Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A national state of emergency

This morning, in response to yesterday's devastating earthquake in Christchurch, John Key declared a national state of emergency.

An explanation, for those who aren't aware of the constitutional niceties here: States of emergency exist in two flavours: local, affecting a particular regional council or territorial local authority, and national, affecting the whole country. When a state of emergency is in force, it gives the state enormous power in that area: civil defence authorities can do whatever is necessary to limit the scope of the emergency and deal with its aftereffects. They can forcibly evacuate areas to preserve human life. They can order anyone to do anything. They can close roads and limit the fight of free assembly. And the police can arbitrarily arrest people if we don't jump when they say so.

These powers are necessary to deal with disasters, but at the same time they are a Big Deal in a democracy. A declaration of a national state of emergency is such a big deal that the Minister must formally inform Parliament when one is declared. If Parliament is not in session, it must be recalled as quickly as possible. The subtext: such sweeping powers require democratic authorisation - and oversight, to prevent any abuse.

The question we should all be asking is whether this is really necessary. No insult to current inhabitants of my former city, who obviously want everything possible to be done, but a severe but local earthquake in Christchurch does not justify a power of arbitrary arrest in Whanganui. Neither does it justify a power to close public spaces in Invercargill. A local state of emergency allows everything that is necessary to be done. Why take it national?

I can think of some very cynical reasons for this. Primarily, it tells everyone that the government is doing something - and in particular, it tells everyone that John Key is doing something.

The message that the government is going to respond strongly to this disaster is welcome. But trampling all over our constitution to send it is not. National states of emergency are intended for disasters affecting the entire country - wars, epidemics, that sort of thing. Instead, we're seeing one cynically used for political purposes, essentially for spin. That is a gross abuse of power, and one we should not accept.

Update: I have since OIA'd the government's advice on this declaration, which should include their reasons. If they have a case, they can make it - and we can judge them on it. But from here, this like another case of National's kneejerk authoritarianism, alongside its dissolution of Environment Canterbury and its grant of dictatorial powers to Gerry Brownlee in response to the first earthquake last year.