Scrutinising our Parliament

A restricted Parliament sat in Wellington this week.

The sitting in person was opposed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but insisted on by National and Act leaders Judith Collins and David Seymour.

But do people really care whether the House was operating? And should they care?

The answer to the first question is largely no.

Constitutional niceties seem irrelevant at the best of times, let alone when we are preoccupied with the worries of the pandemic.

Ms Ardern, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins have the stage each day. Most New Zealanders back the lockdown and the elimination strategy and want our leaders to get on with it.

It can be miserable in Opposition. You speak and hardly anyone wants to listen. You proclaim policy and that is easily dismissed as unrealistic. You are impotent and a long way from the levers of power.

This is even worse when the country faces grave threats, be that war or disease. A swathe of the populace will go further when criticisms are raised. You are being unpatriotic. You are undermining the efforts of the team of five million.

The then National leader, Simon Bridges, suffered in this regard during the lockdown last April. He made comments, which later proved legitimate. But the timing and tone were unfortunate. He was excoriated.

National has judged the mood better this time, although some of Ms Collins responses have seemed clunky.

Her outburst on Breakfast television on Wednesday did her no favours. She even had a go — like Donald Trump or Winston Peters might — at the interviewer and the media. Later, on Twitter, she accused Breakfast of being the media wing of the Labour Party.

Labour, however, does not see the media as its stooge.

National’s Covid spokesman Chris Bishop, meanwhile, has shown a defter hand in pointing out Government policy and implementation flaws and the lack of preparedness for Delta.

The public, generally, are more receptive this year both to the questioning and to recognising the failures.

At the same time they are also largely supportive of the lockdown and general direction of the Covid response.

That attitude is important. Any government and bureaucracy left to themselves will be less effective, more complacent, and prone to hubris. Outside examination is vital.

New Zealand’s mainstream media, always an essential pillar of democracy, has achieved much since last March.

It has revealed major flaws and inconsistencies, prompting change.

It has also helped explain what is happening without the often-thick coating of self-justifying Government spin.

It throws into the public mix various voices (while eschewing the conspiracy theorists), as well as reporting on those suffering. Would the Government, for example, be changing the MIQ booking system if the unfairness and the stories of heartbreak had not been highlighted?

It has acted, too, as a conduit for the voices of public health experts. They continue to contribute much to understanding and debates.

There has also been media comment about the effectiveness of the Epidemic Response Committee last year, headed by Mr Bridges. And select committees, now dominated through Labour’s parliamentary majority, do not provide sufficient opportunities for accountability.

The media, for all its faults and sometimes biases, is also a conduit for the Opposition to reach the public.

It was able to put Ms Collins’ arguments that Parliament-in-person was crucial to accountability and scrutiny as well as being safe from Covid risk.

Ms Ardern could give her view that a Zoom alternative would have been sufficient at this time.

Public sympathy on this will fall mostly along the line of basic allegiances.

While we doubt whether Parliament-in-person was necessary right now, Labour also turned the matter into political point-scoring.

Public, clear and fair places for the Opposition to scrutinise the Government, its ministers and its bureaucracy are essential.

This is especially important in such unprecedented times.

Comments

The Government is also working on a significant restructure of the country in many areas. Without a shadow of a doubt the Government will be progressing these projects behind the scenes while public attention is diverted elsewhere. I think it is vitally important that Parliament meets and the Opposition parties continue to question all the planning and decisions of Government, it is not just about Covid.

It can be convened by Zoom. With the covid numbers reducing daily, there will be no issue over risk, except that generated by the Opposition.

Which areas?

 

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