Hammered over rushed lawmaking, then forced to backtrack on funeral restrictions, it was one of the Government’s more difficult days. But that could all be overshadowed by how its Budget is received, Sam Sachdeva writes

The Government’s handling of the coronavirus response has been strong enough, and New Zealand’s infection rates good enough, that Jacinda Ardern has had few truly difficult days from a professional perspective – but Wednesday was undoubtedly one of them.

Taken at face value, the passing of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill was a success, giving the Government the legal framework it said it needed for New Zealand to move to Level 2.

But that final victory only came after pointed criticisms from not just National MPs, but civil liberties and human rights groups like Amnesty NZ, the NZ Council for Civil Liberties and the Human Rights Commission.

Of greatest concern was both the sweeping powers being granted to the Government – and Ardern in particular, with the Prime Minister granted the ability to bestow extraordinary powers to respond to Covid-19 – as well as the severely limited timeframe in which to scrutinise it.

There was no select committee process at all, while the Opposition and legal experts were given barely 24 hours to review a draft before it went before the House.

As Attorney-General David Parker noted, some of the powers granted under the law, such as warrantless searches of properties by police, were already able to be used under pre-existing legislation such as the 1956 Health Act.

But it is fair to ask, as many National MPs did, why the Government did not prepare and introduce such legislation weeks ago to allow for a truncated select committee process when it knew the country would eventually reach Level 2 and require such a new law (provided you take the Government at its word that it was not required to enforce Levels 3 and 4).

Grief cannot be so easily suspended, and by limiting the avenues for closure, the funeral restrictions could have actually prolonged the pain of some.

It was not the only testing moment of the day, as Ardern previewed and Health Minister David Clark announced a lifting of the maximum size of funerals, up from 10 to as many as 50 provided public health requirements are met.

The change of tack came after an array of stories in the media highlighting the pain felt by Kiwis who were unable to properly say goodbye to their loved ones.

Compared to the other life events in the trio of births, deaths and marriages, it isn’t hard to see why funerals should have been granted an exemption.

A new baby does not typically inspire a large crowd around a hospital bed, while it should be easy enough to convince a happy couple to delay their joy by a few weeks or months.

Grief cannot be so easily suspended, and by limiting the avenues for closure, the funeral restrictions could have actually prolonged the pain of some.

Ardern pointed to outbreaks linked to funerals in other countries to justify tight rules, but given the strong position New Zealand finds itself in with infection rates, some leniency for such a significant occasion seems like a luxury we can afford.

National leader Simon Bridges and his party deserve credit for pushing the case to relax restrictions on funerals. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That is not to say the original decision was callous: the Prime Minister has repeatedly shared her empathy for the difficult circumstances that mourners have found themselves in, and there were clearly some public health justifications for such a stringent approach.

The Government deserves credit for its willingness to review its initial plans and take a new approach (as does the Opposition for taking up the cause of concerned New Zealanders).

But it is also fair to ask why that mistake was made in the first place, and whether ministers and officials devoted enough time to considering whether there were viable alternatives.

It is not the only questionable rule, either: religious groups have asked why they cannot resume services with suitable physical distancing and the 100-person limit allowed for restaurants and cinemas, rather than the 10-person restriction for private gatherings.

Somewhat curiously, the Government’s Bill of Rights Act vetting of the new Covid powers legislation is silent on freedom of religion, and while people are not banned from practising their faith, there are severe limitations on how they can do so.

It may be that stimulating the economy by reopening businesses was judged more time-critical than resuming faith-based services – an understandable argument, albeit one that has not been advanced by anyone in the Government.

It is the plight of businesses, and how Finance Minister Grant Robertson has decided to help them, that will be the subject of greatest attention when his Budget for 2020 is revealed to the country at 2pm today.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has tried to keep expectations from soaring ahead of his 2020 Budget. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Ardern and Robertson have been at pains to avoid excessive hype. That is partly due to the traditional art of managing expectations, as well as the billions that have already gone out the door for the immediate response.

But the Prime Minister’s statement that “when times are hard, you don’t cut; you invest” and promise of a “relentless focus on jobs” sets the scene for some significant spending, both across the board and in targeted support to the tourism sector and other hard-hit industries.

National leader Simon Bridges has warned against careless spending, expressing his fear the Government will “turn a $40 billion problem into a $100 billion problem”.

That seems highly unlikely, given Robertson is hardly a fiscal radical – but there also does not seem to be any huge public demand for an excessively austere approach in the current circumstances.

Any election-year Budget is a big deal for a government’s prospects of re-election, but it is particularly true in this case.

Stick the landing and the election may be as good as over before it even began, as smart spending ensures that economic success dovetails with wins on the health front.

Fail to deliver, and hard-luck cases of lost jobs and failed businesses could begin to mount up in the months before election day.

Of course, it is rarely as simple as that, and there are many elements out of Ardern’s and Bridges’ control.

But by the end of this week, one of the major parties could end up with significantly steadier footing as they wait for the starting gun to fire.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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