The BulletinJune 26, 2024

Trouble in coalition paradise? NZ First ‘agrees to disagree’ on Covid inquiry


In this extract from The Bulletin, Alice Neville marks the first official rift between coalition partners. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A ‘second phase’ to the Covid inquiry

NZ First has triggered the “agree to disagree” provision in the coalition agreement over the revised terms of the Covid-19 inquiry, marking the first official rift in a happy(ish) three-way government marriage. Yesterday afternoon, internal affairs minister and Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden announced a second phase of the Covid-19 royal commission would be launched in November, once the current inquiry delivered its report. The second phase, essentially a whole new inquiry, would feature new commissioners and “focus on matters of ongoing public concern including vaccine efficacy and safety, the extended lockdowns in Auckland and Northland, and the extent of disruption to New Zealanders’ health, education, and business”, according to a press release from van Velden’s office. “Having a second phase of the Royal Commission meets the requirements in both the Act and New Zealand First coalition agreements while maintaining the integrity of the statutory inquiry system,” it continued. 

NZ First’s bone of contention

What van Velden’s statement didn’t mention was NZ First not being so keen on another crucial component of yesterday’s announcement – allowing the first phase, ie the original inquiry established under the previous Labour government, to continue. As Duncan Greive wrote for The Spinoff in September last year, the commission was set up to be “forward-looking and non-adversarial”, with its full name, “Royal Commission into Covid-19 Lessons Learned”, leaving no room for doubt as to its focus on planning for the next pandemic rather than assigning blame for any failings. NZ First had repeatedly criticised the commission and accused the chair, epidemiologist Tony Blakely, of bias. “We believe that ‘phase one’ of the Royal Commission is simply a continuation of the current inquiry, which is far too narrow in scope and remains compromised by the current chair’s direct involvement with the previous government’s administration and direct planning of the Covid pandemic response,” said NZ First leader Winston Peters in a press release yesterday, sent at the same time as van Velden’s. Speaking to reporters yesterday, van Velden described this divergence as “a serious, little, tiny, little bit where we have disagreed, reported the Herald, while prime minister Christopher Luxon said it proved everything was tickety-boo: “I think what you are seeing is a mature, responsible and well-functioning coalition government,” he told Newshub.

What ‘agreeing to disagree’ actually means

What it says on the tin, essentially. According to the Cabinet Manual, this provision “may allow ministers within the coalition to maintain, in public, different party positions on particular issues or policies”, but they must “implement the resulting decision or legislation, regardless of their position throughout the decision-making process”. While yesterday’s contrarian display was the provision’s debut appearance this parliamentary term, this is not Winston Peters’ first rodeo. As Thomas Manch wrote for The Post, the “agree to disagree” clause was triggered twice during NZ First’s coalition with Labour, over an increase to tobacco tax in 2019 and the decision to maintain alert level two outside of Auckland in September 2020. The provision was brought in from 1999 after – you guessed it – Peters (then deputy prime minister to National’s Jenny Shipley) was sacked from cabinet for publicly disagreeing with its decision to sell the government’s stake in Wellington airport. (While they weren’t officially coalition partners, Labour and the Greens did “agree to agree to disagree” in 2020.)

The commission’s progress so far

Given 13,000 submissions have been received and $17m spent, according to van Velden, it seems unlikely scrapping the inquiry was ever really on the table. The minister told reporters the two-phase approach was the most “fiscally prudent way forward”, reported the Herald. “There was a lot of evidence gathered to date and it would have been a waste of evidence, resources and the commissioners’ time for this to end a few months before it was expected to report back.” Writing for The Spinoff in March, Stewart Sowman-Lund summarised the commission’s activities to date: online submissions from the public were received from the start of this year, while earlier the focus had been on “direct engagement” in different parts of the country, including Te Tai Tokerau, where commissioners met with iwi, businesses, health and education providers to hear about their experiences during the pandemic. Blakely and fellow commissioner John Whitehaed yesterday thanked those who had contributed so far. “The vast amount of information we have gathered, and the diverse experiences we have heard about, are all helping to inform our report that will be completed by the end of November this year.” The report of the second phase is expected in February 2026.

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