Southern Say: Timely lesson in at times farcical session

Liz Craig chairs the Health select committee. Image: NZ Parliament
Liz Craig chairs the Health select committee. Image: NZ Parliament
You know it’s a strange week in politics when the normally mild-mannered Liz Craig is at the centre of the biggest storm.

The Invercargill Labour list MP, being a doctor, seemed a natural fit to chair the Health select committee, both due to her professional background and a willingness demonstrated during her first term to work with other parties on Southland issues.

However, her skills as a chairwoman came under intense scrutiny last Wednesday after an at times farcical session.

This was always going to be a well-watched hearing as Dr Ashley Bloomfield and various other mandarins were the main attraction and Covid-19 the topic for discussion, but it did not get off to a good start by beginning well behind time - a factor which played no small part in the chaos which ensued.

The session began with Dr Craig asking the various officials for what turned out to be lengthy assessments on various issues, briefings which most rehashed familiar territory and left National’s Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop straining at the leash to ask a series of questions about the management of managed isolation and quarantine facilities in general and the handling of ‘‘Case B’’ from the latest community outbreak in Auckland in particular.

After waiting almost half of the allotted time Mr Bishop got to fire off his first question all right, but Dr Craig, conscious of time running out, rushed on to the next MP down the line.

This is not unusual, opposition members on select committees often defer to their fellow MPs, in the expectation that they will get another go after everyone else has had a crack.

And to be fair to Dr Craig, she did allow Act New Zealand leader David Seymour, as assiduous a scrutineer of the Government as Mr Bishop when it comes to Covid-19, to ask multiple questions, with follow-ups.

However, when Mr Bishop tried to resume the attack Dr Craig instead deferred to government MPs on the committee, and then when he tried to get either the session extended or officials asked to stay for longer she did her best not to entertain the motion.

Meanwhile, Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere was left wondering why she did not get to ask a question at all.

National later framed this as Dr Craig running interference for Dr Bloomfield et al, a move which seemed unnecessary as a skilled communicator like the Director-General of Health is more than capable of holding his own in front of a select committee.

But even granting the most charitable interpretation on Dr Craig’s actions, that she was conscious these were busy people with important jobs to get on with and that she did not wish to detain them any longer, this was still badly mishandled.

Speaker Trevor Mallard. Photo: NZ Herald
Speaker Trevor Mallard. Photo: NZ Herald

There was no indication from the officials that they needed to leave, and every indication that the committee was examining their performance on an issue of vital importance to all New Zealanders, particularly with the transtasman bubble opening.

While that was tor rid enough for Dr Craig, worse was to come on Thursday, when Speaker Trevor Mallard stood to ad dress the House be fore Question 5, in the name of Mr Bishop, was asked at Question Time.

Mr Mallard then delivered a convoluted, controlled, but unmistakably severe chastisement of Dr Craig’s handling of the committee hearing and handed Mr Bishop an extra four questions with which to quiz Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

‘‘What happened at that select committee yesterday was not in compliance with the spirit of the last standing orders report and assurances that have been given as to the ability to ask questions at the health committee on the Covid issue,’’ Mr Mallard said.

Thankfully for Dr Craig the House is now in recess so she will not be back in the hotseat immediately, but she can rest assured that the stop watch will be running on every health select committee meeting from now on, as National ensures it gets a fair crack of the whip.

The public can also be thankful Mr Mallard intervened.

The Government has a commanding majority, one which limits opportunities for Parliamentary scrutiny of its actions. While Mr Speaker and her majesty’s loyal opposition are still at war, Mr Mallard properly recognised they have a job to do on behalf of New Zealanders and is quite prepared to ensure they have the tools to do that job.

Health Minister David Clark says the Government   will delay its response to the report of the ...
David Clark is no longer health minister but his interest in the sector, particularly the mental health sector, has not waned. Photo: ODT files

And about time

Dunedin MP David Clark has just introduced the Incorporated Societies Bill into Parliament, a proposed law change which will replace legislation which is 110 years old.

The law, which governs the administration of clubs, associations and federations, includes such provisions as a maximum penalty of a shilling a day for the late filing of financial reports, and a fine of up to £100 for seeking pecuniary gain for society members.

Hear hear

Dr Clark was a particularly enthusiastic cheerleader on Wednesday as Health Minister Andrew Little defended Labour’s performance in the area of mental health, nodding enthusiastically from the seat behind him as Mr Little praised the work of previous health ministers.

Dr Clark is no longer health minister but his interest in the sector, particularly the mental health sector, has not waned - he still almost always wears a Need to talk? 1737 on his lapel wherever he goes.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

 

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