Healthy debate proof parties can work together

Michael Woodhouse speaks in the first reading debate on the 
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Michael Woodhouse speaks in the first reading debate on the Taxation (Covid-19 Resurgence Support Payments and Other Matters) Bill.
It did not take long for Covid-19 to make its malign presence felt in the political debate of 2021, as the reappearance of the pandemic disease in the community dominated proceedings this week.

In much of 2020, the urgent debate held on Tuesday to discuss the sudden change in alert levels on Sunday would have seen then health minister, Dunedin MP David Clark, square off against National Party list MP and health spokesman Michael Woodhouse, also of Dunedin.

A new year had Mr Woodhouse return to the topic as National’s fourth speaker in the debate, but this time he was followed not by Dr Clark but by former Otago University Students’ Association president Ayesha Verrall, who is now the associate minister of health.

Given Mr Woodhouse frequently used the report on contact tracing Dr Verrall was commissioned to write by the Government last year — before her decision to stand for Parliament — as a lens through which to hold it to account, there was a certain irony in this.

Mr Woodhouse made a gracious and constructive contribution, praising the Government’s actions so far but also pressing on issues such as the cost of the impact the pandemic has had on non-Covid-19 healthcare such as cancer treatment and mental health.

"I make no apologies for the fact that the Opposition has, for 11 months now, more than that, held the Government’s feet to the flames, praising when it’s due but criticising when it’s due," Mr Woodhouse said.

"Because that is the role of the Opposition, and I have no doubt that as a consequence of that we have made things faster, and often better, but there does still appear to be a leaden-footed response in some areas."

Ayesha Verrall speaks in Tuesday’s urgent debate on Covid-
19 alert levels. PHOTOS: PARLIAMENT TV
Ayesha Verrall speaks in Tuesday’s urgent debate on Covid- 19 alert levels. PHOTOS: PARLIAMENT TV

Dr Verrall’s response was poised and, unsurprisingly, well-informed, although she perhaps gave more details of sewage testing than some wanted to hear.

After a cogent explanation of viral transmission and case investigations, Dr Verrall closed on a note of collegial congratulations.

"I’m very proud of the work done by our border workers to keep us all safe, and pleased that they will be the first to be offered this vaccine that will keep them safe and our community safe," she said.

"We have done well by going hard and early through this global pandemic, and as a result, we are one of the freest societies and economies in the world."

Mr Woodhouse was far from done for the day, deployed as National’s lead speaker on the following debate, under urgency, to pass the Taxation (Covid-19 Resurgence Support Payments and Other Matters) Bill.

The legislation was, relatively, uncontroversial — no-one was going to oppose acceleration of payments to businesses doing it hard due to Covid-19.

However, it was an example how laws can be rapidly tweaked by active, practical discussion in the House.

Mr Woodhouse used his first reading speech to highlight his initial concerns regarding a Bill the Government had only presented at 10.30am.

This featured some fascinating off-microphone conversations with his opposite number Grant Robertson, as Mr Woodhouse ascertained either that the Government had spotted the problem and would address it, or that he had misunderstood the intent of a provision.

In another of the day’s ironies, Dr Clark took the first reading call after Mr Woodhouse, a Parliamentary equivalent of getting the band back together, although Dr Clark would probably not relish becoming a Blues Brother.

The Bill became an Act by dinner time, and in the process was a good example of how the House can work together, when it is of a mind to do so.

Local knowledge

When news of the new community cases of Covid-19 broke on Sunday, congregants at a Dunedin church may have had an early heads-up that something was afoot.

Aupito William Sio, the Minister for Pacific Peoples, was in Dunedin last weekend to attend the inaugural Moana Nui Festival.

On Sunday morning he was at worship at the EKFS church in Macandrew Rd when his phone started ringing red hot with news an emergency Cabinet meeting was being called to discuss how to respond to the news.

Covid-19 cancellations

Parliament, along with most of the rest of New Zealand, went back into Alert Level 2 mode for the first half of this week.

The number of MPs in the chamber was halved to allow for social distancing, and the draft order paper was suspended.

That also meant National MPs’ maiden speeches, including those of Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds and Southland MP Joseph Mooney, were postponed.

There have been several powerful maiden speeches so far, and a surprising number of MPs revealed Southern connections.

Some were sorrowful, as the Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who revealed that her great-grandfather, Hohepa Ngarewa Tumahuki, was the only member of her iwi to return home after several people were arrested in 1869 for trying to stop the confiscation of their land ... and were imprisoned in Dunedin.

Banks Peninsula Labour MP Tracey McLellan grew up in Southland and started school in Bluff, and Act New Zealand list MP Toni Severin grew up in Invercargill.

Meanwhile, Green list MP Elizabeth Kerekere, in a colourful and entertaining speech, touched on how her mother, Erin Kerekere, was raised in Dunedin by her parents Lorna and Tom Ryan.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

Comments

I had a snigger at Woodhouse's metaphor of holding the govt's feet to the flames over the Covid 19 response. I'm sure to the govt it felt more like a minor glow from an incompetent foot rub.

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