To the New Government: Please, Let’s not Abuse Urgency
Remember the word “unprecedented?” It was deployed during the pandemic—with some validity. The virus moved quickly. Countries were caught out. Death tolls mounted. Because the threat posed by COVID-19 was “unprecedented” (though historically, pandemics have occurred, the most deadly in recent memory being the 1918 Spanish Flu), the response had to be the same, which often produced problems. Rules were bent.
In our country, they were ignored. The legislation for vaccine mandates was passed under urgency in a move that academic Dr Dean Knight described as a “constitutional disgrace.” Division deepened; polarisation increased.
Apparently, “urgent” issues can legitimise “urgent” responses and invoke the spectre of… urgency.
In some sense, this election result has been a referendum on the COVID response. The Labour Government started to consistently poll beneath National in early 2022, the time of the parliamentary protest.
And with the election over but the government still to be decided, some are already saying that the issues our nation faces are “urgent.” A troubled health system. The faltering economy. Education results falling.
Given our experience with the ramifications of “unprecedented,” Chris Luxon’s new—as yet unformed—government needs to beware of such talk. Because, apparently, “urgent” issues can legitimise “urgent” responses and invoke the spectre of… urgency.
This nation has the “fastest law in the West,” meaning that they were passed too quickly and without adequate oversight.
The use of Parliamentary urgency means contracting the usual democratic process of select committee hearings and readings, reducing the input and consideration legislation receives. The departing Labour Government passed many laws under urgency in its final months in power, including the controversial Three Waters legislation. One rationale: Cyclone Gabrielle.
But fast laws are often poor laws. Sir Geoffrey Palmer once noted that this nation has the “fastest law in the West,” meaning that they were passed too quickly and without adequate oversight. The abuse of urgency only compounds this structural issue.
On a positive note, Chris Luxon’s Government won’t have the FPP-style absolute majority of the previous one. Both National’s Chris Bishop and ACT’s David Seymour spoke out in 2021 about what they saw then as an abuse of urgency.
Ultimately, this issue is about rebuilding trust… Some may see this as a new era of government, but history is always helpful when contemplating the present.
It’s long been an historic temptation for both sides of politics. In 2011, Grant Robertson and pollster (and National-leaning blogger) David Farrar joined forces to complain about the then-National government’s abuse of urgency. The justification given for that was the Christchurch earthquake.
Ultimately, this issue is about rebuilding trust. Trust in government in our nation has declined, as it has done in other Western democracies. This decline has become more precipitous in the years following the COVID response. Some may see this as a new era of government, but history is always helpful when contemplating the present.
At Maxim, we have our own list of initiatives we’d like to see from the new government, including a recalibration of teacher training and the creation of an AI unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. But we’d hate to see urgency abused to make them happen. Our needs may be urgent; urgency isn’t the answer. This is a time to follow the rules.
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Executive Director Tim Wilson explains the thinking behind his column.