Judith Collins made a complete hash of explaining why she should be at Parliament. But she deserves to be there, writes political editor Jo Moir.

There’s only so many principles that hold up during a nationwide disaster.

The rulebook for the most part goes out the window and the Prime Minister of the day unsurprisingly ends up getting a disproportionate public stage to that of the Opposition leader.

This has been the case for decades, even centuries. From world wars to natural disasters, to terrorist acts and pandemics.

But where New Zealand governments have struck a fair balance is the invitations that have been extended to Opposition leaders when such tragedies have struck.


In the same way then-Labour leader Andrew Little joined then-Prime Minister John Key to assess the damage after the Kaikoura earthquake, former National leader Simon Bridges accompanied Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

Covid is New Zealand’s new nightmare and it’s entirely reasonable for National’s Judith Collins to expect to be at Parliament and have access to the press gallery, which for the most part is covering the decisions and providing unfolding coverage of nationwide lockdown.

That doesn’t mean the House has to sit in person, given the health advice was not to, but it does mean Collins has every right to be where the decisions are being made.

Whether Parliament should be sitting and how it should sit is a different debate, and Collins has done a dismal job of explaining why a virtual Parliament wouldn’t work.

Her attempts to do so have been muddled and confused at best, and when asked to explain in a TVNZ interview on Wednesday she resorted to attacking the media.

The result of a slimmed down real-life Parliament is getting to question fewer ministers than the Opposition would have if it had agreed to a full virtual Parliament.

It also got more questions under last week’s select committee regime, while the House was suspended.

While the committees were chaired by Labour MPs there’s no doubt the Opposition got the bulk of the time to scrutinise those ministers and public officials fronting each day.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins told media on Wednesday National had “rewritten history’’ by claiming to have asked for the Epidemic Response Committee instead.

Hipkins said Collins wanted the committee to restart in addition to Parliament sitting – something the Government wasn’t willing to entertain.

And why would it? Labour is the biggest party in Parliament and has a majority government.

If it’s good enough for Ardern to be here in a national emergency, it’s good enough for Collins too.

The epidemic committee was set up during lockdown last year and chaired by then-Opposition leader Simon Bridges to reflect the fact Parliament couldn’t sit for weeks on end and there had been no preparations around how a Zoom Question Time might work.

Zoom is now widely used and understood.

And National’s 33 MPs (if you count excommunicated Todd Muller) don’t have much of a leg to stand on compared to National of last year and its 55 MPs.

As the biggest party in Parliament last year, Bridges had the ammunition to call for an Opposition-led committee and Labour (in its three-party government arrangement with New Zealand First and the Greens) knew it needed to be seen to be held to account when it had put the nation in its first-ever lockdown.

Everything changed at last year’s election and Labour had no need to grant Collins the epidemic committee and certainly wasn’t going to agree to the House sitting and the committee convening.

But while Collins was unrealistic in her expectations, she’s within her right to be in Parliament.

If it’s good enough for Ardern to be here in a national emergency, it’s good enough for Collins too.

While she had to travel from Auckland, she’d played by the rules beforehand having not been to any locations of interest and being fully vaccinated.

And Collins isn’t wrong to point out Ardern had also been in Auckland prior to the lockdown during the time the virus was in the community, arguably more dangerous than being hunkered down in your own four walls.

Now that Collins is here, she’s playing her hand right by staying in Wellington for the duration of the sitting block through until the end of next week and not commuting back to Auckland.

It’s a smart move and backs up her point about the importance of being in Wellington.

Parliament is operating effectively under Level 4 conditions as dictated by the Speaker Trevor Mallard and based on the advice from the Director-General of Health, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield.

That advice included mask-wearing, distancing of more than 2m and a limited number of people in the Chamber.

Asked if that advice changed on Wednesday when Wellington moved into Alert Level 3, Bloomfield told Newsroom the same rules apply.

“The advice is still designed to restrict unnecessary contact between people … and I would see that advice continuing through the week.’’

That advice raises questions about the Green Party’s logic.

The party took a stand on Tuesday and stayed away from Parliament while the House was sitting under Level 4.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw was absent from Parliament on Tuesday, but showed up on Wednesday. Photo: Mark Mitchell/Pool Photo

On Wednesday when Wellington had moved to Alert Level 3, MPs James Shaw and Jan Logie turned up.

While Wellington might have stepped down a level, nothing about Parliament has changed overnight and Bloomfield has been clear his advice remains the same.

If the Greens are so concerned about Collins having travelled from Auckland – the heart of the outbreak – then the National leader sleeping one night in Wellington won’t have undone any of that so-called risk.

It screams of the Greens trying to make a political point one day, only to set a match to its so-called principles the next.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw told Newsroom, “You can’t not show up forever’’.

“You’ve got to be here if the business of the House isn’t being conducted online, and it’s not.’’

While that’s entirely true, nothing about the environment the Green MPs are entering has changed from one day to the next.

Te Paati Māori has at least been consistent in its position, refusing to take part in Parliament while Wellington is at Alert Level 4 or 3.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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