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By Gehan Gunasekara –

Kiwis have a natural aversion to following strict rules day in, day out, but when it comes to Covid, we need those rules

Clearly, the Kiwi attitude of ‘she’ll be right’, individualism and aversion to following strict bureaucratic requirements has led to failures by the relatively few individuals and organisations tasked with managing isolation measures at the border. However, this failure to adhere to strict rules is characteristic of common cultural attitudes here in New Zealand and is a wake-up call for our whole society.

Consider the attitudes of many of the very people now criticising the Government for its laxity in managing quarantine facilities towards bureaucracy and red tape. Those on the right of the political spectrum have tended not only to advocate for less regulation of business and society generally but have also blamed excessive regulation and administrative requirements for everything from the lack of affordable housing to business failures.

Even during the strictures of stage four lockdown, the Government was being criticised for lack of detail in myriad regulations drawn up by officials to regulate which businesses could operate, what were essential services and the various other rules needed for society to function. This was despite the officials concerned no doubt burning the midnight oil to come up with rules and procedures at remarkably short notice.

Consider, for example, how long it normally takes for legislation to be enacted in Parliament. This normally requires a long process of consultation, input from officials and submissions from the public. As is now known, the Covid emergency put paid to that. For once, New Zealand’s informal constitutional framework, with its relative lack of safeguards, may well have saved us in the short run, allowing us to achieve the enviable Covid-free status we have achieved and might yet retain.

While it is easy to pin blame on a few officials who slip up – we all need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if each of us has never made a mistake – the reality is that those officials who drew up the initial rules for the stages of lock-down should be hailed as heroes. It was this bureaucracy that, instead of being a hindrance, was our saviour and critically needed at the time of greatest danger.

New Zealand has achieved what few other countries in the western world have managed and we should not be too harsh on ourselves on account of the recent failure.

However, we cannot afford to be complacent. Human error cannot be eliminated entirely. The ultimate safeguard, therefore, is to have processes and systems in place to minimise it and mitigate its effects. This unfortunately means more bureaucracy and less reliance on so-called commonsense. There is always a place for commonsense, but it allows for too much variability. What is needed now is training, strict rules, checklists that must be ticked and accountability on the part of those who have ticked the checklist. After all, this is what happens in the cockpit of an aircraft.

There is a natural aversion on the part of New Zealanders to follow strict rules day in, day out, when sometimes the reasons for following them are no longer evident. In the present context it is obvious why the rules are needed. Let’s not forget, however, we may have to do this month after month and year after year. That, generally, is the nature of bureaucracy and applies to many areas of business whether it be health and safety, financial accountability or privacy.

Finally, the Covid crisis has emphasised the importance of everyone being able not only to understand how rules are made but also how to read and apply them. Legislation is not just for lawyers; citizens as well as all those who run a business need to be able to interpret rules and figure out their purpose and extent. Our schools and universities need to better inculcate these skills.

When it comes to Covid we need rules, bureaucracy and accountability.

Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor in commercial law at the University of Auckland Business School and chair of Privacy Foundation New Zealand.

Originally published in newsroom. Republished with permission.

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