Covid-19 powers approved under urgency

Hours before New Zealand moves to Level 2, the Government has succeeded in passing new laws that will create a legal framework for the new restrictions

New legislation allowing the Government to enforce Level 2 restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic have been passed by Parliament, despite protests about a lack of scrutiny and the intrusive powers being granted.

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill, which went through Parliament in less than two days and with no select committee hearings, grants police warrantless entry to premises if they reasonably believe virus-related orders are being breached.

It also gives the Prime Minister the ability to grant special powers to the Health Minister in making public health orders - something which could previously only take place through the declaration of a state of emergency or the issuing of an epidemic notice.

The Human Rights Commission expressed concern about the rushed process and lack of scrutiny for what it said were sweeping powers, while the NZ Council for Civil Liberties said it had fears about the broad powers to enter houses, businesses and marae.

Speaking during the bill’s third reading, Justice Minister Andrew Little acknowledged it was unusual for legislation to be passed with such limited notice and consultation, but said Parliament needed to be nimble and agile in responding to what were extraordinary circumstances.

“The reality is this virus will grab a foothold wherever it can: it does not respect civil liberties, it does not respect something as sacred as a funeral."

“This is a virus that can have an extraordinary impact very quickly on the community, particularly on vulnerable members of the community, so it is right that we clarify we have the powers to respond as we move down levels of the system.”

The legal powers used during the lockdown were “very crude and very blunt”, and more nuanced laws would be useful as New Zealand moved down the alert levels.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins also spoke in defence of the legislation, saying the Government did not want the enormous sacrifices made by the public in recent weeks to have been in vain.

“The reality is this virus will grab a foothold wherever it can: it does not respect civil liberties, it does not respect something as sacred as a funeral...

“We as a country have to stick together by staying apart - that is the reality.”

Hipkins said similarly broad powers had been granted to the National government in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, and while the Labour opposition had expressed unease at the time it had ultimately been the right response.

However, National MP Gerry Brownlee - who was Earthquake Recovery Minister at the time - was critical of the lack of safeguards on the Prime Minister’s ability to enable Covid-related restrictions under the legislation.

The Government needed to have some trust in New Zealanders to do what was in their best interests as they learned to live with the virus until a vaccine was developed, Brownlee said.

“Unfortunately this bill takes away that element of trust, it takes away the discussion with New Zealanders about what would be a good thing to do, and most concerningly it concentrates all of the decision-making in the hands of one person, the Prime Minister.”

“Unfortunately New Zealanders have gone from feeling valued to feeling patronised, they've gone from feeling trusted to feeling like naughty children that can't be trusted.”

National’s shadow attorney-general Tim Macindoe said the Government had badly misjudged the mood of the public, which expected restrictions placed upon them and new powers granted to authorities to be “justified, reasonable and necessary”. 

“Unfortunately New Zealanders have gone from feeling valued to feeling patronised, they've gone from feeling trusted to feeling like naughty children that can't be trusted.”

The Government had had several weeks to develop the legal arrangements for Level 2 and clearly articulate them to the public, instead of rushing a law through with almost no consultation, Macindoe said.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, whose party has come under pressure from some of its supporters regarding the bill’s more intrusive powers, said it was “cautiously supporting” the legislation and monitoring its effect.

“Yes, we must have every caution over the way that our civil liberties are being disrupted, and, again, we have long been a clear voice in that instance…

“But let me be also clear: this is a global pandemic the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime in this House, the likes of which the Green Party has not had to deal with in our history. Those are extra considerations.”

Māori and low-income communities had valid reasons to be concerned about the threat posed to their own liberties, and Davidson said the bill could not worsen pre-existing inequalities in New Zealand society.

New Zealand First MP Ron Mark said he understood the concerns of the Opposition, but the changes enabled by the legislation were the right thing to do given the country’s current position in the battle against Covid-19.

“You are your most vulnerable at your time of victory, when you have taken the objective and you think you've won. That's when an astute enemy knows you're weak.

We're at that point. We're at that point right now: where a good decision or a bad decision can undo everything in the blink of an eye.”

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