Civic Defence | Defining roles and preparing our democracy for the next emergency

By Danielle van Dalen July 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic saw New Zealand enter its second nationwide state of emergency in March 2020. This gave the Government access to levels of power not seen in New Zealand since the 1950s, perhaps ever.

These emergency powers bring significant risk to democratic practices, and therefore to democratic values and freedoms. History and international experience have shown that there is great risk that this kind of government control extends beyond what is appropriate without strong democratic practices and protections.


Civic Defence

Defining roles and preparing our democracy for the next emergency


New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has, at the time of writing, been relatively successful. We are fortunate that our leaders are not attempting to hold on to these extreme powers and there is no evidence to suggest we are on our way to becoming an autocracy. However, the pandemic response has also highlighted the weaknesses in our system, and how much we rely on different sectors of society to play their roles to safeguard against potential abuses of power. This paper is an attempt to pull together and specifically name the responsibilities each of these sectors during emergencies to safeguard the democratic freedoms we often take for granted. Namely:

  • The executive must minimise restrictions to the fundamental freedoms of New Zealanders, balance a sufficiently speedy response to the crisis with the need for carefully considered legislation, and increase the priority for governmental transparency and accountability,
  • The legislature must continue to scrutinise, challenge, and hold the executive to account for their decisions,
  • The judiciary must interpret and apply the law—for both the general public and the government,
  • The fourth estate must ask questions, challenge mistakes and explanations, and provide analysis and explanations for the general public, and
  • The civil society must take an active interest in its trust of government, and participate in the parliamentary process where possible and appropriate.

While these role definitions are nothing new, in a state of emergency it is especially crucial that each sector knows the significance of their role and act accordingly to protect the necessary conditions for the functioning and freedoms of a democratic society. This requires being explicit about what is implicit (especially in an emergency), and reminding ourselves of what each of these roles require of us so that responsibilities are not abused or forgotten.

Therefore, we finish the paper with recommended reforms to ensure the long-term survival of democratic values and practices in New Zealand by protecting and strengthening the roles of the different sectors of society following the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency.

Key Recommendations

  1. A Royal Commission of Inquiry should be appointed to begin an investigation into the actions taken by the Executive in responding to COVID-19.
  2. Parliament should pass legislation to ensure that the Official Information Act cannot be suspended or over- ridden during a state of emergency.
  3. The standing orders of the House should formally protect the essential position of the leader of the opposition in a state of emergency.
  4. At every stage of the political process, particularly in a state of emergency, civil society should be actively engaged and participating where appropriate.

While emergencies are usually unexpected, they will inevitably come, and it is essential that we are well-prepared to respond, and that strong protections are in place for the risks that emergency powers pose to democracy. We hope that the recommendations in this paper inspire all New Zealanders to attend well to their key roles and responsibilities, because now is the time to prepare for the future.

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