A legislative overhaul of New Zealand’s emergency management system will finally be introduced to Parliament in early 2023, more than five years after a review first recommended changes.

The Government is also exploring the possibility of replacing the outdated emergency bunker in the Beehive with a more modern replacement – potentially outside of the quake-prone capital.

The country’s emergency response capabilities came under review after a muddled response to the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016 as well as the Port Hills fire in 2017.

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The review resulted in the replacement of the civil defence ministry with a new National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in 2019, as well as the creation of “fly-in teams” made up of national experts.

Changes to the decades-old law underpinning the system have been longer in coming, despite the expert review raising concerns about gaps in the current law which led to confusion over who had authority in certain situations and the role of Māori.

Former civil defence minister Kris Faafoi first flagged the possibility of law changes in a mid-2019 interview with Newsroom, while in December 2021, Kiri Allan announced the Government would be introducing a bill to deliver an “inclusive, modern and fit-for-purpose” emergency management system – a bill which, one year on, is yet to appear.

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty – who replaced Allan in June – told Newsroom he had hoped to introduce the legislation to Parliament before the end of this year, but that now wouldn’t take place until 2023.

McAnulty said the delay wasn’t due to any major problems with the drafting process, but the result of discovering more issues with the current law in need of improvement.

Extra time was also needed to consult with all the other parliamentary parties on the Government’s plans, to both make use of others’ expertise and secure cross-party consensus on the changes.

“I’m hoping that will mean that when it does come to the House, it’ll be a smoother ride, because I don’t believe there’s anything controversial in there … we can demonstrate that when it comes to civil defence, it’s not a political thing.”

However, some of the bill’s provisions may yet prove contentious.

“What you need is the best people in the job to do those jobs. To specify that actually there is a difference for one group in our community than others is an absurdity.”
– Gerry Brownlee, National Party emergency management spokesman

In a paper taken to Cabinet last December, Allan asked for – and received – permission to reverse the Government’s initial opposition to include iwi and Māori members on ‘joint committees’ tasked with leading the emergency management response in each region.

Allan proposed iwi and Māori elect two members with full voting rights to each committee, with additional changes made to more clearly set out their role in the system, and to require civil defence and emergency management groups to collaborate with Māori and iwi on regional plans.

McAnulty said the Government had since dropped the requirement to have two iwi and Māori members, saying “a minimum could quickly become a ceiling” and it would be better for each region to decide what was best for them.

“Places like Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, there’s going to be quite a large number because that’s how they’re already doing it. You look at, for example, the Clutha District Council or the [Queenstown] Lakes area and there’s no marae there, so they need to find something that works for them.”

National Party emergency management spokesman Gerry Brownlee told Newsroom the party would be unlikely to support “unnecessary” provisions around the role of Māori in the emergency management system.

“Let me be very clear, because it can sound like you’re just completely redneck and have nothing to do with anything that’s Māori – that’s not where I’m at, at all.

“What I’m saying is, this is emergency management stuff … and what you need is the best people in the job to do those jobs. To specify that actually there is a difference for one group in our community than others is an absurdity.”

However, McAnulty argued the remaining proposals were “quite clearly not co-governance” and sat aside from areas like the Three Waters reforms, with more complex and specific Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

“Every time there’s been a natural disaster that’s required a response, it’s marae that’ve opened their doors and fed the people … Kaikōura’s a perfect example. So when it’s now got to the point where it’s almost expected or anticipated that Māori will step forward in the response phase, it makes sense that they have a guaranteed presence on the committees that plan for such responses.”

Exploratory work on replacing ‘outdated’ Beehive bunker

The Cabinet paper also outlined plans to give the NEMA chief executive the power to make “emergency management rules” tweaking technical and administrative parts of the legislation without ministerial approval.

The paper said concerns about “inadequate consultation and the excessive delegation of law-making authority” could be addressed by adopting safeguards such as review by Parliament’s regulations review committee, while McAnulty noted Maritime NZ and the Civil Aviation Authority already had similar powers.

He was confident the legislation could still be passed before next year’s election without any significant shortening of the select committee process.

Another unimplemented recommendation from the emergency management review is the replacement of the “outmoded and no longer fit-for purpose” national crisis management centre (better known as the Beehive bunker) with a more modern and technologically sophisticated replacement.

McAnulty said work was currently underway to explore alternatives to the current centre, with one consideration being the implications of Wellington’s vulnerability to a “catastrophic” earthquake and whether it made sense to have a bunker located elsewhere in the country.

While there was an alternative centre in Auckland, it was not a permanent facility and would take some time to set up in the wake of a disaster.

McAnulty said there were no timelines in place around a decision on any replacement for the bunker, which was “very 1970s” aesthetically but had world-class technology.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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