Thursday, November 25, 2010

Suspending democracy

Yesterday 29 miners were confirmed dead after a second explosion at the Pike River coal mine. The government's response? Suspend Parliament! While intended as a mark of respect, it will also have the result that the government is not held to account today, as well as justifying abuse of urgency later "to make up the lost time". And the message it sends is that our democracy cannot survive this disaster.

I think our democracy is stronger than that. And I think our politicians have already shown, earlier in the week, that they can show their respect and express the grief of the nation while still doing their jobs. They all understand that today isn't the day for sniping at each other over this issue - if necessary, that will come later, when the full facts are known. There is no reason they couldn't show their respect, then continue with the ordinary daily business of passing legislation and holding the government to account. Instead, they will have a motion of respect, then all go home for the weekend.

This is virtually unprecedented. I cannot recall a single occasion where Parliament has suspended itself in response to a disaster. It has met despite wars, earthquakes, cyclones, and plane crashes, because our democracy is strong and goes on regardless. The closest thing to such a suspension was in August, when National suspended Question Time (but not other business) in response to the death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan. That also was unjustified. Rather than showing respect, what it shows is National's autocratic tendencies - their first response to any problem is unaccountable dictatorship. And that is not something we should accept.