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Suspension of elections breaches constitutional values

Suspension of Environment Canterbury elections breaches constitutional values

Proposed legislation that would extend the suspension of local body elections in Canterbury until 2016 is not justified and is a disturbing breach of the rule of law, the New Zealand Law Society says.

Legislation introduced and passed under urgency in 2010, without public consultation, suspended Environment Canterbury elections until 2013. The Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Amendment Bill proposes to continue the suspension of elections for a further three and a half years, to 2016.

The convenor of the Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee, Austin Forbes QC, and committee member James Wilding, presented the Law Society’s submission to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee today in Christchurch.

Mr Forbes said the Government’s decision to suspend local body democracy in Canterbury for a total of six and a half years in total is unjustified.

“Only a clearly demonstrable or overwhelming reason might justify the suspension of the democratic right to vote within a region for a period of six and a half years. This time frame cannot be said to be ‘temporary’,” Mr Forbes said.

When introducing the Bill to the House, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee cited the need to provide the Canterbury region with stable and effective governance to assist the earthquake recovery.

“That explanation cannot be said to justify the Bill’s suspension of local democracy. Parliament has already enacted the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011 to facilitate earthquake recovery, and that Act gives sweeping emergency powers to the Minister and to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority”, Mr Forbes said.

Earlier this year ECan Chair Dame Margaret Bazley advised the Government that the commissioners recommended a return to democratic elections by 2013. Officials also recommended a transitional mixed-governance body, made up of elected councillors and government-appointed members.

“Democratic decision-making in local government is a very important and legitimate expectation of citizens. The proposed further suspension of local body democracy runs counter to core constitutional values, most importantly that of a free and democratic society,” Mr Forbes said.

The Law Society believes that this issue is of real concern to the public, as well as lawyers, both in and beyond Canterbury, and says that the Bill should not proceed.

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