Covid-19 coronavirus: Time for the Government to open up to more scrutiny of lockdown decisions

NZ Herald | 3 May 2020

So far, the public has shown a remarkable degree of tolerance of the Government’s decisions in relation to Covid-19 with little argument or even public debate.

The calamitous way in which Parliament turned Inland Revenue into a small business lender , without a single MP realising they were doing so, is a sign that the time is well past for greater scrutiny to return.

• Government hastily changes loan scheme as Treasury conditions come under fire

The Government’s refusal to release the advice it used as the basis of its decision to place New Zealand into a highly restrictive lockdown is coming close to an abuse of the extraordinary trust the public has granted it.

Apparently a mix up in the Parliamentary Counsel Office – a part of Parliament generally known for an obsessive attention to detail – saw a law passed on Thursday evening without the knowledge of a single MP, because the wrong bill was put before the house.

On Friday Finance Minister Grant Robertson attempted to minimise the mistake, claiming the important thing was that money would be going to small businesses, with loans of up to $100,000 set to be offered, initially interest free.

He was unable to give basic information such as how much taxpayers are on the hook for.

The fact that the Government gets to advance its plan in this way shows how serious the mistake is. Even if no minister was to blame, the plans were clearly well advanced for it to happen.

With the Opposition calling for more direct cash support for business, rather than loans, it is right to feel aggrieved that the Government did not signal what its plans were in advance. It had no idea it was voting for a scheme which it may have opposed.

Friday also saw Robertson and Revenue Minister Stuart Nash announce major changes to a scheme under which taxpayers underwrite 80 per cent of the risk of loaning money to businesses through New Zealand’s banks.

It was already clear that the scheme was seeing little take up and the banks were coming under fire; Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr even lectured the banks he regulates about strategy, saying they faced little of the risk of lending under the scheme and should be “courageous”.

But it was Treasury which demanded that the banks demand security which could have seen business owners lose their homes if they could not trade out of the current troubles.

An abrupt change was announced just as scrutiny of Treasury’s demands threatened to become public.

Not only was there no consultation with the banks, Robertson and Nash had the nerve to use the announcement to lament a lack of support for being provided to businesses from New Zealand’s lenders.

Treasury, meanwhile, refuses to say when it might release advice it provided the Government on the move into lockdown.

When Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh was questioned by MPs about its advice she casually said the department was committed to transparency but would not reveal when the information would be released.

“They’re clearly operating on instruction from Robertson’s office,” National’s finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith said afterwards.

During her appearance before MPs, McLiesh also parroted the Government’s catchphrase, saying the Treasury’s scenarios backed the strategy of “going hard and going early”.

As many times as a Government MP repeats it, the statement “go hard and go early” means a lot less than what it might sound. Why not earlier, or harder?

Treasury’s analysis only supports that strategy in a way which is a truism: if the virus is contained quickly it will have less of an economic cost than if it is not.

Treasury’s analysis made no attempt to consider, for example, what might have happened if New Zealand never went to alert level four, but had looser restrictions seen in other countries.

Equally it did not – or at least not on the documents the mere public has been allowed to see – examine whether tighter restrictions, imposed earlier, would have been better.

The various scenarios simply considered a world in which the same strategy was more or less successful.

If Treasury has research which validates the Government’s particular strategy then it should go ahead and release it to the public; otherwise McLiesh just sounds like a political appointee.

The fact that the advice, from which Winston Peters has cherry picked a particular aspect for political gain (revealing that the Ministry of Health advised the border be closed entirely), has not been released is testing public patience for restrictions which may or may not be the correct strategy.

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