Hands across the aisle as Parliament locks down

As the nation's politicians prepared to join New Zealand in lockdown, there was time for one last burst of urgent legislation - and some vital messages to the country. Newsroom's political editor Sam Sachdeva reports.

The black and white tiles by the entrance to Parliament’s debating chamber are a familiar sight to any political junkie who watches the 6pm news.

On a normal sitting day, the tiles are usually packed with scrums of journalists, cameras and microphones accosting any politician interesting enough to be stopped on their way in, while security officers stand guard and visitors pass by.

But Wednesday, like every day to follow for the next month, was not normal.

Photographers and camera operators were allowed to record the historic moment, but the usual stream of MPs and hangers-on across the airbridge was reduced to a trickle, those who had the dubious honour of attendance marvelling at the clear space as they walked by.

Walking down to the chamber entrance from National’s offices a few levels up, Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye pushed up against the handrail in mock caution as journalists ascended, offering an elbow waggle in lieu of a handshake.

The atmosphere inside was also strikingly different.

Where schoolkids and tour groups would normally sit and whisper to each other, the public galleries were empty, making it easier to hear the exchanges between the MPs before Speaker Trevor Mallard arrived.

Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee engaged in some mild bickering with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour colleagues, seemingly related to a breach of an agreed seating plan (the mistake, whatever it was, was swiftly rectified).

There was also time for a moment or two of levity, however.

“Here he is, the hottest parliamentarian,” Green Party co-leader James Shaw exclaimed as National’s finance spokesman and unlikely coronavirus heartthrob Paul Goldsmith entered the chamber.

“Unlike so many other gravely inundated countries, we have a window of opportunity to stay home, break the chain of transmission, and save lives - it's that simple.”

When Mallard did arrive - having scrapped the formal procession that usually accompanies the Speaker - it was quickly down to business.

There was plenty of it to get through, including the review of a formal epidemic notice and the passing of several new laws and amendments designed to give the Government the powers it needs to manage the coronavirus response.

But it was in Ardern’s ministerial statement on the move to a lockdown, and in the response of other leaders, that politicians had their last real chance to send a message from Parliament to the public.

Outlining the move to Level 4 on New Zealand’s Covid-19 system, the Prime Minister hammered home the same three-pronged message being shared by all levels of officialdom in the country.

“Unlike so many other gravely inundated countries, we have a window of opportunity to stay home, break the chain of transmission, and save lives - it's that simple.”

Non-essential businesses would shut down, all public gatherings would be cancelled, schools closed and transport restricted. Not that its effect would immediately become clear, Ardern cautioned.

“Make no mistake: this will get worse before it gets better. We will have a lag, and cases will increase for the next week, or actually more. Then we’ll begin to know how successful we have been.”

New Zealand had to move at speed, she said, acting when it felt too early and not before it was too late.

“You may not be at work, but that doesn't mean you don't have a job. Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home and breaking the chain.”

Green Party co-leader James Shaw, without his usual caucus. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

In response, National leader Simon Bridges offered not his usual flurry of verbal jabs but a helping hand.

“Today on the big questions in this House and in New Zealand, we agree. There's no National or Labour or Green, or ACT, or New Zealand First; just New Zealanders.”

He would prefer the shutdown was seen as an overreaction in hindsight, “because it means people didn’t die needlessly”, but said international evidence suggested such a claim would not be made.

“He waka eke noa,” Bridges concluded, “a canoe which we are all in. With no exception, we are all in this together.”

Green Party co-leader James Shaw offered effusive praise for Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson and “their extraordinary leadership in this extraordinary time”, while New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin reflected on her family’s own history of suffering at the hands of a virus.

“My grandmother on my father's side lost her father and her little brother in 1918 during the influenza epidemic, and then she and her sister had to stay with the Sisters of Mercy. These are the stories we don't want other families to have to pass down.”

But it was ACT leader David Seymour - who on Tuesday had been critical of the Government’s decision to shut down Parliament - who perhaps best put the month (or more) of lockdown into rightful perspective.

“I've counselled people who have approached me with a simple bit of advice: this is a generational-defining period.

“People will remember how you, your household, your business, your institution makes its choices at this time. They will judge and they will remember.”

They will also remember how our politicians handled the occasion too - and while none have been perfect, at the very least their last stint inside the chamber served their legacy well.

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