The Government will this Wednesday declare a state of national emergency and also issue an Epidemic Notice which together will give it powers to over-ride legislation; in effect to operate as an elected dictatorship.
Though the Government must call Parliament together after the proclamation of the State of Emergency and the issuance of the notice, it does not need Parliamentary approval to proceed.
But a separate proposal to adjourn Parliament on Wednesday to some unspecified future date and to replace it with a special Select Committee has yet to win agreement from National.
A State of Emergency allows the Government to over-ride a range of legislation particularly allowing it to close roads, requisition property, compulsorily move people, commander food or clothing, implement conservations measures for food or fuel and other essential supplies, regulate traffic and undertake the emergency disposal of dead bodies.
An Epidemic Notice is more specific and allows the Director of General of Health to recommend “modification orders” to allow Ministers to over-ride laws to enable them to deal more effectively with the epidemic.
The former Minister in Charge of the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, is the only current MP who has managed a nationwide state of emergency.
He is now the Shadow Leader of the House and therefore the key player at Parliament’s Business Committee today which will consider the proposal to adjourn the House and set up the Select Committee.
He told POLITIK it was an attempt to “dispense with democracy.”
“I think the problem here is that, yes, we have got a virus that could have devastating effects,” he said.
“Everyone wants to avoid those effects on human life.
“There is no question about that.
“We have to accept that there will also be devastating consequences for the economy.
“And many, many people are going to get hurt through the process.
“So at a time like that to dispense with democracy which is effectively what they are doing — the fundamental tenets of democracy are government accountability — or to reduce the opportunity for that accountability to be exercised by Parliament I think is outrageous.”
Brownlee is not opposed to the way the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, intends Parliament will be set up.
By providing for at least a metre’s distance between MPs, the House can accommodate 33.
But he is concerned about the Select Committee idea.
The Prime Minister explained the proposal during her press conference to announce the move to a Stage Four lockdown on Wednesday night. She said she had spoken to the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges.
“I conveyed to him the decisions that are being relayed here today,” she said.
“And I don’t think he’ll mind me saying that he was supportive of that.
“I’ve mentioned to him that there are some elements that require the scrutiny of Parliament, the epidemic notice and the civil defence powers, and we will work through how we can do that in a way that is responsible.”
Bridges said he supported the Government’s move and ordered National Party MPs to suspend their election campaign.
“I have offered the Prime Minister my full support during this crisis, providing they move expeditiously enough,” he said.
“ We will work in a supportive and constructive way in the interests of New Zealanders.
“I have also offered the Government the services of our MPs and staff to assist where we can.
“We want to do all we can to protect the lives and livelihoods of New Zealanders.”
But that spirit of co-operation may be tested by the Prime Minister’s Select Committee approach which she set out at her press conference.
“I’ve proposed what I could loosely describe as a select committee of some sorts to allow a scrutiny function to the government over this period,” she said.
“I absolutely accept that this is an extraordinary time.
“I want to give the public confidence that there will still be accountability, and we will be enabling the opposition to play that role.
“I just need to work through the details of how that will work remotely.”
Ardern has moved to Premier House in Wellington so she can be close to those who are running the operation from central Government.
But she is going to restrict her own activities.
“My contact with others will be very limited,” she said.
“We’re currently working through protocols for how I can continue to convey information and be questioned by the media so we can keep up those accountabilities.
“I anticipate that I will only really be present here in this building (the Beehive) and the building where I live.”
Other Ministers have been told to work from home, and yesterday afternoon there was a procession of Beehive staff heading out the building with computers and files as they took Government home to the various Wellignton suburbs where they live.
Their movements underscored just how serious this response is.
Ardern did not mince her words yesterday is describing what was at stake.
“If community transmission takes off in New Zealand, the number of cases will double every five days,” she said.
“If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die.
“There is no easy way to say that, but it is the reality that we have seen overseas and the possibility that we must face here together.”
The Government itself has set up a new structure to cope with the crisis.
There is now an “all of Government” committee headed by former Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency CEO, John Ombler; Police Commissioner, Mike Bush; the Director of Civil Defence, Sarah Stuart-Black and the General Manager of Science and International at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Peter Crabtree and the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.
This is the committee that will draft the regulations and orders to be implemented under the State of Emergency and Epidemic Notice.
The committee is meeting several times a day, and reports through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the special Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister which is dealing with the virus response.
It is handling all the practical aspects of the implementation of the Stage Three and Four clampdowns.
In 2011 the Government found that an “all of government” approach to the Christchurch earthquake was very effective.
Ironically legislation to make “all of government” approaches easier to implement within the public service, the Public Service Act, is still before a Select Committee and not yet law.
Economic policy is still being driven by Treasury and its covid-19 advisory committee — again from a wide range of departments — and there were more moves announced yesterday.
The $150,000 cap on wage subsidies for companies was removed which is estimated to cost another $4 billion and
- The Government is expediting urgent work on new income support measures for all workers above and beyond the wage subsidy scheme, to be appropriate for how the economy will operate under Alert Level 4.
- The Government, Reserve Bank and retail banks have agreed in principle to significant temporary support for mortgage holders and a business finance guarantee scheme for those impacted by COVID-19 as the country moves towards Alert Level 4. The details of this will be announced in the next few days.
- Cabinet has agreed to freeze all rent increases and to look to extend no-cause terminations to protect people during this difficult time.
It’s a sign of these troubled times that that announcement by Finance Minister Grant Robertson seems almost like a footnote to the much more dramatic news of the lockdown.
But the Government from Wednesday will have total control of the country and the economy.
These are unprecedented times.