Dunne: End this Orwellian version of NZ

Parliament must resume sitting again, so we can have effective scrutiny of the decisions being made and reasoned debate about the alternatives, says Peter Dunne.

It is time for the near-dictatorial powers being exercised by a small group of Ministers and senior officials under the state of emergency proclamation they renew every seven days to be exposed to the full ongoing scrutiny and approval of Parliament as a whole, on behalf of the people.

The state of emergency established under the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act invests extraordinary powers in the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, which when coupled with powers afforded the Director-General of Health under the Health Act, and the Commissioner of Police under his legislation means that for the duration of the emergency (a maximum of seven days at a time but subject to renewal as required) these three officials are effectively running the country.

With Parliament in lockdown, save for a review select committee limited to asking questions after the event, and the energies of the Cabinet – or the top tier of the Cabinet to be precise – focused on the Covid-19 emergency, there is little room for effective scrutiny of the decisions being made, let alone any opportunity for reasoned debate about the alternatives.

We are living in an increasingly Orwellian society where official government advertisements encourage citizens to “dob in” those whom they think are breaching the lockdown conditions, where public health specialists and academics who criticise the current direction of policy are accused of “breaking ranks”, and where the Police talk about “educating” people who “are not doing things the way they should be”.

All these restrictions may well have been necessary, indeed vital, in our initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and probably there were few who did not see that. After all, the world is currently in the grip of extraordinary events not known in most of our lifetimes. The journey we embarked on when Alert Level 4 was announced was one that was new to all of us, and no-one could have been at all sure how it was to progress. And, it has to be acknowledged, given the reduction in the number of cases now being detected in New Zealand that it has been successful in its objective of suppressing the virus locally.

But the social, economic, and personal costs have been enormous, and the country now faces a massive reconstruction job on all fronts that will take years to complete as we begin to think about what lies ahead.

Already, the Government is talking about life beyond Alert Level 4, but it has yet to specify when that will be, or what it might look like.

For the time being, therefore, our lives will continue to take their lead from the increasingly farcical daily press conferences, less and less an occasion for the imparting of solid or new information, and more and more just a giant national pep-talk, followed by a barrage of shouting media questions.  

The tightness of the circle managing the process is of increasing concern too.

Outside the immediate group of Ministers and senior officials, there is a small coterie of like-minded academics being called on by the media with monotonous regularity to comment on what is happening. Their role seems to be to support the steps being taken while denigrating any critics. It is becoming all too inwardly focused.

Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English observed recently that what was critical for governments in these types of situations was an effective feedback loop to ensure decision making did not become too far removed from external reality. However, what we have now seems to be more of an echo chamber than a feedback loop.

That is why the return of a functioning Parliament is necessary and overdue. Of course, its operations will need to be a little different from the norm to take account of the prevailing situation but given current technology that should not be problematic. In any case, the gains from a return to a working Parliamentary democracy far outweigh any of the difficulties involved.

Parliament is the proper place for the Prime Minister’s daily statements to be made, and then be debated as need be, and questions asked by the people’s representatives.

It is Parliament where decisions about the duration of the lockdown and what comes next should be made and challenged. It is Parliament where the level and duration of impositions on the future lives of citizens should be discussed and decided upon, not the small group of officials currently doing so by way of Regulations. It is Parliament, not the Director-General of Health and the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, that should be debating whether Covid-19 should continue to be treated solely as a public health issue or whether it is now time to start taking greater account of the long-term economic and social consequences, and where the line needs to be drawn.

And it is Parliament that should be deciding for how many more times the weekly state of emergency should be renewed, not just the Minister of Civil Defence acting on the advice of the very officials the state of emergency empowers.

Above these immediate concerns, huge decisions that will affect the lives of every New Zealander, long after the Covid-19 crisis, are looming. Decisions like, for example, the resumption and direction of  education at every level – from pre-school to tertiary – that will have lifelong consequences for many young New Zealanders; or the future shape, size and purpose of our economy, including the way we work and the impact of social services; or, the future care and support of the vulnerable and the elderly in our society.

In this regard, the Treasury’s best to worst case scenarios for the future of the New Zealand economy deserve the full and immediate attention of Parliament, both in terms of how they were arrived at initially, their credibility and ongoing validity.

The absence of Parliament and consequently a properly functioning Opposition has left us devoid of a vehicle to challenge the increasingly one-dimensional view we are being presented.

While it is the proper role of officials to advise the Government on the various options that lie ahead of it, it is Parliament’s fundamental role, above all other organisations, to hold the Executive to account for decisions being reached, and to scrutinise their future impact. Parliament’s primary purpose is to protect the public interest, as the safeguard against excessive or over-intrusive government. But to do so, it must be meeting regularly.

As New Zealanders we have long – and perhaps somewhat over-optimistically – prided ourselves on our tolerance for diversity, our so-called live and let live approach, where we like to think we just let people get on with their own lives. However, the way we have reacted to the lockdown challenges that perception somewhat.

Not only has the willingness with which we seem to have embraced the restrictions imposed upon us become increasingly concerning, but also the corresponding extent to which tolerance for dissenting views has diminished. Our national television news was never a paragon of stimulating reporting and commentary, but now it has descended into little more than a nightly banal morality lecture about how we should all be behaving, and how well we are all doing.

... it is now time to let a little sunlight shine on the way we are responding to Covid-19. The sooner this happens, and we stop being treated like compliant children, expected to take so much on trust, the better.

The absence of Parliament and consequently a properly functioning Opposition has left us devoid of a vehicle to challenge the increasingly one-dimensional view we are being presented, and whether the powers being exercised by public authorities are necessary and appropriate, proportionate to the crisis at hand and not excessive. We simply have no current mechanism, other than what we are told, for evaluating the effectiveness of our national response.

The restoration of Parliament and with it, effective scrutiny of the decisions being made, and the practices being adopted by government agencies in support of those decisions is an important step towards the restoration of normal and proper accountability in our country.

Parliament is the platform where competing plans for dealing with Covid-19 and the future of our country should be aired and tested, and decisions reached. It is the place for getting to the bottom of ongoing issues like, for example, the availability of testing kits, or personal protection equipment which, despite all the soothing assurances to the contrary, are still of significance within the healthcare sector.

To quote an old political mantra, it is now time to let a little sunlight shine on the way we are responding to Covid-19. The sooner this happens, and we stop being treated like compliant children, expected to take so much on trust, the better.

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