Canterbury earthquake law sets dangerous precedent
Our MPs failed us yesterday.
Caught up in the wave of emotion which followed the Canterbury earthquake, they unanimously pass a law which sets some very dangerous precedents.
The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill was rushed through Parliament last night and, briefly summarised, it gives the government powers to make regulations which over-ride almost every law already in place without reference to Parliament.
The exceptions are to do with releasing anyone from custody, as well as restrictions around the Bill of Rights 1688, the Constitution Act 1986, the Electoral Act 1993, the Judicature Amendment Act 1972, or the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
Any such regulations need to be in line with the purpose of the law – that is, they need to “facilitate the response to the Canterbury earthquake” and must “ enable the relaxation or suspension of provisions in enactments” which get in the way of that response.
In other words, a few ministers, so long as they can link it to the Canterbury earthquake, can make laws about almost everything by signing a bit of paper. No need to put such laws before Parliament, no need to put them before a select committee, no need for public submissions.
The new law also specifically states no regulation passed in this way “can be held invalid because it is “repugnant to or inconsistent with any other Act” or because it “confers any discretion on, or allows any matter to be determined or approved by, any person.
Furthermore, regulations “may not be challenged, reviewed, quashed, or called into question in any court.”
These are extraordinarily far-reading powers. The only saving grace is any regulations have the statutory expiry date of April 2012.
Only the Green Party and the Act Party raised concerns about the wide-ranging powers contained in the new law, but they then, cravenly, voted for it.
There is no doubt that the country has been strongly emotionally affected by the earthquake. Most of us have relatives or friends in the region: most of us will know people living in the area who suffer emotional aftershocks such as palpitations when a large truck drives past their house.
That is all very human. But one of the things members of Parliament are supposed to be able to do is look past the emotions of the moment. Their role is to consider the longer term implications of the laws they are making. That is what we pay them for.
We hope for some wisdom, or at least some ability to recognise folly when it appears, and to avoid that folly.
It has become more difficult to do this in recent years. The way public issues are now played out in the media, with the emphasis on how people feel rather than on responses involving the critical engagement of the brain, has a lot to answer for.
Television news, in particular, seems to require everyone to respond like self-dramatising emotionally incontinent teenagers. It is one of the least healthy aspects of our age.
But we elect leaders to see beyond all that. We also elect them to have a sense of how decisions made now might be used and abused in the future.
There is an ugly history, both in this country and elsewhere, of laws granting sweeping powers like these for one reason being abused down the track.
Wartime public safety and economic stabilisation laws in New Zealand were later used to suppress dissent, in the 1951 waterfront strike, and to run the economy by fiat, under Sir Robert Muldoon.
Internationally, a similar rushed resolution following an incident in the Tonkin Gulf gave United States president Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to escalate the Vietnam War.
I am not saying this kind of abuse will happen. I am certainly not saying it is the intent behind such wide-ranging powers.
But powers, once granted, tend to be pushed to their limits and beyond by those who possess those powers. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and there are good intentions behind this law.
Those good intentions should not blind us to its folly.