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The State’s reserve powers & the Christchurch earthquake

Written By: - Date published: 12:32 am, September 11th, 2010 - 12 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, law and "order" - Tags:

I’m not sure I totally agree with Bill’s guest post the other day. He was arguing that the Christchurch CBD cordon was an abuse of State power resulting from people getting too over-excited by imaginings of a Haiti or New Orleans-style breakdown of civil order. I would say that Bob Parker has emphasised restoring the CBD for business over helping the poorer suburbs but I don’t think the cordon was unjustified given the area was regarded as pretty unsafe and so many empty, unsecured buildings would have been a magnet for opportunists.

Nonetheless, Bill’s piece and the reports coming out of Christchurch’s courts do remind you what extraordinary powers the State holds in reserve.

Once a state of emergency is declared, various powers and offences come online. The legal right of the police to throw up the CBD cordon was one of the powers. And the offence of being in a restricted area without permission is one of the offences.

On Wednesday night a man (who had burglary convictions) was caught in the cordon. He hadn’t done anything and there was no evidence that he was going to steal anything other than his being inside the cordon. But that fact alone was enough to convict him under the Civil Defence Emergency Act. And, get this, he was tried and convicted the very next day.

Some will say: ‘the faster the better, justice delayed is justice denied’. The lesser known corollary is that justice rushed, too, is justice denied.

A handful of people have now been tried and convicted of things that you never knew were illegal and wouldn’t be but for the invocation of emergency powers. Things like ‘hindering a constable while a state of emergency is declared’ and ‘being found unlawfully in the yard of a medical centre’.

I’m not saying any of this is necessarily wrong or an abuse of power. It’s just interesting to see what cards the State has up its sleeve.

Of course, the State is like any organic system and will use whatever resources and powers it can to survive in desperate times. During the World Wars, the democratic states became just as authoritarian as their enemies with the economy, social life, food distribution, and information all under strict central control, which was enforced with a heavy hand. Habeas corpus was even suspended in World War 1 (and maybe 2) meaning some people (such as interred Germans) who were being punished or imprisoned by the State had no right for the State to have to prove its case in independent court.

The difference between the democracies and their enemies was they relinquished those extraordinary powers voluntarily when the crisis was past.

Which, I guess what this means that we have to be careful to have good institutions and good people in power so that the powers the State keeps in reserve are only brought out when absolutely necessary and are not abused when they are. The rule of law and, more, people’s belief in it is all that protects us from unbridled State power.

12 comments on “The State’s reserve powers & the Christchurch earthquake ”

  1. tsmithfield 1

    Interesting article.

    Actually living in the earthquake zone, there are several points I could make.

    Firstly, in a normally functioning city the state is controlling behaviour in many ways anyway. For instance, the traffic light system. However, in a natural disaster such as this, many of those systems are not functioning, or have reduced capability. For instance, many of the traffic lights went out across the city.

    Secondly, many people are in a state of shock and are unsure of what they should be doing.

    Thirdly, the various contractors/council workers etc who restore damaged services need to be able to do so without interference if they are to get the job done as quickly as possible.

    Fourthly, there are many hazards that people may be unaware of. For instance, Avonside drive has cracks that are now 1.5m wide in some areas as I understand it. If these hazards were not cordoned off, innocent drivers could easily drive into these cracks.

    So, in these unusual circumstances I have absolutely no problem with the state stepping up its level of control. In fact, most of us would expect it. From what I saw on the news, the suffering in the likes of Haiti may well have been exacerbated because the state did not have the capability to effectively take control in the way that it has happened in Christchurch.

    The proof is in the pudding. The speed at which the city is recovering from this disaster is quite amazing. I think most Cantaberians are blown away with how well the authorities have handled this situation.

    Also, I think previous governments and councils from whatever political persuasion deserve credit for the foresight they have had in developing building codes to cope with this sort of event. Although there has been considerable damage in some areas, much of the city has come through unscathed. Most of our industry is intact and functional to aid the recovery. There have been very few cases of building collapsing on people despite there being damage to a lot of houses.

  2. But that fact alone was enough to convict him under the Civil Defence Emergency Act. And, get this, he was tried and convicted the very next day.

    Some will say: ‘the faster the better, justice delayed is justice denied’. The lesser known corollary is that justice rushed, too, is justice denied.

    He wasn’t tried the very next day. In fact, he wasn’t tried at all.

    He pleaded guilty at the first opportunity; for a minor offence like this, this means you get sentenced that day, unless you ask for it to be delayed.

    The guy who was with him pleaded not guilty and was bailed.

  3. Bill 3

    “He was arguing that the Christchurch CBD cordon was an abuse of State power…”

    I was more concerned with what appeared to me as the possibility that there were “I’ve got a badge of authority!” Drama Queens unnecessarily ‘hamming it up’ by their squeezing of events to fit false preconceived notions of ‘disaster’…there was no breakdown of order in New Orleans or Haiti outside of media rantings. (Oh. The police did use the disaster to commit a series of murders in New Orleans….but that’s another matter)

    Meanwhile. Nobody asked the authorities to justify the calls they were making. Maybe they were actually justified. Or maybe simply shutting off some streets rather than imposing a curfew would have sufficed.

    Call me old fashioned. But authority must be held to account; made to justify and explain it’s actions lest it gets carried away with itself. Or even merely begins, with a developing culture of impunity to act stupidly.

    • Descendant Of Smith 3.1

      And I have no doubt that civil defense officials will provide a comprehensive report about all aspects of the response phase including the use of that power and I have no doubt that you will be able to read it at some point.

      As I said in an earlier post shutting off streets is one power and has to do with safety, the curfew is another power and is about prevention of looting only and neither of those things have anything to do with powers for civil unrest.

      Issues of breakdown in order are simply a red herring that does nothing but obfuscate.

      By all means hold them accountable for powers they exercised but stop trying to hold them accountable for powers they didn’t.

      • Bill 3.1.1

        I want the responsible authority to justify a particular action they actually undertook: The imposition of a curfew.

        I want an explanation as to why that was thought necessary as opposed to simply shutting down streets.

        And as I commented elsewhere, neither the ‘safety’ nor the ‘looter’ justifications stack up.

        I only commented on this thread to clarify a point attributed to me by Eddie and am too busy today to indulge you and your deliberate twisting and misrepresenting of what I have said.

        • Descendant Of Smith

          “But they were deployed to enforce a curfew. A curfew!? Where exactly was the breakdown in civil order that justified such a move? And at what point was it decided that earthquake survivors constituted a threat to civil order and were to be treated as an enemy?”

          I’m not sure how pointing out that you linked a breakdown in civil order to the imposition of a curfew is misrepresenting you but there you go.

          The answers to your questions is that there was no breakdown in civil order and it was never decided that survivors constituted a threat to civil order and that a curfew was never imposed for those reasons.

          Hope you feel better now those questions are answered.

          Now I do feel indulgent.

  4. prism 4

    Radio report says that people are offering their services to people needing house repairs and they may not be legit. Mention was made that a man with no official standing or a logo offered an old lady work on her damaged chimney.

    As someone who works in a clothing op shop I know that we are regularly given shirts with firm’s logos on and are now offering them back to the firm or organisation to prevent the opportunity to masquerade as a legit workman and commit fraud or other crime. Some firms are casual about their gear being out there, unaware of the possible downside, and we will then abandon them to the tip.

    If anyone is connected with or visits a social organisation sellingy/giving clothes please mention to someone responsible that there is this problem and that firms and organisations logoed, monogrammed t-shirts, jackets etc should not be distributed to the general public, whether given or sold. This is particularly important while there are so many vulnerable people in Christchurch and surrounds.

  5. The powers of the state are dedicated to getting companies back in business. SCF bailout and curfews in the commercial centre of ChCh. Concern expressed by John Key etc as to the welfare of ordinary people is directed at making sure they as workers don’t question the legitimacy of the state that openly rescues busnisses in trouble but doesnt rush to their assistance. The concerns of ordinary people that the state is taking too long to help them (i.e. insufficient resources deployed) is no different to their concerns about the normal failures of the health or education system. An earthquake puts more pressure on the system to live up to its promises. Its going to be more than portaloos and compensation. John Key will be expected to prove that his capitalist class doesnt treat workers and their subprime assets as expendable. This is going to be good to watch.

  6. The State’s reserve powers & the Christchurch earthquake

    I’d take issue with that title. As you yourself admit, these powers are defined by statute, and authorised by Parliament. They are therefore not any sort of “reserve power”.

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