COVID-19: Government backs down on power to delay local elections

The Government is no longer giving itself the power to delay local elections, with the COVID-19 Response Minister admitting it's "unlikely to be justified". 

The COVID-19 Response (Management Measures) Legislation Bill, a wide ranging law nearing its final stages of debate, originally included the flexibility to delay local elections by up to six weeks under emergency circumstances.  

It faced swift backlash from National MPs earlier this month, who said the Government needed to "urgently explain why it wants to give itself the power to delay next year's local body elections limitless times through to 2023".

National's local government spokesperson Christopher Luxon told Newshub at the time: "Given the Government's stated commitment to ending lockdowns, why is this power needed? What does it say about Labour's confidence in its own COVID-19 response?"

The power to delay local elections, which would require an amendment to the Local Electoral Act, has now been dropped from the law. 

"When the Bill was put together, we were in quite a different situation when it came to COVID-19, and we were preparing for that situation to, potentially, continue into the new year," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in Parliament. 

"It is now clear that it won't, and that we are entering a new phase of our COVID-19 response."

Under the alert level settings, a delay in local government elections - as there was a delay in the general election last year - would have been something the Government may have had to consider, Hipkins said. 

But the Government's new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, announced on Friday, will instead rely on a highly vaccinated population. It comes into force once 90 percent of the eligible population across all District Health Boards is vaccinated. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins in Parliament.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins in Parliament. Photo credit: Getty Images

"The Government took the view that in the highly unlikely event there was a need to postpone or delay the local government elections because of COVID-19, the appropriate course of action would be to come back to the House at that point and produce a separate piece of legislation to enable that to happen," Hipkins said. 

"The Government took the view that while this may have been justified several months ago, potentially, it's not now and is unlikely to be justified next year. And if it is justified next year, then the appropriate course of action at that time is to come back to the House to seek that."

The law change initially had support from the Greens. 

"It's pretty obvious that if we were in a situation of a level 3 or level 4 lockdown, we wouldn't be able to have public meetings. We wouldn't be able to run a normal local body electoral campaign," COVID-19 spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said earlier this month.

"So I think this is a pretty reasonable provision that has a number of safeguards attached to it."

But National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop argued it was unnecessary. 

"Local body elections are conducted by postal ballot, not by in-person voting. The Government has ample time to prepare for the 2022 local elections and the existing ability to adjourn them if required due to an alert level change."

Bishop described the Government's backdown as a "secretive little change" to the law. 

"We argued it was outrageous that Labour would use a sweeping COVID bill, being rammed through Parliament under a shortened time frame, with almost no proper public consultation, to make an enduring electoral change. 

"But anyway, the good news, the excellent news, is the Government has, quietly, just backed down on this."