Covid-19: NZ politics enters a brave new world

As New Zealand goes into lockdown, so too - for now - does its political debate. Sam Sachdeva looks at what the suspension of Parliament and the normal political process may mean for our democracy and our country.

Announcing the countdown until a total lockdown of life in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not mince words.

“These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history.”

The same could be said of the restrictions placed on our usual political processes, albeit with very good reason in both cases.

The Government is set to invoke emergency powers in a range of legislation, from the Epidemic Preparedness Act to the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act, giving it the ability to amend laws and take actions without the usual safeguards.

It is a highly unusual situation for highly unusual times, and one which will concentrate political power in the hands of the executive.

Ardern told the media she intended to remain in Wellington rather than her usual residence of Auckland, allowing her easier access to the government officials and other experts who will be overseeing the lockdown and broader recovery effort in the weeks ahead.

Cabinet was split in two distinct groups at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting - a step being taken by many other New Zealand companies in a bid to reduce the risk of infection spreading.

The Prime Minister’s physical contact with others will also be curtailed, although Ardern said her office was still working on a plan to provide accessibility and accountability to the media.

“I anticipate I will only really be present here in this building [Parliament] and the building in which I live.”

Accountability to the Opposition will remain too: Ardern spoke of establishing “a select committee of some sort” to provide scrutiny of the Government’s actions at a time when its usual opportunities to do so would be severely curtailed.

“I want to give the public confidence that there will still be accountability and we will be enabling the Opposition to play that role.”

National leader Simon Bridges did not cover himself in glory with his initial response to the Government's coronavirus measures, but he has since taken a more conciliatory tone. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That may have come as a relief to National leader Simon Bridges, who ran the risk of fading even further into the background.

After a tone-deaf response to the Government’s first economic package last week, Bridges had been conspicuous in his absence; finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith and health spokesman Michael Woodhouse had instead fronted most interview requests from journalists, while his social media activity was limited to a handful of Facebook posts and tweets.

But he resurfaced on Monday, first with an interview on Magic Talk then with an announcement that National was suspending its political campaigning and would work “in a supportive and constructive way” with the Government.

It is not clear whether Ardern had already briefed him on the move into lockdown at that point - but it did not take a mind-reader to anticipate where the country and broader political climate was heading.

There is little appetite for partisan point scoring at present, not when we are all heading into the unknown.

But MPs will have one last chance to assume their traditional roles on Wednesday, when Parliament is recalled from its recess to deal with urgent business while it is still viable.

The business committee, made up of representatives from all political parties, will meet via teleconference on Tuesday to sketch out the parameters for that day and the path ahead.

But Hipkins has already signalled the parliamentary process will look markedly different.

MPs outside of Wellington have been asked not to travel to the capital on Wednesday “unless absolutely vital”, ensuring a lower attendance than normal to allow physical distancing.

The main orders of business will be receiving a formal epidemic notice issued by Ardern, as well as passing an imprest supply bill ensuring the Government can continue to access the funding it needs.

A new political normal

After that, political life will go on hold, with Parliament suspended indefinitely. Put into deep freeze is the Government’s regular legislative programme, as well as the work of select committees.

Hipkins said Parliament could meet again if absolutely essential, but that seems unlikely to occur for the next month - or possibly even longer.

“There is a lot of goodwill here. There's a recognition that we need to behave responsibly, we need to act with urgency to ensure that Parliament can do what it absolutely needs to do, but that also we need to lead by example,” he said.

“In fact, you know, Members of Parliament themselves will be staying home, we will also be in self-isolation, same as the rest of the country, and I think there is goodwill across the House to make sure that we are living up to the expectations we set of others.”

Unaffected, for now at least, is the election date: Ardern last week said it was too early to shift the date from September 19, a position she stood by in the face of the lockdown announcement.

But while forging ahead could yet prove achievable depending on infection rates, it may not be desirable even with the approval of health officials.

Heading into the polling booths on the heels of a near-total suspension of the usual democratic process would hand a huge structural advantage to the Government.

Of course, some could argue that governments always enjoy a head-start thanks to being in power, and that Labour would likely sweep to power anyway on the back of a competent response.

But at a time when the Government will have extraordinary powers to do what it wants, it would seem in the public interest to allow a period of (relative) normality to return before calling on the support of the voting public.

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