Keith Locke on the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill – in committee stage

Consultation cannot substitute for people at the local level actually making decisions. Local people know better than any bureaucrat from Wellington or anywhere else what is important to their future.

It is rather sad, in my opinion, to have to rise in the Committee stage in this body, which is the highest body in our democracy, the most representative body, and to give what is, in effect, a primer on the nature of democracy and democratic decision-making. Democracy is fundamentally violated by this bill. Democracy is not about giving a Minister the power to override the decision making of local bodies, and that is exactly what the explanatory note on this bill says. It says that the Minister has “the ability to suspend, amend, cancel, delay, any council plans and policies.” It is very definitive and sums up the bill in that respect.

Councils, it is true, have a consultative role under this bill, and the Supplementary Order Papers being moved by the Green Party try to extend the extent of consultation and community engagement required under this bill. But consultation cannot substitute for people at the local level actually making decisions through their local representatives about their future as a community and as a city, in this case in Christchurch. The reason, apart from that we would like to be democratic – in that local bodies should have this power, is that local people know better than any bureaucrat from Wellington or anywhere else what is important to their future. There are absolutely vital decisions to be made over the next while, particularly over the next 5 years in the currency of this bill, that will shape the future of Christchurch—their city, not our city sitting here in Wellington. Those decisions must be made by the people of Christchurch, not by a Minister or a bureaucrat residing here. Does central government have a role? Absolutely. It has a role to assist the people of Christchurch, not to control the people of Christchurch. Our assistance is to give the resources to help speed and streamline the process of recovery, rebuilding, etc., and, yes, to enable shortcuts to be taken through certain bits of legislation. The Greens do not oppose that; we agree with the parts of the bill where modifications are allowed to particular Acts to achieve a more rapid recovery than would be normally the case through existing statutes. But to achieve that, we do not need to give power to the Government to override most of the laws on our statute book.

Consultation cannot substitute for people at the local level actually making decisions. Local people know better than any bureaucrat from Wellington or anywhere else what is important to their future.

Some of the submitters to the select committee, including David Bullock and Daniel Jackson, said that it overrides a whole range of Acts including the Human Rights Act, the Crimes Act, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Official Information Act, the Ombudsmen Act, and I could go on and on. There is absolutely no reason for those Acts to be overridden. The overriding of Acts is not effectively constrained by either the law courts or Parliament. Although there is some right of review, it is not effective in a legal sense and, of course, the Law Society, in its submission to the select committee, wanted much more reference to Parliament whenever laws were overridden.

Some of the Green Party amendments to this legislation try to put the power back into Parliament to a greater extent. I ask whether having a tsar in the form of a Minister to direct the recovery of Christchurch is more efficient, and whether having such a state of emergency justified. It is true that with emergency powers sometimes things can be better streamlined, and we have had a series of weeks of a state of emergency, which has helped in the recovery of Christchurch to this point. The Green Party has supported those orders. But even when we look back at the history of that, although there are advantages to that, we see that there are disadvantages.

We can note the complaints as late as this morning on

Morning Report

of business owners who have not been able to get into their offices in the red zone in the central business district to recover basic items like computers, files, etc. Day after day there have been complaints like that, whereas outside the red zone, where there is not the same application of constraint, people have been entering dangerous buildings, taking calculated risks, and retrieving their files, etc. from inside the building. The bureaucrats in the red zone have been ultra-conservative in their risk assessment, just taking no risks whatsoever of any danger. That has, in the process, caused a great amount of angst and depression amongst business people and workers. All sorts of things like that are the result of this avoidance of risk, which is characteristic of people who have absolute power and are not necessarily in touch with the local situation.

Communities have huge resources and abilities to address those problems and they are being underestimated in the bill. In the suburb of Sumner, for example, it has been fantastic to see people getting together all sorts of subcommittees to deliver services, social events, you name it. The Student Volunteer Army has also been fantastic. It shows that the capacities of local people can be unleashed if we allow them the initiative. I think the people of Canterbury have the capacity to come forward with the plans, and to implement the plans with the assistance financially, and in terms of resources, put in from the central government level.

We have had a lot of discussion here about the constitution and constitutional restraints, etc. It is useful to refer to why we have them. Often we hear that so far we have not done too badly, and we should trust the Minister Gerry Brownlee. We hear that he is a good bloke and that he would not unnecessarily override constitutional provisions in Acts, etc. But that is not how democracy works. We have these constitutional restraints because we do not trust anyone in the executive as such, because people do not always do the right things. It may be that we have a dream run with Gerry Brownlee for the next whatever, but we should write laws not according to the trust in a particular person or a particular Government of the day or whatever but according to what is constitutionally right and what is basically democratic. Writing off the appeals to courts and the validation of actions by Parliament is not the way to do that.

I think this process of urgency is another illustration of the problem with this bill. We did not need to go to this rapid process of doing the bill over 2 days, not knowing what the bill was until a couple of days ago, and not knowing what the Government’s amendments are even now, partway through the Committee stage. All we needed to do—and the Green Party proposed and stressed this—was just extend the state of emergency a bit longer and have a few weeks to have a proper select committee process. It could have been done, it should have been done, and there is absolutely no reason why it was not done. Now we are in probably the biggest mess I have ever seen in my time in Parliament, discussing a bill without the Government’s amendments before us, which are probably fairly numerous, most of the way through what was claimed to be the Committee stage. That is absolutely unacceptable. I think the fact that the Government would do that, that it would force this urgent process and not allow people in the community proper time to come forward with their amendments and changes, just shows the need for constitutional restraints, and the need not to just trust this Government, or any Government, on such matters. The select committee process is vital in our democracy.

Chrissie Williams made a submission; she only just managed to get hold of the bill before the select committee process. She did a sort of handwritten criticism of certain aspects of the bill. She is a city councillor. We have a process where even the city council, the body technically responsible for recovering Christchurch—although that is now being overridden by the Government—did not have access to the bill to be able to properly work out a response to it. This is just unacceptable. As Dean Knight, one of the submitters, said, the legislative scheme is drawn in command and control terms. That was a very good submission, actually. Dean Knight is a law lecturer at Victoria University. Thank you.

(speech cut off by Speaker of the House keeping time)