Just before the second Christchurch earthquake, Gerry Brownlee was being criticised for the lack of progress in recovery. People suggested what was needed was an independent commissioner to lead the rebuilding – an ‘earthquake Tsar’. Brownlee responded “the last Tsar got shot“. Now, the new CERA law will make Brownlee our Tsar in a too literal sense.
You’ll remember that, after the first earthquake, the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act (CERRA) was slammed through the House. It contained a ‘Henry the VIIIth clause’ that let Brownlee amend nearly any law of the land by decree without going through Parliament. There’s a myth that this power wasn’t abused; it was, in subtle ways.
Yesterday, National introduced the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill (soon to be CERA). I/S at No Right Turn describes its powers:
The bill is even more outrageous and undemocratic than the original. The least objectionable parts are those relating to the development of a recovery strategy and plans. No-one disputes the need for this sort of planning, but the Act puts it in the hands of CERA [the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency]. Which means that the big decisions around the future of Christchurch will be decided not by its people, but by Gerry Brownlee. Who while he is a Christchurch MP, isn’t exactly in the same position of democratic accountability as the elected representatives of the Christchurch City Council.
And after that it’s all downhill. CERA has the power to demand any information about anything from anyone. No warrant, no oversight, no safeguards. This is more power than the Serious Fraud Office, and with fewer checks and balances.
CERA, which means the Minister, also has wide powers to “assist” the rebuilding of Christchurch. They can:
- Overturn any planning decision;
- revoke or amend any resource consent;
- force councils to allow any resource consent;
- compulsarily acquire property without any public interest test;
- demolish your house even if it is undamaged;
- dissolve elected local bodies if they fail to do what Brownlee says.
And all of this without any effective rights of appeal and with only limited rights of compensation.
And to cap it all off, there’s the same dictatorial power to amend laws by regulation originally seen in CERRA v1.0.
This is too much power, in too few hands, with too few checks and balances to be safe. Democracies don’t do this sort of thing. But then, as we saw with ECan and with the original CERRA, National’s first response to any problem is dictatorship.
I would like very much to submit on this bill. But I can’t. Its being rammed through under urgency, with only a limited select committee process (basically, the Local Government and Environment Committee will be hearing from selected insiders tomorrow; ordinary concerned citizens are shut out of the process). And it’ll be law by Friday.
The power given to Brownlee here is unprecendented and uncontrolled. He will be appointing the CEO or CERA who will report to him. On Marae Investigates last Sunday, a disaster expert, Dr Regan Potangaroa, who has worked around the world said he had never seen such powers put into the hands of a minister, or anyone. He said they are powers that officials have in dictatorships.
(Potangaroa also graded the actual recovery effort on the ground a ‘D’ – Brownlee is very busy giving himself extraordinary powers but what extraordinary powers does it take to get people portaloos and temporary houses? I think that’s the worst part of this – extraordinary powers and appallingly subpar delivery of practical help)
In the information age, the new powers to demand any information from anyone are scary. For instance, Gerry Brownlee could have his man write to Lynn and say ‘I want the IP addresses and emails of everyone who has ever commented on The Standard on a post related to the earthquake’ and that would be legal. I’m sure Lynn would rather destroy the data and go to jail but it’s a taste of what Brownlee can do. He can compel anyone to tell him anything. Journalists and whistleblowers have a lot to fear. So do any citizens who want to cause a fuss because they live in a poor suburb which hasn’t got portaloos or is going to be demolished without justification.
That Brownlee might choose not to abuse these powers is no excuse for giving them to him. Democracies don’t work by giving one person unbridled power. In fact, history tells us, that voting in a ‘temporary’ Enabling Act is often the last act of democratic government on the road to dictatorship.
We’re told not to worry because CERA will expire in five years. Yeah, well the German Enabling Act of 1933 was meant to expire after four years (or when Hitler left power – clever). Julius Caesar was elected Dictator for ‘just’ ten years. The Committee of Public Safety was only meant to to a temporary measure. The dictatorship of the proletariat was supposed to melt away when it was no longer needed.
In five years time, what guarantee do we have that our Tsar (whoever it may then be) won’t decide that a fresh crisis – say another oil shock, a depression, civil strife, or an international war – doesn’t make it necessary for him to hold on to his powers and accumulate some more?