The Week in Politics: Rush of law changes fire up opposition parties

11:50 am on 1 March 2024
Christopher Luxon

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Analysis - The government pushes two of its most controversial bills through Parliament under urgency, legislation that bans gang patches will soon be introduced regardless of whether it breaches the Bill of Rights Act, and politicians react to the shock announcement that Newshub is set to close.

The government was busy this week defending itself against numerous critics of its most controversial bills.

With Parliament sitting under urgency, bills to get rid of the Māori Health Authority and repeal the previous government's smokefree legislation were pushed through all their stages.

Debate on the first was vigorous and at times emotional with Te Pāti Māori leading the charge.

It attempted to delay the bill until the Waitangi Tribunal had held an urgent inquiry, due to start later in the week.

The government's response to that was simple - no one should be surprised because it had said it would abolish the authority almost from the time it was conceived by the previous government, it campaigned on that, and now it was doing it.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the government had "conjured up a narrative that Māori deserve to die earlier, that we deserve to be unwell; we deserve to have a system that's designed by you all who have got no experience," Stuff reported.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

That interpretation of the government's intentions was picked up by other Te Pāti Māori MPs, and strongly rejected by government members.

In charge of the bill was Health Minister Shane Reti, who can hardly be said to have "no experience" of Māori health needs - he was a GP in the Northland for 17 years and a member of the Northland DHB for three terms.

Reti told Parliament he had "a different dream" that Māori healthcare would be outcomes driven, provide greater devolved decision-making and deliver care as close to the home and the hapū as possible, RNZ reported.

"There is organisational expertise in the Māori Health Authority and I want to retain that," he said.

"I say to Māori Health Authority staff to please join me, guide me, and help us together to row a different waka towards better health outcomes. This bill enables that."

In years to come it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to compare the success or otherwise of the outcomes delivered by the "different waka", because the Māori Health Authority did not come into being until July 2022 and has now been abolished less than two years later.

Smokefree legislation repeal fires up opposition

Debate on the second bill was even more intense.

Repealing the previous government's smokefree legislation has bedevilled the government since the election, causing more controversy, concern and outrage than anything except perhaps David Seymour's Treaty Principles Bill.

The law, which had not come into effect, would have banned the sale of tobacco to anyone born after 1 January 2009, reduced the number of outlets able to sell tobacco from 6000 to 600 and removed 95 per cent of nicotine from cigarettes.

"Labour leader Chris Hipkins unleashed a fiery speech in the debating chamber saying the change would kill people and increase smoking in New Zealand, while the government insisted its approach would continue to reduce smoking rates," RNZ reported.

Chris Hipkins first debate as Leader of the Opposition.

Chris Hipkins' first debate as Leader of the Opposition in December, 2023. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Facing National members across the chamber, Hipkins said: "The members opposite might be shaking their heads about the fact that I'm angry about this. My question to them is: Why the hell aren't you? Why the hell are you not angry, because this is a bill that will kill people?"

The repeal is NZ First policy and one of its MPs, Casey Costello, an associate health minister, brought it to Parliament.

New Zealand First Party MP Casey Costello

NZ First MP Casey Costello Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She said the government was not stopping anything currently helping drive down smoking rates, as all the measures being repealed were yet to take effect.

"This government is committed to the Smokefree 2025 goal but we are taking a different regulatory approach to reducing smoking rates and the harm from smoking," she said.

"New Zealand has seen some of the largest drops in smoking rates across the world in recent years and we want to build on the practical tools and approaches that have worked to date."

She said Labour's approach had been "an untested regime" which focused on prohibition.

Hipkins criticised her speech as "nothing more than regurgitated talking points from the tobacco lobby".

"We have heard it all before from the tobacco lobby and the minister promoting this bill simply stood up and read it out on their behalf," he said.

"This is a bill that will kill people."

Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall pushes back hard during Question Time in Parliament's Debating Chamber.

Labour's Ayesha Verrall speaking during Question Time in Parliament's Debating Chamber in August, 2023. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Labour's Ayesha Verrall, who as health minister brought in the law that was being repealed, was passionate in her opposition to what the government was doing.

She said she wanted to tell its MPs what smoking did to people, in case they did not know.

"In my years as a junior doctor, I admitted to hospital thousands of people suffering from the harms of smoking - people who had emphysema so bad that they became prisoners in their own home, and the slightest cold set them off and brought them to hospital gasping for air," she said.

"I have diagnosed dozens of people with cancer, I have seen many people have

amputations due to tobacco."

Verrall said more than 40,000 people signed a petition against the bill that was going through Parliament, more than 9000 doctors were members of organisations which demanded a select committee process on it, and hundreds of health organisations had condemned the minister of health and the associate minister of health for bringing it in.

Because the bill was put through under urgency there was no select committee process, and therefore no opportunity for public submissions on it.

During debates on the bill several opposition MPs referred to the revenue the government would get from it through tobacco excise which could be used to pay for tax cuts.

That goes back to November last year, when RNZ reported: "The incoming finance minister has admitted that New Zealand's world-first smokefree laws have been scrapped to fund tax cuts."

National MP Nicola Willis

Deputy National leader Nicola Willis Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The report said Nicola Willis had told TV3's Newshub Nation that NZ First and ACT were "insistent" the smokefree legislation be reversed.

"We have to remember that the changes to the smokefree legislation had a significant impact on the government books, with about a billion dollars there," she said.

The report said public health experts had said the legislation could have saved the health system $1.3 billion over 20 years.

Coalition government makes moves on gangs

Outside the debating chamber, gangs were a big issue this week.

Police Minister Mark Mitchell and Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith held a press conference in Auckland to confirm legislation would soon be introduced to ban gang patches in public and give police extra powers to stop gang members congregating, RNZ reported.

The crackdown was first signalled in September during National's election campaign.

The ministers said gangs had recruited more than 3000 members over the past five years - a 51 percent increase.

There had also been a "significant escalation" in gang-related violence and shootings during the same period.

Mitchell said the new legislation would send a signal that gang intimidation would no longer be tolerated.

Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith (centre) and Police Minister Mark Mitchell (right) announce the coalition government will introduce new legislation to Parliament to give police and courts greater powers over gangs, on 25 February, 2024.

Associate Minister of Justice Nicole McKee (left), Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith (centre) and Police Minister Mark Mitchell (right) announce the coalition government will introduce new legislation to give police and courts greater powers over gangs, on 25 February, 2024. Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

Goldsmith said gangs dealt in drugs and created "intergenerational trauma" by drawing young people into a lifetime of crime.

He later told Morning Report that if the bill was found to breach the Bill or Rights Act that would not stop the government introducing it.

"People have also got the right to be able to live peacefully in a society without being intimidated and harassed," he said.

The ministers' announcement drew a derisive response from lifetime Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam, who told Newshub: "I can't help but just laugh about it, in reality, because it's so stupid."

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, asked on the same programme to respond, said: "I don't care about Harry Tam".

Labour said the move to outlaw gang patches in public places would only put more pressure on stretched frontline police and would not address underlying gang issues.

"New Zealanders are concerned about the high level of gang activity that we have but I'm just not sure that taking jackets off them and giving tickets is the way to do it," said the party's police spokesperson, Ginny Andersen.

"I'm also really concerned that the cuts to the police budget will prevent this type of policy from actually being operationalised."

Politicians weigh in on Newshub closure plans

Newshub's staff have been told June 30 will be their last day on the job.

Newshub's staff have been told June 30 will be their last day on the job. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

Amid these headlined events came the real stunner of the week: Newshub was being closed down by TV3's owner Warner Bros Discovery, and up to 300 jobs were expected to be lost by the end of June.

Newshub at 6 presenter Mike McRoberts said: "We've had cuts and survived cuts in the past, but to lose the whole news operation, an entity so intertwined in the fabric of our society here in Aotearoa, it's absolutely heartbreaking."

Politicians were quickly drawn in, most of them saying how sad they were for those who were going to lose their jobs and how bad it was for the country to lose one of its two main television news outlets.

Luxon said it was a "pretty tough day" for Newshub staff and confirmed he had been told in advance of the decision by Warner Bros. Discovery.

"You've got to continue to innovate like every other business does to try and find innovative business models to be able to make businesses like that stack up," he said.

"The reality is we're seeing what was traditional press outlets now doing video, we've seen a multi-media approach to it."

Former broadcasting minister Willie Jackson said he had been briefed by Warner Bros. Discovery last year that "things were not going too well" but they did not ask for funding.

Deputy National leader Nicola Willis said the media landscape was changing dramatically worldwide.

"I think the question for New Zealanders is: do they have a choice about where they go to consume their media, are there a variety of perspectives available, and as I can see there still are."

Winston Peters

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said the closure was "a disaster for this country's democracy".

He said he had personally considered whether government changes were required for the media industry but would not give his thoughts without the backing of his coalition partners.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said the announcement was a dramatic change and a sad day for the media.

"Democracy in New Zealand does rely on informed debate and having a diversity of media sources is actually really important to that," he said.

"Newshub is a very large player in the New Zealand media sector… this is bad news for the overall heart and health of our democracy."

Whether closure was inevitable was discussed.

"Veteran news bosses believe there is still a chance TV3's news operations can be saved," RNZ reported.

Newsroom co-founder and former head of TV3 news Mark Jennings told Morning Report staff should pitch massive cost cuts, including reducing the 6pm bulletin to 30 minutes with one presenter and getting rid of foreign correspondents.

"Chop out all the big ticket items and then go to the big advertising agencies and the big companies in New Zealand and ask them to support Newshub with a bigger share of their advertising," he said.

"Many of them would do it because they don't want TVNZ to monopolise that very important viewing sector and potentially jack the prices up."

Media commentator and former TV journalist Bill Ralston said while it would be a reduced news service, it would be cheaper.

"It's a real struggle to make a buck these days in television," he said.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political

editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.


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