Back in September, in response to the first Canterbury earthquake, Parliament effectively made Gerry Brownlee a dictator, granting near-absolute power to suspend or amend laws as he saw fit to aid recovery from the earthquake. While the powers have not yet been abused, the total lack of checks and balances in the law made it a constitutional outrage. Its sole saving grace was that it would expire on 1 April 2012.
Today, the government announced its response to the second Christchurch earthquake. In the simplest terms, it is to extend Brownlee’s dictatorship for five years. There will be some new checks and balances – notably a committee headed by a retired judge to review law changes – but nowhere near the level of oversight or appeal rights that such powers need. And there will be new powers, ripe for abuse. For example, a power to compulsorily acquire land and buildings. But according to the FAQ [PDF], this won’t just be for public safety or infrastructure purposes:
Acquisition of land powers are considered to be necessary in order to facilitate the recovery of Christchurch. It may be necessary for CERA to demolish a building (that is otherwise sound), or rebuild on a site, or otherwise take control of land and use it in a new way (such as to form part of a new commercial centre, or a park, or for remediation).
So, the government can take your home, not for a public work, but because one of its mates wants the land to build a new mall or office block. This is a massive expansion of government power, ripe for abuse, and a standing invitation to corruption. But to Brownlee, those are probably features, not bugs.
The devil is very much going to be in the details, and the new law is going to need serious scrutiny by Parliament. Hopefully they’ll do a better job of it than they did last time.
[For me, the mindset behind CERA is exemplified by the FAQ document. While not actually answering most of my questions, it offered this little gem: “Why not just disestablish the City Council until the recovery process is
completed?”. They’re not disestablishing the council but, to the government, this is a legitimate question: ‘why not ‘just’ take away a city’s local democracy?’. Of course, National already has a rather shameful record on local democracy: Ecan, Supercity. – Eddie]