The Legislative Process and the Police

Neil Cameron and Warren Young (eds) 'Policing at the Cross Road' (Allen and Unwin, Wellington, 1986)

Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper No. 63/2015

12 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2013 Last revised: 24 Mar 2015

See all articles by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 1986


This paper is an edited version of a public lecture delivered in 1983 at Victoria University. The common coinage of the area of political debate regarding policing is simplicity. You are either for the police or against them. You are either in favour of law and order or you are a prophet of chaos and anarchy. The superstructure of political attitudes which is built symbolically around the 5500 New Zealand police officers is quite remarkable. It flows from the fact that policing, more than any other political issues, provides a convenient forum in which political adherence to the existing social order and a commitment to the maintenance of stability can be demonstrated. It becomes particularly significant at times when political and social upheavals seem to threaten the very fabric of society. Faced with the complexity of social change, the law and order issue is appealing in its simplicity and in the way in which it can be used to demonstrate the basic values espoused by a particular politician, political party or group.

The political difficulty is to avoid such simplicities, stereotypes and knee-jerk reactions which surround the law and order issue. It is difficult to develop rational policy proposals or the debate such issues in Parliament in a way that avoids hysteria. The result is that Parliamentary scrutiny of police issues is low. The level of accountability to Parliament by the police for what they do is also low. Parliamentary debates on police issues seldom shed much light on things. Emotion and rhetoric are the prevailing characteristics. Debate is carried on at a very superficial level and debates over allocation of resources, the incidence of government cuts, or police policies leading to the closure of local police stations, zealously avoid discussion of the real issues and focus instead on simple issues of support for or opposition to police.

It is clear that there are important aspects of the legislative process which function more calmly, rationally and reasonably than do the general political debates in Parliament on police matters. What is also clear is that the role of the police in the legislative process is increasing – both quantitatively and qualitatively. Twenty years ago they had hardly any part in it at all. Today they are major participants in the process on all matters which are of importance to them. It is important to understand that the police themselves sponsor very little legislation. The responsibility for all the major criminal statutes and most other statutes of importance to the police is carried by the Justice Department. The only enactments for which the police have legislative and administrative responsibility are the Police Act 1958 and the Arms Act 1983. As regards these statues alone, they initiate and carry legislative proposals. In all other areas of concern, they must seek to exert their influence with the sponsoring department at the pre-legislative drafting stage and with the various caucus, cabinet and parliamentary committees at the legislative stage. The Police Legal Section acts as a conduit between the police and Parliament. They carry the burden of the work done by the police on legislation most effectively.

The paper concludes that a) It would be desirable to state the functions of the New Zealand Police with clarity in a statute, as they are not currently legally defined; b) the level of public debate on police activities requires improvement; c) accountability of the police to Parliament should be improved; d) the police are important contributors to the legislative process on Bills of concern to them and the police view on a Bill ought always to be put before a select committee where it is relevant.

Keywords: police, legislation, executive, law and order, policy, New Zealand

JEL Classification: K14, K19

Suggested Citation

Palmer QC, Sir Geoffrey, The Legislative Process and the Police (1986). Neil Cameron and Warren Young (eds) 'Policing at the Cross Road' (Allen and Unwin, Wellington, 1986); Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper No. 63/2015. Available at SSRN:

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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