By Peter Dunne*
A leading pollster suggested earlier this week that the National Party may be best placed to win this year's election if it just stays quiet and lets the government wear all the criticism for the inevitable rising unemployment, business failures and massive personal dislocation brought on by the Covid-19 outbreak and its aftermath.
Whether that musing is any way true or even likely of course remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the National Party seems to have taken the advice to heart and gone to sleep early, just in case.
In part, this is because the government’s initial way of responding to the Covid-19 outbreak was to effectively shut the National Party out of any role whatsoever.
When the Leader of the Opposition reacted to this in Parliament – in the days when we still had a functioning Parliament – his response was widely criticised as churlish and striking completely the wrong tone.
He clearly took the criticisms to heart, quickly ordering his MPs and candidates to suspend all overt political activity for the duration of the crisis. At the same time, he accepted a government offer to chair a special select committee reviewing the Covid-19 response. He has done so extremely well and showed cross-party co-operation in a time of national need at its best.
But, arguably, he has been too successful, seeming at times to be a stauncher defender of the government’s approach than the government itself.
Witness the way he led the government to a stronger line on imposing border controls, for example. However, the weekly committee meetings, asking questions to which there are seldom crisp and clear answers, and never any decisions made, are beginning to look just a little too cosy.
It all begins to beg the question of whether he has been politically snookered by the government – cleverly backed into a corner of support from which he cannot readily escape, while allowing it to get on with its job, without too much critical scrutiny.
With Parliament in indefinite abeyance there is little scope for it to currently be any other way. Parliament is the Opposition’s primary forum for holding the government to account and making its alternative case to the public.
Given both the current situation, and the massive challenges that lie ahead as we move out of Alert Level 4 and beyond, let alone the huge period of economic and social reconstruction ahead of us, the early resumption of Parliament is hardly in the government’s interests.
Even though there are many questions to be answered and numerous uncertainties to be understood, then resolved, the early return of parliament does not even appear to be on the government’s horizon at all. After all, why give the Opposition an open forum for criticism when the country faces such dire times?
Previously, whenever there has been a national crisis – invariably of a much lesser significance and threat than the Covid-19 crisis – the Opposition of the day, National or Labour, has always been quick to call for the immediate recall of Parliament to discuss the situation and, if need be, the official actions being taken in response.
There have also been times when the government of the day has felt it necessary to have Parliament endorse its response to adverse circumstances that have arisen. For example, Parliament was recalled specifically to debate New Zealand’s response to the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, and has previously set aside time to debate what needed to be done in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes, and last year’s Christchurch mosque killings.
There has always been the view that Parliament as the House of Representatives needs to be brought into the response to such issues.
Covid-19 is by and far away the biggest of all these crises.
It is therefore puzzling, disturbing, and plain out of step with our long tradition, that apart from the initial debate in early February when the breadth of what was happening was not then fully appreciated here or around the world, the government has not seen fit to recall Parliament – albeit by videoconference – both to formally update it on its response, and seek its support for the steps being taken.
Even more surprising and certainly more disturbing has been that the Opposition does not seem to have considered this a priority either. Yet the day to day lives of New Zealanders, in their homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools are being impacted upon to a greater extent than even in wartime, when Parliament was in frequent session.
However, the crossroads are looming for the National Party. Assuming the election proceeds on 19 September, as seems reasonable given the Prime Minister’s recent assurances, National’s continuing to play the loyal back-up to the government will hand the coalition a huge advantage. Where is the case for change, if both sides of politics seem to agree on the current direction being taken?
Yet by September, life will not have returned to normal, however that is to be defined from now on. Indeed, it will be anything but. Thousands of businesses will have closed; tens of thousands of jobs will have been lost or put on the shelf; household debt will have soared.
While New Zealanders’ resilience will be enabling them to get by, long term confidence in theirs and their children’s futures will have taken a severe hammering, and many future dreams and aspirations will have been permanently shattered. People may well be looking for a viable alternative to support, to restore hope. For that reason alone, if not the grander one of upholding democratic principles, National needs to be starting to distance itself, slowly but surely, from the government and its response. It needs to be showing itself as the party of the future, leaving Labour as the party of the crisis. But it needs the forum of Parliament to be seen to be doing that, which is why the government will not acquiesce.
The call to move out of Alert Level 4 next week is perhaps a start, but without Parliament sitting the country is being kept in the dark about what that means.
Presumably National has clear intentions about how the threads of normal life should be picked up once again. The country needs to be hearing these alongside the government’s plans, so that it can assess the relative merits of both. For its part, the direction being proposed by National should appear positive, consistent, and clear. In that regard, making the case for the early resumption of a working Parliament to hold the government to proper account once more should be a no-brainer card for National to play well before the scheduled election
However, could it be that National was undoubtedly so badly scarred by the adverse public reaction to its leader’s early February comments that is has been spooked into a mode of quiescent support ever since, trying desperately to appear constructive while not rocking the boat too much. If so, medium term, this is not likely to be a winning strategy – unless, of course, National, ever mindful of being careful about what it wishes for, has concluded that in its own long term interests, the next election is now one it should not be trying too hard to win.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.