ACT Leader's Reply to the Prime Minister's Statement on COVID-19 - 28 April 2020
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I rise on behalf of ACT in reply to the Prime Minister’s statement.
Let me start by paying her a compliment. The Prime Minister has extraordinary communication talents. She’s used them throughout this crisis and New Zealanders have responded, in her words, astoundingly well.
On the weekend we commemorated ANZAC Day. The original ANZACs would recognize the call for cooperation and sacrifice against a common enemy that modern New Zealanders heard from the Prime Minister.
Surely, as they rest in peace, that they are proud of the way New Zealanders can still cooperate to repel a common enemy.
The Opposition’s Role
I also said, last time this Parliament met, that opposition parties should give constructive criticism where necessary and helpful suggestions where possible.
The Government has even taken some of the suggestions into policy.
I was astonished to see ‘safe not essential’ travel from an ACT Party newsletter to government policy in only one month.
I welcome the Government adopting my suggestion of an MP pay cut, and I will seek leave to introduce a bill to that effect at the end of this speech.
Hunters were pleased to see the original ban on hunting at Alert Level 3 walked back, even if only for hunting on private land.
Issuing a Section 70 notice so the legal position of New Zealanders was in writing after the Epidemic Response Committee asked for it, was the right thing to do.
These are some fine examples of democracy in action.
However, we also need to have some honesty from the Government about where we’re up to in the fight against COVID-19.
We need to confront that the growth in new cases was already flat when the lockdown came into effect.
The Prime Minister said we had a transmission rate of four before the lockdown. She should tell us on which days that rate occurred.
It’s not good enough to obfuscate the numbers, point to the worst performing countries on earth, pat New Zealanders on the head, and say, ‘aren’t you lucky you’re not them?’
That is the politics of fear and post justification. We need aspiration and openness.
Aspiration and Openness
If we scare ourselves by looking at Italy, we must also ask why Australia has done better than us.
We should be asking how Taiwan, 23 million people who are heavily integrated with the Chinese economy, managed 400 cases and six deaths with no lockdown. The simple answer is that they went smart and went early.
We should be asking what Sweden tells us about warnings given that ‘tens of thousands would die’ if we did nothing.
It’s Not Over
We need to take a more honest, open, and aspirational approach to the situation for one simple reason. It’s not over.
The Government will have to be much more agile, making decisions led by a wide ranging debate without the spectre of fear haunting the background.
We should start by acknowledging the debate is not lives versus the economy, it is lives versus lives.
Lives vs Lives
Not only has the lockdown created a backlog of people awaiting other healthcare, it will mean greater shortages of healthcare in the future.
Just last week, Pharmac froze its plans to fund Keytruda because it was concerned about cost.
The ability to afford warm dry homes for many people has just been set back years, and that has health implications, too.
Then there are the costs of domestic violence and mental health problems caused by economic anxiety that will sadly shorten lives.
I’m sorry to say that the Government has made no attempt to quantify these costs that is remotely comparable to the focus put on COVID-19.
We shouldn’t be paralysed by fear of one thing while ignoring these other dangers. We need aspiration and openness.
The Recovery and the Role of Government
When it comes to the recovery, we need to talk about the role of Government.
Some say that the role of Government must expand. Let’s think about this for a minute. When a business does a poor job, it loses customers.
Make no mistake this Government has done a poor job. Our response came two months after the best performers were in full swing.
Even with that amount of time, the supply of PPE has been a debacle. Thank you to the entrepreneurs who filled the gaps with planeloads of private initiative.
The level of testing has got to high levels, but only after weeks of obfuscation.
Poor contact tracing meant we had to stay in Alert Level 4 for an extra five days, and the elusive tracing app has finally been released, but in Australia.
None of this is a political criticism of the Ministers in Government. I suspect that behind closed doors they’ve been as frustrated with officials as anyone, maybe more.
Other governments around the world have done even worse.
It is a reminder to them and all of us that the institution of government is not much good. To borrow a phrase, government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.
What Not to Do
What was good economic advice before COVID-19 remains good economic advice afterwards.
We now hear that the Finance Minister is asking his officials: What new functions should the government take on? What goods should we make in New Zealand?
It would be a mistake for the Government to use the current crisis as an opportunity to expand into new areas when government failure is partially responsible for the extent of our size of our current problem.
Nor can politicians in Wellington plan our long-term recovery. We must have a bottom up recovery, led by businesses and workers.
A strong and rapid recovery won’t come from the Reserve Bank printing free money.
It won’t come from the Government trying to borrow its way to prosperity.
If the Government diverts resources into questionable projects with poor cost-benefit analysis it will make the recovery longer and harder.
What to Do
The aim of the government should be, first and foremost, to do its public health job well.
It needs to test, track, trace and isolate so we don’t have another outbreak.
We need to resume international travel as soon as possible while managing COVID-19. The Government is going to have to look around the world and partner with the private sector. As the most isolated country and one that has pursued an elimination strategy, we must have the world’s smartest borders.
After that the goal should be to return to surplus by 2024 at the latest, without raising taxes or relying on any more unconventional monetary policy.
Beyond that the Government should target relief at the sectors still affected at Alert Level 2. I’m talking about tourism, events, and entertainment. Businesses who can’t innovate around.
It should ask carefully if its own fees are reasonable. Many large insurers are giving a holiday on premiums, why not ACC?
Every business is cutting costs, but Phil Twyford is threatening to punish councils that don’t put their rates up.
At the same time, the Government needs to set the private sector free. The Resource Management Act is now 29 years old. It is frustrating everyone. What a great time to build, baby, build. In the wake of this crisis millennials could build their homes like the boomers did, if only government made it a priority to let them.