Pressure is building. The warning signs are everywhere. And yet, Hawaii’s leaders appear not to care that 18 months under executive rule is wearing out the social fabric of our state. If things don’t change soon, it could be too late to prevent permanent damage to Hawaii’s spirit of aloha.
More than any particular mandate, this is the biggest failure of governance in Hawaii’s experience with the coronavirus. If you don’t believe me, ask your neighbors or family members: Has the governor — and our mayors, acting under the governor’s authority — gone too far in asking people to sacrifice their jobs, important family events and many other aspects of their lives for the sake of this never-ending state of emergency?
Some people might say the breaking point was when we were told where we could walk or drive and with whom. Others might say it was when their businesses were closed or their jobs became dependent on getting the coronavirus vaccine. For many, the universal vaccine mandate was the last straw.
Others, of course, will refuse to draw any line at all. But no matter the answer, chances are the discussion will result in angry words and accusations. We have arrived at the point where we seem to be talking past each other and becoming frustrated when “the other side” doesn’t demonstrate understanding for our position.
That’s because the people have been deprived of a voice in their own government. Not only has much of the decision-making from the governor and mayors lacked transparency, it also has been an unprecedented exercise of executive rule.
For 18 months the governor has acted as a super-legislator and executive combined, completely destroying the constitutional balance of powers that guarantees freedom and ensures that people have a say in government.
This is all due to the state’s emergency management statute that clearly was never intended to be used in this way — and which includes a specific 60-day time limit that the governor has happily ignored without consequence.
Blame for this astounding period of executive overreach does not belong solely to the governor. Hawaii state legislators also bear responsibility. They should have stepped in long ago to limit the governor’s powers and take decisive action to address the coronavirus in a way that was responsive to the public.
They could have helped calm the waters, educate the public and promote unity. Instead, they have abrogated their responsibility under the state Constitution.
I appreciate that our governor and mayors are doing what they think is best to protect the public’s health. The state has done well in making the COVID-19 vaccine widely available and promoting its use. But education — not coercion in the form of a general vaccine mandate — is the best way to achieve our public health goals while respecting the diversity of positions on this sensitive issue.
Already, initiatives such as “vaccine passports” and “digital health verification” are threatening health privacy and dividing the people into “cans” and “cannots.”
It is time to restore the balance of powers in our state government and put an end to perpetual emergencies and life under executive rule. We cannot accept a “new normal” in which the people have no say in the government.
This will not be the last health emergency that our state faces. But I hope that we have learned enough to ensure that it is the last one that allows unfettered one-man rule for a year-and-a-half. Otherwise, our Constitution and our aloha spirit may never recover.
Keli‘i Akina is president/CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.