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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

Hon PAUL GOLDSMITH (National): Thank you, Mr Speaker. Look, the resurgence of COVID-19 in our community is a source of great pain and anxiety right across the community. There will be people at home who are worried about their health. There will be many, many, many, many children who are missing out on their education, worried about exams, families under pressure trying to figure out how to make it work, small business owners terribly worried about their prospects. And so this resurgence is putting intense pressure on the community, and also intense economic pressure for this country.

The Prime Minister said, back in April, the last thing we want to do is to yo-yo back into lockdown. We were told we went hard and early and we stayed longer in lockdown the first time, those additional hard weeks, because we wanted to avoid a yo-yo back into lockdown, and here we are again. There are huge consequences for that: $1.6 billion has been estimated will be the cost for the wage subsidy extensions. Economists are predicting that it could be about $450 million a week in lost economic output for the country each week. But, more broadly than that, it’s the uncertainty that goes right throughout the business community, because our economic recovery, as a nation, relies on businesses investing and growing. But, when they look and see the possibility of returning into lockdown and the apparent inability to control the borders, they are less likely to invest, they are likely to hold back, and that makes it tougher for the country to get back up on its feet.

So that’s why it’s been so puzzling and, frankly, annoying to many New Zealanders when they’ve seen so many elements of the border being dealt with in a loose fashion despite all the talk. We heard the Hon Chris Hipkins on the TV all weekend saying that the Government decided that it wasn’t right to make it compulsory for the many people working at the border and in the quarantine facilities—we weren’t going to make it compulsory to take the test; we thought that was too big a lever to pull. And yet we have the extraordinary circumstance of the Prime Minister this morning saying, “Oh, well, we thought they were all being tested. We thought they were being tested. We were misled by the officials.” We thought they were being tested but the whole weekend previously her Health Minister has been saying that the Government made a decision not to make it compulsory for them to be tested. So there is a complete disjuncture and confusion in the Government about that critical point.

So, when you’re dealing with a relatively low-probability, high-consequence event such as this—that something might happen on the border which has enormous ramifications for the economy—you would think that the Government had all the effort focused on ensuring that they could give themselves the best chance, and New Zealanders the best chance, to keep this disease out, and you would think you would start by testing people properly who were working at the border and going home to their communities and their families having been connected with people who are potentially carrying this disease.

So, if your plan is elimination, keeping it out, you have to be vigilant—is what people expected—and then you have to have a clear plan of how to deal with an incursion short of a massive lockdown, and clearly there has been insufficient faith in the tracing regime and so we’ve gone to a full lockdown. Then, if you have a lockdown, you would expect to have clear plans for how a regional lockdown would operate. We’ve had three months, four months now to prepare for the possibility of a regional lockdown, and yet what we’ve seen in the last couple of days has been a complete shambles. I was listening on the radio at 1 o’clock today to an EMA person saying that there was a 4½-hour wait on the motorway for trucks to get into Auckland, as if this has all happened as a great surprise and there’s been no plan, and we’ve got the gall of the Minister here saying that they had planned and prepared for this. Well, if they’ve planned and prepared, they haven’t done it very well when it comes to preparing for a regional lockdown—that was always on the cards.

The shambles that we’re seeing in Auckland on the motorway and the confusion about how workers can get across the border—essential workers; so you’ve got people who were essential workers under level 4 last time presenting their credentials at the border and they’re not being accepted, and then they’re being told that they have to apply for an exemption, but it will take seven days to get an answer. So the suggestion that they’ve planned for this possibility is leaving New Zealanders scratching their head and confused.

Then we’ve got the question of the subsidy, and the Minister has announced the extension of the subsidy, and we in the National Party support that; it’s quite right that, if businesses are told that they cannot conduct their business for public health reasons, it’s right that the rest of the community chips in to help them through, and so we support the extension of the wage subsidy. We are a little bit puzzled that they haven’t been able to manage to work out a regional approach to that. There are, no doubt, administrative complications for that, but we would have thought in three months that more progress would have been made.

Hon Member: Just for Auckland, that’s what you’re saying.

Hon PAUL GOLDSMITH: No, what we’re talking about is how you would actually deal with the fact, if there was a regional lockdown in a particularly small part of the economy, how would that be dealt with? And all we’ve seen after three months of preparation is an announcement from the Minister that they’re going to look at that more closely as time goes on.

Then we still see arbitrary rules about what is essential and isn’t essential, and we’ve got the problem with the butchers and so forth. You would have thought that the rules that were drawn up in haste at the start of the lockdown in March, after all this time, that they would have come up with some slightly more nuanced and better organised rules, so as to ensure that the maximum amount of economic activity could carry on.

So the only conclusion that you can draw is that there’s been an enormous amount of complacency. We’ve got through the initial lockdown, they sat back and said, “Yes, we’ve done it, we’ve smashed it, we’ve crushed it.”—there was an element of self-congratulation—and the preparation for the possibility of another community lockdown does not appear to have been properly prepared for. So that is the question that the Government has to answer for.

Hon Member: When we prepared, you said we scaremongered.

Hon PAUL GOLDSMITH: And we have—yes, you said you had to be prepared. And yet we’ve still got a situation where there is complete confusion at the border. Then we read this morning Chris Hipkins saying that we’d dodged a bullet. Well, you know, $1.6 billion of extra spending on wage subsidies, and it’s a very expensive bullet.

So what we hope and what we hope from this Government is that they’ll learn a lesson from what’s happened here and absolutely ensure that if you’re running an elimination strategy, that you do everything that you can to ensure that the border is secure, and that means testing everybody that works there. That enables you to get there.

Now, in terms of the economy, and I’ve heard many comments from the Minister that everything was strong prior to this outbreak. I just make the point that 70,000 New Zealanders have joined the unemployment benefit or the COVID benefit since March. We have had a colossal impact on the economy over the last few months. And notwithstanding the fact that we have been borrowing at a rate of $1.3 billion a week through this period, so the Government has been stimulating on a historically unprecedented scale. You might say that that’s the right thing to do, but to think that that is reality when it comes to the economic situation that we face as a country, it shows that we’re under enormous pressure as a country, and we have a great job to do to restore the economic vitality of this nation. I think what we’ll be talking about over the next few weeks is the plan to do that.

For us, we have every confidence—every confidence—that New Zealand can get itself back on track, and we can restore our prosperity, and we can return to the way of life that we have enjoyed in the past. But it does require some very hard work over the next months and years. It requires job-friendly policies: policies that make it easier for companies to invest and hire people and take on new people and take that risk to expand their businesses. So not adding costs to their businesses, not adding taxes, being consistent about the rules that you have, allowing foreign investment to flow. All those things make it easier for New Zealanders to hire people and get the economy growing again. It’s about keeping taxes low, and it’s about delivering quality infrastructure that actually makes a difference, not just announcing the infrastructure but actually delivering the infrastructure. So creating jobs, keeping taxes low, and delivering quality infrastructure are the things that we can do to get this economy on track again, and we hope to have the opportunity to talk about that over the next few weeks.