Democracy on hold

With neither a bang nor barely a whimper, barely one week ago New Zealand put being a long established and respected Parliamentary democracy on hold to become a virtual Police state in the ongoing fight against Covid-19, writes Peter Dunne

We have settled into a life regime more restrictive than at any previous point in our history – including wartime.

We have no freedom of movement, limited access to essential goods and services, and our borders have been sealed; we are encouraged to snoop on our neighbours and report them if we believe they are breaking the rules, and to report businesses if we think they are price-gouging.

We are told the Police have extensive new powers of enforcement, and the presence of the military on the streets to bolster them has not been ruled out. Local newspapers have been shut down, because the process of their production and distribution might expose more people to the risk of contracting Covid-19.

We have never experienced directly anything like this before – indeed we have only been used to imagining that this is what life in a quintessential dictatorship must be like. But then we have never experienced anything like Covid-19 before. It is an unprecedented risk to all of us, demanding an equally unprecedented response.

Therefore, the steps the Government has taken in the last week to protect the health of New Zealanders can be seen as a comprehensive recognition of what will likely be necessary to defeat Covid-19.

Even more remarkable has been the reaction of New Zealanders who have by and large fallen strongly in step with the actions taken so far, although in some instances the sweeping extent to which that has happened has been a little uncomfortable.

What has been striking (but also somewhat concerning) has been the high tolerance there seems to have been for the huge loss of freedom New Zealanders have shown themselves prepared to endure for the greater good of eliminating Covid-19. In doing so, they have invested an extraordinary amount of trust in the government, its advisers and the Police that they all know what they are doing.

At the same time, the level of intolerance shown towards those who have questioned aspects of what has been done has been somewhat chilling.

In a hitherto free and open society like ours we should always remember there can never be a wrong time to raise public questions. But sadly, too many legitimate questions are being dismissed arrogantly, tritely and patronisingly. 

Moreover, some of the less than assured and contradictory comments from the Police that they can be relied upon to exercise their extended powers even-handedly, prudently, and carefully have failed to inspire universal confidence this will actually be so.

In a similar vein, the extent to which there has been acquiescence in the sidelining of Parliament has been accepted has been surprising.

To be fair, the Government and the Opposition have of late shown a high level of co-operation and willingness to work together which seems genuine and is welcome, which mitigates that impact to some extent. While the special select committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition to review the various official actions taken is a small, positive step, it should be remembered it is essentially a reactive mechanism that will always be playing catch-up. Moreover, it does not appear that it has the authority to override or change Government actions that it may feel have either gone too far or are not working.

... he seems to have made no effort to stand up for the role of Parliament in crises like this and has instead offered only the most spurious of reasons why the House can no longer meet.

That is properly the role for a functioning Parliament to perform, but Parliament has been placed in abeyance. Particularly disturbing is the attitude of Parliament’s Speaker who seems to have long since abandoned any notion of representing Parliament or upholding its traditional rights and privileges, as he swears to do upon his election, and as is the traditional role of the Speaker in a Westminster Parliamentary system like ours.

Rather he seems to have made no effort to stand up for the role of Parliament in crises like this and has instead offered only the most spurious of reasons why the House can no longer meet. While Parliament clearly cannot meet as a group the way it traditionally does, there is absolutely no reason why an on-line Parliament cannot be set up quickly, utilising the Parliamentary television and overriding restrictive contracts in place about its use.

What seems to be being bargained on here is a belief that the Covid-19 emergency is so severe, unusual and demanding of such a comprehensive response that customary niceties like ensuring that the Police act at all times within the law, that personal rights to privacy are protected, that freedom of assembly and association as per the Bill of Rights Act are upheld; and that Parliament meets on a regular basis to hold the executive branch of government to account are essentially secondary to the crisis we face, and that when the crunch comes, most people will accept that.

It is a highly risky strategy that may work – or fall completely flat. We simply do not know yet.

If the period of the emergency is short and sharp and seen to be effective, then, on balance people will probably consider all these impositions to have been worth it because we will have been freed of the Covid-19 risk.

At that point, however, a different problem will emerge – people may then expect just as swift a retreat from the restrictions now in place, and their patience will likely be severely strained if that process drags on for too long. This is especially so since the retreat is likely to be staged – we will not go from category four to zero in one go – and all regions may not move at the same pace, potentially causing even more confusion and disruption.

But, if, as seems more likely, from the veiled warnings already being given, the measures taken so far do not lead to the swift demise of Covid-19 and the restrictions and their duration – and correspondingly the enforcement powers of the Police – are increased,  it will  over time become far more difficult to manage the situation and ensure ongoing public compliance. And, even with current Police numbers, let alone the potential prospect of soldiers on the streets as well, no-one could seriously believe we have the capacity to just Police our way out of it.

The most recent parallel situation is the 1981 Springbok tour. Many people of a certain generation will have vivid memories of what happened then and the civil unrest that occurred, others’ views will have been shaped by what they have heard said or reported from time to time.

Whatever, there are two important points to recall – the “prolonged” period of turmoil and unrest lasted from only July to September, barely two months, but the damage to the Police’s reputation due to the vigorous nature of their enforcement activities at the time endured well beyond that and took decades to reverse.

In comparison with the scope of Covid-19, the Springbok tour looks today like a very small exercise indeed, even though it consumed virtually all our Police resources at the time.

So, the risk now to the long-term reputation and credibility of the Police and the authorities from their handling of the Covid-19 response, if they get it wrong, is simply massive. If they are not already thinking about this, they should be.

While the Government has been decisive and clear in its actions over the last week, it is now becoming clear that the government sector overall was poorly prepared for such a pandemic.

New Zealanders’ current ready acceptance of the raft of restrictions on their normal lifestyles may charitably be attributed to an initial state of shock at the rapid spread across the world of Covid-19

Understandably but unfortunately, our emergency response for the last decade or more, has been focused on the real risk of major earthquakes and other natural disasters. We have become world leaders in that area, but pandemic planning has run a distant second across the machinery of government. 

The hope has to be there that the knowledge and experience now gained is retained, updated and modified over time by a permanent government group so that whenever the next pandemic strikes, we will be not be caught as flat-footed again and can as a nation hit the decks running.

New Zealanders’ current ready acceptance of the raft of restrictions on their normal lifestyles may charitably be attributed to an initial state of shock at the rapid spread across the world of Covid-19 and the consequent perceived need to “do something”.

Consequently, New Zealanders have been more accepting of what has rapidly become the new normal than they would be in more stable times where our natural scepticism and wariness of authority would have been much more to the fore. 

For that reason, once we start to be let out of our Covid-19 bubbles to pick up the normal threads of our lives again, New Zealanders will expect a steadier and smarter response. Their brief tolerance of the present centralised heavy-handedness will disappear in a flash – something the authorities need to be acutely aware of as they plan their next moves.

Although democracy may temporarily be on hold, our civil society remains founded on the basis of the consent of the people.

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