Preparing our democracy for the next emergency

By Danielle van Dalen July 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic saw New Zealand enter its second nationwide state of emergency. This gave the Government access to levels of power not seen in New Zealand since the 1950s, perhaps ever. As a nation, we got lucky this time – the pandemic exposed constitutional weaknesses that might have been exploited if we had leaders with a more totalitarian bent.

When an extraordinary event like this occurs it’s important that we take the time to learn from our experience. There will always be another emergency and we need to be prepared for next time.

New Zealand’s first nationwide state of emergency was declared in response to the Christchurch earthquakes of February 2011. After the emergency, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was established to ensure that the city would be better prepared for another earthquake. Following this example, our recently released paper Civic Defence: Defining roles and preparing our democracy for the next emergency joins lawyers, academics, and politicians in their call to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry and investigate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and state of emergency.

In the face of the scary unknown of an emergency it’s easy to accept the actions of those in charge as essential to protecting us, and as a result New Zealanders put a lot of trust in the Government’s response, readily accepting extreme restrictions on our freedoms. And so, in the wake of this historic moment, it’s worth investigating what happened, and why.

I’m certainly not suggesting that our Government is authoritarian. In fact, we would do well to recognise the success of the Government’s response and celebrate that New Zealanders currently live in relative freedom compared to much of the world. However, that may be down to the luck of who was in charge and that those people were respectful of the power they held rather than sufficient constitutional protections. While this isn’t an argument in favour of a written constitution, no defence against the misuse of power should depend upon the goodness of our politicians’ intent.

Both history and international experience have shown that without strong democratic practices and protections there is significant risk that government control can extend beyond what is appropriate. Ensuring any restrictions to our freedom are justifiable and short-term is necessary for sustaining the democratic values we enjoy on a daily basis. That’s why we need the (perhaps tedious) checks and balances to protect against any misuse of power or unnecessary restrictions of freedom.

It’s time to learn from what has happened and prepare for the future. Establishing a royal commission of inquiry will provide an important avenue for beginning this work. We need to identify the gaps in our constitutional response and strengthening the checks and balances to sufficiently protect against abuse of power – whoever holds that power.

Another emergency will come, the task now is to reflect, and – alongside our work to ensure the long-term survival of our economy, public health and safety – work to ensure the long-term survival of our democracy.

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