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Alternative Voices Online And On Air

Stopped at a Lockdown Compliance checkpoint on SH1 between Tauranga and Wellington, Simon Bridges could have used the same reason for being out and about that he gave Morning Report on Thursday 8 April — that he was the Leader of the Opposition and he was on his way to chair meetings of the Epidemic Response Committee (ERC) from his office in Parliament.

He might then have faced the same line of questioning from the cops that Morning Report’s co-presenter, Suzie Ferguson, adopted. Did the Leader of the Opposition classify himself as an essential service? What stopped him working from home like everyone else? What was so special about Parliament that he had to be in it? Didn’t Tauranga have the internet? And, dropped in Colombo-stye as a casual afterthought: “Oh, by the way, who authorised your travel?”

It’s an interesting question, raising some tricky constitutional issues. Obviously, political rivalry rules out the prime minister or any of her ministers and their appointees from controlling the Leader of the Opposition’s travel arrangements. The Supreme Court, similarly, cannot take on an administrative role alongside its judicial function, especially not one that risks dragging it into settling disputes over such things as refunds, upgrades and parking tickets.

The Crown is ultimately the only proper authority for this role in a constitutional sense. But what self-respecting, first-world western democracy wants its head of state to be signing travel chits?

It must, in the end, fall to the chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s constitutional role of holding her Ministers to account has already been taken over by the gallery. Who better to run Parliament’s travel agency?

Why are you going to Wellington, Mr Bridges? Surely it would be cheaper and safer to jump online and then jump on Zoom?

Bridges had given dodgy broadband in Tauranga as one reason for wanting to be on-site at Parliament. But Morning Report’s Ferguson had done the research. “I’ve had a look at the internet situation in Tauranga,” she said briskly. “It would seem that to both your electorate office and to where you live you’ve got ultra-fast broadband. What’s the problem?”

Bridges said the internet was a minor factor although connections seemed to be a bit more reliable in the Capital. “I’ve made quite clear to you why I’m coming to Wellington. It’s because this is where it happens, this is where I can focus, (where) I have the resources, this is where the press gallery is and, actually, I think alternative voices that are asking the questions that New Zealanders want answered (and) that are able to provide constructive scrutiny are very important.”

The “alternative voices” that Bridges was referring to were those of ERC’s 11 members, including himself, and the various experts and sector spokespeople that were being roped in for their opinions. Not only did their questions for government ministers and officials need answers, they were also often completely different from the questions that the media thought needed answers.

For instance, did Bridges have an ulterior motive for spending 13 hours behind the wheel commuting between Tauranga and the Capital every week?

“Are you saying,” Ferguson pressed on, “that the press gallery would forget about you despite the fact that you are chairing this essential committee because you weren’t in Wellington?”

Bridges ran through his reasons again, eventually suggesting that Ferguson consult a constitutional text book to bone up on his role as Leader of the Opposition.

Nah, it was his driving that Morning Report was holding him to account on. “Simon Bridges will continue commute to chair Epidemic Response Committee” ran the headline on RNZ’s web page at 8.58am that morning. An hour later Bridges opened ERC’s fifth meeting, the Opposition Leader’s face one of sixteen on screen, broadcast on the Parliamentary television channel and streamed on its webpage and other platforms including the dreaded Facebook. It was also broadcast on the wireless, over RNZ’s AM network which carries Parliament when the House is sitting. Still reeling from the very public reversal of its plan to scupper ConcertFM, RNZ was slow to spot the public service it might deliver by using its AM Network to broadcast ERC’s meeting’s, initially quoting technical and operational difficulties before doing a U-turn and eventually starting live broadcasts for the committee’s fourth meeting on Tuesday 7 April. Reasons given by RNZ for not broadcasting the committee on the AM Network included: “Because the Select Committee Room video conferencing set up doesn’t work for radio and there is minimal identification of who is speaking and the audio has times when it cuts out making it difficult to broadcast whilst maintaining the necessary context for such an official event. RNZ would need a presenter to provide this — as if for an outside broadcast — and with the draw on our staff under COVID 19 conditions this is not possible.”

But it was — and without a presenter, although the two presenters contracted for The House programme, independently funded by the Office of the Clerk, would have been logical choices for that role.

Live streaming of the committee’s discussions using Zoom’s video chat app may well be a Taranaki Gate solution until it’s safe for MPs to break out of their personal space bubbles and return to Parliament. But, for the public, watching the live stream is the very worst way of keeping up with the committee’s progress.

On the internet, video of the committee is in direct competition with YouTube and Pornhub. Watching ERC, live or recorded, is like going into an amusement arcade and having to knit a pair of socks before playing any of the games.

Listening to it on the radio is better because you can get on with the rest of your sad life under lockdown — even have a couple and make a video to upload in the hope of it going viral. One thing’s for sure, there’s no chance of ERC’s videos going viral.

RNZ is actually funded by Parliament to provide daily and weekly summaries of its debates and select committee hearings. Even though the committees have still been meeting via Zoom, there have been no reports of them or ERC from “The House”.

As for urgently needed transcripts — the vital written record of what ou elected representatives say and do — Hansard is running a week behind in supplying transcripts of ERC and there has been no transcript of the PM’s media briefings for over a fortnight.

Parliament’s emoji-inspired communications strategy of enhancing public “engagement” with voters, developed by Speaker Mallard and his clerks on the back of the internet, has been torn asunder by the lockdown.

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