Arguably one of the most important laws for some time, which will shape the Covid-19 response for the next few years, passed through Parliament this week under urgency, within 24 hours, and with none of the normal scrutiny laws in a democracy deserve.

The COVID-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Bill sets the framework for who can go where, and who can work where, depending on their Covid-19 vaccination status.

Separating the population into vaccinated (good) and unvaccinated (bad), regardless of whether or not you agree with the premise, is a big step in law. It deserves proper scrutiny and the opportunity for those affected to comment. This was not allowed.

This law amends parts of the Employment Relations Act, to make provision for employers and employees around vaccination status, and parts of the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 to, “provide for the broadening of COVID-19 orders to better reflect the new measures and intentions under the COVID-19 Protection Framework”.

How laws are passed matters because they have an enduring impact on all New Zealanders. This law will ultimately impact our personal freedoms for the next couple of years at least. In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was understandable for there to be laws passed under urgency. That is no longer the case. We have vaccinations, health measures, and treatments for Covid-19.

We are nearly two years on, and the Government keeps assuring us they have a plan. Good plans allow for proper law making processes.

The Prime Minister formally announced the COVID-19 Protection Framework (CPF), or traffic light system, to replace alert levels on 22 October 2021. That left enough time, even with a truncated process, for people to have an opportunity to have a say on this law.

But with a majority, the Labour Government can do what it likes. The contempt with which they have treated the constitutional process has been commented on widely this week by law experts. Rather embarrassingly, Amnesty International – who we associate more with trying to stop despot dictators than constitutional matters in New Zealand – condemned the Government saying:

“We are deeply concerned to see limited scrutiny of yet another piece of legislation with significant human rights implications.” 

But perhaps the most damning comments came from former Labour Minister and now Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard. Before allowing the final reading of the Bill, he called the Government out on its use of urgency, saying it made for bad law, particularly without any select committee process which gave the public a say. He noted the policy first became public on 15 October, which left enough time for consideration by select committee. His full comments are here.

The law was passed without the normal checks and balances, including no regulatory impact statement and no publicly available inquiry, review, or evaluation reports. There was no select committee consideration – which is where those impacted get to have a say to try and influence changes to the wording of the law.

In fact, the Government has refused to release the advice it has been given on vaccine passes and certificates.

This means, like many others impacted, Transporting New Zealand did not get the opportunity to ask questions or give the views of the road freight transport industry around vaccine mandates and the implementation of those mandates, as well as the other matters covered by this law.

The impact for transport operators will come with the orders that have yet to be made. Without getting too technical, the Government’s intentions should have been made clear in the Bill, which is the primary legislation. They should have told the people what they intend to do. Now, they can make all manner of provisions under various orders, made by Ministers who have far-reaching powers under laws like this.

With the traffic light system coming into force next week, we are still waiting for the guidance for operators on what they can and can’t do under the red, orange and green mandates of the CPF. We will of course, keep operators informed.

This is once again, hastily drafted law with far reaching consequences, arrogantly passed with cursory consultation with unions and a couple of business groups, with little information available before its tentacles reach out and come into force. There are of course, penalties for failing to comply.

New Zealand desperately needs to get on the road to Covid recovery. The path needs to be clear and intentioned, not still curving all over the show with knee-jerk reactions and hastily passed laws. The world is moving on without New Zealand, while we ponder each day will we be red, orange, or maybe, one day, green. Or, as Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins hinted at this week, they throw the traffic lights out and go back to alert levels if things get really bad.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand

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