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Voting away our democracy

Written By: - Date published: 11:00 am, April 13th, 2011 - 52 comments
Categories: democracy under attack, Gerry Brownlee - Tags: ,

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:

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?

52 comments on “Voting away our democracy”

  1. ghostwhowalksnz 1

    A former woodwork teacher as Commissar for Christchurch ?


  2. ianmac 2

    A certain corporal became Czar of Germany.
    A smiling money trader became Prime Minister of New Zealand.
    A carpenter became leader of a mystical Christain sect.
    So why not let a woodwork teacher become the most powerful/heaviest power in NZ? Huh? (But don’t cross him. He is mean. Power corrupts.)

  3. The Economic Illiteracy Support Group 3

    It will be interesting to see which Christchurch property developers will be contributing election funding to Gerry and/or the National Party at the election.

    The simplest way to get rid of this particular dictator is to make sure National don’t make it back as the government in November. Although it would also be useful if Labour were to put revocation of the CERA powers as an explicit election policy, so that it’s crystal clear they wouldn’t also be tempted by absolute power.

    • kiwinewt 3.1

      I agree – and I’m sure I could convince most of my neighbors and friends to vote for Labour if this was on the table…

    • it would also be useful if Labour were to put revocation of the CERA powers as an explicit election policy, so that it’s crystal clear they wouldn’t also be tempted by absolute power.

      But they are, so they won’t. Or they wouldn’t have acquiesced so readily to this travesty in the first place. Or are we meant to conveniently forget that?

      Politicians are the elite. The elite are interested in the furtherance and extension of their own power ahead of any other consideration. Some will tell you (and may even have convinced themselves) that the end justifies the means – the end in this case being their ongoing ability to pass “good” legislation. Of course its goodness is decided solely by them because they are, after all, elite.

      The honest ones won’t bother with the pretence, knowing you have no real options anyway.

    • Shane Gallagher 3.3

      Why vote Labour? They have sold old. The Greens are the only party that are opposing this legislation

      • Colonial Viper 3.3.1

        Don’t be so smug. The Greens always fail to accomplish change without help. 

        • Shane Gallagher

          Smug? CV I respect your opinion a lot and always look out for your usually intelligent and incisive commentary but you are playing the man not the ball here. I expect more from you.
          The Greens change things all by themselves. We persuade others of the rightness of our policies. It makes the party and caucus work very hard to make solid, well informed and principled proposals for change, be that in a parliament or outside it. We have changed the debate time and again. What was considered “eco-warrior madness” a few years ago is now accepted wisdom – climate change, clean water, pollution, child abuse… the list goes on. Yes we do need help from others because we are a small party.
          But how is that relevant to the fact that Labour has not defended democracy? Labour has not defended the people of Christchurch from the stripping away of their democratic rights to have a say in the rebuilding of their city. That is something that the Labour party should be ashamed of. And I guess from your reaction CV, that you are ashamed of it as well.

          • Colonial Viper

            Come now, in that case don’t start by accusing me of playing the man not the ball, but end up doing exactly the same yourself.
            Personally I have no idea why Labour has not stood up against CERA. It may be some stupid risk management strategy to avoid feared backlash from National’s inevitable PR spin. I am not in a position to know that but I hope that it is not something that facile.
            If you have read my comments (cheers for the positive feedback) you will also know that I think that LAB should be roaring ahead in this current economic climate and that it is not points to serious problems of disconnection and communication.

            What was considered “eco-warrior madness” a few years ago is now accepted wisdom – climate change, clean water, pollution, child abuse… the list goes on. Yes we do need help from others because we are a small party.

            Look, don’t go taking more credit for the NZ Greens on this stuff than it is due. And of course it is due some. Social issues like child abuse are longstanding and have nothing to do with the “ecowarrior” paradigm. And what child abuse stats have actually improved anyhows? The ‘anti-smacking’ legislation was extremely costly in terms of political capital. But how many young lives has it actually saved?
            Sorting out clean water and pollution…that was going on long before the Greens coalesced as a political force in NZ. And even today plenty of indicators show that things are getting worse, not better.
            Re: climate change. We live in a political and social system where thinking 5 years in advance is virtually impossible. And to my mind, only a small minority of people get climate change deep enough and seriously enough to base their voting on it. About 6-7% of them, at a guess.
            So if you wish, the Greens can take credit for this stuff but at the end of the day there is not that much credit to take – as yet.

  4. Jim Nald 4

    If I am PM Key, I would be relaxed and comfortable with CERRA giving Gerry massive amount of power and control.
    Too big to fail.
    Smile and wave away parliamentary democracy.

  5. PeteG 5

    Something special and urgent is required to help guide Christchurch’s recovery. I’ll be looking in particular to the Labour Christchurch MPs to see if they are happy with the outcome. All of them voted for the first reading.

    Labour earthquake recovery spokesman Clayton Cosgrove  said he would suggest a series of amendments. He has also said:

    “Let’s be under no illusion – this authority will have enormous power, and if that power is exercised appropriately and correctly, that is all for the good.”

    Extra power and less red tape is essential, it’s a matter of how much is sufficient.

    • Pete 5.1

      Modern politicians often proudly announce their desire to sweep away red tape.  The contemporary prejudice is that too much paperwork slows you down, clogs things up. But if you take a historical view,  it’s bureaucracy that sees you through the rocky patches and enables the state to survive. Bureaucracy is not evidence of inertia, it is life saving continuity”
      A History of the World in 100 Objects

    • Bright Red 5.2

      “Extra power and less red tape is essential”
      specifically what extra powers do you think are needed and what red tape shoul be gotten rid of. Or don’t you know and you’re just assuming it’s true because Gerry told you so.
      “it’s a matter of how much is sufficient”
      That’s a truism. We all want the govt to have as much power as we think is sufficient. If we didn’t we would want more or less.
      Cliches and tautologies, is this the depth of rightwing thinking?

  6. Kevin Hague 6

    Absolutely right. Here’s Kennedy Graham’s First Reading Speech, explaining why the Green Party is opposing the Bill.

    The only others to join us in opposition yesterday were Chris Carter and Hone Harawira.
    Labour say they have done a deal with the Government, voting for the first reading with no guarantee of further support, in return for the extremely limited and secret select committee process you describe in the post. For us that’s part of the problem, not a solution.

    • The Economic Illiteracy Support Group 6.1

      Good on the Green Party for voting against this appalling legislation. There are times when principles trump expediency, and this is absolutely one of those times.

    • Pascal's bookie 6.2

      Good on y’all Kevin.

    • PeteG 6.3

      What is the Green solution? How long would that take?

      • Colonial Viper 6.3.1

        The Green solution is not having Gerry Brownlee as a dictator. And it would get Christchurch rebuilt far faster, for the benefit of the citizens, not the property developers.

        • PeteG

          That’s not a solution, it’s a negative with some waffle.
          Do you want the government out of it altogether and let Christchurch rebuild itself?

          • Jim Nald

            That’s a great idea. Get Gerry out of government altogether to allow the Christchurch to rebuild.

          • Colonial Viper

            Do you want the government out of it altogether and let Christchurch rebuild itself?

            Hahaha mate I gave you an answer and just because you didn’t like it you ignored it lol
            It sure is negative mate because cancelling out Gerry Brownlee puts Christchurch well ahead of the game immediately 😀
            The Government should provide the funds and the framework and the people of Christchurch should decide what they want done and how.
            Do you have a problem with Brownlee’s property developer mates not having first dibs PeteG?

            • Jim Nald

              Watch the party coffers of the you-can’t-see-but-I-can-see political trusts swell to large proportions?
              CERRA won’t be legitimising political largesse in return for political patronage. Hmm, right.

      • Bright Red 6.3.2

        I love how PeteG asks “How long would [the Greens plan] take?”
        As if this government is acting with incredible speed.
        Do you realise that it’s coming up on two months after the quake and not only are there no emergency houses built, they don’t even know who will build them? It was meant to be announced last Monday, that was delayed to this Monday… and that deadline passed without a peep.

        • PeteG

          That would make the time it would take important, wouldn’t it.

          • Bright Red

            explain how Brownlee’s new powers will speed up the construction of temporary housing.
            There has been no suggestion to date that laws and regualtions are the hold up. The hold up is that Brownlee can’t be arsed doing his job for the people in need. Too busy getting new powers to help out his developer mates.

      • Shane Gallagher 6.3.3

        It would mean that the communities would be involved in the rebuilding of their communities – not a bunch of bureaucrats and politicians and property developers dictating from on high – I thought you right wingers  were all for small government and people doing it for themselves? 

        It would mean that stuff would be happening right now because the Greens would have enabled communities to start working with expert advice and assistance. The student army got on and did their thing as did many communities not thought about by the Nats – that is community action and the Greens would have been there to enable it.

        NACT/MP/Labour response is to impose dictatorship.  Hah! Some democracy we live in. 

        This is all about property developers cashing in on a major disaster.

        • freedom

          remember that the Greens voted for CERRA as well, they do not and should not get a pass because they make a little noise this time round

          • kiwinewt

            The Greens only voted for CERRA as they believed, dictatorship or not, it might help Canterbury. It has been shown that it doesn’t (and got a large negative response from many Green supporters), so this time round they are doing the right thing. Labour should be opposing it as well. The MP are too busy under the desks of National with loud sucking noises to notice…

          • Shane Gallagher

            Yes, and I defended the caucus for doing so (and caught a lot of flack for doing it) — they chose to give National the benefit of the doubt. This time there is no doubt. Anyway, the blame lies solely with the government – they are the ones who put that legislation together in the first place – talk about shock doctrine in practice.

  7. Bright Red 7

    the vid that Kevin is referring to is here

  8. Pascal's bookie 8

    Brownlee responded “the last Tsar got shot“.

    That would be brutal on a T-shirt.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 8.1

      “The last Tsar got shot “ and then chucked down a mine shaft- gee they must have had it in for him, and his family.
      I wonder why that was ?

  9. vto 9

    Perhaps I am  missing something here but exactly why does the central govt need these powers?

    The rebuild of the CBD is near 100% a private matter, which everyone seems to keep forgeting. No special powers needed there.

    The rebuild of the sewer and water infrastructure is easily overseen by the more than competent CCC people. It is a relatively simple though large job. Central govt will contribute funds only. No special powers needed there.

    The rebuild of public buildings in and around Chch is a matter for each individual owner (CCC, govt, dept of this or that). Funding is a simple process. No special powers needed there.

    If special powers are needed for a new City Plan (changing planning rules) then that could be dealt with on an individual legislative basis, following some rapid public input.

    If special powers are needed to designate entire suburbs as now no-build areas then that too can be dealt with on an individual basis.

    It seems to me that these “special powers” are not in fact needed much at all. In the few areas where some extraordinary measures may be required then it should be dealt with individually.

    I don’t think I have seen this govt explain in any decent manner the detailed reasons for these special powers.

    • freedom 9.1

      This question becomes even more critical when you consider the bizarre and wide ranging powers regarding the limitless right to gather information.  Some relevant factors of concern are the secrecy behind the recent changes to the security and surveillance bill, the progress of the copyright infringement bill , the raft of changes to our judicial system and the ever dwindling opportunity for redress.
      Combined into what we must assume is a coherent policy from a functioning Government then these are not the actions of an open democratic authority.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.2

      The government isn’t giving itself lots of special powers because it needs them but because they want them. It’s not that power corrupts but that corrupt people seek power.

    • Armchair Critic 9.3

      +1 vto.

  10. Zaphod Beeblebrox 10

    What do you do if you have no housing policy, no planning policies, no urban development policies, your local government policy revolves around stealing their powers and removing their resources??

    Easy- vote yourself unlimited powers and pretend you can design all these policies in your head. Then force all people to disclose all information (private and otherwise) and all reports.  Glad I don’t live in the Christchurch.

    • vto 10.1

      Yes and don’t forget we also suffer under an Environment Canterbury tyranny owned and driven from Wellington with ridiculous powers over the water flowing through our region.

      Plus CERA with dictatorial powers.

      Add to that the fact that the armed forces are still out and about and being viewed a little more ominously. The armed forces of course are doing a marvellous job, however when they begin to take a large part in civilian life it becomes unnerving. Particularly when stories emerge of them verbally harassing civiliains and meting out vigilante justice to accused looters.

      It is time for the armed forces to depart. Their use in civil matters is of grave concern and should only be done in absolute emergencies, which this was of course. No longer.

      If Canterbury’s current settings were operating in some other third world country we would be getting all uppity about their lack of democracy. Like Libya. Or Indonesia.

      • Zaphod Beeblebrox 10.1.1

        I was thinking more of Romania or some of the other Eastern European Soviet Republics. Massively dominant centrally controlled planning decided on a whim by an unchallengable individual.

        What are the principles, objectives and raison d’etre of the whole process- err nobody knows.

        • Draco T Bastard

          Actually, we do know – it’s the principles, objectives and raison d’etre of psychopaths. Those who seek power for its own sake.

      • Swampy 10.1.2

        “Particularly when stories emerge of them verbally harassing civiliains and meting out vigilante justice to accused looters.”

        What stories? There has not been a whisper of any such thing in the media. Sounds like nonsense.

  11. Without wishing to comment on the other aspects of the CERA, it actually is incorrect to say “The power given to Brownlee here is unprecendented and uncontrolled. He will be appointing the CEO or CERA who will report to him.” The CEO will be appointed by the State Services Commissioner, and Brownlee will have no formal role in that (see here: http://www.ssc.govt.nz/display/document.asp?docid=8050)

    That said, no doubt the ability to work with the Minister will be a pretty key consideration in the appointment … but it isn’t quite as much a closed loop as you suggest.

  12. Steve Withers 12

    According to the most recent Colmar-Brunton poll, roughly 54% of Kiwis support National. They are, de facto, supporting National disregarding democracy, accountability and transparency. Probably because they can’t spell them, never mind know why they matter or why it’s relevant now.  

    Ok, most of us will know a C-B poll more than 8 weeks before an election typically gives National 8 points too much and everyone else too little due to persistent (and consistent) over-sampling of National voters (for at least the past 15 years), but even so….there are still a lot of Kiwis out there who – really –  don’t give a rat’s arse about democracy or anything connected with it.

    Many of them will vote to get rid of MMP and many of THEM, perversely, voting to strip themselves of the only vote they have that actually counts: their MMP party vote.

    I’m not sure what anyone can do when so many are so dreadfully ignorant of what is in their best interest. I guess you could respond as National has and make out like thieves while the dummies keep on voting for you.

  13. Steve Withers 13

    Andrew: The SSC boss doesn’t appoint anyone the Cabinet doesn’t like. That’s just how it is. Even under the most hands-off govt it’s still nods and winks. This crowd would be MUCH less subtle than that.

    • gobsmacked 14.1

      That Stuff thread is amazing, hundreds of comments in just a couple of hours, very anti.

      The official opposition (Labour) are just a slow-moving rusty old tanker, and National know it. They can do whatever they want under urgency, and by the time they’re done and dusted, Labour MPs will be preparing to hold a meeting to discuss whether they should hold a meeting to possibly object (or not).
      Of all the world’s “old” democracies, I can’t think of a single one where the government has an easier ride than in New Zealand today.

    • Pete 14.2

      The only MP that has impressed me on this is Gareth Hughes. I’ve been a fairly staunch Labour supporter, but this puts the Greens in play for me come election day.

  14. Boom 15
    I’m not for this sort of legislation – but Lianne Dalziel seems to be.

    Select committee member Lianne Dalziel suggested the reason for the rushed legislation was because the council ”had failed to come up with a plan after the earthquake.”

    • Swampy 15.1

      Oh, anything to try to smear Bob Parker. But you know, he’s only the frontman. All the decisions made by elected councillors are subject to a vote and he is only one (or two) of the votes. So Liane will have to explain why she’s so keen to shaft all the Labour councillors as well.

  15. MrSmith 16

    That useless fat prick running things, we are screwed now and the greens just got my vote, we are now going to get endless announcements from Jerry with photo op’s for Wonkey right up to the election , Sickening thought.
    Piss off PeteG!

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