Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The details

Parliament is currently sitting urgently - but not under urgency - to pass the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill through all three stages. Yesterday when the bill was announced I said the devil would be in the details; now I've seen a copy some of those details are very devilish indeed.

The core power of the bill allows the Governor-General to make Orders-in-Council to suspend or modify existing laws if it is "reasonably necessary or expedient" to aid the reconstruction of Christchurch and other earthquake affected areas. These Orders will have the force of law, but will be made by the Minister after consulting a committee of government stooges; they will be subject to the Regulations (Disallowance) Act 1989 (meaning they can be challenged and eventually revoked), but that happens after the fact. The upshot: Gerry Brownlee is now dictator of Canterbury, able to legislate on his own whim and bulldoze through whatever he wants.

While the power to make Orders includes a list of bills (such as the RMA, Building Act etc), it rather scarily is not limited to those bills. There is however a small list of Acts that cannot be modified (including the Constitution Act 1986, Electoral Act 1993, and the BORA). Rather scarily, there is no ban on modifying the Local Electoral Act, and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, the key vehicle for local government accountability, is included in the list. So Brownlee can suspend council elections or allow local authorities to hold meetings in secret and withhold information from the public if he feels like it.

These are signs of legislation drafted in haste and without proper safeguards. Such safeguards must be added at the committee stage. The Greens list of suggestions is a good start, but I'd also remove the LGOIMA from the list of Acts, and add the Local Electoral Act to the forbidden list. I'd also make it very, very clear that any changes apply only within a few districts in Canterbury. Otherwise, we are simply asking to be abused.