1 Sep 2021

Collins blames Parliament standoff on Ardern: 'It's her call'

11:25 am on 1 September 2021

National's leader Judith Collins says it was the prime minister's call to bring back Parliament under level 4, and she could have suspended it one more day if she was worried about it.

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard at the first Question time and sitting of the House  in alert level 4 lockdown in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

The first ever alert level 4 sitting of Parliament, with only nine MPs, an empty House compared to the usual 120-MP affair. Photo: Pool / ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF

Politicians attended the first alert level 4 question time in Parliament yesterday, a scaled down, physically distanced version with mask wearing and just a handful of MPS - five from Labour, three from National, and one for ACT - in attendance. The Green Party and Te Pāti Māori refused to attend due to health considerations.

Ahead of question time yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was irresponsible for Parliament to be sitting.

It was the result of fervent political disagreement over the best way to continue scrutiny of the government at higher alert levels. Professor of Law Alexander Gillespie described it as New Zealand being "let down by all sides".

National and ACT last week were vehemently opposed to the continued suspension of Parliament, saying Ardern's approach of making ministers available for government-run select committee briefings was not enough, and urging the return of the Epidemic Response Committee if Parliament could not sit.

Jacinda Ardern at The first Question time and sitting of the House  in alert level 4 lockdown in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attending Parliament at alert level 4. Photo: Pool / ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF

Ardern has continually refused to bring back the Epidemic Response Committee, and at a post-Cabinet briefing on Friday announced a move to a virtual Parliament run over teleconferencing software Zoom. That idea was short-lived however, with National and ACT both refusing to support it at the Business Committee, which oversees how Parliament operates.

It was a standoff: National and ACT refusing a virtual Parliament, Labour refusing the Epidemic Response Committee.

Collins had argued that Parliament should be suspended for no longer than a week - giving time to get arrangements in order - but when asked on Morning Report about the safety of sitting at level 4, she took a different approach.

"If the prime minister was worried about it she could've just suspended Parliament for another day," she said. "We're now in level 3, yesterday was apparently bad but today's good."

"It becomes simply a political decision of the prime minister - [I had] no problem with her suspending Parliament last week but I thought she should bring back the Epidemic Response Committee so we can get the public servants in front of us as well, but she doesn't want to do that.

"So it's her call. Her call was to have Parliament back."

Judith Collins at the first Question time and sitting of the House  in alert level 4 lockdown in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

National leader Judith Collins in Parliament yesterday. Photo: Pool / ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF

Collins this morning said such a virtual Parliament was untested, and Parliament in person was a better approach.

"For a start we were able to ask our questions. We've had no practice on the Parliament by Zoom, 120 MPs."

She said the wider public's use of Zoom had not required that level of attendance.

Ardern yesterday had told the programme she only suspended Parliament because the Business Committee had been unable to reach consensus.

"The difficult position for me is I didn't want to suspend Parliament again, but nor did I agree with the fact that there was a problem with what we presented or a need for us to meet in person."

She said the Zoom Parliament had been an option formulated in consultation with National, but was then rejected. That rejection came after Collins replaced her Shadow Leader of the House - the party's representative on the Business Committee - Chris Bishop, with Michael Woodhouse.

Judith Collins, Michael Woodhouse and Chris Bishop at The first Question time and sitting of the House  in alert level 4 lockdown in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

National's three MPs in the house yesterday: Judith Collins, Michael Woodhouse, and Chris Bishop. Photo: Pool / ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF

Collins had said the reshuffle was so that Bishop could focus on his Covid-19 Response spokesperson role, and yesterday rejected the idea the party had ever been fully on board with a virtual Parliament.

"Not without an Epidemic Response Committee in which case it's a different matter, we'd be able to get the scrutiny. It's not about where we want to be, it's about the fact that we need to have scrutiny.

"National Party is not on board with what has been planned and we have not been on board with it ... until a plan has been completed it's not a plan.

"The prime minister is very happy to go and talk to whatever number of the press gallery turn up in the theatrette every day but suddenly 10 members of Parliament ... is suddenly a problem?"

She said Ardern and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard had 18 months to work out how they could run Parliament in the event of an outbreak.

"It is simply not acceptable when we have a very good alternative, which is the Epidemic Response Committee, to say 'they don't have to do it, we're not going to do it, so too bad for you'."

With neither party willing to back down, and Wellington now in alert level 3, it appears a distanced Parliament will continue to be the unhappy medium in the meantime.

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