Parliament has been told acting as judge and jury would be 'unwise' in response to a request for an urgent debate today.
Two letters asking for urgent debates were received by the Speaker Trevor Mallard; one from ACT Party Leader David Seymour on the letter of expectation sent by the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson to Air New Zealand. The second was from National MP Chris Bishop requesting a debate on the testing of the most recent series of Covid-19 cases.
Urgent debates are allowed if the Speaker gives permission and must be on a topic of urgent public importance.
Earlier on Wednesday the Health Select Committee was told a border worker who recently tested positive for Covid-19 was not tested for several months, despite a requirement to be tested every two weeks.
Mr Bishop's request asked to debate evidence given to the Health Committee that the security guard in the most recent series of Covid-19 cases was not tested for Covid-19 between November 2020 and 8 April 2021.
It's up to the Speaker to decide if a request is worthy of a debate and in this case, Mr Mallard said he could ordinarily allow it to take place however there was an opportunity later in the day where the issue could be discussed.
"The debate on the Budget Policy Statement relates to the statement itself and the Finance and Expenditure Committee's report on it. While Speaker's Ruling 132/4 points out that the debate is not as wide-ranging as a Budget debate, I think the statement and the report canvass COVID-19-related issues sufficiently to permit the House to address the matters raised in the urgent debate application," he said.
The Minister for Covid-19 Response and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said he was not arguing against the Speaker's decision but said it was worth thinking about the future consequences of allowing the House to debate an individual’s actions particularly when they would not be part of the debate.
"There are issues of natural justice when Parliament is being asked to scrutinise the actions of one individual member of the public, and I'd ask you to re-think whether such an application in the future would be treated consistently with the ruling that you had indicated it might do in a different set of circumstance," he said.
"There are other investigations ongoing, including whether or not the person concerned may be subject to other forms of sanction for those actions. Therefore, that would seem to me to be quite unwise for the Parliament to, effectively, be acting as judge and jury regarding that particular individual."
Mr Bishop who requested the debate said it was not intended to take action against anyone.
"My application is quite specific around the contextual circumstances to do with case B. It is not a litigation of what happened with case B."
The Speaker doesn't have to make a decision or respond to what has been said and so the House moved on to the request for an urgent debate from ACT Party Leader David Seymour about a letter from the Government to Air New Zealand.
Mr Mallard said the topic was an issue of ministerial responsibility.
"Air New Zealand is a significant company and any significant change in the Government's relationship with it is important. The matter deserves the attention of the House and there is no other opportunity to do this for about three weeks," he said.
The letter sent on April 8 from the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson outlines the Government’s expectations as a shareholder for Air New Zealand.
Mr Seymour said the letter sets out contradictory expectations that put the directors of Air New Zealand in an impossible position.
"The implications are not just for Air New Zealand, they are for all of New Zealand, because what this letter means is that good people who sign up to be directors on companies to aid New Zealand by offering their skills may find themselves put in positions where they simply cannot discharge their legal obligations with the political pressure that surrounds them."
The Government should take back the letter and show it respects those appointed to governance positions to avoid deterring people from taking those jobs said Mr Seymour.
"Grant Robertson should rescind the letter that he has sent to the board, and send a signal to governance organisations and particularly SOEs up and down New Zealand that this Government does not engage in wanton interference in commercial affairs," he said.
The Minister for Finance Grant Robertson said Mr Seymour's request for the debate showed a lack of experience in a governance role.
"It is quite clear he's never served in a role in Government where you're required to work with a State-owned enterprise, because, Mr Seymour, they all get letters of expectation—all of them," said Mr Robertson.
"When it comes to Air New Zealand, the way in which the Crown—the Government; the 52 percent shareholder—is expressing its expectations is exactly what a majority shareholder would do in the private sector as well; that's exactly the way it plays out. We make clear our expectations as the majority shareholder."
The Government doesn't have to be told if a request for an urgent debate has been made and the Speaker doesn't have to tell any of the MPs whether or not a request has been successful until it's time to inform the House of the letters. When an urgent debate is granted MPs are tested on their ability to speak on an issue without preparation.
There's no ability to compel the Government to do anything once the debate is complete, rather an urgent debate serves as a means for MPs to hold the Government to account in a public setting.