Labour MP Liz Craig pushes back on 'patsy' question criticism as Judith Collins fires up at 'farcical nonsense'

Labour MP Liz Craig, criticised for her "patsy" questions as Health Select Committee chair during a COVID-19 briefing, says she was trying to ensure the "range of members" got their questions in. 

National is outraged. It's calling for the return of the Epidemic Response Committee to hold the Government to account, after what leader Judith Collins described as "farcical nonsense" at the Health Select Committee. 

But COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed there are no plans for the return of the Epidemic Response Committee, prompting Collins to accuse him of "hiding" from Opposition scrutiny. 

The controversy began when Dr Craig let officials speak for more than 20 minutes about widely accessible information, during a briefing on Wednesday on the Government's COVID-19 response. 

It's not every day MPs gets the chance to grill Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain on the response. Dr Craig used the time to request the "basic science" behind managed isolation. 

Dr Bloomfield canvassed the risk of "airborne transmission", while MBIE deputy chief executive Megan Main discussed the "customer journey" that returnees have in managed isolation, from learning about the system, to entering a hotel and leaving. 

National MP Chris Bishop could be heard protesting quietly in the background about how the presentations had taken up 20 of the 50 minutes available. 

Nevertheless, Dr Craig described the presentation as "really, really useful", and then offered up another two minutes for the officials to provide a recap of their presentation. 

Labour MP and Health Select Committee chair Dr Liz Craig.
Labour MP and Health Select Committee chair Dr Liz Craig. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Bishop's line of questioning led to Tremain's important revelation that a security worker at Auckland's Grand Millennium managed isolation facility - who tested positive for COVID-19 last week - had not been previously tested since November.  

On Twitter, Bishop poked fun at Main's discussion of the "customer journey" for returnees, and criticised Labour for filling the briefing with "patsy" questions. 

"My journey consisted of listening to a 22 minute lecture, a few questions and then frustration as patsies filled the time."

Dr Craig told Newshub the Health Select Committee is made up of a range of members, who were interested in different aspects of the COVID-19 response, and she felt it was her duty to ensure a balance of questions.

"One of the aims of the briefings is to understand the science behind our COVID-19 response, so the expectation was that some of the opening statements would cover this, in addition to answering questions around more operational matters."

Collins said it shows the Government has a "transparency problem". 

"We think it is absolutely crucial the farcical nonsense we saw in the Health Select Committee today run by the Labour MP [ends]," she told reporters. "That was appalling with Chris Bishop having to squeeze in some questions."

She said it highlights the importance of Opposition scrutiny. 

"If Chris hadn't done his job, when would we ever get told?"

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick also questioned the need for "patsy" questions, reflecting co-leader James Shaw's move in 2018 to hand over most of the Greens' allotted question quota in Parliament's Question Time.

"I think that it's not the same kind of constructive or collaborative or meaningful outcome that New Zealanders expect from our parliamentary processes when you see [questions] being used in this way," Swarbrick told reporters. 

"I've had it reported to me what occurred and I'm on the record in the past as saying that that kind of behaviour is just not up to par."

Hipkins pushed back on the idea that the Government is hiding from scrutiny. 

"Parliament is now sitting regularly, Question Time is happening, select committees have the ability to ask people to appear before them, the written parliamentary questions system is operating, we are doing this regularly - there is plenty of scrutiny of our COVID-19 response."

The Government is now facing questions over why the security guard, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, wasn't tested since November. Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern is pointing blame at the individual, accusing him of lying to his employer. 

"The legal obligation to be tested existed. It already existed. That not only existed, the employer had obligations as well. Now our departments are undergoing work to see what the follow-up will be on the fact that there was a clear breach here around the testing requirements," Ardern said in Parliament. 

"I would point out that it is obviously quite difficult when an individual, as we've been advised, has lied about being tested."

From April 27, it will be mandatory for employers across the border to use the Government's central testing register.