Parliament's virtual Epidemic Response Committee from last year

Opposition parties are up in arms about  Parliament closing for the week.

Parliament was meant to be sitting for three weeks from today and National Leader Judith Collins told POLITIK the Prime Minister’s decision to shut it was unacceptable and showed the arrogance of her government.

The decision is at odds with a declaration from the Speaker in March las year, at the start of the first lockdown, that the public would expect Parliament to continue to sit because they “would expect an accountability mechanism still to be in place.”

And the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, who advised on the decision to shut this week, was even unwilling yesterday to commit to recommend that it return at all while the lockdown continues.

”I am sure I’ll be asked for further advice over the next weekend or on Monday about whether it should return next week,” he said yesterday.

“Let’s see what they what the results show this week.

“That will be tied up with the decision around what happens to Auckland generally.”

Collins was adamant she would not agree to any further suspensions.

 “I have spoken with (ACT leader) David Seymour and (Pati Maori co-leader) Rawiri Waititi, and we are on the same page,” she said.

“This suspension must not continue beyond this week.

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“Parliament is essential, and we need to find ways for the Opposition to meaningfully hold the Government to account.”

The decision denies Collins her regular opportunity to question the Prime minister at a time when the Prime Minister is able to make lengthy speeches on nationwide TV about the Covid outbreak.

Ardern spoke yesterday at her press conference uninterrupted for 9 minutes on Covid and then for nearly another two minutes on Afghanistan.

Seymour said if the AM Show and Seven Sharp could go ahead while socially distancing, there was no reason our democratically elected Parliament couldn’t.

“If Jacinda Ardern decides against that, the question will be whether this is about safety or avoiding scrutiny,” he said.

The Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, took responsibility for the decision to suspend Parliament.

But he blamed the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

“The Director-General of Health has advised, and Cabinet has agreed, that it is not advisable for MPs to participate in a large indoor gathering for an extended period of time, or travel inter-regionally to do so, while the COVID-19 risk for New Zealand remains high,” he said in a statement.

ACT, David Seymour, said it was Ardern, not Hipkins, who had made the decision to shut down.

“This decision to close Parliament is totally different from all parties agreeing; it was dictated by Jacinda Ardern alone,” he said.

Both of Bloomfield’s concerns could have been easily answered.

Parliament met with reduced numbers before during a Covid lockdown last year.

That is possible because Parliament’s Standing orders have no quorum but do require that there is a Minister in the House at all times.

So it is possible to run on substantially reduced numbers in the Chamber.

It would be possible to round up 20 MPs from Wellington.

National would, however, have only two — Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis.

To make up their numbers, it might be necessary to persuade some of their southern North Island provincial MPs like Harete Hipango (Whanganui) and  Ian McElvie (Rangitikei) to drive to the capital.

Balance within the Chamber could be easily achieved by adding in MPs by Zoom.

However, those numbers seem generous; The British House of Commons restricted its MPs in the Chamber down to 32 but has moved that number up to 64.

Both the British House and the Australian Parliament have developed the idea of a virtual Parliament.

The Australians used this when Scott Morrison was required to isolate at The Lodge after his trip to the UK for the G7 meeting in June.

He participated in Question Time, visible on a large screen to either side of the Speaker.

The Zoom technology is already in Wellington.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a highly sophisticated Zoom setup which it has developed for the virtual APEC it is running this year.

During the recent Covid virtual summit, 20 state leaders were hooked up to Wellington by Zoom.

They included Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.

It appeared to go without a glitch.

In Australia, Morrison played a full part in the cut and thrust of question time.

The decision to shut down is in marked contrast to a Pandemic Plan developed last year by Speaker Trevor Mallard.

Once a pandemic was announced, Mallard said he would set the wheels in motion, working with the director-general of health, Leader of the House and shadow leader of the House.

“You’d keep on consulting because you’d want it to be an agreement and not imposed,” he told Stuff in March last year.

He said Parliament’s plan would start with closing the public gallery, stopping public tours of Parliament, cancelling functions on the campus and events in the grounds.

In the most extreme case and the “bottom of the list”, the House would sit less often, with shorter days and fewer MPs, who would be spread out around the Chamber.

Mallard believed the House should sit because if serious issues arose, Parliament would need the ability to legislate.

“I think there’s an accountability thing. Even if it’s only five ministers or five Opposition, you have the questions asked and answered. I think this is something which is quite important; the public would expect an accountability mechanism still to be in place.”

As well as Mallard’s plan for the Chamber itself,  Parliament last year had the Epidemic Response Committee chaired by the Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges, whose 12 members met virtually.

The Government has offered a concession to the Opposition parties by providing Ministers to appear before Select Committees this week.

Hipkins released a schedule yesterday afternoon.

Today will see Finance Minister Grant Robertson at the Finance and expenditure Committee and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins at the Health Committee.

On Wednesday, Transport Minister Michael Wood will appear, as will Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni and Hipkns for a second appearance.

Police Minister Poto Williams will appear on Thursday, and the chair of the Covid 19 Strategy Advisory Group, Sir David Skegg, will appear at the Health Committee.

A notable absentee is Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash, who is the leading Business, Innovation and Employment Minister and therefore in overall charge of issues like what are essential businesses.

All of the committees at which Ministers will appear are chaired by Government MPs in contrast to the Epidemic response Committee last year, which was chaired by the then Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges.

Hipkins said the meetings would be televised on Parliament TV, and  ”we expect opposition members to have the bulk of the allotted time to ask questions.”

The Finance and Expenditure Committee put out its own press statement saying it expected its questioning of Robertson would “likely have a particular focus on how the Government will support businesses through the latest period of higher alert levels, and the implications of the higher alert levels for the wider economy.”

Parliament’s Select Committees are not known as rigorous probing institutions where questioning has the same intensity as during Question Time in the House, and both Collins and Seymour were dubious they would be able to accomplish much this week.

“The suggestion that Select Committees with a Labour majority, which have been notorious for obstructing questioning are a substitute for Parliament, would not be taken seriously at any other time,” he said.

“The Prime Minister’s spin that select committees are beacons of interrogation and scrutiny is laughable,” said Collins.

“We’ve seen opposition MPs blocked from calling officials and ministers or prevented from asking sufficient questions time after time.

“The fact is almost all select committees are chaired by Labour MPs.”

The first question will be whether the Committees can rise to the occasion.