I know everything is political. But not every political decision is partisan.

I (and others) have had occasion to criticise the Government's (indeed, the entire Parliament's) response to natural disaster in the past. But Idiot Savant over at No Right Turn - someone who I normally have a great deal of time for as a commentator and a digger-upper of very good information - has a couple of posts up in regards the Government's declaration of a state of national emergency that strike me as plain silly.

In his first post, he writes:

"No insult to current inhabitants of my former city, who obviously want everything possible to be done, but a severe but local earthquake in Christchurch does not justify a power of arbitrary arrest in Whanganui. Neither does it justify a power to close public spaces in Invercargill. A local state of emergency allows everything that is necessary to be done. Why take it national?"

His second post answers that question thus:

"Make no mistake: this is a cynical political exercise, all about who gets the limelight (and hence the credit) in an election year. Again, it is a gross abuse of power. But entirely par for the course for National."

To use a phrase much beloved of I/S himself, I call bullshit.

First up, the declaration of a national state of emergency does not mean that there is now a power to do all the horribly draconian things that he claims can be done in places like Invercargill, Whangarei or other places far from Christchurch. All the powers given under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 (CDEMA) can only be exercised for the specific purpose of things like "saving life, preventing injury, or rescuing and removing injured or endangered persons", or "prevent[ing] or limit[ing] the extent of the emergency".

There is no way that these purposes can be said to exist outside of the immediate environs of Christchurch, so the specter of the police "clos[ing] public spaces in Invercargill" or the like in the wake of this declaration is a complete red herring. Indeed, the only possible power that I think could be exercised outside of the immediate disaster area is the requisitioning power under section 90. But even that is debatable - and it is highly unlikely it would ever need used, given that the Government can just contract to get the needed material.

Furthermore, all the powers that are conferred by the CDEMA are fully reviewable by the courts, which can not only invalidate any actions or decisions that fall outside the statute's authorisation but also provide compensation for any harm done. So, again there is a layer of accountability available that mitigates any extreme fantasies about how the authorities might interpret their powers following this declaration

(Note also how the powers under the CDEMA differ from those conferred by the CERRA, to which I (and others) objected. There are close limits on the circumstances in which they may be used, there is full review of the use of any powers by the courts, there is a right to a remedy if the wrongful use of these powers causes you harm.)

What, then, of I/S's (somewhat contradictory) second claim - that the declaration of a state of national emergency is nothing more than window-dressing to impress the public? After all, if the specific emergency-response powers under the CDEMA aren't able to be used outside the immediate earthquake zone, why declare an emergency across the whole country?

The Prime Minister gave this justification for the decision in his speech announcing the state of national emergency: "this declaration means the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management John Hamilton may control the exercise and performance of functions, duties, and powers of CDEM Groups and Group controllers. There are no other differences between the powers under a state of local emergency and a state of national emergency." I/S in turn pooh-poohed this as "So, the only difference is who is in charge."

Well, yes ... but that difference actually matters. The way civil defence works in New Zealand is that the country is broken up into different "Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups" that cover different regions. So, there is one for Canterbury, one for Nelson-Tasman, one for Otago, etc. Within its boundaries, each Group is tasked with responding to emergencies as they arise.

But what about emergency situations where the resources of a single Group are inadequate to respond? There, help from other Groups may be needed. But getting that help requires those in charge of the affected Group to coordinate with those in charge of others, which is yet another task on top of the many they will have already. Furthermore, all they can do is ask for help - which other Groups may or may not be able to give, depending on availability.

However, now that there is a state of national emergency, two things can happen. First, the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management can take over the coordinating role between different Groups and centralise that process. Second, the Director can instruct other Groups to initiate their own emergency management plans and thus release resources to help Canterbury.

These powers may not be as earth shattering as empowering the police to shut down central Invercargill, but neither are they insignificant. Indeed, it isn't going overboard to say that the fate of people's lives may depend on the bureaucratic niceties involved in the declaration of national emergency.

So, like I say - I/S's posts regrettably are bullshit. I rather fear that he's fallen victim to exactly the disease he accuses John Key and National of ... being so partisan in outlook that everything must have a motive other than the obvious one.

Sometimes even politicians just want to do the right thing.

Comments (15)

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2011
Tim Watkin

Interesting to note that John Carter has just said this is the first time in NZ's history that a national state of emergency has been declared. So presumably even Napier in '32 was kept local.

by Andrew Geddis on February 23, 2011
Andrew Geddis

We need to compare apples with apples - was there even the capacity to declare "National Emergencies" back in 1932? And what powers were available under existing emergency legislation (by way of regulation) that aren't today?

The present Civil Defence set up only dates back to 2002, remember.

by Rob Hosking on February 23, 2011
Rob Hosking

I think he said first time one has been declared 'for an earthquake'.


by Danyl Mclauchlan on February 23, 2011
Danyl Mclauchlan

Key looks like he's aged ten years in the last day - I don't think optimising his media coverage is foremost in his mind.

by IrishBill on February 23, 2011

Section 67 of the Act states that the house must sit within seven days of a state of national emergency being declared.

Presumably this is to ensure it's not abused out of sight of the house.

However parliament has been adjourned until the 8th of March. It's a small cock up but it doesn't engender confidence.

by Andrew Geddis on February 23, 2011
Andrew Geddis


I actually rang the Clerk's office to query that point. The House met at 2 pm today, following the announcement of the state of emergency earlier that morning. This permitted the Minister (John Carter) to carry out his statutory duty under s.66 (2): "The Minister must advise the House of Representatives as soon as practicable where a state of national emergency has been declared or extended." Once he did so, the House then adjourned to March 8.

So they did get the technical stuff right ... we could quibble as to whether the spirit of the Act has been met as there was no real chance to debate the declaration, but I think in present circumstances no-one is in a mood to do so. Shades of CERRA there?

by IrishBill on February 23, 2011

I'm actually pleased to hear they didn't drop the ball on the process. I'm not too concerned about the move to a state of national emergency - like you I don't think there's anything particularly nefarious in play.

by Craig Ranapia on February 24, 2011
Craig Ranapia

So, in short any state of emergency has strict limitations, automatic sunset provisions and is fully subject to judicial review under CDEMA (which, IIRC, was passed unanimously by all parties)?  Hardly the Ermächtigungsgesetz in concern-troll drag.

by Matt McKillop on February 24, 2011
Matt McKillop

Hi Andrew,

Before the CDEMA 2002, I believe that there was both a local power of declaration, as well as the Minister's/Governor-General's power to declare a national state of emergency. Looking back at the list of emergency declarations since the first Civil Defence Act 1962 (here), there seems to be no declaration comparable to the present one.

Before '62, though, we're comparing apples and repressive emergency regulation statutes.

by Ian MacKay on February 24, 2011
Ian MacKay

Of course No Right Turn does raise some important issues. His link to Robert Fisk, for instance is important.  Even if we not agree with his point on say the State of Emergency, he does represent  "eternal vigilance."  And he is usually so diligent about authentic detail.

by Andrew Geddis on February 24, 2011
Andrew Geddis


Like I say, I generally admire I/S's stuff. But, as he'd be the first to admit, his modus operandi is to fire on sight. Sometimes that means he'll end up hitting the wrong targets.

by Craig Ranapia on February 24, 2011
Craig Ranapia

@Ian: That's fair enough, because I ususally have a lot of time and respect for Idiot/Savant despite your huge political differences because he is usually "diligent about authentic detail" even if I vehemently disagree with the conclusions he draws from them.

But, hell - he really epically lost it this time.  And, fairly or not, you can lose credibility that's taken years to build up in the moment it takes to hit the POST button.

by Chris Conway on March 02, 2011
Chris Conway

The declaration of a state of emergency is always a cause for concern in a democracy.  Even more draconian is the deployment of military forces in the streets.  It would indeed all be much of a worry were it not for the patent destruction, disruption and death that has befallen New Zealand's second-largest urban centre.  If that's not a bloody national emergency then I would hate to see what is!  Perspective is everything, except for the political partisan.


by Stacey on March 08, 2011

Andrew, probably a fair point you make and well done for making it. However one has to be careful not to overstate their case, especially when criticising others. I ask whether you may be guilty of the same thing that is you scorn.

You state “all the powers that are conferred by the CDEMA are fully reviewable by the courts.” That, in practice, may also be a red hearing.

1. Study after study has been shown coercive state power is most often deployed against those who are powerless. The notion that powerless individuals have the power and resource to bring action against some discrete officious action may work in theory true but is fallacious in reality. It very rarely happens. Not all powers or actions are reviewable.

2. If a claim was brought before the court the standard of review applied I suspect would be most deferential – when a state of natural emergency is declared the court isn’t going be keen to be seen to attempt to tie or even slow hands of government. The court isn’t going to get out the microscope or ruler and tell the government how to run things or set priorities.


by Stacey on March 08, 2011

I meant to say "national", not "natural." Apologies.

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