For the second time in his career as a Minister of the Crown, Gerry Brownlee is in the midst of passing legislation to enable a Government response to a significant emergency caused by an act of nature. For the second time in his career doing this, he is under scrutiny for how he perceives – in his own words – “respectful process” in passing the enabling legislation. Given his record, one cannot help but note the smell of hypocrisy wafting by.
To understand where I am coming from, one needs to know the history of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011 and how it came into force. Shortly after the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act was pushed through Parliament under urgency. This meant that the legislation was not subject to the scrutiny of a select committee as is case when legislation is passed in New Zealand under normal. It also meant that Parliament sat extra hours and normal business of Parliament was suspended whilst the legislation was passing through.
An unfortunate side effect of the earthquakes was that political parties across the spectrum were too horrified by the earthquake, its consequences and the long term implications for Christchurch to want to appear in resistance to the legislation being pushed through. Neither Labour or the Greens mounted any significant challenge in the House of Representatives in relation to the lack of scrutiny being applied. The result was that a highly controversial Act of Parliament went into force on 18 April 2011 and expired on 18 April 2016, which had invested powers in the authorities that ran contrary to the democratic principles of New Zealand. The Act initially was not going to have a “sunset” clause to ensure that when its useful life ended, so did the legislation that enabled it.
To be fair there was a major need to take control of the situation. It was one that had no precedent in New Zealand both in terms of the damage, but also the long term ramifications. It is also true that some unfortunate things had already happened, such as cowboy contractors knocking buildings down that were damaged without filing the appropriate paper work and ignoring Civil Defence orders that were actually enforceable law due to the declared state of emergency that Christchurch was under.
It is rather rich of Mr Brownlee to say that the cross bench of Members of Parliament is trying to strike a balance between the acceleration of works and proper legislative procedure. Whilst National have been in power, they took just 2 years to use “urgency” more times than the previous Labour Government did in 9. This particular piece of legislation is being accelerated through Parliament and there is a risk that like it has done with other pieces of legislation where other parties have shown concerns – however valid, and in many cases quite valid – the Government M.P.’s have simply ignored them.
Thus whilst Mr Brownlee and his fellow Government M.P.’s might say they are committed to making sure the legislation now making its way through Parliament is done respectfully, history shows the Opposition concerns to be a valid point.