18 May 2020

Public Health Response Bill sparks concern in Pacific community

1:44 pm on 18 May 2020

There are concerns among the Pacific community in New Zealand about a possible repeat of the Dawn Raids, in relation to the Public Health Response Bill.

The bill, passed this week by parliament in response to the ongoing Covid-19 emergency, empowers police to enter premises without a warrant if they have reasonable grounds to believe people have gathered there in contravention of an order.

Cook Islanders elderly people sitting together.

Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari

It also gives the government the ability to grant special powers to the Ministry of Health in making public health orders, which was a task that could previously only take place through the declaration of a state of emergency.

National List MP Alfred Ngaro said although he would not hope to see a repeat of the Dawn Raids in New Zealand, people should be concerned about what this bill now means for the country.

"I lived through the Dawn Raids. My family grew up in Ponsonby and we heard it, we knew it, we saw it," the MP said.

Even though his family are from the Cook Islands, Mr Ngaro said they were mistaken for being Samoan and would get stopped by the police.

"We lived through the trauma of that and the heart of the reason why we need to be concerned with this bill is that we have been sold this view that on the basis of fear," he explained.

Mr Ngaro said his message to the government was to not let the disease determine New Zealand's destiny.

"Through good will and through the hard work of Kiwis, we've been able to overcome in eight weeks what many other nations haven't been able to overcome.

"Why are we now saying we can't exercise the same good will, trust and confidence into our communities and the only reason I say this is that this bill is seeded on fear."

National MP Alfred Ngaro in committee

National MP Alfred Ngaro in committee Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The bill went through parliament in less than two days with no select committee hearing.

The Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, said that the reason why it was fast-tracked was so it would coincide with New Zealand going down to Alert Level Two, matching the pace of the unfolding pandemic.

"There is no rule book on how to eliminate Covid-19, so either we continue to hold on to alert level three and go through the long process of putting through the bill or we had to go through the House," Aupito explained.

Aupito said the opposition was given the opportunity to be able to scrutinise the bill and to make their own opinions known.

"We are hopeful that we are working as quickly as possible at haste because we want people to be protected and ensure that we don't see community transmission occurring," Aupito said.

The Pacific Peoples minister disagreed with the idea that the bill could see history repeat itself, with police barging into people's homes.

According to him, under Alert Level Two, the country is no longer dependent on the state of emergency laws, which gave more power to the police and other enforcement agencies.

"The government has learnt more from when New Zealand was last on Alert Level Two and because the fight against Covid-19 is not over, there still needs to be some restricted powers for the police and the Ministry of Health, to make sure that if need be that we're able to disperse gatherings that may put people at risk.

Labour MP Aupito William Sio contributes to the General Debate in the House

Labour MP Aupito William Sio contributes to the General Debate in the House Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Aupito said authorities still needed to keep an eye on how people interacted, how businesses conducted their affairs and whether they were conducting it safely and keeping to the rules that have been set out.

"If need be the police and health officials, depending on the data they collect, need to have some enforcement powers to make sure we are preventing community transmission and keeping everybody safe."

But the opposition's Mr Ngaro argued that the government introduced a bill that was in effect taking away people's freedom.

"Kiwis gave their freedom willingly over the eight weeks when we were in lockdown and now this bill is going to the point where you are giving extraordinary powers to the police without a warrant to enter into peoples' homes and this is over suspicion not over fact.

"Police and enforcement officers can enter not only a property, but a place of worship, a restaurant or a bar and have the authority to shut it down for up to 24 to 48 hours until they proved their innocence, I believe the nation should be concerned by this."

No caption

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The minister said he was confident that police officers would not cause hostility in the community during Alert Level Two.

"I know that on alert level four and alert level three, police were able to engage and educate people on the safety measures put in place during the lockdown.

"Police have been encouraging groups to re-think their plans, when they have been found putting themselves at risk by gathering together without necessarily having any regard for their safety or the safety of others," he said.

The government have been basing their decisions on the evidence that has been provided to them from the Ministry of Health.

The minister cited reports from Los Angeles where Pacific people have the highest death rate to Covid-19, and warned that some people were continuing to attend funerals and cultural events if Covid-19 didn't exist.

Aupito said the other thing they are keeping an eye on is making sure New Zealand does not have a second wave of the outbreak like what happened in China.

"It took them about two months to push down the curve, but then it took them less than two weeks for it to go back up and so we have to be mindful of that and continue to be alert." the minister said.

Marae are not commercial properties

There has been online criticism over the bill and how it specifically mentions marae as an example of places the police and enforcement officers can enter without a warrant.

During Mr Ngaro's speech during the bill's third reading, he challenged the attorney-general to explain why 'marae' in particular, were highlighted under the enforcement section of the legislation.

However, Aupito said that the government looked to the advice from their Māori ministerial colleagues who wanted marae to be singled out because they were not business entities.

"It was about the recognition of marae as places where people live, a focal point to the Māori way of whanau living and for iwi.

"Unfortunately, that was misinterpreted because in the political arena often these things get profiled that aren't necessarily true," said Aupito Tofae Su'a William Sio.