Odd scenes in a Parliament stripped of its audience

The return of Parliament after over a month in lockdown was a muted affair, but a chance for party leaders to reclaim a smidgen of the spotlight from Jacinda Ardern, Sam Sachdeva writes

Less a bear pit, more a bare pit.

With a few dozen MPs spaced out around a largely empty debating chamber, the resumption of Parliament on Tuesday resembled normality, but only superficially - a sensation politicians and the public alike are getting to grips with.

Paper towels and bottles of disinfectant were spread around the desks, allowing MPs to wipe down their chairs and desks before handing over to a replacement.

Perhaps that was why the atmosphere felt more sanitised than usual, stripped of the raucous heckling and drama that give Parliament its distinct feel.

Question Time’s critics (this reporter included) often argue it is theatre without substance - and just as any play stripped of its audience would lose its spark, so too did the opposition attacks and government parries feel a little hollow.

It was the preceding ministerial statement on the Covid-19 response from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the party leaders’ replies, that offered the most interest.

“What greater example of a nation is there than one which unites in the defence of our most vulnerable and, ultimately, in defence of our way of life?”

Ardern’s speech was a chance to both trumpet the success of the lockdown and defend the logic behind its duration.

She compared New Zealand favourably to nations like Germany, Australia and Singapore on the speed of border closures and financial assistance, while praising the collective action of millions of Kiwis.

“What greater example of a nation is there than one which unites in the defence of our most vulnerable and, ultimately, in defence of our way of life?”

But she sought to head off the suggestion that the lockdown had been overkill, citing Treasury analysis showing “the very worst thing for the economy would be the uncertainty of those sectors yo-yoing between levels”.

“We are doing what we can to do it once and do it right,” Ardern said, noting that modelling showed a week longer than planned at Level 4 was better than returning to high alert longer down the line.

The challenge for her Government is to prove it can handle not just a health crisis but an economic one too, and with Budget Day barely a fortnight away she offered some hints of the path ahead.

“We retrain people. We work in partnership with sectors to find new ways of doing business. Along the way, we engage with the business community to ensure a rapid recovery.”

Bridges improves, but leaks undermine

It was twice bitten, thrice shy for National leader Simon Bridges, after his responses to both the Government’s Covid financial package and the decision to extend lockdown seemed badly out of sync with public opinion and the nature of the occasion.

His speech this time was much more measured: he even opened on a positive note, noting “a lot in relation to Covid and the response has gone incredibly well,” although his praise was aimed at the public rather than the Government.

Thematically, there was little different from his previous remarks on areas of weakness in the response: namely the quantity and quality of testing and contact tracing, the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the economic damage being caused by lockdown restrictions. 

They are all areas that have caught the public’s attention and raised legitimate concerns (although the latter is the most contentious of the trio), but Bridges had struggled to make a coherent case for his side of the argument.

That changed somewhat on Tuesday as Bridges turned Ardern’s words against her; where we had stopped a wave of devastation crashing onto the health of our population, “we now face another wave, a bigger wave - the risk of economic devastation”.

“We've flattened the curve; we don't need to flatten our country. Indeed, we now need another curve, an upward growth curve - growth, jobs, and a track back to normality.”

The substance of the story [about Simon Bridges] - a gripe about internal policy-making procedures - is less significant than the fact several MPs decided to air the matter in public.

The effect was undercut by the repetition of the somewhat facile mantra that “we need to get New Zealand working again”, but overall it was a dramatic improvement.

Bridges would have every right then to be furious with whichever members of his caucus opted to leak a critical letter from Nick Smith to Newshub on the eve of Parliament’s return.

The substance of the story - a gripe about internal policy-making procedures - is less significant than the fact several MPs decided to air the matter in public.

Bridges did his best to bat away questions about the letter, saying no MPs had raised problems with his leadership at the day’s caucus meeting.

But such is the nature of politics (and the media) that the mere denial of his role being under threat only amplifies the rumours.

New disease, familiar prescriptions

Shockingly, Winston Peters managed to resist any obvious jabs in a speech that unsurprisingly stuck close to New Zealand First’s populist, nationalist sentiment.

“If we can grow it or make it at near competitive prices, then we will grow it or make it, use it or export it, rather than use valuable offshore funds importing it.

“The pitfalls of globalism have been laid out dramatically before us, and some of us have known that for a long, long time and have been saying it,” Peters pronounced.

The Green Party and ACT likewise stuck to their strengths: Greens co-leader Marama Davidson spoke of a future “where people, no matter where they are from, have everything they need to lead fulfilling, meaningful, and prosperous lives, where our precious plants and animals are protected and our wild places are looked after for future generations”, while ACT leader David Seymour argued a big crisis did not need to lead to big government.

“It would be a mistake to reward the institution of government by expanding it when its failures are in part responsible for the scope and size of the crisis we now face.”

In one sense, the speeches provided some normality: the disease may be new, but the political prescriptions were the same.

But less dogmatic, more unconventional thinking will almost certainly be needed in the coming months.

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