Some commentators have been declaring that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill has turned NZ into a dictatorship and Gerry Brownlee is our new Supreme Overlord.
Of course this is not true. We remain a democratic country, with parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament can repeal the said act, and indeed remove the Government – which is a minority Government.
But there is an argument to be made, that we could be seen as under the rule of a dictator – if you know your classics.
In modern history, a dictator is seen as an evil bad ruler – Hitler, Stalin, Kim, Hussein etc. They have absolute rule for life. We definitely do not have that sort of dictatorship.
But a long time ago, a dictator was seen in positive lights – in fact some dictators are seen as democratic heroes. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix changed the office from a noble one to a tyrannical one when he was made dictator for an indefinite period in 82 BC. Prior to that, it was well regarded.
Normally Rome was ruled by the Magistrates (mainly the two Consuls) and the Senate. But in times of emergency, the Consuls could appoint a sole ruler, to act as dictator for a period of no more than six months. Their job was to deal with the threat or emergency, and then they give up the office.
Now in terms of what has happened in NZ, there are some parallels. There has been an emergency which is unable to be dealt with under current arrangements. So a temporary granting of power has been given to deal with the situation. And like in Roman times, the exercise of the power is not generally subject to challenge (the dictator could be be prosecuted for their actions). Another parallel is the dictator had power to change any law as he saw fit, just as can happen in NZ now.
The most popular dictator was Cincinnatus. He was made dictator in 458 and 439 BC. The first time saw him working on his farm when he was told he had been appointed Dictator of Rome. He crossed the Tiber, drafted every man of fighting age, and in 16 days defeated the Aequi. He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm.
So my hope is that our temporary “dictators” will use their power as wisely as Cincinnatus, and surrender it when it is no longer needed!