If the quake won't wreck it, Council will: Out-of-control bureaucracy in New Zealand

By Dr Eric Crampton, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand

When governments grant themselves emergency powers, regardless of fine intentions, liberties are in danger. It can lead to a sad erosion of rights as people are dictated to and no longer allowed to assume their own risks.

As a result of the two earthquakes in Christchurch, and the subsequent declaration of a national emergency, the central government and Civil Defence Controller have been extraordinarily empowered by Parliament to dictate measures to repair the damage and help the city recover.

A selection from last week’s Christchurch Press:

• A restaurant owner was prohibited from recovering items from his restaurant ‘for his own good,’ only to find that soldiers guarding the cordon had been inside to grab a few chairs to sit on. The restaurant was demolished despite assurances it wouldn’t be; the owner wasn’t even notified of the demolition.

• A sound building was demolished because it was the same colour as the neighbouring building. Again, the owner wasn’t notified.

• Responsible owners left notes on the windows of their locked buildings saying the building was clear of any people. Search teams then smashed doors open without contacting the owners.

This isn’t the New Zealand to which I immigrated. The advertised New Zealand was a place where folks could muck in, sort out their own problems, and assume their own risks. People could do ridiculous things in kayaks and on mountains, but would sometimes be called on to front the bill for their rescue if they wound up doing something stupid. It’s a country where when a woman tragically died of hypothermia going through Cave Stream in the middle of winter with insufficiently warm clothes, the response was to put up a slightly bigger sign warning people to wear warm clothes in winter: ‘We can’t fence off all the mountains’ was the very sensible reply.

Civil Defence Coordinator John Hamilton, Minister of Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee, and Mayor Bob Parker are doing their best to wreck what I’ve always found best about New Zealand: folks were more or less free to pursue their vision of the good life and to bear their own risks so long as they weren’t burdening anyone else. Yes, business owners going into downtown may be assuming some risks and might wind up needing rescuing if there’s a bad aftershock. But in some cases, even where they’ve hired professionals to come in and ensure everything’s done safely, they’re still prohibited.

Fortunately, after public protest by business owners earlier in the week, the powers that be have eased up a bit on restrictions. But even on Thursday, the Christchurch Press reported that owners were being denied access to safe buildings on the cordon boundary because Civil Defence worries it ‘would make security much more difficult to enforce.’

What a way to rebuild a city.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 25 March. Enquiries to cis@cis.org.au. Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

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