Jacinda Ardern defends reduced scrutiny of COVID-19 legislation in stand-off with Paula Bennett

The Prime Minister is defending reduced scrutiny of COVID-19 legislation being rushed through Parliament, telling the Opposition there is "no politics in a pandemic response". 

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill was introduced to Parliament on Tuesday and National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett questioned why the legislation had not gone through the typical scrutiny processes. 

"Why was legislation - if we're working with the most open and transparent Government - only given to the Opposition less than 24 hours ago when the Government's had weeks to work on it?" Bennett asked the Prime Minister. 

The new law is required for alert level 2, so the Government has been forced to urgently pass it through Parliament before Thursday. It provides the legal framework to allow for enforcement of social distancing and gathering restrictions at level 2. 

Jacinda Ardern said an "exposure draft" was given the Opposition, as well as others with an interest in the legislation, and said the reason it did not go through a select committee process is because "these are extraordinary times". 

"There is no assertion here from the Government to do anything other than try and be open around pieces of legislation that we have to work at great pace on. There is no politics in a pandemic response, but there is an issue around timing," Ardern said. 

"As the member is well aware, there just hasn't been the same time usually available for the full drafting of legislation and process that we would usually want."

She said the Government has tried to "mitigate" that through the Epidemic Response Committee process led by Opposition leader Simon Bridges. 

National MP Gerry Brownlee asked the Prime Minister why Cabinet decided not to have a one-day select committee process on the legislation despite a recommendation to do so. 

"Ultimately, it is about trying to get input on the Bill in a meaningful way," Ardern responded. 

"The determination was that we would try and do that through an exposure draft because an afternoon at a select committee may not have been able to provide that space for meaningful feedback."

She said the Government is "working very hard under the circumstances".

It comes amid speculation the Government lacked the legal power to enforce the alert level 4 lockdown, with leaked Crown law advice to the media purportedly showing police were initially told by Crown Law they had little power to enforce the rules. 

But Attorney-General David Parker has insisted the law has been followed and that nothing unusual has happened. He said the Crown is entitled to claim legal professional privilege in respect of the advice that it receives.

The Prime Minister said the Government has tried to be open and transparent. 

She said Government agencies completed responses to 19,829 Official Information Act (OIA) requests between July and December 2019, compared to 14,000 roughly in 2017 over the same period. 

"We have done a number of things to improve transparency like for the first time introducing a policy for the proactive release of ministerial diaries and Cabinet papers," she said of her Government. 

Ardern said she has "done over 30 press conferences" during the COVID-19 crisis, and said the Epidemic Response Committee was set up in the absence of Parliament "to allow questioning and the Opposition to have a voice and apply accountability". 

But the Government was criticised for dumping 317 documents online on Friday afternoon as part of a proactive release to provide COVID-19 material. 

A leaked memo to Newshub showed the Prime Minister's office instructed ministers not to speak to the media, and that due to public buy-in the Government didn't have to explain its response to the crisis.  

When questioned about it by Bennett in Parliament, Ardern said, "It was a reference to coordinating responses to a large amount of information which is not unlike the member did when they were in government also. 

"We have received some feedback that the time of day of that release was an issue [and] we have given a commitment that we'll look to provide that kind of information in mornings and that we will signal in advance when that information is being provided."