Reinstate the COVID Select Committee now
Aspects of this latest lockdown have felt similar: empty streets, daily news conferences, supermarket queues, and community case tallies. What isn’t the same is the next-level magnitude of the Delta variant’s infectiousness, and the fear and uncertainty in the wider community. Politically, an important difference is the absence of the Epidemic Response Committee, more commonly known as the COVID-19 Select Committee.
You may recall it from the last time we were in Level 4; maybe you were even one of those who made it a near-viral sensation. Convened by agreement of the major parties when Parliament was unable to sit under Level 4, the Committee was a Zoom scrutiny of how the Government was dealing with the unfolding COVID threat in early 2020.
Crucially, leadership of the Committee was given to Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges, to try to counter the loss of Parliament’s normal Question Time: the key forum for MPs to question and demand accountability from the Government. The Committee was able to question Cabinet ministers on their responses to COVID-19 as they occurred, as well as debate issues affected by the lockdown like tourism and the economy.
With COVID back in business, it’s time to reinstate this unique body.
When the nation returned to Level 2 in late May 2020, the Committee was disbanded, the argument being that COVID-19 business could be dealt with through a sitting Parliament and the usual select committees.
But with COVID back in business, it’s time to reinstate this unique body.
Ordinarily the argument for another committee might be somewhat thin. Politicians in discussion can often create rather than reduce confusion, never mind more bureaucracy. However, select committees play a vital role in creating transparency and refining the way we are governed. They help with scrutinising legislation and allow ordinary New Zealanders to directly participate in the democratic process.
Last year the Government recognised this challenge needed a Minister for the COVID-19 Response, they should match this responsibility with a Select Committee.
Ongoing oversight is necessary when the normal functioning of our democracy can be shut down within hours. During lockdowns we have daily press conferences, and—yes—the tone of commentators is less agreeable than during the previous lockdown. But media shouldn’t be the sole arena for policy disagreements. Notably, the previous Committee had the unusual right to call people and contained more Opposition members than Government ones. In many ways it was a credit to the Government of the time, a model of how our system can flourish under duress.
The pandemic is the biggest threat to the country at present, driving policy decisions in almost every area of government, from public health to education, to monetary policy. Last year the Government recognised this challenge needed a Minister for the COVID-19 Response, they should match this responsibility with a Select Committee.
The response to COVID-19 is proving to be a marathon, not a sprint. As an instructional video on Parliament’s website cheerfully notes, “Democracy works best when everyone has a voice.” Put it another way: when the country is getting sicker, democracy needs to remain healthy.