The government’s worrying authoritarian turn

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has won effusive praise in the overseas media for her handling of the Covid19 pandemic. (

Ardern is a warm, charming and empathetic human being and an excellent communicator. Unfortunately, the government she leads does not seem imbued with similar qualities.   

Back in mid-March New Zealand was in Level 2. Then we went to Level 3 for one day before moving to Level 4, with everything other than essential businesses closed down for four weeks. According to Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government’s Coronavirus Response Tracker, New Zealand enacted one of the most stringent lock downs along with India and Israel.


Some commentators, including me, questioned at the time the sagacity of imposing a nation-wide lock down in a country with very low population density in general, particularly in the South Island.  


Reasonable people can certainly disagree on a decision. The government made the decision it thought was the best given the information at hand. But what was striking was the lack of consultation or justification as to why we needed to move to Level 4 so quickly. The legal basis for ordering the lock down is now in question; something that the government is now trying to clean up, ex post facto.

Two New Zealand legal experts wrote: “[The lockdown] imposes the most extensive restrictions on New Zealanders’ lives seen for at least 70 years; perhaps ever. No matter how ‘necessary’ these may be, we should expect such restrictions to have a clear, certain basis in law and be imposed through a transparent and accountable process.”


Recently the government responded to questions on these matters by dumping a trove of documents in the public sphere. This was done on a Friday afternoon. Ministers have been asked to “dismiss” questions; ostensibly on the ground that the government enjoys public support and therefore, there is no need to engage with anyone offering contrarian views.

The New Zealand Ombudsman Peter Boshier commented that the move by the government, while not a violation of the legal principles of the Official Information Act, was certainly contrary to its intent. He also said that he was “horrified” to learn that in the aftermath of the pandemic the government had actually considered suspending the Official Information Act, before backing down. (

Then, last week, the government passed “under urgency” the Covid19 Public Health Response Bill. According to one report “the bill went through Parliament in less than two days and with no select committee hearings (and) grants police warrantless entry to premises if they reasonably believe virus-related orders are being breached.”

Both the Human Rights Commission and civil rights advocates have expressed strong reservations. A columnist for a leading daily suggested, rather diplomatically, that the government has “lost perspective”.

Not only does our government not trust us to do the right thing in public, they do not even trust us inside our own homes. The police can now enter homes without a warrant if they believe Level 2 restrictions are being violated. This vast expansion of the powers of the state is something that one expects in an authoritarian state; not a liberal democracy. Many authoritarian rulers think twice before enacting a law like this, which violates basic democratic principles including the protection against illegal search and seizure.

Caught in this rising tide of intolerance are thousands of migrant workers, who find themselves out of jobs and are now going hungry. The Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is the Leader of New Zealand First, a nativist party, which is part of Ardern’s governing coalition. Queried about the plight of migrant workers, he declared that they should probably go home. How? We live on an island and there are no flights!


New Zealand is a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Referring to migrant workers, Article 8 of ILO Convention 143 (1975) states:

1. On condition that he has resided legally in the territory for the purpose of employment, the migrant worker shall not be regarded as in an illegal or irregular situation by the mere fact of the loss of his employment, which shall not in itself imply the withdrawal of his authorisation of residence or, as the case may be, work permit.

2. Accordingly, he shall enjoy equality of treatment with nationals in respect in particular of guarantees of security of employment, the provision of alternative employment, relief work and retraining.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, concerns have been expressed about the expansion of state powers and the erosion of civil rights. It is unfortunate that New Zealand, usually known for its liberal stance on such matters, should fall victim to the same pressures. The Prime Minister’s resoluteness in the face of the crisis was a matter of pride for Kiwis but the turn toward authoritarianism by her government should be a cause for concern.

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