National MP Christopher Luxon is questioning a law change giving the Government power to delay local elections through to 2023, given its "stated commitment to ending lockdowns".
The COVID-19 Response (Management Measures) Legislation Bill, which is currently before Parliament, includes an amendment to the Local Electoral Act to provide flexibility to delay local elections by up to six weeks under emergency circumstances.
Luxon and National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop issued a statement on September 29 saying 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".
"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."
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins didn't mention it during his speech on the legislation, only describing the law changes as "common sense" to "effectively manage the immediate impacts of the disruptions caused by COVID-19 lockdowns".
It prompted suspicion from National.
"It would mean that the Government could delay every local body election next year, all the way through 2023. No wonder the minister didn't mention it in his first reading speech."
Local Government NZ Principal Policy Advisor Mike Reid backs the move, telling Parliament's Finance and Expenditure Committee (FEC) it had his "full support".
"The reason we felt we should say a few words is because there's been a bit of discourse around social media saying that these changes would allow a future Minister of Local Government to adjust, play around with local elections, for political purposes," Reid said.
"We really need to squash that idea as fast as we can.
"There's no way in which the proposed changes here - which for those who don't know, will allow the minister to extend the date for a local election for an additional six weeks and a further six weeks after that, if necessary - will allow any kind of discretion that could be used outside a pandemic, and we want to make it really clear that actually, under level 3 and level 4, you cannot run a general election.
"Yeah, postal, that's fine, but how do people go and post their letters if they can't actually get to a postbox and etcetera, etcetera?
"From our perspective, this is a really important change. We hope it will never have to be used. It would only generally apply in a pandemic or emergency of huge seriousness."
Green MP Julie Anne Genter also argued in favour of the law change in Parliament.
"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. So I think this is a pretty reasonable provision that has a number of safeguards attached to it."
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled plans to stop using lockdowns in the future as vaccination becomes the new shield to protect the population from COVID-19, so Luxon says the Local Electoral Act change is unnecessary.
"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?" he told Newshub.
"The Government must explain to New Zealanders why it wants to grant itself this power without proper consultation.
"There is no clear rationale for this proposal and it has not been properly communicated. It was buried in a Bill introduced with no notice and now being rushed through under urgency without proper public consultation."
Reid said the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) spy agency advised against online voting for local elections, which could help during a lockdown situation.
"On the question of online voting, yes, we got very close to a trial in the 2019 elections in Auckland itself, but effectively GCSB came to the Government and to local government saying that at this stage, the security issues were just too great. They could just not approve that technology at this stage of our understanding.
"It's all really been put on hold until we can actually provide better guarantees about security."