Urgent debates are reasonably uncommon at Parliament. Oppositions ask for them much more often than they are granted. But occasionally a topic hits the magic quartet of necessary conditions - recency, responsibility, importance and urgency. This week that happened on Tuesday when the Speaker granted the ACT leader’s request for an urgent debate on the Alert Level changes of a week ago.
Urgent debates offer the chance to criticise (or defend) a particular government action and put forward alternatives. So it’s usually worth noting the arguments put forward.
First up was ACT leader David Seymour who as the instigator of the debate, had the most opportunity to prepare. Urgent debates are likely a surprise for everyone else.
David Seymour argued that the cost of lockdowns was immense for business owners, for individual health and for education. It wasn’t clear if that meant he was against their use.
He also argued that governments were not really capable of organising effective epidemic responses.
“The Ministry of Health has some fine people and a very charismatic leader, but the facts are they are a policy shop completely unable to organise the response to a pandemic... Last August, ACT came out and said we should follow Taiwan's example— that they learnt from fighting severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2009 by the way— and actually have an epidemic response unit that is multidisciplinary, public and private sector.” David Seymour
The government of course gets to respond. In this case the Minister responsible was Chris Hipkins, Minister for Covid-19 Response.
“Throughout the time that I have been involved in this, I've heard a lot of different suggested responses to what we should be doing— we should close the border completely, depending on who you listen to on any particular given day. Never mind the fact that that would send all of our exporters to the wall, that our health system would grind to a halt because medical supplies would stop coming into the country and the carnage that would cause.” Chris Hipkins.
“Who suggested that? Name one.” - David Seymour
“Some of the epidemiologists who are quoted by the members opposite have argued exactly that— and it would do untold damage to New Zealand. Then, on the other hand, the next day we'll get a claim from the Opposition saying we're being too restrictive, we're not moving fast enough to open up to the rest of the world...” Chris Hipkins
The duty of opposition for continual improvement
Of course, the other parties get a crack as well - or more than one crack depending on their size. First up for the National Party was Chris Bishop, who took a very different tack from the ACT leader.
“ I want to acknowledge that the government has done a good job generally in responding to Covid-19, and we should be proud of that as a country. To use the language of the prime minister, the team of 5 million has done a good job and we need to acknowledge that. But we can do better, and it is not sacrilegious or treasonous to point that out. In fact, it is in the public interest to try and seek a better response from government. That's the reason we have a democracy and that's the reason we live in a society governed by the rule of law.” - Chris Bishop
After demonstrating that opposition doesn’t need to be absolute Chris Bishop pointed out areas of response he’d like improved - particularly the regular use of saliva testing for border workers, an issue that National have concentrated on all week.
“The argument's pretty simple, which is that it's less invasive, because you're not shoving a thing up your nose, and it's quicker and it would mean that you could scale up very quickly and do much more testing than you're currently doing. At the moment, in the case of the most recent case, these workers are subject to fortnightly testing. If you could do daily testing, that would mean better identification of risk at the border and better identification of cases.” - Chris Bishop
And to close off his speech he gave a summary of a key role of Parliament generally and the opposition. It was the second time he’d noted that in this speech.
“So, to summarise, the government has done a good job and they should be congratulated, but that does not mean they can't be better. Our job in Opposition is to make them better, and we're going to continue to push home on things like saliva testing and ask more questions about this most recent case. We owe it to this Parliament but, most importantly, we owe it to New Zealanders to ask the tough questions to make this government response better.” - Chris Bishop
During the General Debate on Wednesday he repeated and expanded on this defence of the role of the parliamentary opposition. This emphasis may illustrate the difficult path oppositions tread during a crises, when public sentiment is high, public trust of government is raised, and opposition can be seen as against the common good.
His speech received an ovation of sorts from the very next speaker, the Green’s Julie Anne Genter.
“Really excellent speech from Chris Bishop, I really agreed—particularly in the beginning of the speech—with his recognition that New Zealand's government had done an exceptionally good job in responding to Covid-19, and acknowledging that is the role of everyone in Parliament, and the media: to raise questions in a reasonable way to ensure that we have the best possible response. The Green Party agrees with, and supports, the Labour government's decision to move into level 3 in Auckland and level 2 for the rest of the country on Sunday, following the news that there were new community cases.” - Julie Anne Genter
But Ms Genter hadn’t only taken her gloves off to applaud.
“It's just difficult to take seriously David Seymour's, criticism of the Ministry of Health when he was part of a National-Act government that actually oversaw a huge reduction in the number of public servants, the disestablishment of the Public Health Commission, absolute just slashing of any investment in public health in order to be able to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.”
As well as the fisticuffs, a debate over a specific policy decision can sometimes allow a little insight into decision making. On this occasion from Grant Robertson.
“These are not decisions taken lightly. We debate them. We look at the public health advice that we are getting. We weigh it against the consequences of, for example, asking people in Auckland to stay home, asking businesses not to operate, restricting the operations of businesses in other parts of New Zealand by moving to level 2 for those. We have developed a great deal of knowledge of this over the last period of time. For example, the question of balancing the economic consequences with putting in place these kinds of restrictions and the health benefits of that, and the economic benefits of that, is something we come to learn. We stand by the view that the very best economic response to Covid-19 is a strong public health response…” - Grant Robertson.
These kind of policy debates can also get surprisingly specific. National’s deputy leader Shane Reti speaking as a Northland-based MP complained about the placement of roadblocks in the north. Also speaking locally, and arguing for stronger lockdowns was Te Paati Māori’s Debbie Ngarewa-Packer who said that Taranaki should have been given the respect of being placed at level 3.
Is there a Doctor in the House?
The current Parliament is pretty unusual in the level of medical expertise. Lawyers and farmers are very common backgrounds for MPs. Health professionals are rare. This parliament National has a former GP and a healthcare manager with training in counselling, while Labour has the unprecedented grouping of four doctors, a nurse, a midwife and a psychologist.
Between them they could probably run a respectable health clinic.
That kind of background knowledge is incredibly useful in Select Committees where the nitty gritty of laws are debated, but it is also useful in the House, especially at the moment.
The National Party’s deputy leader Shane Reti is a GP, and his background knowledge often adds to debate. During the urgent debate he considered the pros and cons of saliva testing. Chris Bishop earlier noted the advantages so below we’ll quote Shane Reti’s completion of the duology. His points, while fascinating, also illustrate a potential downside of an expert - that for completeness they may raise facts that weaken your case. But this is Parliament where getting the right solution is more important that winning the debate.
“Clearly it works. I've got no question with that. Arguably, the sensitivity may be less: some of the enzymes in the mouth can degrade the virus; you get less viral load in saliva. It's actually quite tricky in the laboratory as well, and it doesn't do well with dilution. There's other issues actually getting it as well: you're not allowed to eat, chew, or smoke, for 30 minutes beforehand. So yes, I understand all of that, but what I heard from across the House today was that it's an infrastructure problem. Yes, we can't pool samples—I get that—but this is, sort of, news to us, where we're relatively happy to throw money around, and suddenly we're hearing an infrastructure hurdle which we hadn't heard before.” - Shane Reti
And for Labour the Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall spoke. She is a former infectious disease specialist and took some time explaining how public health teams logically work through hypotheses to discover who caught the virus first and how.
“The most important thing to understand is that the germ does not just spread by being in the same general area as the person; being in a workplace that is connected through its business to the airport is not enough to say you have a plausible link to international cases. Instead, we have to be able to establish the mode of transmission. The worker who was ill was a laundry worker. As Professor Baker has said in the media recently, there has not been a single documented case of transmission through the laundry.” - Ayesha Verrall
She went on to describe the process of discovery, including the ins and outs (so to speak), of sewage testing, but I’ll stop there before someone objects to puns with a 'point of ordure'.