2 April 2020
This article was originally published by The Democracy Project
Without so much as a bang or even a whimper, New Zealand essentially became a socialist state at 11.59pm on Wednesday 25 March 2020. We’d been primed, given time to plan and get back home in time for the lockdown we all hope will win the war against COVID-19.
People are confined to their homes, except to go out for essential services and supplies. We’ve been told to stay in our ‘bubble’ to prevent spread of this deadly virus. It appears, so far, people fall into two categories: the vast majority who comply with the ‘new normal’ and the few who cheat and potentially endanger the more vulnerable. The Prime Minister quite rightly points out spread will only slow if everyone complies. For some of us the rigorous measures wouldn’t normally rest easy with our core values and would send a chill up our liberal spines. But just about everyone is doing what is asked of them. The greater good wins against individual freedoms, for now.
The government has understandably announced a State of National Emergency giving them wide-sweeping powers. Passed through the parliament with little concern – other than from ACT MP David Seymour – it gives civil defence Controllers and others extra-ordinary powers which are designed to deliver an effective and swift response to a national threat – in this case a microscopic organism. Putting this measure in place shouldn’t be taken lightly by those imposing it. And it is vital to democracy that oversight of decisions is in place in the form of effective checks and balances, normally the role of the opposition and media.
At the same time as the State of Emergency was imposed the Prime Minister announced the oversight function would be fulfilled by a Select Committee, headed by the political opposition. Not too much should be read into the fact that it is chaired and controlled numerically by the opposition. This simply represents the current proportionality of parliament. There is nothing to say their advice or recommendations will be heeded. Would the situation be better if we had an upper house holding government to account? Some worry about the expense of additional bureaucracy of an upper house, but I suggest the cost is a small price to maintain oversight that protects our freedoms. This function is even more crucial in the current situation.
These checks and balances are the only thing separating democracy from socialism and socialism from communism. When put in this way our political system feels a little fragile, despite the strong presidential style persona being carefully constructed in and around the Prime Minister. Beyond this State of National Emergency, it is a slippery slope toward curfews, further suspension of civil rights and finally the demise of civil law and our courts. Now, the government has the power to instigate all of these should it decide to do so. That’s a whole lot of trust we are expected to have and yet in repeated surveys, Kiwis have indicated that they don’t trust politicians. At times like this, we might expect to see the calming face of the Governor-General assuring citizens that civil liberties will be restored as soon as possible. Is it that she has chosen not to speak or been told not to?
This entire national undertaking against COVID-19 is based on trust. However, we’ve been conditioned to be distrustful of government. That’s why there’s a ‘Loyal Opposition’ in the Westminster system. We are expected to blindly comply, with the only mechanism for change being to vote for someone else at the next election. Already there are murmurings the 15 September election date might be delayed, which takes away any imminent fear the government has of doing the wrong thing.
This isn’t about whether we believe the Prime Minister is doing a good job; it’s about preserving democracy. Both should be important, even in trying times. I’m reminded of the quote by Alan Moore: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” For now, the check and balance of fear of being voted out has gone and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The public face of this lockdown and key to its success is the New Zealand Police. As Robert Peel espoused (paraphrased):
- Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public to be able to secure and maintain their respect and confidence
- Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that reflects that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which every citizen has in the interests of community welfare.
- Police should concentrate on enforcing the law and never appear to usurp the powers of the Courts.
How the Police conduct themselves over the initial period of the current lockdown will determine, to a large degree, whether the public will support it for the duration.
The government has acted swiftly to ensure people are not financially embarrassed. In the circumstances this feels fair and they have been roundly praised for the measures taken. However, let’s not forget it is the taxpayer who foots the bill. Government is never anything other than a caretaker making decisions which are implemented using taxpayer money. Even in exceptional times the caretaker must be accountable.
In order to move quickly back to full democracy as soon as possible the strong voice of civil liberties is essential. Now is not the time for silence.