Forgiveness vs permission: A cautionary tale of retroactive legislation

by Paul S Allen

Blog originally posted on 9 October 2011

I have often heard from leaders the saying “It’s better (easier) to  ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission”. This may be so, but it  does not ever justify the actions of those asking – it merely “fixes” a  problem.

To me this is laziness, ignorance or incompetence on  behalf of the leader, whether that leader is in government, private  sector or community organisation.

There has been debate recently about a certain piece of legislation, the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill, that the government has tried to pass under urgency.

The discussion has mainly centred around one aspect of the act – the application of the bill – and not necessarily about its content. The area of concern was the proposed retrospective application of the bill to justify the illegal actions already taken by the Crown and its officials, to reach an outcome in favour of the government.

I have no issue with using initiative and decision-making on the front line, but it needs to be done within the bounds of delegated authority, or by mandate due to exceptional circumstances, but even this mandate can be worked out ahead of time.

To do the best you can with the information and resources that you have in hand at the moment of decision is excellent, but to decide on a course of action that you have no authority to take, then ask for that action to be justified later by retrospective minutes or law changes is asking for trouble. Allegations of fraud, corruption and a lack of transparency will cause organisations or government to become tarnished.

So what can be done to prevent this from happening?

Setting and enforcing clear lines of delegated authority, spending levels, policies and procedures, including situations of exceptional circumstances, can avoid many allegations against organisations and governments.

A person (leader) or government that finds themselves in a situation where they have breached these guidelines or policies needs to be held to account, and to rectify the circumstance.

Once a course of retrospective legislation or policy decision has been requested (note, I have said requested, not taken) the credibility of that organisation has been lost, and its leadership needs to seriously look at the tenure of their positions for the sake of their organisation, no matter how popular or charismatic those people are.

The Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill, although not perfect, has passed after the removal of the retrospective clause.

But the fact that the government has proposed to use retrospective legislation in the first place should stand as a warning to all. The question is will they try to do it again: and if so, for what?


Paul S Allen

About Paul S Allen

Kiwi singer-songwriter based in Dunedin, New Zealand. Musician (Guitar, Bass, Ukulele, Mandolin, Keyboard); Photographer; Poet; Thinker. I have food allergies so ask when you invite me for dinner. Lumen accipe et imperti. (receive the light and pass it on) Email me:

Posted on 11/10/2011, in Government, Leadership and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. No fear if you have done nothing wrong that could have been filmed. More people in NZ (and the world for that matter) need to live “above reproach”.

    Regarding the government being dishonest – since when did humans get perfect? Sure they shouldn’t, but they still do… Live above it! No fear there!

    • You seem to have missed the point, the debate has nothing to do with surveillance camera activity. It has everything to do with changing records/minutes/legislation to justify an illegal activity of officials. No amount of living “above reproach” can protect you if the law can be changed then retrospectively applied. The debate is about Governments and other other organisations having transparency, integrity and upholding basic human rights especially in the area of having a fair trial. The Government and its officials are not above the law.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: