Politics / Covid 19

MPs return to Parliament as National looks to challenge Covid-19 response

14:47 pm on 18 August 2020

There's an air of surrealism around Parliament today, with MPs unexpectedly finding themselves back in the Capital as a result of the election delay.

National Party leader Judith Collins and deputy Gerry Brownlee. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Parliament was adjourned for the election in early August after a week of often emotional and bitter parting shots from retiring politicians and when coalition relations were being stretched to the limit. It was with a sense of relief parties abandoned the hothouse of Parliament and fanned out across the country to start campaigning - only for it all be brought to a screeching halt by the Auckland outbreak.

Auckland-based MPs have been asked to stay put, and only party leaders and senior ministers and spokespeople will be back for the two or three weeks Parliament will now sit. Campaigning has been put on hold until closer to the new election date - October 17.

This will be a bare bones parliamentary session though with only question time and time for specific debates and ministerial statements. There won't be any select committee hearings or legislation progressed - unless the need for an urgent law change arises.

The Opposition is lining up to challenge the government over its Covid-19 response, with National's leader Judith Collins accusing the government of misleading the public about the inconsistent testing of border workers, despite promises all staff would be tested regularly.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield denied any failure, saying testing had been scaled up and you couldn't just "flick a switch" and and begin testing everyone immediately.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she was not looking to apportion blame, but the government had expected rolling out testing of staff, including those who were asymptomatic, and that did not happen.

"What appears to have been the case is that it was tending not to necessarily have that level of coverage," she said.

"I have had reported reluctance amongst staff around asymptomatic testing."

But Collins has cited border staff who have been in contact with National challenging the comments some had refused testing as untrue, with others saying they did ask for tests but were refused as they were asymptomatic.

"And that is entirely different from what the government has told us for the last two months," Collins told reporters.

But the Opposition's focus has already been waylaid, with deputy Gerry Brownlee forced to defend a fundraising email sent to supporters last night in which he appeals for help to beat Labour, in the face of "endless wall to wall coverage, the deep resources of government, and a favourable media".

He said it was a fact a government "does get more air-time" in a crisis like National did after the Christchurch earthquakes, and denied trying to undermine the media, during an exchange with journalists at Parliament this morning.

"You're being very precious," Brownlee said when reporters pressed the point.

"It's the context of there being a lot of coverage of what the government is doing at the moment... and so they do get perceived in a more favourable way."

He "totally rejected" any suggestion he was a "conspiracy theorist".

Last week, Brownlee caused a stir after posing several questions about the actions of government ministers and Bloomfield in the run-up to the announcement of the Auckland outbreak. "All very interesting things to happen a matter of hours before there was a notification of the largest residential part of New Zealand going into level 3 lockdown," he said at a media conference.

When asked what he was implying, he said he was "just outlining facts ... it's an interesting series of facts".

Collins was forced to defend her deputy against accusations he'd indulged in floating unfounded conspiracy theories in a series of interviews in the days following.

Today Brownlee said his questions were reasonable given the responses on border controls and quarantine ministers had made to the House, but acknowledged his comments were "unfortunate".

"I'm very upset," he told reporters, "I'm sorry that people have taken it as being a some kind of conspiracy accusation. It was never meant to be like that."