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.