Green Party's youth wing anxious for Māori over police powers in COVID-19 law

The Young Greens are anxious for Māori over concerns about police having powers to enter private proprieties without a warrant in the Government’s new COVID-19 legislation. 

Kate Aschoff, a spokesperson for the Green Party's youth wing, said the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill - which sets out the legal framework for alert level 2 - gives "unjust powers" to police which could be "used disproportionately" against Māori.

"Police powers to enter homes and private dwellings without a warrant demonstrate an extension of power that is likely to be abused and create more damages between the Government, police and Māori."

The Young Greens said they support an open letter from Auckland University Professor Jane Kelsey who urged Māori MPs to reject the legislation or at least have it referred to a select committee for scrutiny.   

As a member of the three parties that form the Government, the Green Party has supported the legislation, with co-leader Marama Davidson insisting it has been strengthened through amendments and that will be used responsibly. 

"We have an understanding that the broad powers that got us through alert level 4 and 3, and now as we move into level 2, have been there because of the public health and wellbeing approach that we have put first in our response to COVID-19," she said on Wednesday.  

"We wanted to make sure we had clear restrictions and guidelines on those broad powers as we move into level 2 so that we could understand how those powers are going to be applied, when and where, and how long they will last for."

Davidson said the Greens are "listening" to the Māori community's concerns and said the Government should be held accountable and review whose dwellings are entered by police, with records updated regularly.  

She also said she supports National's amendment that means the legislation will have to be reviewed by Parliament every 90 days until it expires in two years' time. 

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick also responded to criticism of the legislation online, saying the Bill is a "curtailing and accountable framework for use of police powers that was effectively unlimited prior".

It seems she was referring to the three laws enacted throughout the lockdown - the Health Act, Epidemic Preparedness Act and Civil Defence Emergency Management Act - that gave the Government powers to intrude on civil liberties. 

Labour MP and Attorney-General David Parker has similarly justified the legislation by pointing out that it will be less intrusive than the three laws the Government relied on throughout the lockdown period. 

"Despite claims by some critics, the powers of the police will be narrower from midnight tonight than they have been for the past seven weeks," he said, after the law passed its final reading in Parliament. 

"Under this Act, police will only be able to enter private homes to break up gatherings that violate the rules on the numbers of people assembling, whereas under the previous powers they could do so for a number of reasons."

He said another change will allow police to issue infringement notices rather than only being able to prosecute people that persistently flout the rules.

The law also spreads the responsibility to issue orders to Health Minister David Clark, instead of just Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. It also requires police to report on the use of their powers. 

The Opposition voted against the legislation, citing various concerns, including the anxieties raised about police powers shared by the Young Greens. 

The state of national emergency in New Zealand has come to an end, making way for a "transition" period as the nation prepares for alert level 2, and National thinks it's time for restrictions to end, especially now that case numbers are low. 

"What is the basis for the fear the Government has to the extent the need to pass legislation that is going to seriously continue to infringe on the civil liberties of New Zealanders?" National MP Gerry Brownlee asked in Parliament. 

National MP Chris Bishop described the process as "appalling" and said the legislation "gives too power much power" to the Government.