16 April 2020
This article was originally published by The Democracy Project
I’m worried that I’m worrying about the wrong thing. I feel I should be very concerned about the health effects of COVID-19. Instead, it is the state of our democracy that is keeping me awake at night and the legacy of devastation and financial ruin the current regime is delivering to kiwis.
Confession: I’ve been out walking most days. Sometimes I stop and have a chat with people from a safe distance, even when I’m glared at by fastidious social distancers. Today one passer-by commented “Jacinda can’t keep making all of these decisions by herself. It’s the whole parliament who should be considering the issues and deciding what’s best for us.”
That immediately took me to the open letter to Chinese citizens and friends of China at home and abroad from parliamentarians, academics, advocates and policy leaders which quoted a Chinese doctor “Dr Li Wenliang died while fighting the virus in Wuhan. On his deathbed Dr Li famously said that “a healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice”
A country is best served when it has a strong government with a strong opposition holding it to account. Today we have neither. Due to the State of Emergency we have instead what feels like a holy trinity: the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, the Director General of Health and the Commissioner of Police – none of them elected but now bestowed with extraordinary powers. The Prime Minister remains nominally in charge (but can be overruled) and her Ministers are largely invisible. The opposition meanwhile has allowed itself to be deftly side-lined.
A State of Emergency lasts for seven days but can be extended, not by parliament but by the authorities themselves. To date it has been extended three times, with no public justification or notice of when the country and our democracy might return to normal. The calls for parliament to be the arbiter of State of Emergency extensions has thankfully started. In his Newsroom article today, Peter Dunne calls for this and says, “Parliament must resume sitting again, so we can have effective scrutiny of the decisions being made and reasoned debate about the alternatives.” There was no mention of Parliament reconvening in today’s announcement about what Alert Level 3 looks like.
I wrote recently that we effectively became a socialist state on March 25. It is precisely at times like this we need a strong opposition. But the opposition has been side-lined; manoeuvred to dealing with COVID-19 related issues through the Epidemic Response Committee. The Prime Minister announced the formation of the committee at the same time as the State of National Emergency and gave the Chair role to the opposition.
The committee’s role is to consider and report to the House on matters relating to the Government’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic. The committee is doing excellent work hearing from experts, ministers, the media and others – important matters that should be considered and some implemented. This is the sort of advice the government should have been listening to itself before handing the running of the country over to others.
The committee can make recommendations to government but there are two problems: with parliament currently in recess there is no-one to receive recommendations and the government can just ignore them should it choose. This is a case of important but largely busy work – activity in the guise of action. At worst, it is a cynical act by the government in the pretence of listening to the people. At best, it has at least allowed the public to hear contrarian views to those our current lockdown are based on and that is important.
While side-lined by the sole focus on COVID-19 response the opposition is not doing its job of holding government to account. New Zealand is poorer for it. By taking on the role of Chair of the Epidemic Response Committee Simon Bridges has hindered his ability to speak freely as Leader of the Opposition and hold government to account. I believe he should have put another senior MP in the role, perhaps Gerry Brownlee or Todd McLay, leaving himself free to concentrate on being opposition leader. Instead, the old leaders (Key, English and Joyce) are doing the running. We’d normally expect to hear the civil liberties voice of ACT’s David Seymour upholding people’s rights, but he too seems disenfranchised by being on the committee. Who, for instance, is actually asking the question about whether we really need to maintain the state of national emergency which is strangling the New Zealand economy? This too wasn’t mentioned in Level 3 announcements today.
I’m not saying that the opposition has been idle. In fact, it has done an excellent job in two areas. The first was the National Party petition to quarantine all people coming into the country. The 20,000 signatures in one day showed they had struck a chord with the public, many believing this measure was long overdue. Ardern’s Cabinet was quick to action quarantine implementation before the opposition could take credit. The second was ACT leader David Seymour’s private member’s bill calling for a 20% cut to MPs pay – again Ardern reacted by announcing she and her Cabinet were all to take a 20 percent drop in salary. We need to see more of this questioning and action. There is a lot at stake for New Zealanders now and well into the future.
There is another problem with a sidelined opposition. We have an election, scheduled for 19 September. The Prime Minister says the date won’t be moved despite calls for a delay due to COVID-19 disruption. The Labour party effectively has a campaign platform now, but other parties do not. National announced it had suspended its campaign – it would have been churlish to do otherwise. But while media continue to report little more than the government line the voice of those opposed to these measures or with other ideas are effectively silenced. This is not how a democracy should operate.
While the opposition has been flattened like a small retail business dependent on foot traffic it is hard to see any possibility of new parties emerging for the September election and this is the subject for another article. I am reminded however of The New Zealand Legion which sprung up from nowhere at a time of global crisis – the great depression. In 1933, New Zealand saw an unprecedented eruption of protest among urban businessmen and professionals which led to the formation of a radical conservative movement, The New Zealand Legion. It didn’t last beyond 1934 but it did set the scene for the establishment of The National Party. That’s the great thing about democracies – when people are free to cry “enough” the unpredictable can happen to provide hope for the future.
Which takes me back again to the previously mentioned open letter to the Chinese people. It quotes independent intellectual Professor Xu Zhangrun. “Professor Xu—now under house arrest—has called on his compatriots to stop their uncritical support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and instead to “rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn”.
Let the democratic revolution begin.
My other blog posts on the COVID-19 Epidemic: