Election 2020

School’s out, but electoral homework lies ahead

Attention spans were low and hijinks high on Parliament's last sitting day before the September 19 election, as Sam Sachdeva writes

“Welcome to the last day of school.”

Chris Hipkins’ opening line at his last Covid-19 press conference before the dissolution of Parliament was remarkably fitting - not just because the Education Minister has the youthful appearance of someone who could fit in as well at the school canteen as at the Cabinet table.

With just over six weeks until the 2020 election, and less than a month until the start of advance voting, MPs have been palpably eager to be released from their marble-fronted classroom to go play on the campaign trail.

But that enthusiasm is mixed with fatigue after a draining year for New Zealand and the world as a whole, and a particularly difficult month or two for our political culture.

Thursday had a much more leisurely air to it, with just one last Question Time to get through before the traditional adjournment debate.

Speaker Trevor Mallard, the nominal headmaster, struggled somewhat to keep his unruly pupils in order.

First, National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee attracted Mallard’s ire for the ironic tone of a question about the Government’s handling of managed isolation.

Then Police Minister Stuart Nash flirted with the wrong side of the law as he asked Megan Woods: “Did the minister ever uncover any evidence of Casper the homeless ghost - I mean guest - as reported by the Opposition?”

A WTF moment

Things really went off the deep end when Labour’s Kiritapu Allan took an alphabet-soup approach to asking Finance Minister Grant Robertson about the state of New Zealand’s economy.

“What did the HLFS, QES, and LCI say about wages, and how will the Government's investment from the CRRF, including the IRG projects administered by the CIP, and the PDU support wage growth through the lens of the LSF and the CPF priorities?”

“OMG! I thank the MP for the OPQ,” came the not at all scripted response, before more acronym bingo that Newsroom readers should be spared from hearing in full. 

“So I very much look forward to updating this House on the results of the next HLFS, QES, GDP, PMI, and CPI, but, first, we've got to duck out for an election - BRB,” Robertson concluded.

The Labour side of the House erupted in laughter, but National’s Chris Bishop was less amused - “WTF,” he could be heard exclaiming.

A relative lull followed, before National’s Simon O’Connor and Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi livened things up with an attempt to one-up each other in pedantry.

Asked by O’Connor about “his” Government’s failure to reduce the social housing waitlist, Faafoi responded in part: “It’s not my Government, it is the Prime Minister’s.”

Not to be outdone, the National MP and former chairman of Monarchy New Zealand rose to his feet with a point of order: “Firstly, I didn't actually hear a confirmation of the number, and, secondly, it's Her Majesty's Government and always will be.”

As Ardern herself noted, “this term will be remembered for what was unplanned as much was what was planned”: the March 15 terror attack; the eruption at Whakaari/White Island; Covid-19.

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has many talents, stand-up comedy is generally not one of them, explaining her somewhat earnest opening adjournment speech.

“This Government was formed because we believed that New Zealand could be and should be better and kinder, and two years and 10 months later, here we are having passed, I understand, close to 190 pieces of legislation,” Ardern said, presenting it as proof of both the coalition’s workload and its ability to find consensus between its three members.

The Zero Carbon Act, public housing programme and mental health investment were among the initiatives to be name-checked. But as Ardern herself noted, “this term will be remembered for what was unplanned as much was what was planned”: the March 15 terror attack; the eruption at Whakaari/White Island; Covid-19.

“But I can tell you this: the values that we campaigned on in 2017, the aspirations that we had coming into this place, remain unchanged.”

It was a lack of change that National leader Judith Collins attacked in her own speech, mentioning the failures of KiwiBuild, electric vehicle uptake and light rail and criticising a lack of effort to steer New Zealand through a post-Covid recovery.

“What I hear from the leader of the Labour Party: a whole lot of pixie dust and talking about how everything's just going to be fine. That's what I heard. An awful lot of dust; dust - that was all it was,” Collins proclaimed, Ardern studiously ignoring her throughout.

Winston Peters and James Shaw have exchanged a fair few barbs in the last month, but the relationship seemed bruised rather than broken in the adjournment debate. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is both less able to resist the bait and more willing to get personal, as demonstrated by his opening line: “That was eyebrow-raising stuff - and I don't use Botox!”

Peters jabbed back at National interjections throughout, while still prosecuting the case that his party made the right decision in opting for Labour over National in 2017.

“When this term began and through the first months, you can remember the cacophony of sound from some in the media that the Government wouldn't last. Well, last we have. Providing stable and constructive government again is now an undeniable fact, and we're proud of our record.”

There were words of praise for Labour, and “dare I say it, the Greens” for their collaboration on initiatives like providing free medical checks for superannuitants.

If the kindness took Greens co-leader James Shaw by surprise, it didn’t deter him from an opening jab of his own.

“It's always a pleasure to follow the Right Honourable Winston Peters in debate. I'll miss it, to tell you the truth.”

Then came some mock slogans. “New Zealand First: you can stop progress”; of ACT’s advocacy for gun owners, “More deadly than serious”; and National - “Why vote for the lesser evil?”

“When the polls open in four weeks' time, that is what we are deciding; not which individuals will fill these seats, but who together will have the power to shape the kind of country that our children and our grandchildren will grow up in.”

But there were sincere words from Shaw about the Greens’ efforts in conservation, climate change, and tackling domestic violence, along with the importance of shaping the fate of future generations.

“When the polls open in four weeks' time, that is what we are deciding; not which individuals will fill these seats, but who together will have the power to shape the kind of country that our children and our grandchildren will grow up in.”

As he left the chamber after wrapping up, Shaw exchanged a hearty handshake with Peters, showing at least a glimmer of hope the current coalition configuration could go another term if needed.

There was little goodwill on offer from ACT leader David Seymour, decrying “three years of poor-quality delivery and poor-quality lawmaking” and a narrow approach to the Covid response.

“At the moment, the Government would have it that we can either remain physically isolated from the world and borrow to paper over the cracks or we can open it up and people will die. In other words, they want us to be either dead broke or dead.”

New Zealand, said Seymour, needed “a consistent, constructive critique and contribution to the challenges that our country faces at this time”, and that was what ACT would provide.

That argument, along with those of all the party leaders, will be tested soon enough.

School may be out, but the next six weeks will be far from a political holiday.

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