21 Jun 2020

Parliament returns to normal service

From The House , 7:35 am on 21 June 2020

Like the rest of the country Parliament has been slowly, inexorably returning to normal service. Or as normal as is likely. This week included two events that were quite novel - at least recently. 

The first was The General Debate, Parliament’s weekly all-in, no-holds-barred verbal rumble. It hadn’t happened for a month. 

The other was Member’s Day which had been missing since early March. But first things first.

Todd Muller in debate in the House

 National Party Leader Todd Muller during the General Debate this week Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The General Debate is a weekly Jets v Sharks street brawl (without the dancing). It  takes place on Wednesdays after Question Time and before the House gets onto debating legislation. 

Recently the Budget Debate (which is also very general) has trumped the General Debate. This first stage of the budget was polished off on Tuesday and so, the very next day Tau Patupatu Whanui was on the agenda.

During the General Debate 12 MPs get a crack at a 5 minute speech on whatever they want. They vary a lot: pet policies, local constituency issues, topical matters, party talking points, angry rants and even stand-up political comedy. 

Labour MP Poto Williams in the House

Poto Williams relates a story about the lockdown Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

As you might expect this week Covid-19 was a recurring motif. For example Labour MP Poto Williams talked about the experience of the recent lockdown, with a shout out to volunteers helping their communities. National MP Judith Collins also went with Covid, though her take was about people’s sacrifices and how those made the recent system flaws ‘damming’. 

Whatever the topic, underneath most speeches the theme was the election. The campaign has begun in earnest inside the chamber.

First up was Finance Minister Grant Robertson with a mix of policy and poking fun at the opposition. But the focus was the election. 

“What's needed right now in New Zealand is the kind of strong leadership being offered by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. What we don't want are risky people without experience coming along. This is not the party of John Key or Bill English over there; it's the party of inexperience. It's the party of risk. When we come, in three months' time, to the election, New Zealanders know that they can back a Government that's had their back through COVID-19 and will continue to do so.” - Grant Robertson

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson on comedic attack during a General Debate

Grant Robertson during the General Debate this week Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

In reply Todd Muller stood for his first General Debate speech as Leader of the Opposition. 

“The level of debt at a level we have never seen before. The economic impact is enormous, and the country looks to the Government to say, "Have you got your borders under control?", and the answer is no. It is shambolic, it is hopeless. The Minister looks at the floor and says, "It's not my problem; it's the officials' problem. We're going to bring in the army to assure it." Well, why don't you bring in a National Government and get the job done properly?” - Todd Muller

The Sharks and Jets are pre-fight dancing. This is on.  

Todd Muller in debate in the House

National Party Leader Todd Muller during the General Debate this week Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The second parliamentary event cautiously its edging its way back into the open was Members Day which usually happens every other Wednesday. It’s a day set aside for debating bills suggested by MPs that aren’t ministers. Many are usually from opposition MPs. 

This week the first Member’s Day day happened since the 11th of March - a three month absence. The parties had agreed to put it on ice during level three so Parliament could spend its reduced meeting hours focussing on Covid. 

Before that there was the months and months spent on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill. As a result the bills under discussion had been waiting on the order paper for nearly two years.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Three bills were debated, one each from three National MPs: Hamish Walker (to increase penalties for pointing lasers at aircraft); Matt King (to create a new sub-category of homicide for ‘king-hit’ punches); and Sarah Dowie (to regulate aspects of shark cave diving).

The House spoke with all three MPs about their bills when they were first chosen, back in 2018. You can watch the videos at the links on the MP names (above).

All three members’ bills failed at the first reading. After waiting so long it seems a bit of an anticlimax.

To replace them on the order paper two new bills have been chosen in the ‘biscuit tin ballot’. One is from National MP Jacqui Dean and seeks to make local bodies promote a customer focus in their service provision.

The other is from Labour MP Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki and wants to prohibit the seizure of necessary equipment from debtors who are disabled. Like, say, a wheelchair.  The House should get round to debating those in late July.

To catch up a bit on the missed members’ days Parliament has agreed to add an extra morning session next month. There will be quite a few extra sittings as well as urgency coming up as the Government looks to catch up on the weeks lost to Covid-19. 

By the time Parliament dissolves for the election the MPs will be hard pressed to find the energy for their sharks/jets dance steps.