Simon Bridges has slammed the Government's sudden move to require commercial landlords to offer rent relief when tenants can't operate under lockdowns as a "shocker" in more ways than one.
Earlier this week Justice Minister Kris Faafoi unveiled new temporary rules to "help ease the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions" on businesses, including making it mandatory for commercial landlords to compromise on rent with their tenants during alert level restrictions.
Essentially, landlords and tenants will have to come to an agreement on what a "fair" amount to be paid is, and if they can't, they'll have to go to arbitration - where a third party can make a binding decision - or mediation to resolve their differences.
The NZ Property Council said it had no warning of the changes, which were announced on the same day the Bill that would make them law was presented to Parliament.
"It's a shocker," National MP Bridges told The AM Show on Friday. "It's a shocker both in terms of the terrible process, which I think this Government is becoming more and more known for; but also in terms of the substance.
"It may sound a bit pointy-headed to New Zelaanders, but actually if you muck around with contract law you really undermine the basis for doing business."
David Parker, a senior Government minister, told The AM Show most leases now already have a clause which "effectively says if you can't work out of your premises, that burden has to be shared between tenant and landlord". But not all.
"A pandemic is unusual to say the least, and we think fairness requires on occasions, where the tenant can't operate out of the business because of a lockdown, that shouldn't be only [their] problem.
"Can I also make the point that if we don't do this and we pay wage subsidies to these businesses, the tenant has to pay just about all of that sometimes to the landlord and therefore can't keep their workers on. That would be an obtuse outcome given the amount of subsidy that is going from the Government - on behalf of taxpayers - to businesses."
Bridges said the Labour Party, which has a majority in Parliament so can do pretty much what it likes, is wrong to think landlords are all "fat cats".
"Simply to heap this on the landlords the way this does, in the name of fairness, just isn't right."
The changes were welcomed by Hospitality NZ and Retail NZ, whose members struggle particularly hard under level 4 restrictions.
"Everyone has to share the consequences of COVID," said Parker. "As it currently states, people can be laid off pretty quickly if something goes wrong in a business in the middle of a pandemic. We try to avoid that through the wage subsidy but it still sometimes happens.
"And yet some landlords can be trenchant in absolutely doing nothing to meet the needs of the pandemic, and we don't think that's fair."