Labour MP Deborah Russell facing backlash over 'tone-deaf', 'offensive' remarks on small businesses

Labour MP Deborah Russell is facing backlash over remarks described by commentators as "offensive" after she suggested small businesses hadn't prepared financial reserves to cope with a setback like COVID-19. 

Dr Russell, MP for New Lynn, joined the COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee by videoconference on Tuesday and raised concerns about small and medium businesses with Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

"We are seeing a number of small businesses are really struggling after only a few weeks in a pretty bad situation, which must speak to the strength of those small businesses going into this lockdown," Dr Russell said.  

"It worries me that perhaps people went into small business without really understanding how you might build up a business or capitalise in the first place so that you have the ongoing strength to survive a setback."

Robertson shot her down, saying: "I'm not sure I totally agree with that prognosis."

Dr Russell's remarks have been described as "utterly tone-deaf" by left-leaning political commentator Chris Trotter, "gobsmacking" by right-leaning commentator Trish Sherson, and "offensive" by host of The AM Show Duncan Garner.

Newshub had an interview booked with Dr Russell but she pulled the pin at the last minute, saying she had taken some advice and won't be doing interviews, and instead sent a statement.

"I'm really concerned about small businesses. People work hard to get them up and running, and they are an incredibly important part of our communities," she said.

"My questions to ministers in the select committee yesterday were about understanding what is being done to help small businesses survive, and what we can do to help them to become more resilient in the difficult times ahead."

Robertson rebuked Dr Russell's remarks, telling RNZ on Wednesday: "You'll realise that I disagreed with her when she raised that yesterday.... It is hard to keep going, and it is hard to sustain yourself at the best of times."

"I hope you don't agree, Grant, or you can go too," Garner said on The AM Show. "What a nincompoop that woman is.... What an arrogant woman... I've never heard something so arrogant from a politician before."

Opposition leader Simon Bridges is also facing backlash after he published a Facebook post criticising the Government for extending the lockdown for a week, prompting National supporters to threaten abandoning him.

But Sherson said Dr Russell's remarks were "far more worrying" than what Bridges said.

"Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly proud of what New Zealand has done, but the hard mahi starts from here and it's going to come from all of those small and medium businesses for whom many the doors are still shut until 11 May."

Trotter agreed and said the remarks "highlight the vast gulf between that sort of professional middle-class person which Labour is chock-full of at the moment and the rest of the country".

Footage of Dr Russell's remarks was shared by Opposition MPs on social media.

ACT leader David Seymour wrote: "Ever wondered what Labour MPs really think about business owners? If you run a business, let Deborah Russell explain where you went wrong, and why."

National MP Judith Collins said: "Small businesses are victims. They did not cause or bring in COVID-19 and they did not get a say in lockdown decisions. Labour MP blaming small business owners for not predicting what the Government couldn't is a disgrace.

It's not the first time footage of Dr Russell has made the rounds on social media.

She was the subject of a National Party attack ad in 2019 that showed her discussing Greek mythology in Parliament and concluded with Assistant Speaker Ruth Dyson asking her to get back on topic. 

The Government has so far spent more than $9 billion subsidising the wages of 1.6 million New Zealanders as most businesses have been closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, while Jobseeker support has spiked