National MP squabbles with Speaker over COVID-19 social distancing rules in Parliament

A squabble broke out during lawmakers' second day back at Parliament as National MP Gerry Brownlee questioned the House Speaker's social distancing rules. 

The tiff followed House Speaker Trevor Mallard's warning to MPs that he had noticed some of them changing seats. He said while that's allowed, he noticed some were not disinfecting the surface of their seat as requested. 

"I've noticed this happening on both sides today... There's a real danger with this place that it could become a hotspot and a vector for COVID-19 to get around the country, so I would like people to comply with the written requests."

As Mallard prepared to wrap up the session, Brownlee asked the Speaker at the last minute if he would consider distributing more disinfectant dispensers around the chamber. 

"There's one in each quadrant," the Speaker told Brownlee. 

"Yes, but it requires significant movement, which I'm sure you'd be upset about," the National MP shot back. 

The Speaker said he would be "happy to double the number" of disinfectant dispensers around the chamber "in order to save the member moving three or four metres". 

But Brownlee wasn't finished. He said MPs had been wandering in and out of the chamber in close proximity to one another throughout the afternoon, and singled out New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. 

"The most senior member of the chamber left today and had a conversation within about a metre of another person inside the chamber," Brownlee said. 

"Similarly, when the second-most member left the chamber, a similar exchange occurred... Now, either we're doing it properly, or not at all."

The Speaker said he "had enough" and ordered Brownlee to take his seat. 

"We're not going to have an inquiry into it."

Parliament resumed this week for the first time since the alert level 4 lockdown began, but with many of the 120 seats not filled and sitting hours reduced to four hours per day from 2pm to 6pm. 

Brownlee supported the announcement last week to get Parliament back up and running again, saying the Opposition does not support using videoconference arrangements for parliamentary debates.

Public tours and school visits to Parliament were cancelled on March 16 to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect people in the precinct, after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. 

Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero ordered a "deep-clean" of the chamber, galleries and select committee rooms once a week in addition to the regular cleaning they received.