Chris Luxon vs Jacinda Ardern in first Question Time clash

New National leader Chris Luxon and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shook hands before their first question time clash on Tuesday.

The brief moment of Parliamentary bonhomie was soon shattered by an energetic parliamentary contest between not just National and Labour, but Act as well.

Luxon was the first leader to get a telling off from Speaker Trevor Mallard, who reminded MPs (and apparently Luxon in particular) to keep their masks from slipping while interjecting.

“Members must not pull their masks down in order to interject!” Mallard said.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson used the reprimand against his new opposite number, National finance spokesman Simon Bridges, joking that mask on or off, it would not make Bridges’ interjections any more clear.

Bridges was also kneecapped by Act leader David Seymour.

Seymour, who was given question number 2, used a supplementary question to ask Robertson the same question about inflation that Bridges had set down to ask at question number 8.

This could have been retribution to Luxon, who – using a tactic often employed by Seymour – jumped into Seymour’s line of questioning in question to ask Ardern a question about the traffic light system.

Luxon and Ardern properly crossed swords at question number 4.

Luxon opened with a broad, generic question: “does she stand by all of her Government’s statements and actions?”

That is a classic and well-used question formula, which forces the recipient to study virtually any area of policy for fear they might be quizzed on it.

But Luxon nearly ruined his follow-up line by losing his notes – meaning he no longer had the question he intended to ask.

He quickly regained his place.

In his follow-up supplementary questions, Luxon tried to push Ardern on why the Government’s $50 billion Covid-19 fund has not significantly increased ICU capacity.

Ardern countered by saying the Government’s strategy had been to keep people out of ICU in the first place.

“Our focus has been about making sure people don’t end up in ICU,” Ardern said.

“If you are overwhelmed in a pandemic people die no matter how many staff you have,” she said.

“Mr Speaker I measure my success in the wellbeing of our people and through our joint efforts we have kept them alive”.

She earned the applause of her own backbenchers by pushing back on Luxon’s decision to draw comparisons with New South Wales, an Australian state which does well with ICU capacity, but not when it comes to the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

According to the New Zealand Medical Journal, “New Zealand has one of the lowest levels of ICU beds per capita in the OECD at 4 per 100,000 population”. The comparative rate in Australia is 9 beds per 100,000 people.

Ardern failed to justify New Zealand’s low ICU capacity, and why so little had been done to improve it in the last two years, but she defended herself by arguing the Covid response was so strong, those beds were not needed.

A clash between Bridges and Robertson got off to a fiery start. Bridges asked Robertson whether he stood by a claim he made back in May that “wage growth ‘will outpace inflation, meaning more money in Kiwis’ back pockets'”.

The claim is now out of date, as inflation has outpaced nearly everything, but Robertson jibed Bridges, joking that numbers can sometimes change – a not-so-subtle reference to Bridges’ recent silent campaign to win the National leadership, which came unstuck when Judith Collins’ leadership imploded.

“As the member might appreciate more than most, sometimes events can move quickly and numbers can shift around,” Robertson said.

National health spokesman Shane Reti also pursued the ICU line of questioning, in the final question of the day.

It was Andrew Little’s turn to be surprised, when he could not come up with an answer for why DHBs with high Māori populations weren’t among the first tranche to bring on new ICU beds funded by a $644 million ICU plan announced last week.

“Why are DHBs with high Māori and low vaccination rates not part of the very first ICU announcement?” Reti asked.

“The reality is: the $100 million fund is available to all DHBs to present propositions for ICU expanded capacity.

“But the other point I would make is this: as the system has geared up to respond to Covid-19, as we enter the protection framework, as we remove the Auckland boundary over the next couple of weeks, and as people move around the country, and more DHBs and more hospitals will be picking up Covid patients, those hospitals have been setting themselves up to operate as regional networks of hospitals so that hospitals are supporting each other to make sure that they can afford the care and treatment that Covid patients need in the weeks and months ahead,” Little said.

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