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National state of emergency activated for the third time in history – Expert Reaction

Devastation wreaked by Cyclone Gabrielle has prompted the government to declare a national state of emergency.

It’s only the third time such a declaration has been made, with the previous two being for the Christchurch earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Professor John Hopkins, Director, LEAD Institute of Law Emergencies and Disasters, Faculty of Law, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The state of emergency declaration provides extensive powers to the National Controller (and by extension the government) to order individuals and groups to act in a way that is required to address the emergency. These powers include forced evacuations, closing roads, providing supplies, etc. When the state of emergency is extended to the national level it applies these powers nationally. This is largely used to direct resources from other parts of the country to be sent to the affected area but can also be used to stop travel to the area or anything similar.

“However, the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act (which empowers the state of emergency) is still relatively limited in its scope (by intention) as we discovered in the cases of Canterbury and COVID. This is particularly true in relation to longer term recovery powers which do exist in the Act but are quite limited. Governments also appear reluctant (for political reasons) to use them over too long a period as the concept that New Zealand is in a state of emergency is not a good look internationally.

“For this reason New Zealand tends to introduce new and rather rushed acts to extend “emergency” powers well into the recovery phase. In both Canterbury and COVID, this approach proved problematic and controversial. It will be interesting to see whether a similar thing happens in the wake of cyclone Gabrielle.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio, School of Psychology, Massey University, comments:

“It was heartening to hear the Minister assure local response won’t be micromanaged. Despite only having two previous national state of emergencies declared in our history as a nation. This is where lessons learnt from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and Covid-19 pandemic are crucial. Well co-ordinated crisis response through leadership that listens and allows local communities to lead, saves lives and provides opportunity to build forward better.

“The real test comes after the national state of emergency, when all resources applied in the critical phase are weaned off and local communities are left to stand on their own. If at the critical phase of response, good partnerships with and within local communities are achieved, then long-term sustainability of recovery will be successful. On the other hand, if not managed well, the fall-out as was seen in Christchurch and in parts of the pandemic can have long-lasting impacts.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Janine Hayward, Department of Politics, University of Otago, comments:

“The National State of Emergency declared this morning was only the third time in New Zealand’s history that this has occurred.

“A number of regions have been in a local state of emergency as cyclone Gabrielle impacts the North Island. But this morning, the National Emergency Management Agency advised the Minister for Emergency Management that it was appropriate to move to a National State of Emergency based on advice they were receiving from local Civil Defence and Emergency Management teams.

“A national state of emergency is only for very large emergencies where local responses are under extreme pressure and there is a threat to people. Despite the fact that the whole country is not feeling the impacts of the cyclone, the National State of Emergency empowers the government to provide additional support and resources to the effected regions and co-ordinate the priorities for a national response to the crisis. The state of emergency stays in effect for seven days, but can be extended after that if necessary.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Jon Mitchell, Capability Development Manager, Joint Centre for Disaster Research, Massey University Wellington; and Deputy Director, Response and Recovery Aotearoa New Zealand, comments:

“A national state of emergency enables national resources to be more effectively tasked and coordinated than through local and regional response leaders, including Civil Defence Defence Emergency controllers.

“The mismatch between local authority and emergency services boundaries was beginning to become apparent in the Auckland, Northland, and Coromandel situation even before Cyclone Gabrielle approached New Zealand.  National coordination and powers to direct can help to overcome local and regional inconsistencies.

“As has been mentioned, this is only the third time that a state of national emergency has been declared.  Until 2011 it was often said informally that a state of national emergency would be very unlikely due to the potential impact on the nation’s reputation.  That proactive declarations of local and national states of emergency are more common today reflects a maturation of emergency management practice across local and central government, putting the interests of communities ahead of organisational reputation.

“The first national declaration was covered Christchurch City during the response to the Christchurch earthquake when local and regional coordination were disestablished, standard and familiar incident management roles, structures, and processes were highly modified, and local, regional, and national management rolled into a consolidated Christchurch Response Centre.  A situation that subsequent reviews have found was unnecessary and should be avoided at all costs in the future.

“The second declaration of a state of national emergency was more as planned, when the emergency powers, coordinating focus, and projection of leadership provided by the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act were used to support the initial response to COVID-19.  That response very effectively applied the concept of multi-agency “unified control” only introduced to New Zealand’s Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) in 2019.

“The current declaration of a state of national emergency, which has been progressively extended to additional areas as the event has rolled out and needs have increased, is exactly as the Act and emergency management best-practice envisage.  Providing management, information, intelligence analysis, and governance support, higher-level coordination and direction, and nationwide and international resource input to regional and local responses.

“Local and regional “CDEM Group” controllers, emergency services leaders, critical infrastructure providers, and government agencies, are able and expected to continue to work together to meet the needs of their communities, although now with more explicit control and, where necessary, direction from the National Crisis Management Centre (NCMC).  Although national-level support is provided by the NCMC to all local and regional emergency responses, that level of support and national multi-agency coordination is ramped-up significantly, and the locus of control shifted, under a state of national emergency.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have provided emergency management training for many of those involved in response and recovery leadership.”