13 Apr 2021

Covid-19 minister to ask for a power top-up

From The House , 6:55 pm on 13 April 2021

Parliament has a short week after Tuesday was truncated to focus on Prince Philip’s demise. 

The Government’s agenda is diminished further by Wednesday being a member’s day, though it does include a two hour debate on the Finance and Expenditure Committee’s report on the Budget Policy Statement. That debate is a seasonal precursor to the next budget (as the Queen’s Club Tournament or the Golden Globes are harbingers in their own ambits).

Chris Hipkins speaks in an urgent debate on the travel bubble

Chris Hipkins speaks in an urgent debate on the travel bubble Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

On Thursday the Government finally gets a go at the debating agenda, and first on the list is another round of Covid-19 sign-offs. Two quite different kinds though.

Firstly a motion to approve some Covid-19 orders. Chris Hipkins explains that orders are essentially laws made without initial recourse to Parliament.

“Some good examples are the restrictions at the border preventing people coming into the country, preventing ships from coming into the country; the requirement to have two weeks of managed isolation when you arrive back into the country, the requirement for people who are working in those facilities to be tested regularly for Covid-19.”

Every Covid-19 order the Government makes is checked after-the-fact by Parliament’s Regulations Review Committee (chaired by National MP Chris Penk), before being approved by the House.

That sign-off is from a 'motion to approve' as will happen on Thursday.  Covid-19 Order approvals have become a regular staple on the House agenda.

More unusually, the law that enables Chris Hipkins to wield those powers is also back to be approved by the House - for the third time. 

The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act is an unusually potent law, giving the Minister for Covid19 Response the ability to quickly make laws (orders) without approval from Parliament. 

There are two counter-balances applied to this power. One is the system of checks and approvals for the orders themselves (via the Regulations Review Committee and Parliament, as mentioned above). 

The other, Chris Hipkins says, is that “the Act itself expires after a period of time unless Parliament votes to continue it.” 

The Act was last revivified before Christmas but only for a few months. The short renewal was to allow the re-approval to become more rigorous with a select committee inquiry before Parliamentary sign-off - something new Standing Orders (rules for Parliament) have enabled. 

So, on Thursday Parliament gets to vote on whether that law and it’s extraordinary powers are still required.

Because the extension request has been through a committee process, this time the length of extension requested will likely be longer than the previous brief one.