'Reeks of white privilege': Māori Party unleashes on National, ACT for opposing virtual Parliament

Māori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer have unleashed on National and ACT for opposing a virtual Parliament, saying it "reeks of white privilege". 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was considering suspending Parliament for another week and instead holding it virtually due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but without consensus from National and ACT, the House will meet with fewer MPs. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfied advised against it, saying MPs participating in a large indoor gathering and travelling inter-regionally poses a health risk, but National and ACT opposed a virtual Parliament. 

Ngarewa-Packer says National and ACT should not be able to dictate what oranga, or survival, looks like for them, so they will not be travelling to Wellington during lockdown conditions this week.

National is allowed three MPs in the debating chamber, Labour can have five, ACT, the Greens and the Māori Party can have one each. The Greens and the Māori Party have decided not to attend. 

"We believe it is our role as leaders to lead by example, to continue practicing alert levels 3 and 4 and proceed with caution in order to protect our whakapapa. National and ACT are putting us all at risk, and it wreaks [sic] of white privilege," says Ngarewa-Packer.

Co-leader Waititi added: "It is a reckless move by National and ACT to intentionally disregard expert advice, for the sake of egos and politicking, and we are concerned that the Prime Minister is allowing for them to make this determination on their own and put us all at risk of taking COVID back to our vulnerable communities."

The Greens were also critical of the right-leaning parties. 

"National and ACT blocked this safer option in the midst of an outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant," said co-leader James Shaw. 

"Ironically, meeting in-person under alert level 4 reduces how many people can participate in parliamentary business because of physical distancing. On Zoom, all 120 MPs could be there."

Co-leader Marama Davidson said: "National and ACT are selfishly choosing to risk the lives of our whānau and communities for political posturing."

Māori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.
Māori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo credit: Getty Images

ACT leader David Seymour was unfazed by Māori Party's remarks. 

"It's just the usual racism we get from them," he told Newshub. "They should not be rewarded with attention."

Ardern said at a press conference on Sunday she was "disappointed" by the position taken by National and ACT. 

"We were absolutely willing to make ourselves available for the scrutiny that yes, we absolutely need to provide, and you would have heard me last week saying we were going to endeavour to find ways that we could provide that in a way that I think meets the expectations that we've set for the public. 

"We're asking the public to do things differently, I think Parliament should be willing to do things differently too, and we were. 

"I think that met the needs of accountability and scrutiny, but in an online platform, that means we don't put staff at risk and those who are involved with convening Parliament. 

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I'm disappointed. I am, however, not willing without the consensus of parties, to individually suspend Parliament again, so I will participate despite the fact I totally disagree with the position that they've taken."

National leader Judith Collins says if Ardern can host daily press conferences in person, then Parliament should be able to convene too. 

"She has a physical press conference every day in the theatrette in Parliament with the Press Gallery all there sitting a couple of seats apart from each other, and that's perfectly fine," she told Magic Talk. 

"As soon as we say we want some accountability from the Prime Minister from people who really will ask the questions, like myself, no she doesn't want that."

Collins said a virtual Parliament has never been trialled in New Zealand. 

"We've had no opportunity to trial it, even though the Government has known we've had to deal with COVID-19 for the last 18 months. 

"It is a last-minute attempt to prevent being held to account on issues and us being able to ask those questions the way we want to."

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Getty Images

Both Collins and Seymour have been calling for the return of the Epidemic Response Committee, a virtual meeting of MPs held during the lockdown last year while Parliament was suspended. Chaired by the Opposition leader, the committee invited ministers, chief executives and experts to answer questions and provide insights about the COVID-19 response. 

"Why has that not been brought back? It was a very robust process and it led to some very good scrutiny and some better outcomes and answers than we ever get out of Parliament," Collins said. 

"The Prime Minister has steadfastly refused to have that level of accountability, and the reason is of course because I would be chairing that, not Trevor Mallard, her friend." 

Ardern said last week she did not feel the need to reconvene the Epidemic Response Committee, because ministers were made available to appear before a number of parliamentary committees over Zoom. 

Collins said House Speaker Trevor Mallard will require MPs to wear masks in the chamber when they're not speaking. She says he's also "insisting that in our offices we have to have masks unless we're by ourselves". 

But Collins says she won't get distracted by the virus rules. 

"Don't expect me to go dancing up and down and getting worried about stupid little behaviours from either the Speaker or the Government on this. But I will insist that we need to be able to ask those questions."