Election up in the air

Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ
Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ
Parliament has moved to alter its processes to allow for its work to continue should there be reduced numbers of members of Parliament able to attend because of Covid-19.

The changes were supported by the National Party, a welcome show of solidarity in what has been an unimpressive performance by leader Simon Bridges since the Covid-19 crisis arrived.

Even the Prime Minister, in full schoolmarmish flight last week in the House, gave him a telling-off for his badgering over the Covid-19 testing regime, urging him to listen to experts, suggesting he was being "border-line irresponsible" and asking him to think about the audience he was speaking to. When he duly claimed his right to hold the Government to account, she pointed out she had held the position of the Leader of the Opposition and knew the difference between responsible and political.

This far into the Covid-19 crisis he has missed any opportunity to look statesman-like, something which has not gone unnoticed by commentators and likely by some prospective voters.

Covid-19 measures around Parliament include closing the public gallery from March 31 and not allowing members of the public to attend select committee hearings in person, even if they are giving evidence. Evidence will be given by teleconference or video-link. Committee proceedings will be able to be seen online.

What might happen to the general election date of September 19 is likely to remain the elephant in the room for some time yet. Ms Ardern has more pressing issues on her mind with the Covid-19 management than the issue of whether to reconsider the election date she announced in January.

She has said she has not sought any advice on a delay or alternative voting methods.

Potentially, the election date could be postponed until as late as December 12.

Under our law, Parliament must dissolve by October 12. To extend the term of this Parliament would require a 75% majority of all MPs.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis raises the possibility of National demanding "some sort of ‘Government of National Unity’ arrangement" which would give it a place in Cabinet, similar to what has happened in past war times.

He also explains that if the current September 19 date went ahead and the virus began circulating in the community making voting unsafe, recent amendments to the Electoral Act allow the chief electoral officer to stop voting at polling stations due to "an unforeseen or unavoidable disruption", which includes the issuing of an epidemic notice.

Voting can be stopped for an initial period of three days, with this able to be extended for a week at a time following consultation with the prime minister and the Leader of the Opposition. There is no time limit on this.

In this instance, the chief electoral officer can also implement "alternative voting processes". This could include allowing people to upload their ballot electronically as can be done for overseas voters.

Prof Geddis also suggests mobile voting booths could be permitted to bring the vote to people who are self-isolating, rather than require them to visit school halls or supermarkets.

The electoral law makes it clear the chief electoral officer, if making a decision to defer voting, must ensure the safety of voters and electoral officials, keep the process free from corrupt or illegal practices and ensure the election is conducted in a timely and expeditious manner.

Although Ms Ardern may not yet have sought formal advice on this, we are hopeful the chief electoral officer Alicia Wright and her staff are already looking closely at the logistics for all the possible options in what is shaping up to be a most extraordinary election year.

Comments

The country is facing a looming economic crisis and the electorate will be holding this Government to account if things go badly. Last night they said 100,000 hospitality workers could lose their jobs and I doubt these people will be worrying about Simon Bridges right now.

I thought the Government handled the announcement well today. I have read some social media comment wondering about the Council's plans and likelihood of putting rates increases on hold.

I would not trust this government to hold a fair election by electronic means. I am certain I am not alone in my sentiments here.

Yes, this virus is dangerous. I am in the immune-compromised population of New Zealand; I get that. But the threat to our nation if we do *not* hold regular, normal elections on time is far more sinister than losing a few old Kiwis like me.

Study your history, and particularly the history of countries with dictatorships and communist regimes, and you'll probably agree with me.

 

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