Sometimes an emergency really is just an emergency

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.