Political parties are “universally agreed” new criteria is needed for virtual Parliament sittings, political editor Jo Moir reports

When Business Committee meets on Tuesday there will be discussions about how best to expand the circumstances in which virtual Parliament can be used.

Some political parties wanted it to be used this week, the first sitting of the House for the year, given the damage Cyclone Gabrielle already had and was forecast to inflict on the North Island.

When the committee, which consists of the Speaker and representatives from each political party, met on Monday afternoon the cyclone had been destructive, but it turned out the worst was still to come later that evening.

By 8.43am on Tuesday a national state of emergency had been declared after six regions declared local states of emergencies – a short time later a seventh region, Tararua, declared too.

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Shadow leader of the house, National’s Michael Woodhouse, was the first to speak at Monday’s Business Committee meeting and took the position Parliament should proceed as planned.

That meant any further discussion about a virtual option was taken off the table as consensus is required for any decisions.

MPs did agree that those who couldn’t make Parliament because of the weather would still have their votes counted in the House. Woodhouse says he was first to recommend it to the Leader of the House, Labour’s Grant Robertson.

Because Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was in Auckland and wouldn’t make it back to Parliament in time for his statement on Tuesday, proceedings in the House were changed to allow for a motion on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, followed by a ministerial statement on weather emergencies.

“The fact we need that conversation has been universally agreed, so that will take place both at the Business Committee, then when a decision needs to be made, at the Standing Orders Committee.” – Leader of the House Grant Robertson

The Prime Minister’s statement was moved to Wednesday, when Hipkins was expected to be back, and Question Time was scheduled for Thursday.

But when a national state of emergency kicked in, the committee met again, and Robertson laid out plans to include a statement on the latest cyclone developments in the House on Tuesday afternoon followed by a motion for Parliament to adjourn for a week.

In Parliament all parties agreed to the motion except the ACT Party.

In his adjournment speech, Woodhouse told MPs there hadn’t been enough time to get a virtual Parliament stood-up on Monday afternoon because it required private contractors, and at that stage most MPs would have made it to the House by Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning.

Given the events that played out and “now knowing there are 170,000 houses without power, a grid emergency; people on the roofs of buildings with water centimetres below them … on balance it is appropriate to suspend the actions of the House,” Woodhouse said on Tuesday afternoon.

Woodhouse told Newsroom the circumstances changed so much between the decisions made on Monday afternoon and the national state of emergency being called on Tuesday morning.

The current sessional order that allows remote participation for Parliament is specific to the pandemic.

“It’s Covid-related and is specifically to protect and prevent the spread of Covid through the chamber,” Woodhouse told Newsroom.

National isn’t opposed to using virtual Parliament in certain circumstances, but on Monday afternoon it seemed doable that most MPs would get to the House by Tuesday afternoon, he said.

Robertson told Newsroom political parties had reached consensus on needing to find a way to improve the criteria for when virtual Parliament is used.

“The fact we need that conversation has been universally agreed, so that will take place both at the Business Committee, then when a decision needs to be made, at the Standing Orders Committee.

“So you can expect a discussion about that over the following weeks and months,” Robertson said.

“We should have at least made Question Time an option, even if it was a virtual Question Time, but instead we’re forgoing Parliament completely.” – ACT deputy leader Brooke van Velden

The Green Party supports that discussion, but in the House on Tuesday MP Jan Logie expressed her disappointment the option wasn’t available ahead of this week so MPs in cyclone-damaged areas could have contributed.

“As we come to terms with the climate crisis, we need to strengthen our democracy to ensure those voices are stronger in this place as we make those changes,” she told the House.

ACT took the view that the Government needs to be held to account, particularly in an emergency when it takes on “extra powers”.

Deputy leader Brooke van Velden said her caucus colleagues made sure they got to Wellington to participate in what should have been Question Time.

“We should have at least made Question Time an option, even if it was a virtual Question Time, but instead we’re forgoing Parliament completely,” she told the House.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer had her husband drive her through the storm to get to Parliament after a virtual one was ruled out on Monday afternoon.

“We welcome the fact that there could’ve been a virtual solution, and that may well have been a good opportunity for us to be out on the ground and hold the Government to account.

“Unfortunately, that opportunity hasn’t been afforded. We look forward to that being discussed further in the future,” she told MPs.

Woodhouse told Newsroom each political party would need to decide what criteria works best for virtual Parliament and how many MPs would be an acceptable number to be physically required in the chamber.

He anticipated speaking to his caucus about that in the coming weeks but wanted to make sure virtual Parliament didn’t end up becoming the default.

The Standing Orders Committee is already hearing submissions on proposed changes to how Parliament runs – a review that takes place every three years.

If Business Committee decides it wants to put a new expanded criteria for virtual Parliament into place quickly, the Standing Orders Committee could expedite it and the Speaker could put a sessional order in place until more formal changes are made.

All of these options are set to be discussed when the Business Committee meets next week.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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