Simon Bridges says Labour 'sought to politicise' COVID-19 committee over lack of Māori voices

Opposition leader Simon Bridges says the Labour Party "sought to politicise" the COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee he chairs by "protesting" a lack of Māori representation. 

The committee is tasked with challenging the Government's response to COVID-19, but Māori health experts and Labour MPs have spoken out after only a couple of Māori representatives appeared before the committee in six weeks. 

Labour MP Ruth Dyson - a member of the committee - blamed Bridges for the lack of Māori voices because she said a number of Māori spokespeople and organisations proposed by MPs to submit had been ignored by him. 

"We have made suggestions in writing in regard to Māori voices from various sectors," Dyson said in a tweet. "So far this has not received a positive response from the chair who sets the agenda. We will keep trying."

But Bridges says that's "simply untrue", telling Magic Talk it was the Prime Minister's former chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, who first raised concerns about Māori representation on the committee - not Labour. 

"They said that they'd been calling for Māori and iwi representatives to come along right since the start. That's simply untrue," Bridges said. "All of that said, I would like more Māori come to the committee." 

Sir Peter appeared before the committee on April 30 and said Māori have shown "great community wisdom in the way they have looked to address the problems they face" and that their "voice at this committee would be useful". 

He said iwi leaders told him Māori have felt "frustrated and disappointed that they were excluded from the room by decision-makers in the early stages of the pandemic". 

Bridges said after Sir Peter's presentation Labour MPs "pretended it was something they'd been concerned about the whole time" and speculated that "one might think they were worried about their Māori seats". 

Labour MPs currently hold each of Parliament's seven Māori seats. 

Bridges said Sir Peter made "a valid point" and that he wants to "make sure we have more Māori and iwi voices and you will see that dispersed throughout the committee". 

But Bridges said he "wouldn't make it the big deal like the Labour Party did [in seeking to] politicise this and pretending they'd been concern about it all along". 

Newshub has contacted Labour MPs on the committee for a response. 

Te Roopu Whakakaupapa Urutā, a group of more than 50 Māori health experts and policy specialists, criticised the committee for not inviting them to speak on a session dedicated to education. 

Bridges said he wants to "try and get as many voices as we can into the committee". 

"It's not easy. Many more people want to come and organisations; because I think we have shown as a committee that we are improving the national response to this," he said. 

"I'm very focused and we'll hear from a bunch of economists this week on the economic effects on all this and how we make sure we're doing well in that regard and getting New Zealanders back to work."

On Tuesday the committee will hear from New Zealand Māori Tourism. 

It's not the first time the Opposition has faced backlash from Māori groups during the COVID-19 crisis. Last month the Māori Party accused National of inciting "political division" and "racism" over its opposition to iwi checkpoints.  

Concern over Budget 2020 spending

Bridges had another crack at Labour over what he expects will be prioritised in the upcoming Budget 2020 and over how the Government will pay for all the expected hand-outs. 

It comes as a professional body comprising more than 125,000 accountants called on the Government to "tighten up" its COVID-19 response by making the next phase of spending  "more targeted" and "evidence-based". 

The Government has so far spent about $20 billion, including more than $10 billion subsidising the wages of more than a million Kiwis. The Government's original priorities have now been "put on ice" to respond to the crisis. 

Bridges speculated Labour would want to increase taxes to pay for it all, pointing to last week in Parliament when Prime Minister and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern would not rule it out

"Inevitably, if you get a lot more debt than is necessary, you have fewer choices, you have more tax, and there's less money in people's pockets," Bridges said. 

"We know Labour would like to take its chances in tax... They'll want to take the chance to reshape society... But I come back to it - you can't tax your way to prosperity.

"If we want to create more jobs, if we want to have more growth, if we want to have a stronger economy, then more taxes in the next term is absolutely not on and they should be ruled out."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has highlighted how New Zealand had debt lower than other developed nations going into the crisis, at below 20 percent of GDP, compared the United States at 90 percent.