Covid-19 committee carry-on catches Labour lacking

8:54 pm on 15 April 2021

Power Play - Some of Labour's backbenchers did little to cover themselves with glory this week with their behaviour - a red flag for the still fresh majority government.

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Speaker Trevor Mallard was so unimpressed with the health committee he called it out in Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

So egregious was yesterday's health committee hearing, the MPs earned a reprimand from the Speaker for not following "the spirit" of Parliament's rules.

The conduct of the Labour members, actively trying to derail questions about the latest failure at the border, was unedifying to say the least.

The meeting was an infrequent and valuable opportunity for the opposition to put questions directly to the top officials running the country's Covid-19 response.

The tough questioning quickly bore fruit, revealing a guard - who contracted Covid-19 - had flown under the mandatory testing radar since November.

But despite the new information being of significant import, Labour MPs chose to run interference, interrupting National MP Chris Bishop's question line with their own spurious enquiries designed to give the officials an out or take up limited time.

Compounding the situation was the chair, Labour's Liz Craig, allowing the officials to begin with a nearly-20 minute largely unhelpful presentation, before inviting them to recap.

That ate into the limited time available for scrutiny, meaning MPs like the Greens' Elizabeth Kerekere did not get the chance to ask even one question.

Of course politics come into play in the select committee arena - different parties, points to prove, reputations to make - but Labour MPs should step carefully.

Their role should be to act as a check and balance on ministers and those with their hands on the levers of power, not to try to make them look good.

There should be even less tolerance for politicking when one party can so completely dominate proceedings, and on an issue the government tells us everyday is of critical importance to New Zealand's social and economic future.

MPs running interference is nothing new and happened regularly under National's watch, however today's warning from the Speaker proves it has gone too far.

Those committees are there on behalf of New Zealanders and any attempt to block the flow of information from those in power conflicts with that purpose.

Speaker Trevor Mallard was so unimpressed with the health committee he called it out in Parliament.

He said afterwards he was "attempting to send a message" about the importance of the select committee process and that "a 50-minute session with 23 minutes from officials and very little chance for most members to ask questions is not satisfactory".

He also said it ran contrary to assurances given to the senior cross party group of MPs on the business committee about how Labour would operate as a majority party, in particular about other parties' ability to ask Covid-19 related questions at the health committee.

"I think ministers will now have a discussion with their own officials to make sure they don't try to block questioning by taking all the time up making statements," he told reporters.

Senior Labour MPs will remember the galling times in opposition, years of being at the mercy of the National government, and will feel entitled to make the most of the influence they have while they have it.

All credit to the party for securing an historic majority, but the greater test will be the way it wields that power.

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