Malcolm McKinnon: The Epidemic Response Committee in historical context

Malcolm McKinnon: The Epidemic Response Committee in historical context

The government set up the Epidemic Response Committee (ERC), with the support of all
political parties, on March 25, the day before the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect.
Parliament was adjourned to 28 April, consequent on the suspension of the government’s
regular legislative programme for the duration of the lockdown.

With Parliament adjourned, it could not play its monitoring role. The ERC has been intended to provide that scrutiny, which is critical, given the extraordinary powers the government has assumed to deal with the crisis under the Health Act 1956, the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 and the Epidemic Preparation Act 2006.

The ERC comprises 11 MPs, from all parties, and is chaired by the Leader of the Opposition. Though Opposition MPs chair other select committees, this committee is unusual in having a majority of Opposition MPs. Moreover, it has powers to require information of ministers and departments that most select committees lack.

No such committee has ever before been established in a national emergency and that includes the only other major health emergency, the influenza epidemic of October-December 1918, which killed 9,000 New Zealanders (that would pro rata to 37,500 deaths in 2020), with especially severe death rates among Maori and in New Zealand-occupied Samoa.

How should such an innovation in Parliamentary practice be evaluated?

Some might say it has assured a more effective political process than a Parliament often mired in procedural matters, point-scoring and other time-wasters. Certainly, it has been well-suited to scrutinise and hold to account the actions and policies of the government through this emergency. But it is completely unsuited to substituting for the multiple purposes for which Parliament exists – to form governments and to monitor, finance and debate all a government’s legislative programme and policies.

Others have been apprehensive that the adjournment of Parliament, and its substitution with the ERC, endangers parliamentary democracy. But neither the specifics of the situation nor the historical record, suggest this.

Parliament does not sit every week of the year, and of the five weeks of adjournment between March 25 and 28 April, two were scheduled for recess anyway.

And while Parliament could have convened virtually (as the ERC is doing), it makes sense to have used the adjournment to explore the modalities of that and to secure cross-party support.

As for the past, many national emergencies saw too little rather than too much Parliamentary scrutiny.

During the wars of the 1860s it was the governor, the military commanders and the ministries of the day that oversaw and fought the war. Parliament played little role – thus during the crucial Waikato War of 1863-64 it only met for eight weeks.

Through the colonial era and into the 20th century Parliament was habitually summoned only halfway through the year and from the time of Premier Dick Seddon (1893-1906), select committees did little to fill the gap. Most devoted their time to hearing petitions from private individuals.

Parliament was in session through the influenza epidemic, not to hold the government to
account over it, but because it had not met (barring six days in April) any earlier in the year. After two MPs – Alfred Hindmarsh, the leader of the Labour Party, and David Buick, a Manawatu member – died from the influenza, and with another 18 MPs of the 80-strong house sick, PM Massey adjourned Parliament for a week.

During the toughest winter of the Depression – 1933 – Parliament, after having passed a raft of measures in the first ten weeks of the year (a continuation of the 1932 session), did not assemble again until mid-September.

During the Second World War, Parliament met in eighteen secret sessions. MPs were informed about the course of the war, but public scrutiny was absent.

Through the five months of the 1951 waterfront dispute, neither Parliament nor any substitute forum was summoned. The government operated under emergency regulations issued by order-in-council, under the Public Safety Conservation Act, 1932.

The preference for mid-year openings of Parliament persisted into the 1980s. The final session of the 40 th Parliament (1982-84), during Muldoon’s controversial wage and price freeze, did not meet until 31 May 1984.

If there has been a golden age of Parliamentary accountability, it has been in recent not earlier times and the ERC is a variant of it.

Muldoon’s concentration of power fostered arguments for restoring the influence of the
legislative arm of government, a case ably made by then law professor Geoffrey Palmer in
Unbridled Power (1979).

As Leader of the House, and deputy PM in the Fourth Labour government of 1984-90, Palmer introduced year-round sittings of Parliament and enhanced the role of select committees.

Ironically the controversial nature of many radical economic measures of that government strengthened the case for such oversight; the MMP electoral system introduced in 1996, which makes it difficult for a single party to have a parliamentary majority, contributes to that. As now has the ERC.


Malcolm McKinnon is a Wellington historian, who also teaches in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the author of Treasury: the New Zealand Treasury 1840-2000 (2003) and The Broken Decade: Prosperity, depression and recovery in New Zealand, 1928-39 (2016).

Thanks to the fellow historians and former officials who kindly answered questions for this piece. An earlier version was published in BoardRoom on 9 April 2020.

Photo by Duncan WJ Palmer on / CC BY-NC-ND