Limit to powers

New Zealanders tend to be a supportive lot when it comes to their police.

They trust them to do the right thing, to show common sense and restraint, to use the powers with which we have entrusted them wisely.

They respect the police’s unique role in ordered society, and the job they do under frequently difficult circumstances.

And, of course, New Zealanders hugely appreciate the fact their police do not generally have heavy hands, that they tend to focus on education and not enforcement, and that how they treat us does not, unlike one of our friendly big nations, depend on the colour of our skin (not that our own police have historically been squeaky-clean in that area).

But there is still a limit to how much power the average New Zealander is willing to allow the police to possess.

So, it was no surprise reaction was swift to the Government hurriedly granting more — and invasive — power to the police last week.

The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, passed on Wednesday, allows police to enter private homes without a warrant if they believe Alert Level 2 restrictions are being flouted.

Rather contradicting its own, frequently expressed belief that Kiwis can be trusted to do the right thing during the pandemic restrictions, the Government argued the legislation was necessary to avoid a state of emergency.

It said the Act would remain on the books for two years but, after a National-led amendment, be reviewed every 90 days.

Whether it was the speed with which the law passed, or its essential message that one’s home is one’s castle unless the police feel like walking through the door, the Act was met with a wall of concern.

National voted against it, leading academics called for more consultation, Maori expressed fears they would be targeted, and the Human Rights Commission said there was a risk of “over-reach” when sweeping powers were granted in times of national emergency.

"They could have anticipated giving it more time for consideration by members of the public. There’s a sort of great regret they didn’t provide the legislation with adequate democratic scrutiny," Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said.

It was comforting to see the Government acknowledge the depth of the reaction to its plan, and the law now goes to select committee for extra scrutiny.

Attorney-general David Parker also moved to assuage fears the law would be an unacceptable threat to personal freedoms, reiterating it was purely to make it easier to control large gatherings, and that police actually had fewer powers under Level 2 than at Levels 3 and 4.

Fair enough. But it is understandable there remains some uneasiness at how quickly such sweeping powers were introduced.

These might be unprecedented times, but we must not lose sight of some of the basic human rights that have, broadly, made this a wonderful place, even in a time of such difficulty.

We should still trust our police to not abuse new powers. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that this legislation was pushed through and does not quite fit who we are or where we live.


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