Lawmakers still juggling many issues

The Epidemic Response Committee sits on Wednesday. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
The Epidemic Response Committee sits on Wednesday. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
At Parliament you might be forgiven for thinking it was all Covid-19 all the time, but there are many more bubbles in the air than the pandemic.

On Wednesday morning the Epidemic Response select committee was grabbing headlines left, right and centre with its unprecedented decision to subpoena the Solicitor-general, then just minutes later changing news websites’ breaking news banners with its grilling of Director-general of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

Elsewhere in cyberspace many other parliamentary select committees were zooming through their work, proving life does not just stop even if Alert Level 3 would like it to.

For example, the Social Services and Community select committee — chaired by now Dunedin-domiciled Green MP Gareth Hughes — was up bright and early so as to hear from Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins before he had to duck away to his council’s annual plan hearings.

The committee is considering the Residential Tenancies Bill, which proposes a major shake-up of how the rental property sector functions.

Back in the dim dark ages BC — Before Covid — this was a controversial Government policy announcement.

Given that it was all about people’s homes it was always going to be hotly debated, but the issue has taken on even greater significance given that a few months afterwards the proposals were announced the whole country was ordered to stay at home ... a development which left both tenants and landlords wondering anew about their rights and obligations.

This is a double-stranded Bill for the DCC; as well as having thousands of residents either owning or living in rented accommodation, it is also a substantial landlord in its own right, hence Mayor Hawkins’ 8.45am appointment.

He and Mr Hughes were not the only southern politicians up and about and considering weighty policy matters.

Both Dunedin South MP Clare Curran and Clutha-Southland NZ First list MP Mark Patterson were also up with the sparrows, along with their education and workforce select committee colleagues, to listen to a range of submissions on the Holidays (Bereavement Leave After Miscarriage) Amendment Bill (No2).

As the title implies, this Bill sets out to allow grieving parents to take bereavement leave after losing a baby before full term.

It is a compassionate, caring idea ... and it has its genesis in Dunedin.

In 2016 Kathryn van Beek wrote to all Dunedin MPs following her own miscarriage, asking why she was not entitled to take bereavement leave for her loss.

Ms van Beek met Ms Curran early in 2017, who advised she form a support network to lobby for a law change.

Clare Curran addresses a select committee from home with a painting of a peninsula landscape...
Clare Curran addresses a select committee from home with a painting of a peninsula landscape behind her. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV

Hutt South Labour list MP Ginny Andersen heard the call and introduced a Member’s Bill which attracted support from all sides of the House at its first reading.

While the central concept is non-contentious, there are fish hooks in this Bill which the select committee process is designed to tackle.

For example, there are issues with privacy if the reason for the leave being taken is recorded.

Also, as Dunedin’s Amy Dowdle noted in her submission on behalf of Graduate Women, there is the possibility that some might see the Bill as a change to relitigate the legal status of the foetus in New Zealand, just weeks after the passage of the Abortion Legislation Act.

There were four other committees in session on Wednesday including Health which, oddly in the circumstances, was considering water regulations and several petitions rather than anything Covid-19 related.

Proof positive, if it were needed, that pandemic or no pandemic, life still goes on.

Watch the walls instead

One of the nosy pleasures of select committee meetings by Zoom is being able to, literally, see behind the scenes of our politicians.

While some have "attended" from their offices and others such as Dunedin North MP David Clark from in front of a Covid-19 alert level banner, most are still in their home bubble.

There are some who have simply plonked their laptop down on the kitchen table, but some have obviously given great thought to their backdrop.

Clare Curran has been checking in with a terrific painting of a peninsula landscape behind her, while Mark Patterson has a triptych of a braided river artfully positioned behind him.

Avast ye swabs

Whangarei MP Shane Reti got a slew of written answers to Parliamentary Questions back from Dr Clark earlier this week, but was far from pleased with them — as he set out in the Covid-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Bill’s first reading debate on Tuesday.

The Bill, an omnibus of pandemic response law changes, includes an amendment to the Coroners Act mandating post-mortem testing of possible Covid-19 deaths.

Which Dr Reti approves of ... but he had earlier asked Dr Clark if such tests had been carried out, only to be told "I’m advised that this information is not collected by the Ministry of Health in a form that is able to be reported on".

Not unreasonably, Dr Reti asked, "Why on Earth are we passing legislation if we’re not going to be able to do anything with it?"

It’s an emergency

In a week noteworthy for its lack of stoushes between Dr Clark and his National counterpart Michael Woodhouse, there was one exception.

In the absence of Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare, it fell on Dr Clark to make a ministerial statement on the continuation of the Covid-19 state of emergency.

Normally this would be uncontentious, unless the Opposition was hankering for the emergency to be all but over and Alert Level 2 declared right this instant.

"I think it’s appropriate to ask the minister: ‘Is the extension because an emergency has occurred, is occurring, or will occur?’," Mr Woodhouse asked.

Dr Clark played a straight bat in reply, simply noting that the country was in a state of national emergency because of the unprecedented nature of a global pandemic.


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