21 Feb 2023

Parliament debates restart with focus on cyclone and climate

8:42 pm on 21 February 2023
A diminished Parliament. Many MPs were stuck in the north for what was meant to be Parliament's opening day for 2023.

A diminished Parliament. Many MPs were stuck in the north for what was meant to be Parliament's opening day for 2023. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Leaders of all political parties have focused opening statements in Parliament on the storms and rebuild, with a side-order of climate change.

All began speeches by commiserating with those whose lives had been changed by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The left-leaning Labour-Greens bloc spoke about the need to build back better, while firing shots over climate change.

The right-leaning National-ACT grouping touted a willingness to work constructively with the government on solutions, while casting doubt on its ability to "get things done".

Te Pāti Māori criticised the government, urging a more equitable society.

Labour: Chris Hipkins

It was the first appearance of Chris Hipkins in the debating chamber as prime minister, after the cyclone prompted a delay to the sitting schedule last week.

He began with a recitation of the recent weather events "unparalleled in New Zealand's recent history".

The Auckland floods were already believed to be the costliest weather event New Zealand had ever experienced, before Cyclone Gabrielle even hit.

"To those who have lost loved ones in these tragic events, New Zealand is grieving with you," he said.

Chris Hipkins delivering the Prime Minister's Statement in Parliament, 21 February 2023.

Chris Hipkins delivering the Prime Minister's Statement in Parliament, 21 February 2023. Photo: Phil Smith

He turned to the personal stories of those he had talked to in the affected regions: a family in Auckland who lost everything in 15 minutes, pub owners outside Esk Valley housing and feeding displaced locals, and a nurse who was continuing to work despite losing her possessions.

He paid tribute to first responders - particularly the volunteer firefighters who lost their lives in Muriwai. The government would do what it took to recover, he said, with a response driven by local communities.

That recovery would be supported by what he described as a strong financial position, citing the "prudent financial management of our minister of finance during extraordinary times".

"Even if we borrow more money in order to contribute to this response we would still have lower debt than our neighbours and mates over in Australia and considerably lower than countries like Canada, the US and the UK."

Then he turned to climate change, with an additional spurred reference to the National MP Maureen Pugh's walk-back over statements today questioning whether it was caused by humans.

"New Zealand is now without question experiencing the effects of climate change and we are well past the point where we should question the impact of human beings on climate change," he said.

"In the year 2021/2022 there was a nine-fold increase in the amount of money needed to help farmers and growers affected by floods, storms and drought ... the number of events requiring emergency roadworks had more than doubled from 67 per year between 2018 - and 2021 to 140 per year."

He also had some bitter pills or reality checks for the more entrenched leftists, saying New Zealanders had to accept that building a more resilient roading network and reducing carbon emissions were not incompatible, and promising more cuts to the government's work programme.

"The scale of the task ahead of us is significant - the worthy will sometimes have to make way for the urgent ... more reprioritisations will follow shortly."

But he refused to resile from the contentious Three Waters reforms.

"Events of the past month will have focused the minds of many New Zealanders on the need to tackle the challenge ahead of our water infrastructure - it has been tested and it has been found badly wanting."

He ended his speech on a familiar note: promising to rebuild and closing with what sounded strikingly similar to his predecessor Jacinda Ardern's campaign slogans.

"We can rebound strongly from the cyclone, we can navigate the global pandemic of inflation, we can invest in the skills, the innovation required to power up for the future.

"We can build back better, we can build back safer and we can build back smarter, and we will do that by working together.

"So let's get cracking."

National: Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon's speech was a mixture: on the one hand bearing striking similarity to Hipkins' and on the other reaching for the familiar touchstones of criticism he's been lobbing at the government for months.

His initial focus was an acknowledgement of the devastation and toll taken by the cyclone, and also talked about the personal stories of those affected by the cyclone: a single father in Auckland whose bottom flat and possessions was destroyed but remained positive, a family of engineers who had moved from southern India via Singapore whose basement was flooded and "I got the sense they were spending more time in their car"; a grandfather in Tologa Bay who had not been able to contact his son's family for over five days.

He also spoke about the need for bipartisan solutions, including on cyclone response.

"If there's any special legislation that the government feels is needed that actually enables a faster reconstruction and enables critical infrastructure to get built we will be very supportive of that."

And on forestry slash, he said: "It is a great industry and it's something that we want to continue to support but is the only business, the only sector I know that gets to internalise the benefit and to socialise cost. And we need to revisit practices, we need to revisit penalties and prosecutions as a result."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

His speech soon turned to criticism of the government however, saying it was known for three things: wasteful spending, an inability to get things done, and building bureaucracies instead of improving frontline outcomes.

He said he'd heard words about building back better before, but only 49 of the government's 225 shovel-ready projects had been completed.

"That's the reality of the delivery."

"I just say to the Labour government, get on with it, get going, get things done, focus on those people. What is it today that we've provided them: clarity, specificity, so they can move ahead, the can make the next logical step to dig out of a place of hopelessness to a place of hope."

He also targeted Hipkins, returning to his line that he was part of Labour's 'holy trinity' alongside Ardern and Robertson and had a 'come to damascus moment' in a cost of living crisis.

"You can say anything you want to do 10 months out from an election but there's nothing in the track record or the background that says he can get things done, and you can't just turn the page and say it's all going to be different with some words. You have to demonstrate with actions that you know how to do it and you're going to get it done.

"It's like a bad episode of Men In Black - it's literally that wand where you just neutralise someone's brain and do a mind wipe. It's just not going to happen, it can't happen that way."

What mattered most to new Zealanders was the economy, he said, and the government was not controlling costs, or government spending, with no relief coming to people, an "unfocused" Reserve Bank, and too-tight immigration settings.

The government was soft on crime too, he said, and targeted the government's record on health and education before closing with a plea to Labour.

"Please don't make it harder than it needs to be for the New Zealand people. I do generally hope that you get to manage this rebuild and that you actually help people who are desperate because they need confidence, they need certainty and they need clarity, and they need to be able to get things done.

"But I can tell you right now: if this Labour government won't do it, the National government will pick it up in October and we're very proud, we'll get elected, and we'll go get this job done, because that's really important to the New Zealand people."

Green Party: James Shaw

The Green Party's James Shaw said the government's response had been "very strong" and "sure-footed" but would dominate the government's programme for the remainder of the year and into the next term.

He also put the boot in over Pugh's comments about the climate, linking it to Luxon's approach.

"The leader of the opposition, as far as I can recall, did not mention the phrase 'climate change' once," he said.

He decried three myths about climate change he said had been repeated in the past couple of weeks: firstly that floods, storms, droughts and fires are no different than in the past.

He noted six of 14 regions in New Zealand was already in a state of recovery from weather events - two in a state of emergency - even before the cyclone hit.

"We do know that when it comes to the floods in Auckland and in Northland that about 10 to 20 percent of the rain was caused by climate change."

Green Party Co-Leaders speak to RNZ's Giles Dexter at the end of 2022

James Shaw Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"So we do know that climate change is supercharging these events ... it does not matter whether you believe in climate change or not that does not change the fact that it is happening."

The second myth was that efforts to combat climate change should focus on adaptation, not mitigation.

"We have to walk and chew gum ... that is a little bit like saying 'I'm going to put all of my efforts into bailing the water out of my house but I'm not going to plug the hole in the roof."

The third myth, that New Zealand is too small to make a difference and so why should we bother anyway.

"Every gram of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere exacerbates that effect ... it makes it worse. Every tenth of a degree makes those storms worse, makes the droughts longer and more intense, makes the fires more, fiery.

"We've got about the same number of people as lives in Los Angeles city, so if we're saying 'actually, you know what, New Zealand's too small to make a difference, let's not bother', what we're saying is 'actually it's okay Los Angeles you don't need to cut your pollution either."

The speaker forced Shaw to apologise after he targeted the opposition with a veiled reference to a word that is banned from the chamber, saying it "starts with H and ends with -ypocrisy".

He briefly addressing the climate adaptation bill work, saying work was being done to try to accelerate parts of it but it was "incredibly fraught", before acknowledging Luxon and National's comments about the need for a bipartisan approach to climate change.

"I appreciate that offer, my intention is to work as closely as possible, because this challenge is going to take decades to sort it out, it is going to need to take multiple changes of government, and it is more important than any petty politicking or partisanship that we can do."

ACT: David Seymour

Like Luxon, ACT's David Seymour also committed to working constructively, and gave a series of personal anecdotes about flood victims.

But he quickly turned to criticism, and also addressed climate change - saying one of the most obvious revelations was the need for the government to change its approach.

"So far we have been overwhelmingly focused on emissions reduction or mitigation and it was sad, it was truly sad to hear the minister for climate change - someone who's had the job for five years, someone who never studied science past high school - say that he wanted to take a scientific approach and then bungled just about everything that he said.

"It was 28cm of rain in 24 hours on the 27th of January in Auckland, not 20. If he says that 4cm is the difference between a bit of rain and a biblical flood then imagine the difference 8cm makes - get it right mate.

"Then he said that solar power is the most affordable form of energy created by human kind. Well if you know your Latin ... solar power by definition comes from the sun and as far as I'm aware the sun was not created by man."

David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He said the cap on carbon emissions meant efforts to reduce emissions would change who emits carbon dioxide but not the amount.

"If we want to talk about being science based and ecologically literate then actually the people to blame are not all the disbelievers that the quasi-religious James Shaw rages at in frustration. The reason he's frustrated is that he has failed and this country needs an approach to climate change that works for New Zealanders and focuses on adaptation.

And on inflation, Seymour warned about the billions being dumped onto the global reinsurance industry and a coming crunch for building materials. He urged the government to stop spending.

"The floods are going to be inflationary too, so what's the government going to do to reduce its effect on inflation? It used to say that about the biofuel subsidy, it used to say that about the RNZ-TVNZ merger, if those things weren't necessary then maybe Auckland light rail that was never a good idea needs to go as well."

He called again for the Defence Force to be helping police enforce the law and said the emergency response should be supporting local leadership, turning that point to a criticism of the police commissioner for "gaslighting" radio listeners when he said crime was below normal levels.

He also touched on petrol prices, grocery prices, mental health, the housing acceleration fund, the RMA reforms, and fair pay agreements.

Then he targeted Hipkins specifically as police minister for overseeing the fog cannon fund delivering seven fog cannons; as education minister overseeing record levels of truancy and the polytech merger Te Pūkenga; over the Charlotte Bellis saga; and overseeing in increase in bureaucrats from 47,000 to 61,000 "with no increase in productivity".

"What a guy, what a lovely man we're gonna have and what an interesting year of politics we're going to have when those aspects of his character and performance start to come out."

He also said the Treaty of Waitangi under the Labour government was "the first ever treaty designed to divide people".

"Imagine New Zealand as a modern, multi-ethnic liberal democracy with a place for everyone entitled to one five-millionth of the opportunity this country has to offer. That is a New Zealand we can get behind."

Te Pāti Māori: Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer began her comments in te reo Māori, before her own speech about the devastation of the cyclone.

She criticised the government and targeted its rhetoric over a "just transition" to a carbon-neutral economy, and called for equity-based investment.

"When we came into the house this morning, we come with a series of wero and they are for us all as political leaders. My challenge to the prime minister Chris Hipkins is that we need to make sure that we have a programme that's going to empower a whole-of-government response to climate change and to do what's right and that may not always be politically convenient."

Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer speak to RNZ at the end of 2022

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Where decision-making needed to be localised, that should be not only in one-stop-shop centralised form and be devolved to marae and whānau, she said.

She challenged Shaw to work with all parties in Parliament - not just National - saying his approach had at times appeared to compromise the approach to climate change.

And she challenged Robertson and Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty to work on by-Māori, for-Māori solutions and rebuild rather than prioritising business.

"Sending empty shipping containers to marae is unacceptable."

She said Māori as the first nations of New Zealand were constantly having to defend Te Tiriti.

"It is something to be proud of, it is something that we can talk about in restoration and reclamation, ending poverty, ending racism and injustice. And we're so close as a nation to achieving that."

She took credit for a variety of policies: the New Zealand history curriculum, Māori Health Authority, Māori wards in local government, guaranteed Māori procurement, Matariki as a public holiday, Māori role switching, and called for the government to support an international moratorium on seabed mining.

She also touched on the rising cost of living and inequality, with a focus on reworking the economy in an ecological way.

"People are fed up with status quo, they are tired of the same old excuses of successive governments who are refusing to acknowledge the scale of the problems we face - some don't even acknowledge that climate change exists."

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