NZ Herald | 8 May 2020
Left unchecked, how long before kindly social democrats morph into enthusiastic authoritarians? Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson suggest it’s about seven weeks.
Let’s not be partisan about this. Simon Bridges might have taken only six weeks. Bill English might have taken eight. But make no mistake, the Government has now crossed the line from using its lockdown powers to maintain public health, to cynically promoting its electoral interests.
When New Zealanders are asked how they want to check their leaders, the majority opt to maintain our “fastest lawmakers in the west” Parliament, but with the chance to vote it out after three years.
Notoriously, ministers can agree to something on Monday, bully their party caucuses into supporting it on Tuesday, and ram it through Parliament by the end of the week.
The courts are mostly powerless to interfere. Legislation ordering the slaughter of all blue-eyed babies is the law-essay exception; an Act designed to extend the prison sentence of a single identifiable person a real one.
Consequently, New Zealand depends more than most countries on respect for conventions and a rambunctious public sphere.
Parliamentary question time is criticised for kindergarten antics, but most ministers are genuinely afraid of it. When questions are lodged, bureaucrats rush around thoroughly investigating the matter before the minister has to front up, itself acting as a powerful check.
Before some reporters decided prime ministerial press conferences were mainly entertainment, they served a similar role. Jim Bolger and Helen Clark were regularly treated mercilessly, rightly so for prime ministers radically reshaping the economy or banning pamphlets criticising the Government in election year.
Weekly interviews by the likes of Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking are additional checks on prime ministerial power.