Jacinda Ardern defends letter telling ministers to avoid COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee

The Prime Minister is defending a letter sent to ministers telling them to decline invitations to appear before the Opposition-led COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee. 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges posted a copy of the letter on Twitter with the caption "disgraceful", but Jacinda Ardern suggested the committee had fulfilled its purpose and is no longer needed. 

"I do think we should acknowledge the purpose for which it was there. It was there because we were at a time when Parliament couldn't operate and it wasn't right that there was no ability to make sure that we had some accountability check," Ardern said.

"Parliament is now returning to normal, select committees are functioning again, Question Time is functioning again, the House is meeting again, and so things have changed and I think we should, therefore, expect things to change."

The letter, signed by House Leader and Labour MP Chris Hipkins, had similar reasoning to Ardern. It said the Epidemic Response Committee was established "for the period during which the House was not sitting". 

It said over the next few weeks, ministers will appear before select committees "to discuss estimates in their portfolios" - that means they appear before other MPs to discuss the money allocated for their portfolio in the Budget.  

"Therefore, any invitations to ministers to appear before the Epidemic Response Committee should be declined. This also extends to senior officials. The appropriate place for these discussions is now the established subject select committees."

Bridges said the letter "proves the Government's response is to dismiss". 

Earlier this month, Newshub was leaked an internal memo sent to all ministers from the Prime Minister's office instructing them not to speak to the media after a massive COVID-19 document dump. 

Defending the letter posted by Bridges, Ardern said it "doesn't make sense to duplicate" the ministers' estimates hearings with appearances before the COVID-19 committee. 

"I think that's a fair point to raise." 

Bridges earlier this week accused the Government of wanting to "get rid" of the committee he chairs - but Labour MP Michael Wood told Newshub he thinks the Opposition leader has "tarnished" it by using it as a political platform.

Bridges was livid when Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis did not appear before the COVID-19 committee on Wednesday morning, accusing him of skipping it for a Facebook Live - although Davis did not confirm that was the reason. 

ACT leader David Seymour said it was "very unusual" for Davis not to appear before the committee when every other minister had, except for the Finance Minister who pulled out last week the day before Budget 2020 was unveiled.

"He, I suppose, had a somewhat better excuse with the Budget," Bridges said of the Finance Minister. "Minister Davis has a Facebook Live with Grant Robertson... I don't think that's a good enough reason."

In defence of Davis, Ardern said he appeared before the committee a week ago. 

"Appearances from ministers before select committees often are usually associated with estimates hearings and so on, and those are coming up as well," she said. 

"I don't think it's unreasonable for the minister to say 'well, I appeared at that committee seven days ago, my next expectation is to appear at the subject committee for estimates', and I don't think that's an unreasonable expectation.

Davis has been criticised for not being responsive enough as Tourism Minister during the COVID-19 crisis. National's tourism spokesperson Todd McClay described him on Wednesday as a "part-time minister".

The Labour Party deputy leader even seems to be on thin-ice within his own ranks. He appeared to frustrate the Prime Minister during a visit to Rotorua on Tuesday when he kept her waiting.  

Bridges' outrage at ministers being told not to appear before the COVID-19 committee follows a no-show by senior Treasury officials on Tuesday who pulled out at the last minute. 

Bridges was advised just before 9am on Tuesday morning that Treasury Secretary Dr Caralee McLiesh was unwell and that Acting Deputy Secretary Bryan Chapple was on leave.

Dr McLiesh appeared before the committee at 12pm on Wednesday and apologised for not showing up the day before, reiterating that she had been unwell.