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Preparing for a future stream of emergencies

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This op-ed originally published by BusinessDesk considers the importance of learning to improve our responses to how we prepare future shocks – the “known unknowns”.

13 June 2023

The Auckland Anniversary Weekend flood was a one-in-250-year event. The one-in-a-century Cyclone Gabrielle followed weeks later. Two “unprecedented” events in such a short time sends a strong signal that climate change will likely continue to deliver serial shocks in the future, and New Zealand needs to learn and improve its responses. 

With extreme weather warnings being a near-weekly occurrence, New Zealanders are starting to understand that climate-related shocks are no longer unexpected disasters. Instead, they are "known unknowns" that will inevitably occur – the unknown is the extent or timing of their impact. 

Building better resilience requires us to reconsider how we provide support during emergencies, aid recovery efforts, and the laws and regulations needed to enable public agencies to do this quickly and well. The Government spent $889 million in the immediate response to the recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle and committed a further $1 billion in the Budget 2023 package, but translating this to real on-the-ground support remains a challenge.

There is an inherent tension in the aftermath of an emergency. When a disruption happens, communities and businesses want quick responses and do not want to be burdened by the lengthy bureaucratic processes that officials and politicians must comply with. However, designing laws that allow the government to move quickly also raises constitutional concerns. 

The Government found itself in this regulatory pickle soon after Cyclone Gabrielle. While officials managed to pull together two pieces of legislation within only six weeks, the introduction of the Severe Weather Emergency Response Bill and Severe Weather Emergency Response Recovery Bill came with their own challenges. 

The Bills were certainly well-intentioned. The purpose of their introduction was to assist economic recovery, planning processes and rebuilding efforts by temporarily relaxing some requirements to enable agencies to take immediate action. In other words, eliminating some of the complicated bureaucratic processes that slow down real progress.  Yet, in its one-day window for public consultation, concerns were voiced from within the legal community – the New Zealand Law Society, Legislation Design and Advisory Committee, and several law firms and think tanks. Criticism included the use of “Henry VIII clauses” allowing Ministers to change laws swiftly without resorting to Parliament, the extremely rushed public consultation process, and constitutional concerns about the expedited speed the Bill went through the House. 

While the sentiments were often expressed in pretty colourful language, their critiques are not entirely unfounded. 

It is true that during declared emergencies, the process of law-making can be accelerated. Cabinet’s impact analysis requirements provide Treasury with discretion to grant exemptions from completing a Regulatory Impact Statement (although analysis was completed for the severe weather Bills), public consultation can be heavily truncated or entirely absent, and the New Zealand Parliament holds emergency powers that allow for expedited procedures. 

But yet, there is a genuine need for central and local governments to respond quickly to support our businesses, communities, and people in an emergency. 

This is the heart of the “catch-22” dilemma that governments must confront in the face of more frequent disruptions. 

Governments need to strike a careful balance between the efficiency of a legal framework that allows decisions to be made without delay, and the accountability of ensuring any powers given are exercised appropriately. The current government tried to address these concerns by including sunset clauses and sought an independent review panel to oversee decisions made under the Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Legislation Act. 

But where does a better balance lie? 

As with most policy issues, there is likely no solution that finds a perfect balance. It’s not just extreme weather events that are likely to disrupt our lives in the future. We can also expect trade sanctions, geopolitical rivalries, and more pandemics. New Zealand therefore needs to better prepare for known and unknown shocks and find ways to make better-informed decisions when they do strike. 

This is a top-of-mind issue for the Productivity Commission in its inquiry on Improving Economic Resilience. An emerging finding from recent public consultation is that the government will not be able to face the volatile future on its own. Industries and communities will need to think more about their vulnerabilities and develop ways to use existing policies and strategies to prepare for more frequent shocks. 

We know disruptions are inevitable. Businesses and communities want the government to move quickly, but simultaneously hold them to account when the next one strikes. Consequently, public and private sectors need to work together through collaborative partnership-based governance to make and balance key decisions proactively.

Productivity Commission | Improving Economic Resilience