NZ lucky Government doesn't have a 'totalitarian bent' in wake of COVID-19 response - report

New Zealand's lucky we don't have leaders with a "totalitarian bent", according to the authors of a new report looking at its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The  COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill - passed in May - formalised the rules on how the Government could enforce rules on gathering sizes, which had up until then relied on a patchwork of legislation including the Health Act, the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act and the epidemic notice issued in March, when the country first went into lockdown. 

National MP Simeon Brown called the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill one of "the most extreme" pieces of legislation to ever be passed in Parliament, and Gerry Brownlee - now the party's deputy leader - said it "puts far too much power in the hands of one person - the Prime Minister". 

The new paper from think tank the Maxim Institute, Civic Defence: Defining roles and preparing our democracy for the next emergency, says oversight regulatories were quickly suspended and could have easily led to an abuse of power.

"It was actually pretty stunning to see how quickly the Government moved to suspend Parliament, or to suspend oversight measures like the regulatory impact statement," said author Danielle van Dalen. 

"Passing the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill with really no time for public submissions was pretty concerning. New Zealanders need to be aware that legislative norms are there to protect us." 

The Government's response managed to eliminate community transmission of the disease in New Zealand. So far 22 Kiwis have lost their lives in the pandemic, far fewer than early estimates of up to 80,000 if the disease wasn't stopped. 

The Act will be automatically repealed unless it's renewed every 90 days. 

Danielle Van Dalen.
Danielle Van Dalen. Photo credit: Maxim Institute

Van Dalen says under different leadership, things could have been worse.

"We're actually really fortunate that we had the leadership that we had, but the security of democratic freedoms that we take for granted can't just rely on the goodwill of whoever's in power... As a nation, we got lucky - international history and experience shows that expanded Government power could have been extended or exploited if we had leaders with a more totalitarian bent. 

"However, our constitutional defence against the misuse of power cannot depend on the goodness of our politicians' intent."

The paper calls for:

  • a royal commission of inquiry into the Government's response
  • setting up formal protection for the Leader of the Opposition 
  • legislation to ensure that the Official Information Act cannot be suspended or overridden during a state of emergency.
  • civil society to be "actively engaged and participating where appropriate", at "every stage of the political process, particularly in a state of emergency".

"We are fortunate that our leaders are not attempting to hold on to these extreme powers and there is no evidence to suggest we are on our way to becoming an autocracy," the paper reads.

"However, the pandemic response has also highlighted the weaknesses in our system, and how much we rely on different sectors of society to play their roles to safeguard against potential abuses of power."

Then-Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges in May said it was "inevitable" there would be an inquiry. 

 "I don't think there's a way that we couldn't at the end of this have a serious independent inquiry.

"Whether it's civil liberties or two months of lockdown, whether it's the health consequences or the economic effects which we'll be dealing with for generations, I think that's inevitable and that's the right thing to do."

A spokesperson for the Government told Newshub an inquiry "will occur at the appropriate time" - but not now.

"The global pandemic is growing, with cases surging around the world creating ongoing risk of a further outbreak in New Zealand, so now is the not the best time to initiate an inquiry while our response continues.

"New Zealand can be proud of our response so far. The results speak for themselves and innovations like the Opposition-led COVID select committee to provide scrutiny of Government actions ensured there was oversight in place."