Tena koutou katoa. Today we can report 10 cases of Members of Parliament in the debating chamber.
One, Judith Collins, is from Auckland, with two others Chris Bishop and Michael Woodhouse, genomically linked. One is an ACT variant, David Seymour, who has not been in the community. Five are Labour members who have been essential workers. The final case is the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, who has isolated himself for four years.
We have no cases today from the Green Party or Te Paati Māori who continue to follow Level 4 protocols and respect regional borders. All who are present are following appropriate requirements for social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitising and political posturing.
As it turns out, less is indeed more.
Parliament’s recall on Tuesday for a tiny, historic sitting viewed as risky and unnecessary by Labour, the Greens and Te Paati Māori, but vital for democracy by National and ACT lived up to its oddity value.
Shorn of the usual trappings of barracking, time-wasting and virtue-signalling, it also stayed on point and within a veneer of decorum.
Serious public issues were examined without the distraction of patsy questions to ministers from Government backbenchers, or the personal and un-connected passions of MPs from other parts of the House.
Ministers fronted up, stood their ground and weren’t let off the hook.
National and ACT, who had insisted on this unusual kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) set-up to be able to grill the Government, when a virtual sitting had been on offer, had the chance to eyeball ministers and assert a kind of parliamentary equivalence.
Unfortunately for them, the Government had seen them coming, and in two cases was able to show that the inquisitors very probably had the wrong end of the stick.
True to the public messaging, everyone behaved as if they had Covid-19.
Nine MPs were sprinkled around the 120-seat chamber, no one within spitting distance of another, signs with red diagonals on the other 110 desks and hand sanitiser bottles strategically placed to bring Order when required. Voices were seldom raised. Aerosol clouds contained.
A masked Speaker Trevor Mallard sat at opposite ends of The Table from the Clerk of the House, who took a chair usually used by Hansard reporters.
There were two ministerial statements, on the Covid-19 Delta outbreak and its lockdown and on the Afghanistan airlift, plus six oral questions to ministers.
It was Chris Bishop for National who replied to Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins’ statement on the Delta outbreak, with his leader Judith Collins curiously choosing to speak instead to the Afghanistan deployment statement from Defence Minister Peeni Henare. Seymour, once again a caucus of one in the chamber, replied to both.
Parliament’s standing orders for such ministerial statements now allow not only a brief speech in reply from Opposition parties but time also for direct questioning of the minister concerned. On Covid, this allowed Bishop and Seymour to run out lines they’d been sharpening from afar, on Twitter and in media soundbites.
National’s shadow leader of the house Michael Woodhouse had justified his party’s demand for an in-person Parliament by suggesting there was something ‘tactile’ about debates in the chamber. Perhaps he meant it offered something three-dimensional, politically. Because even with 10 people in the House, Tuesday’s debate did produce more spirit, interchange and light than a multi-headed Zoom screen might make possible.
In the chamber, the standing obligation under privilege for MPs to tell the truth hangs heavy in the air. There’s also an unforgiving expectation within these walls on MPs making allegations to get them right.
Bishop, repeating a claim earlier made in the media, asked Hipkins about a NewstalkZB claim that the Government had asked vaccine maker Pfizer to slow down the supply of its product to New Zealand. Hipkins’ response: “Categorically no. At no point have we ever asked Pfizer to slow down deliveries.”
Later, in her oral question to the Prime Minister, National Leader Judith Collins tried the same line of questioning. Jacinda Ardern shot back: “The member is sharing factually misleading information” and she explained the only slow down raised with Pfizer had been for once the entire population who wanted to be vaccinated had received their doses, and how then to eliminate wastage with the four month expiry dates. “I wish the member would pay more attention.”
Collins was also caught out with a claim New Zealand was bottom of the OECD for vaccination rates. Unfortunately for her, it appeared her information was out of date and the big numbers achieved in this outbreak had moved the country slightly off that bottom rung. Ardern said Collins’ claim was wrong, “according to the latest information that I’ve been provided with”.
Bishop modified Collins’ claim when subsequently quizzing Hipkins about New Zealand having the “slowest or second slowest vaccination rollout, depending on how you cut the number, in the OECD”.
The Government justified its low ranking on having opted to go with one vaccine, Pfizer. “All the science has backed that decision, not a decision we have regretted,” Hipkins said, adding Pfizer had been “worth the wait”.
Bishop was incredulous. “So the Government made a conscious and deliberate decision to take longer over the vaccination rollout to ensure everyone can get Pfizer rather than a cocktail or variety of other vaccinations?”
Seymour was a shotgun rather than rifle in his approach, grilling Hipkins and Ardern on the failure to take up saliva testing, levels of wastewater testing, belated training of Covid tracers, the non-use of Bluetooth tracing from people’s Covid apps, the shortage of aged-care nurses while MIQ is blocked and the number of Covid infections transmitted during lockdown.
Woodhouse tried to pin Finance Minister Grant Robertson for running the Covid recovery fund too low through unrelated spending, but Robertson was able to reveal just $1.25 billion of the expected $2b had been spent in the first fortnight of lockdown on business and job support programmes. There had been $5b available at the start of the lockdown and in addition to this $1b of underspending on a business programme and a further $3b from elsewhere had been identified as available to deploy now.
So the opposition parties got their chance for a concentrated attack, and went at ministers hard. But it was almost as if, after their time working in isolation, ministers had developed antibodies to the setpiece criticisms.
The MPs get to do it all again on Wednesday. With Wellington moving to Level 3 it is possible a Green MP from the capital might also be in the chamber. And this micro Parliament is set to sit until at least the end of next week.