Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.
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Analysis by Bryce Edwards

Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.

How healthy is democracy at the moment in New Zealand? Criticisms are mounting about the state of the political system under the Coronavirus crisis, with complaints that things aren’t as democratic as they should be.

I wrote for the Guardian last week about some of these political problems – see: New Zealand’s Covid-19 strategy looks successful, but we must safeguard democracy. I argued that, although the Government has done well dealing with the health crisis, there is a growing democratic deficit, and checks and balances on executive power are being seriously weakened at the moment.

I also make the point that the Government was actually pressured by the wider political system to “go hard and go fast”, which is a credit to the functioning of democracy. But, ironically, by going into lockdown, democracy has been also been weakened, meaning the necessary feedback mechanisms are no longer working sufficiently, and this could now produce poor decision making or even corruption.

I’m not the only one pointing out some of the democratic deficits in play. Former government minister Peter Dunne has repeatedly stated his concerns about the political process being debased. His first column, Democracy on hold, outlines how extraordinary the restrictions on citizens and even politics has been.

Dunne is particularly concerned that Parliament has been sidelined, and society’s culture of trust and deference for authority is growing. Here’s his main point – arguing that the public “have invested an extraordinary amount of trust in the government, its advisers and the Police that they all know what they are doing. At the same time, the level of intolerance shown towards those who have questioned aspects of what has been done has been somewhat chilling. In a hitherto free and open society like ours we should always remember there can never be a wrong time to raise public questions. But sadly, too many legitimate questions are being dismissed arrogantly, tritely and patronisingly.”

Dunne has followed this up with another important column, calling for Parliament to resume sitting as quickly as possible, “so we can have effective scrutiny of the decisions being made and reasoned debate about the alternatives” – see: End this Orwellian version of NZ. Dunne argues: “The absence of Parliament and consequently a properly functioning Opposition has left us devoid of a vehicle to challenge the increasingly one-dimensional view we are being presented, and whether the powers being exercised by public authorities are necessary and appropriate, proportionate to the crisis at hand and not excessive.”

He believes there’s an unhealthy concentration of power in the major decisions being made. Dunne argues “the near-dictatorial powers” aren’t just being exercised by the Prime Minister and her closest colleagues, but also by three senior officials, who “are effectively running the country” – the Director-General of Health, the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, and the Commissioner of Police.

For more of Dunne’s analysis, see Derek Cheng’s Three days til lockdown D-Day and officials scramble to improve system weaknesses. In this, he’s quoted as saying that this Government are merely “bit players” in the decision-making process, which is bad for democracy: “that, with the momentous decisions we are making and the crisis we are facing, is far too narrow a focus and far too big an imposition on our rights and freedoms… This is an unprecedented crisis… you don’t resolve it by taking control right back into a tight little group, effectively accountable to nobody, making decisions affecting all of us, and expecting us to meekly fall into line”.

Another former government minister, Heather Roy has written a column for the Democracy Project website about this unsatisfactory state of affairs, also complaining that the “holy trinity” of three unelected bureaucrats are currently all powerful and, in contrast, the “Prime Minister remains nominally in charge (but can be overruled) and her Ministers are largely invisible” – see: Bring back our democracy.

Roy is particularly unimpressed by the role of the National and Act opposition parties in holding the Government to account, which she says would normally be vital in such crises. She complains “the opposition has been side-lined; manoeuvred to dealing with Covid-19 related issues through the Epidemic Response Committee”, with Simon Bridges making the mistake of becoming Chair of the Committee, and David Seymour also seems “disenfranchised by being on the committee”.

There are also questions over how well the Government has been sticking to the law themselves. Legal and constitutional commentator Graeme Edgeler has pointed out the Government’s various edicts on what the public can and can’t do – from public gatherings to when supermarkets can open – aren’t always based in law – see his column, On being sure of your legal footing.

Having politicians follow the law during a crisis might seem unnecessary to some. But the precedent this sets is dangerous. After all, those same laws prevent corruption and injustice.
The President of the Law Society, Tiana Epati, has written over the weekend to the Leader of the Opposition about such matters, saying “in many ways the rule of law is more important now than ever before” and calling for greater detail to be provided about the legal basis of the various lockdown rules being announced, saying “clarity about the legal basis for these constraints is central to ensuring compliance and ongoing public confidence and support” – see Sam Hurley’s Law Society calls for greater Govt clarity on curbs to our freedoms and commerce.

According to this article, “The country’s lawyers want greater transparency from the Government as it imposes constraints on our liberties and commerce”. Epati reportedly wants Parliament reconvened “as soon as safely possible, even before the end of the current nationwide lockdown, and certainly if the lockdown is extended.”

The Government will not release the advice from the Crown Law government department that is the basis for many of its decisions on the lockdown – see Zane Small’s Attorney-General’s decision not to release COVID-19 lockdown advice angers Opposition MPs.

According to this report, David Parker, the Attorney-General, says the law is “abundantly clear” that governments “can for reasons of public health restrict people’s liberties”, but at least for now is not willing to back this up with legal advice, which is disappointing Opposition MPs.

So, is the Government being transparent enough during the crisis? NBR political editor Brent Edwards suggests not, and argues that the Government needs to be more transparent than ever (paywalled). He points out that although the Government does need to act strongly in the crisis, “it must not be allowed to exercise unbridled power. There have been signs of the Prime Minister’s Office exerting its power over others, controlling when other ministers might speak to the news media, for example, because it wants to control the message.”

Edwards also points to the importance of the Epidemic Response Committee, saying it “must also challenge the government’s propensity to concentrate power on the ninth floor of the Beehive.”

But it’s the media that has the crucial role of the “public’s watchdog” on the Government, and he points to a number of important questions which “all deserve to be asked and answered. That will put pressure on ministers and officials to constantly review what they are doing and adapt and change policy interventions to make them more effective.”

So, is the Government answering the important questions of journalists? Not according to Newshub investigative reporter Michael Morrah, who has spoken out about information requests not being properly answered by government departments like the Ministry of Health, complaining “we need transparent, timely information. Not PR spin” – see: Is the Ashley Bloomfield show as transparent as Kiwis think?

Morrah also argues that the famous 1pm daily news media briefings are not as transparent as the public might assume. He gives an outline of how the conferences actually work: “The room is filled with journalists from every media television, radio and print organisation in the country. Each of those journalists in the room have their own questions, plus questions from other colleagues in their organisation (who are chasing different angles) who are not based in Wellington and cannot attend the briefings in person. The atmosphere is often tense, as journalists try to get their questions out before the officials call time, and it’s all over. In a normal interview setting, journalists are able to ask a question and then ask a follow up question. This is important, as it helps provide context. It also means journalists can challenge a position or comment.”

Similarly, Newsroom’s David Williams has argued that “the media can’t just be the carriers of messages issued from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette” and such “tightly controlled set-pieces” are part of a problem in which government comms is defeating the right of the public to know what is going on – see: To do their jobs, authorities must respond.

Williams also reports on his own experience of dealing with government PR staff, including when “a communications staffer emailed a suggested response to her boss – and by accident sent it to us. It reveals a strategy of tightly controlling the message and handing out stale answers.”

He says that as the number of comms staff is growing, provision of information to the public is actually slowing down. As another example, he says “My colleague Marc Daalder has been asking for three weeks how many hospital beds there are in the country, but he’s yet to get an answer. Surely it can’t be that hard.”

The shift of journalists to work in communications is examined in a column by Phil Quin, who argues the combination of “a stronger-than-ever government with a weaker-than-ever media and you’ve got a sinister brew. We need more journalists holding the government to account, not fewer. And we certainly don’t need our best reporters exiled to government comms jobs, where their skills are used to finesse ‘the message’, not uncover the truth” – see: We need more journalists holding government to account, not fewer.

Investigative journalist Andrea Vance has also written about how important Coronavirus questions aren’t being answered by authorities and politicians, and when information is tightly controlled and distributed, it goes without challenge – see: How Jacinda Ardern is using soft propaganda to beat Covid-19.

Vance also takes issue with the daily 1pm media conferences. She suggests their usefulness can be illusionary: “However, reassuring as these daily news conferences are, they don’t substitute for truth and accountability. A lot of questions are going unanswered. Most pertinently there seems to be a huge gulf between these Beehive briefings and experiences of frontline health care workers over personal protective equipment, contact tracing and levels of testing. It’s still not clear why initial border controls were so haphazard and slow to be implemented. These briefings give the appearance of effective and extensive communication and transparency in a time of crisis.”

Finally, Andrea Vance has also written about how democracy needs more non-conformists and dissenters in a crisis like the current one, because when the stakes are so high and the decisions being made are so huge we need questioning of authority. She laments the “concerning amount of vitriol directed at those who have questioned” aspects of the Government’s management of the crisis – see: Our panic makes us more inclined to conform: here’s why we need to push back.