New Zealand - Overview

New Zealand’s current system of Civil Defence Emergency Management rests upon the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act 2002 (CDEMA). It provides the framework for response to, and (to a limited extent) recovery from, natural disasters and other emergencies. The Act is complemented by the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Regulations 2003 (CDEMR), National Civil Defence Emergency Management Plan 2015 (NCDEMP), the Guide to the National Defence Emergency Management Plan 2015 (Guide to NCDEMP) and the National Disaster Resilience Strategy 2019.


Broadly speaking, control of responses to emergency situations is in the hands of the appropriate agency, up to the point where a state of emergency is declared. Once the event reaches a scale that requires a multi-agency response, the local mayor (or deputy) or the Minister of Civil Defence may declare a local state of emergency. In the absence of an elected official, the local state of emergency may be declared by a member of the local Civil Defence Emergency Management Group authorised to act. Once a local emergency has been declared, the management of the emergency response passes to the local Civil Defence Emergency Management Group set up under CDEMA.


The Director of the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (MCDEM), holds powers to “direct and control” available government resources while a state of national emergency is in place. The powers include the power to require information and entry into premises.  The Director may delegate some or all of these powers to a National Controller.


The powers granted to the Minister of Civil Defence are extensive and defined relatively clearly under the Act. The powers do not override Acts of Parliament and the Common Law unless stated otherwise. In addition, the CDEMA requires that Parliament meet within 7 days of a declaration of a national emergency.


Emergencies are managed by local Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups, comprising representatives of the local authority, the police, the Fire Service and local healthcare providers under the direction of a Group Controller appointed by the CDEM Group itself. CDEM Groups must also appoint a Recovery Manager and may appoint a Local Recovery Manager. The Minister of Civil Defence may declare a state of national emergency if the emergency is of such extent or magnitude that it is likely to be beyond the resources of the CDEM Groups. The only example, so far, of a national emergency is provided by the Canterbury earthquake sequence of 2010–2011. In contrast, there have been more than 150 local emergencies declared in the last 50 years.
New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy governed by an uncodified constitution. A very basic constitutional framework is provided by the Constitutional Act and the model is underpinned by a commitment to the Rule of Law, Parliamentary Sovereignty and The Treaty of Waitangi. In practice, these principles often conflict and are highly contested. No constitutional court exists to mediate such conflicts, although a Supreme Court heads up an independent judiciary, which plays a significant constitutional role.


The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, who is elected from and by Parliament. In practice, they are the leader of the largest party in the coalition (either formal or informal) able to command a majority in the single chamber Parliament (the House of Representatives). Ministers are appointed, and retain their positions, at the discretion of the Prime Minister although, in practice, these positions are often the subject of coalition agreements between the parties. New Zealand is a Constitutional monarchy with the British Monarch (as Queen of New Zealand) as its head of state. The Governor General (as the Queen’s representative in New Zealand) acts in her stead for most activities, including by appointing all Ministers (including the Prime Minister), although this position is largely ceremonial.


Although New Zealand is a highly centralised unitary state, it operates a two-tier system of local government (regional and district/city). Both levels have a degree of authority around Civil Defence management, although the region’s role is largely to provide coordination only. In the Wellington region, a semi-autonomous agency has been established to overseas both civil defence preparations and event response.279 Alongside local governments, Māori iwi (tribal) organisations perform both disaster preparedness and response roles. The nature of these vary significantly depending upon the iwi concerned.