David Seymour accuses Labour MP Deborah Russell of 'character assassination' in debate over COVID-19 response

ACT leader David Seymour accused Labour MP Deborah Russell of "character assassination" during a debate over the Government's COVID-19 response. 

Dr Russell, who chairs the Finance and Expenditure Committee, was defending the Government's response and questioning the wisdom of one of the submitters, Victoria University Associate Law Professor Dr Grant Morris.

The committee was hearing submissions on the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, the legal framework for the Government's alert levels that sparked controversy because it allowed warrantless searches of marae. 

Dr Morris is one of six academics that formed the group COVID Plan B, which criticised the strict lockdown in New Zealand. During the committee he questioned the need for the new law and called for a more "proportionate response".

Dr Russell then interrogated Dr Morris' judgement, referring back to when COVID Plan B said New Zealand's lockdown was too strict compared to Australia's

She asked Dr Morris if he would hold that view knowing Australia "still has cases bubbling away" to this day while New Zealand has had more than a week of no new cases.

ACT leader David Seymour then accused Dr Russell of "character assassination" against the submitter, and suggested she get back on topic.

"Grant is a legal expert presenting on a specific piece of legislation. I think it's highly inappropriate for you as chair to go on a character assassination of an organisation on separate topics that are in the past."

Dr Russell said she was "looking at the idea of proportionate response" and said it should be acknowledged that New Zealand has "rules among the least restrictive in the world now".

Dr Morris said he's concerned about the new law allowing police to enter properties - including marae - without a warrant. He said there is "a lot of breaching of the New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990 in this Act".

Labour MP Deborah Russell.
Labour MP Deborah Russell. Photo credit: Facebook / Finance and Expenditure Committee

It echoed Teresa Wall, co-leader of Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā or the National Māori Pandemic Group, who told the committee the law was "developed in haste" and "involved no consultation with Māori".

"This once again signals that Māori are strangers in our own country," she said. "The Act fails to recognise the cultural significance and importance of marae, instead placing marae in the same category as any other buildings."

She said the law provides "wide-ranging powers" to the police, and "given the historical instances of police abuse of power and failure to act in the best interest of Māori, there is much concern".

Victoria University Associate Law Professor Dr Grant Morris.
Victoria University Associate Law Professor Dr Grant Morris. Photo credit: Facebook / Finance and Expenditure Committee

She suggested authorities be required to "liaise with marae trustees or an iwi representative and enable them to have a first attempt at addressing the concern or issue that requires an enforcement officer to act".

Labour MP Kiri Allan acknowledged the "public outcry" to the police powers "was enormous".

But New Zealand Police Association president Chris Cahill argued the powers are necessary for officers to enforce the rules successfully.

"Without appropriate powers in the law, it becomes impossible to achieve the intentions of Parliament, if some sections of the community choose to ignore the rules," he said.

"The biggest objection seems to be the emergency powers for police. But without the powers to enter property, direct people to stop activities, close roads, and stop vehicles, it's toothless and it's unenforceable."

The Act will be reviewed and reported back to Parliament by July 27, in time for MPs to consider whether it's necessary to renew it, if COVID-19 is still considered a risk.