Government's COVID-19 emergency powers compared to 1951 'waterfront dispute'

With Parliament quickly passing legislation giving the Government emergency powers to fight COVID-19, it's being compared to 1951 when emergency powers were passed to tackle a very different kind of issue.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis says with the Government's declaration of a state of emergency and issue of a COVID-19 epidemic notice, it has "taken on powers that haven't been seen since the 1951 waterfront dispute".

In 1951, Prime Minister Sidney Holland did not face a global pandemic - rather, a dispute between waterfront workers and the Government over pay that got so heated legislation was passed enacting emergency regulations

The dispute began as New Zealand bounced back from years of restrictions and shortages from World War II with the economy booming and workers demanding higher wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Tensions boiled over when industrial workers were given a 15 percent wage increase by the Arbitration Court - but it didn't apply to waterfront workers, who were offered a 9 percent wage increase by the Government-run Waterfront Industry Commission, who controlled their employment.  

The dispute, sometimes referred to as the "waterfront lockout" or "waterfront strike", lasted for 151 days from February to July in 1951, and involved up to 20,000 strikers. It prompted Holland to introduce heavy-handed emergency regulations, bringing in the navy and army.

Holland, facing a labour dispute that threatened to cripple the economy, gave the police and armed forces the power to detain anyone involved in a strike, incited others to be part of a strike, or published material that encouraged resistance. 

Former Prime Minister Sidney Holland introduced emergency regulations in 1951 to contain a major worker dispute.
Former Prime Minister Sidney Holland introduced emergency regulations in 1951 to contain a major worker dispute. Photo credit: NZ History

The press was also censored and it was illegal to give money or food to strikers or their families, leading to the regulations being described as the "most illiberal legislation ever enacted in New Zealand".

Holland even threatened to declare a state of emergency in New Zealand, but eventually, the turmoil concluded with the Waterfront Workers' Union being dissolved and replaced with new unions in each port.

Holland called a snap election in September 1951 and his National Party won 54 percent of the vote, leading some analysts to conclude that the Prime Minister's hard-line won over the country.

How do Holland's powers compare to Ardern's?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued an epidemic notice this week and it will remain for three months with ongoing review, enabling the use of a number of 'special powers' in legislation, to help tackle the coronavirus.

The powers under New Zealand's emergency legislation did not require new Bills to be passed. The existence of several statutes that make up the country's legislative framework were already in place, and were simply enacted.

The Health Act 1956, for example, allows the Government to require people to be isolated, quarantined or disinfected, force people to remain where they are, and requisition equipment, vehicles and buildings.

"What is new is that powers under this framework can now be used, following processes for invoking emergency law having been followed and conditions for emergency law met," Otago University public health senior lecturer Louise Delany explained.

A number of other new laws were passed under urgency this week allowing the Government to soften the economic impact that COVID-19 will have on New Zealand. A freeze on rent increases for six months has been enacted, for example.

Holland never got as far as declaring a state of national emergency in New Zealand, but Ardern has - making her the second Prime Minister to do so.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key was the first, declaring a state of national emergency on February 23, 2011 following the Christchurch earthquake.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared a state of national emergency due to COVID-19.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared a state of national emergency due to COVID-19. Photo credit: Getty

Both Holland and Ardern faced unprecedented scenarios - Holland gave police powers to keep escalating protests under control, while Ardern put the country into a pandemic lockdown for four-weeks giving the police power to enforce it.

In Ardern's case, the police - and the army if needed to support the police - are now empowered to order anyone to stop an activity that contributes to the current emergency: spreading the coronavirus.

Geddis says emergency powers "give the state extraordinary reach into our lives, and transfer extraordinary power to the executive branch... they are a marker of just how severe the threat that this virus poses to us all".

The Defence Force says it is "well-prepared and ready to assist" the Government's COVID-19 fight, while police numbers have broken through the 10,000 mark for the first time in history as officers step forward to help with the lockdown.

"For the next four weeks, police have one overwhelming priority: to prevent crime and keep people and property safe during the COVID-19 shutdown," Police Minister Stuart Nash said this week.

He said police will primarily seek to educate people and encourage everyone to be calm and stay at home, but they will "escalate their response if required" and have a "full range of powers" including making arrests and prosecuting.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said this week that any "serious breaches and prolific breaches" could see rulebreakers facing up to six months in prison.