The opening of Parliament saw familiar barbs exchanged between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins, but the Māori Party’s new MPs have shown they are prepared to insert their unique approach into proceedings immediately
With each new parliamentary term comes a chance for fresh beginnings, to wipe the slate clean and avoid tribal politics – at least until the politicians actually make it into the debating chamber.
MPs of different stripes intermingled as they filed into the Legislative Council Chamber to hear the Speech from the Throne as part of Parliament’s state opening.
There was little of surprise in the speech, penned by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office but delivered by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, with news a Covid-19 vaccine would be free to New Zealanders the most novel point beyond a reiteration of Labour’s election manifesto.
The real fireworks were preserved for the Address in Reply debate, as politicians were given a chance to respond to the speech and the Government’s ambitions.
Any new-term goodwill from Judith Collins lasted all of a minute, with a sting in the tail as the National leader congratulated Ardern on her “remarkable election result”.
“She has a clear mandate to implement her agenda, and no excuses this time.”
Collins made it clear she intends to pick up where National left off before the Covid-19 pandemic shook up the political debate, with a focus on the Government’s failure to deliver on its grand promises.
“We all know that the Prime Minister has good intentions, but good intentions are not enough.”
She took shots at the “eye-watering debt” mounting up as part of the Government’s Covid-19 response, along with its transport plans and – somewhat oddly – frontline police feeling “disempowered and disrespected” under Ardern and her team.
“Since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister, the average house has earned more than the average worker … it’s a sad state of affairs, and it needs fixing right now.”
But Collins really sought to twist the knife on housing, the issue causing the Prime Minister the single-most discomfort at present.
“Labour has already wasted three years being distracted by a capital gains tax and KiwiBuild, and meanwhile house prices have jumped more than a third,” she said.
“Since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister, the average house has earned more than the average worker. Let’s say that one again, shall we? Since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister, the average house has earned more than the average worker … it’s a sad state of affairs, and it needs fixing right now.
It clearly struck a nerve, with Ardern diverting from an otherwise high-minded speech about the Government’s ambitions to offer a political attack of her own.
“I will forever find it galling to be lectured by the Leader of the Opposition who left us a housing crisis, denied it was a housing crisis, and, I have to say, whose major response to that housing crisis – their major response to the housing crisis – was to sell state houses, to cut the public housing waiting list, and on the one thing that apparently would make all the difference, planning, they did absolutely nothing – nothing.”
It was a reminder that Collins seems to get under Ardern’s skin in a way that Simon Bridges, Todd Muller and Bill English never quite did, the principal argument for keeping the current National leader in her post.
NZ’s Covid sacrifice
But Ardern largely, and understandably, focused on the Government’s Covid response as she paid tribute to the sacrifices made by New Zealanders during the country’s lockdown and promised to deliver a rebuild that fit their efforts.
“This Government does not take that sacrifice for granted, and that is why we owe New Zealand not just our gratitude. We owe them our ongoing action to make sure we preserve the gains that every single New Zealander contributed to, that every business that openly closed its doors when we asked, that cancelled a wedding or a celebration, that didn’t have a tangi or gather in a time of grief – we owe every single one of them to fight every day to preserve the gains that they fought so hard for too.”
ACT leader David Seymour was less complimentary about the Government’s pandemic efforts, saying it had squandered New Zealand’s natural advantages such as its remoteness through insufficiently swift action.
“We were told that there was no shortage of personal protective equipment when health professionals, including those I represent in Epsom, were on TV every night saying they had none in their hospital. We were told to be kind while absurd rules separated fathers from seeing their firstborn, and even wives from being supported as they miscarried with their supporters outside pacing in the car park.”
It is not a widely accepted argument, but it proved popular enough at the election for Seymour to be flanked with nine ACT colleagues enjoying their first taste of parliamentary debate.
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson also had nine MPs behind her, but she delivered a speech whose tone was on the far side of the spectrum from Seymour, as she emphasised the need for bolder action on family violence, the social safety net and climate change.
“If, as leaders, we are willing to bring the same urgency and clarity to our communications for climate change that we did for Covid, then we make possible the bold change we need.”
But it was the two leaders not in the debating chamber, Māori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who arguably left the biggest imprint on the day’s proceedings.
The pair withdrew in protest after they failed to secure a speaking slot, victims of parliamentary rules that would have required them to essentially forego their maiden speeches in order to respond to the other leaders.
Waititi may not have strictly followed standing orders in seeking to be allowed to speak, but it reflects poorly on Parliament that a reasonable, fair request could not be accommodated.
The furore was also a sign that the Māori Party will not be shy of seeking to make itself heard, as Waititi decried “the tyranny of our democracy for minority parties”.
Those unique perspectives are critical to the health of New Zealand’s democracy, which may face a few more tests throughout the rest of this term if Thursday’s proceedings were any guide.