Against “courageous corruption” as Crown policy
Posted on 12:40, May 14th, 2012 by Lew
It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Chris Trotter’s latest piece about the Urewera raids. Don’t get me wrong — I think his assessment of the operational capability New Zealand police and intelligence services are correct. Their actions were strategically and tactically flawed, and they seemed to hold unrealistic expectations of the task they were undertaking. But some of the judgements Chris wraps around this argument are troubling to say the very least.
Not all of them. Some are fine: we need a competent security and intelligence apparatus, and the lack is something that should be rectified. Some are nonsense: a sophisticated left-wing propaganda network (where have they been these past two electoral terms?) and sleeper cells of “sympathetic journalists” (presumably not those who are shills for the corporate élite?). Some are merely distasteful. Others, however, are downright frightening, and the worst of these is the notion that the Crown should not be bound by its own laws when prosecuting dissident citizens.
Let’s not forget that some of this actually happened. Elements of the Crown case actually were leaked to the public, and some suppressed material was published in daily newspapers and was the subject of (unsuccessful) contempt proceedings.* Other elements, having been retrospectively ruled in by a court despite having been collected unlawfully, were used throughout the trial to create a prejudicial atmosphere around the trial.
Given those events, the argument here is essentially that the Crown didn’t leak enough evidence; didn’t act ruthlessly enough and was too heavily burdened with scruples to secure a “right” outcome. The call for an officer of the Crown to wilfully breach the very laws they have sworn to uphold, in the name of their own individual assessment of a complex situation, is extremely concerning. Having failed to conduct their evidence-gathering operations lawfully, and having failed to persuade a judge that, in spite of that, there was still a sufficient reason to admit all the evidence, the argument here is that the Crown should have taken an extrajudicial Mulligan.
When I started writing it this piece was considerably more personalised to Chris, and how his post seems to provide final proof of his degeneration from idealistic radical to authoritarian establishment curmudgeon. The reference in the title is to his now-infamous declaration that Labour’s breach of electoral law during the 2005 election campaign was justified inasmuch as it prevented a terrible counterfactual — a National government led by Don Brash — from coming to pass. I disagree with that argument on the grounds that the integrity of the democratic system as a whole is of greater importance than any particular electoral outcome, and I disagree with his argument regarding the Urewera 4 for the same reasons: the integrity of the justice system is of greater importance than the outcome of any given case.** But I don’t want to dwell on the personal; rather than trading extensive cannonades with Chris (again), I think there’s more value in covering my reasons for holding these views in principle, leaving aside the specific merits (on which we’re never going to agree), or whether I support the principals in either case.***
The first and most obvious argument against this sort of extra-legal recourse is: be careful what you wish for. If you want the Crown to leak, to cultivate sources in the media whom they can trust to run their propaganda for them, and to resort to whatever other means they might need to secure what you think is a “right” outcome, you’d better hope you always agree with them. If you don’t, eventually you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of it. The danger of this for the ideological left in Aotearoa should need little elaboration: almost all the authoritarian cards and most of the ruthlessness in playing them are in the hands of the various factions of the ideological right, and they are constrained more by norms of conduct and the need to appear to be less ruthless than they are than by black-letter law or constitutional barriers. These norms are quite robust, but they essentially all operate on the honour system: they persist because people observe them. If you break the law in the name of the rule of law, you erode the rule of law. If you destroy the village to save the village, you still destroy the village.
This leads into the second point: changing norms of Crown conduct, or what we might call “authoritarian sclerosis”. Norms that constrain what a government, the Crown or its agents may acceptably do are becoming more lax, and have been since shortly after 9/11, when the Terrorism Suppression Act that gave rise to the current farce was hastily passed. In the past two parliamentary terms this has continued to accelerate, partly as a consequence of hysteria around — and blurring of — activism and terrorism more generally. The government, by leave of an increasingly punitive and paranoid populace, can now impose disproportionate punishment on certain offenders via the “three strikes” regime, and indefinite “civil” detention of certain offenders. The infiltration of the security and intelligence apparatus into harmless activist groups such as those that agitate for animal rights has been well-documented in recent years. It has gotten to this point despite the fact that (Urewera case aside) the two most significant threats to our national security in the past decade have been an Algerian theologist who now makes kebabs in a food hall on Karangahape Road, and three Catholic pacifists with agricultural implements. The government can now amend or suspend almost any law or enact almost any measure it likes, with immediate effect and without meaningful judicial oversight, in the service of rebuilding Christchurch. There are laws on the books that shift the burden of proof of innocence for some types of copyright infringement from the accuser to the alleged offender. On US urging, the New Zealand police recently undertook expensive, unprecedented and legally risky operations against a foreign national who had apparently committed no serious crimes against New Zealand law, and it now seems increasingly unlikely that the case will amount to anything. The government may now spend beneficiaries’ money for them. They are are moving to require DPB mothers (and their daughters!) to use long-term birth control, and to force them to work when their youngest is just one year old. The latest proposal is to force beneficiaries to vaccinate their children, in violation of the fundamental right to refuse medical treatment. These latter policies of authoritarian sclerosis disproportionately affect Māori, who are already disproportionately impacted by the state’s historical use of its power via colonialism. I could go on, but you get the point: the door to the police state is not yet open, but it is creaking ajar. Those who benefit from opening it do not need agents of the left nudging that door wider for them, but they will gratefully accept it if some are willing to do so.
This is all bad enough in itself, but as well as eroding the norms of what is acceptable, authoritarian sclerosis makes it more difficult to erect robust black-letter or constitutional safeguards against undue exercise of power by the state over its citizens, making it more likely that the norms which are being undermined are all we will be able to rely on in future. Again: be careful what you wish for.
Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is the incentive that the Mulligan creates within the organs of the Crown responsible for implementing the policies outlined above. If you make excuses for underperforming or incompetent agencies, if you cut senior officials slack when they or their subordinates fail to discharge their duties adequately, when they bring into question the good standing of their departments; if you seek to tailor laws and regulations to them rather than requiring them to work within the existing bounds of proper conduct, then you produce agencies which are dependent on special pleading and special treatment. When you select against competence, independence, resourcefulness and strategic thinking by allowing “right-thinking” loyalty and patronage to thrive, you breed pampered inbred poodles reliant on favour from political masters, rather than vigilant, independent watchdogs of civil society.
Multiple layers of dysfunction contributed to the Crown’s failure to convict on substantive charges in the Urewera 4 case. They started with the drafting of the Terrorism Suppression Act, which Solicitor-General David Collins declared “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply”. Court interpretations giving the police permission to undertake surveillance operations that were later ruled illegal also contributed. Police culture and operational capability, and a lack of both strategic and tactical awareness also contributed strongly, and Crown Law’s failure to make best use of the meagre evidence that derived from those preceding actions was merely the last in a long chain of failures.
If you want to make a system stronger, the solution is to genuinely strengthen it, making it better, by having those agencies take their lumps and learn their lessons, by punishing failure and rewarding success; by staffing it with better people, better trained and with greater strategic vision. I want an intelligence/security and police apparatus and a justice system good enough that it doesn’t need to be oppressive to be effective. One that I can trust to keep society safe, and to not persecute me while doing so. That can’t happen if we erect a scaffold of legal or extra-legal privilege beneath the sagging edifice, pretend there’s nothing wrong, and call it a win. It didn’t work for the investment banks, and it can’t work here.
* Chief High Court Judge Randerson and Justice Gendall found that the publication had not “caused a real risk” of prejudice, so fair enough. But they also stated that “The breaches of suppression orders and the unlawful conduct of a major news organisation and a senior newspaper editor should have resulted in their prosecution” by the Police, and that the court was “at a loss to understand why these breaches were not prosecuted.” While they raised the point that the penalties for such breaches are risibly small, it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the Police were simply reluctant to punish actions that might have helped their case.
** In principle, there is a time for extrajudicial action, for exercise of the reserve powers or of the almost-limitless authority of the sovereign parliament, or for rebellion by the people. Desperate times may call for such measures. These are not such times.
*** For the record: Of course, I did not support the 2005 National party. I am satisfied with the Urewera 4 verdicts since they accord with what I know about the case, though I also would not have been averse to a retrial and an opportunity for them to clear their names more forcefully.