MPs have gathered for the first time this year and just hours after a nationwide state of emergency was declared. Here’s what happened.
The prime minister was scheduled to be in Wellington this afternoon, to set out his agenda for the year and give opposition MPs a chance to publicly dissect it in what should have been an intensely political day at parliament.
But Cyclone Garbrielle meant Chris Hipkins hadn’t even left Auckland by the time parliament sat for an hour-long session. It was an opportunity for the emergency management minister Kieran McAnulty to expand on his decision to place the country into a national state of emergency in response to the cyclone. In general, there was a show of unity across the House for the government’s actions and the decision to hold off on reopening parliament – though the Act Party was the sole dissenting voice in the decision to keep MPs away from the Beehive for another week.
Speaking first, McAnulty paid tribute to first line responders who have been on the ground overnight. “I’d like to recognise the extraordinary efforts of emergency management staff,” said McAnulty, noting that responders have had to deal with the “compounding effects” of several weather-related events.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” he added. The crisis response will continue to be run at a local level, but the nationwide state of emergency allowed for central coordination that would help get resources and communications distributed more quickly.
All members of parliament from all parties were thanked by McAnulty, though his National counterpart Gerry Brownlee was the only one singled out by name. Brownlee, who helped orchestrate National’s response to the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, had provided helpful advice and support over the past few days. “There is no time for political games at a time like this,” said McAnulty.
The government’s attention would next turn to the recovery phase, which McAnulty said would be “long and complex”.
Speaking next, Brownlee said his party supported the actions that had been taken and thanked McAnulty for his constructive role in that. “This event is still unfolding and so this is the right thing to do.”
Though acknowledging it to be “a little trite”, Brownlee extended National’s best wishes and concern to those most impacted by the severe weather. “We also want to extend to those first responders our great admiration.”
He added: “There are many questions that could be asked in the usual exchange that occurs when a ministerial statement is made, but it seems to me that while we’re in the middle of that emergency, such questions are going to only detract from the necessity to focus on the best interests of those people who are most affected. So can I simply say to the Minister, thank you for your engagement and thank you for the work that you’re doing.”
It was when the minor parties rose to speak that today’s parliamentary proceedings progressed beyond the routine. James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party, spoke with palpable emotion and frustration as he criticised those who had, in the past, chosen to ignore the climate debate. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse,” he said.
Evoking the American gun lobby, Shaw said that there will be people who say now is “too soon” to talk about these things. “But we are standing in it, this is a climate change-related event. We need to stop making excuses for inaction, we cannot put our heads in the sand while the beach is flooding,” he said.
For only the third time in our history a National State of Emergency has been declared. Please follow official advice and stay safe.
This is climate change. The impacts will get worse unless we act NOW to cut emissions quickly and adapt communities for the effects already here.
— James Shaw (@jamespeshaw) February 13, 2023
Green MP Jan Logie later reiterated this message: “We are living in the times we warned about. We are living in early-stage climate change. This is a crisis and needs a crisis response.”
The only party to believe parliament should continue to sit this week was Act, whose leader, David Seymour, said he believed MPs should be in Wellington ensuring the government was held to account.
He later tweeted: “Every Act MP is in Wellington ready to do their job and hold the government accountable, but Labour has cancelled parliament. New Zealand needs democracy to continue, with parliament functioning whenever possible, not cancelled whenever the government can get away with it.”
That was a sentiment echoed by his deputy, Brooke van Velden, who said that democracy could not be suspended because of the weather. “When the Government, in an emergency, takes on extra powers we should be here to hold those powers to account,” she said.
Despite this, Seymour said his party broadly supported, though had questions about, the decision to enter a national state of emergency.
Act MP David Cameron, who advocates in parliament for the rural community, was emotional as he described the devastation in his community from Cyclone Gabrielle. “I’ve got to go home when parliament rises to hand-milk 300 cows for probably two weeks because we won’t have power. This is the kind of ongoing reality in rural New Zealand when these episodic events happen,” he said.
Te Pāti Māori’s Debbie Ngarewa-Packer had been driven through the night by her partner after a request for a remote parliament, similar to during the pandemic, was refused. She called for an all-of-government response to addressing climate change – and said the way our democracy operates needed to shift. “As these extreme weather events occur more often with greater severity, we need to adjust and ensure our parliament can still operate, even if MPs can’t make it to Wellington. As MPs, we should be focused on the ground, looking after our communities and whānau, checking on kaumātua and disabled, dropping off kai – these aren’t one-day events.”
A National State of Emergency declared yet yesterday we could not get agreement from National to do parliament virtually. All parties must agree. So my darling is driving me through all this so we can ensure our lil Pāti holds the entitled to account. Stay safe whānau. pic.twitter.com/Msd5fbr3b7
— Debbie Ngarewa-Packer MP (@whaeadeb) February 13, 2023
Grant Robertson, the leader of the house and the MP responsible for the decision to put forward the adjournment motion, said now was not the time for the highly political debate that would have happened if the prime minister had given his expected statement. Shadow leader of the house, National’s Michael Woodhouse, agreed “on balance” and said supporting the motion was a “lineball” call.
“We now know there are 170,000 houses without power, a grid emergency, people on the roofs of buildings with water centimetres below them,” he said.
Parliament will meet at 2pm next Tuesday where all going to plan regular business will resume for 2023. Without a doubt, there will be more to say on this week’s unfolding events.