A few days ago Charles Chauvel wrote a piece on Red Alert on why Labour voted for CERRA (the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act or the Gerry Brownlee Enabling Act). I give him credit for not resorting to Brendon Burns’ ‘women and children first’ crap* but I’m still not convinced.
Chauvel makes two points:
On the first, I would say Labour may have gotten some concessions but it didn’t get the vital one.
The problem with CERRA more or less boils down to seven words “any enactment, including (but not limited to)”. These words in section 4 of the Act mean that the “relevant Minister” (which is actually any Minister nominated by the Prime Minister, not just Brownlee) can alter in any manner not just the Acts listed in CERRA but any Act save five.
If you were going to focus on getting any particular concession from the government, it ought to have been limiting the powers of ministers to alter laws by decree to just the 22 listed. Without that limitation, CERRA is a dictators’ charter. Ministers can even alter CERRA itself to remove any of the other concessions Labour won.
This has already had ramifications, with Brownlee extending State agents’ emergency powers including the power “to examine, mark, seize, sample, secure, disinfect, or destroy any property, animal, or any other thing” even though the state of emergency has been lifted.
It’s good that Labour and the Greens won some concessions but they didn’t get the one that would have made it OK to vote for CERRA.
On the second point, there’s a dangerous mentality underlying the position that Labour had to vote for dictatorship or get pilloried in the media and lose votes. Apart from the obvious problem with the idea that any principle can be sacrificed to win votes,I think it assumes, wrongly, that Labour can’t win a media debate and that the media and the public itself will back authoritarianism during crisis. Neither of these things are necessarily true.
If Labour had said ‘we support Canterbury with everything we’ve got and we want to vote for CERRA but we can’t vote for a Dictators’ Charter’ that would have been a strong line that would have turned the question to why the Government was making such a power grab.
The media, in fact, isn’t very supportive of CERRA. The Herald wrote a scathing editorial and the gallery journos aren’t fools, they understand that the foundation of democracy is checks and balances on the exercise of power. If Labour had had a chat them, their line would have got traction. Right-leaning columnists like John Armstrong, Audrey Young, Fran O’Sullivan, and Collin James are no authoritarians. They wouldn’t have done a hatchet job on Labour. But Labour is clearly hugely risk adverse after so many hatchet jobs in the last few years.
And the public isn’t supportive of CERRA either. The polls on the news sites aren’t scientific but they tend to pop up a result that’s to the Right of the general population’s opinion, and the polls shows the public split on CERRA even with no Parliamentary party opposing it. Has anyone spoken to a non-RWNJ who agrees it was a good idea to give dictatorial powers to Brownlee? Because my experience is that whenever it comes up in conversation even non-political people’s reaction is disbelief and outrage.
Ultimately, I think that the Key Government is nearly as scared of the media as Labour (OK, not quite that scared). If National had been confronted with the option of limiting CERRA’s powers to just the named Acts or a possible drubbing in the media, I reckon Key would have folded.
But we’ll never know because the opposition failed to oppose.
* (on the subject of Burns, while his defence of CERRA has been ill-advised in the extreme the man is doing fantastic work on the ground for his people. His words have on the blog are wrong but his actions speak louder)