Friday, May 15, 2009

The Defence Act is a dead letter

Last week, we saw unprecedented scenes in Napier, as NZDF LAVs were deployed to assist police in dealing with an armed gunman. At the time, I was rather curious - the Defence Act includes strict rules on the use of the armed forces to assist police, and it was unclear whether they had been complied with. So naturally, I asked. The response arrived today:

The Prime Minister did not provide a written authorisation under section 9 (4) of the Defence Act 1990, as he was not requested to do so by the Commissioner of Police.

Prime Ministerial approval is only required under section 9 (4) in cases where an emergency cannot be dealt with by the Police without the assistance of members of the armed forces exercising the powers that are available to constables.

The situation in Napier was dealt with by the Police and at no time were members of the Armed Forces required to exercise powers available to constables. Accordingly, there was no need for the Prime Minister to provide authority.

(Their emphasis)

Think about that for a moment. Tanks were deployed on the streets of a New Zealand city. If that's not the sort of thing which requires Prime Ministerial (and Parliamentary) approval, it bloody well should.

Under this interpretation, the law is a dead letter. The army can be deployed to the streets to intimidate protestors or even kill people (neither, technically speaking, requiring a power available to constables); as long as they're not arresting people, the law is absolutely silent. This is absurd, and it needs to be corrected as quickly as possible.

(And while I have your attention: kudos to NZDF, who dealt with my request from start to finish in less than 3 days. Their quick service on this puts other government departments to shame)