

Hon Simon Bridges: Will Government debt increase by more than 50 percent of GDP as a result of COVID-19?

Simon Bridges pestered for unpopular budget details like a pessimistic child desperate to know what’s in those wrapped presents. He asked numerous versions of ‘show me the budget’, including: 

“Will the Government deficit this year be bigger or smaller than $20 billion?”

“Can she rule out increasing personal income taxes while she is Prime Minister?”

“Can she rule out introducing any new taxes or increasing existing taxes to pay for the debt her Government is building up?”

“To be clear, will she not rule out new taxes to pay for the debt accumulating at the current time?”

“Can the House take it from those answers there may well be new taxes as a result of the debt that is accumulating today and through Budget 2020?”

You get the idea.

Other than ruling out a capital gains tax or a wealth tax the Prime Minister wasn’t divulging details. Needs must we wait until next Thursday.

Finance Minister hands his Budget 2018 speech to the National Party leader Simon Bridges.

Finance Minister hands his Budget 2018 speech to the National Party leader Simon Bridges. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox