The committee keeping the Government honest

The contours of the new “coronavirus committee” which will scrutinise the Government’s Covid-19 response in the absence of Parliament have been outlined for the first time

From 11.59pm on Wednesday night, the Government will assume hitherto unseen control over the lives of New Zealanders.

With Parliament joining other workplaces in entering lockdown, the obvious question was who would hold our elected ministers and officials to account.

In the wake of the unprecedented decision, Leader of the House Chris Hipkins promised an accountability mechanism of sorts to keep a check on the executive. Now, some more meat has been put on those bones of that promise.

Speaking to media on Tuesday, Speaker Trevor Mallard confirmed Parliament's business committee - made up of representatives from all political parties - had agreed to establish a special select committee to run for at least the next month in the absence of Parliament.

The 11-person committee will be chaired by National leader Simon Bridges or a nominee of his choosing, and will have five National MPs in total -  meaning the Opposition, with the addition of ACT leader David Seymour, will hold a majority (a relatively rare state of affairs).

Mallard said the committee would have “unusual powers” akin to those of the Privileges Committee - the powerful body tasked with investigating alleged breaches of privilege or contempt of the House, and has subpoena-like powers to summon people and receive documents.

With Parliament not resuming until April 28 at the earliest, the committee will be the only real opportunity for the Government to be held to account within our constitutional framework.

Speaker Trevor Mallard said Parliament had to lead by example by avoiding unnecessary physical interaction during the lockdown period. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Speaking to reporters, Bridges confirmed he intended to chair the committee but said he had not settled on who National’s other members would be.

He indicated finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith and health spokesman Michael Woodhouse would likely both be involved, but said the membership could in fact change depending on the topic of discussion.

“I think it’s a valuable chance for constructive scrutiny of the Government that will make the nation’s response to Covid-19 a better and a stronger one.

“We’re dealing with things right now, and in the next month or two, that will affect a generation - both in terms of lives but also many, many, many billions of dollars that are being spent.”

Mallard believed the committee would meet twice or three times a week, starting from next week, and its work will include hearing from the officials and ministers leading the government response.

While Mallard said the committee would meet remotely via videoconferencing, Bridges said he would base himself in Wellington and intended to chair the meetings in a room of Parliament.

“I'm encouraging my National members, when we’ve sorted out who that will be exactly…[to] be physically here - of course distancing yourself from each other, and so on, but so there is a physicality to it.

“All of that said, it will also be online and I fully expect other members of the committee, and indeed those officials that would be presenting to us then answering our questions, to on occasion be virtual as well.”

'Greatest peacetime loss of civil liberties'

While the business committee’s decision-making process requires cross-party consensus, not all leaders are entirely happy with the decision to adjourn Parliament.

Seymour labelled the decision to adjourn Parliament “misguided”, noting the sweeping emergency powers the Government would assume and arguing there was no reason to suspend democracy in any form - even in the current climate.

“It may be necessary for the Government to have these extraordinary powers. If so, it is critical that Parliament is able to continue to hold the Government to account…

“New Zealanders have just faced the greatest peacetime loss of civil liberties in our history, and it is possible we may not have an election this year. ACT believes there should be a Question Time and local electorate offices should remain open.”

Bridges said his preference heading into the meeting had been to keep Parliament running in a limited capacity with a skeleton crew of MPs as would be the case on Wednesday.

“It seemed to me that keeping Parliament running, given that I think if we’re realistic about this it could be more than a month that we’re talking about, was right and proper.”

But he labelled the new select committee a “very good outcome” which would provide the scrutiny that New Zealanders deserved.

And Mallard was unrepentant about the decision to close Parliament down for the time being, along with the rest of New Zealand.

“There's a real balancing act here, and I think there's a strong view amongst most members of Parliament that Parliament has to take leadership in stamping this virus out, and having members of Parliament flying around the country, interacting in big groups here and then going through the airports, if in fact planes are flying, would not be a good thing.

“What we think we've got here is a balance of accountability, because of a very powerful committee, chaired by the leader of the Opposition, who can make arrangements to effectively interrogate ministers or public servants on their actions around the pandemic.”

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