John Key has announced that changes to the SIS enabling laws that will expand its powers of surveillance of cell phones and computers as well as its use of electronic tracking devices will be pushed through parliament before the Rugby World Cup. He claims it is necessary to do so because “many world leaders” will be visiting during the RWC and appropriate security measures must be in place that require changes to the 41 year old SIS charter. The Privacy Commission advised for a three year review of the pertinent laws but was ignored.
This is the second time that Mr. Key has used the RWC to justify a modification of a security measure, the first being the withdrawal of the NZSAS from Afghanistan in 2011 because they are needed for duty at the RWC. Just as it is ludicrous to believe thatÂ NZ’sÂ most elite troops would be used as guards or stand-bys for a sporting event held inÂ Aotearoa, it is also an insult to the NZ public intelligence to claim that the RWC is the reason for the law changes that expand the SIS powers of search and surveillance.
The changes are actually just another continuation of the steady expansion of the NZ security apparatus over the last ten years. It runs in parallel with the proposed Search and Surveillance Bill, which gives wiretapping and eavesdropping authority to a range of local and national agencies that have nothing to do with security. Each year the SIS budget increases, as does its personnel. Police intelligence has also increased in numbers and seen its role expanded. The question is, first, what threats exist now that require such an expansion of the coercive powers of the State? Â Are these threats of such a magnitude that basic civil libertiesÂ must beÂ curtailed in the purported interest of national security? If so, why are they not publicly identified and enumerated so as to raise public awareness of them? If not, why, in an age of public bureaucracy down-sizing and privatisation, is the repressive apparatus growing, especially in its internal dimension?
TruthÂ be told, all claims about terrorists notwithstanding, from where I sit there appears to be very little in the way of new, imminent and developed threats that constitute a clear and present danger to NZ national security so as to justify the continued expansion of the repressive apparatus at the expense of civilÂ liberties.
We will never hear an answer to the questions I have just posed because John Key says that “it is not in the public interest” for hearings on the proposed changes be open to scrutiny. Instead, submissions on the proposed changes will be open to the publicÂ but the hearings on them held in private because–you guessed it–it was “not in the interests of national security” for the hearings to be heard openly. In sum: for John Key, the public logic is that for the sake of a one-off athletic event that is limited to a handful of former rugby-playing Commonwealth countries and some joiners (unlike more universal competitions like the World Cup, the Olympics or Commonwealth Games), the entire fabric of (mostly domestic) intelligence-gathering must be expanded and domestic liberties further curtailed.
One wonders what National’s Â private logic is.
What are Mr. Key and his pipe dream team smoking that he can bald-faced say such utter nonsense and expect the NZ to be so gullible as to believe him? Or is the NZ public that stupid that it will believe that these proposed law changes are needed to protect visiting world leaders at the RWC and are so sensitive that their merits cannot be debated openly? Does he think that Kiwis do not care about legislation that curtails their basic rights, or that they believe that it is best to allow the government to just push through tougher ‘anti-crime” laws without public debate?
It could well be the case that the proposed changes are due to the fact that advances in telecommunications have allowed criminal and extremist groups to transfer funds and send instructions more easily and securely in and out of NZ. It could well be that criminal and extremists groups are scheming and plotting in NZ, and the proposed law changes will allow the SIS to better counter them. But that should be publicly explained and justified, not considered privately within the confines of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee, which is comprised of a grand total of 5 people and in which the government has the majority.
The bottom line is that the proposed legislation has nothing to do with the RWC and all to do with an ongoing expansion of the State’s powers of coercion at a time when its ideological apparatuses are increasingly failing to reproduce mass consent to the elite’s preferred ideological project. HavingÂ supported the equation ofÂ dissent with terrorismÂ while in Opposition duringÂ the 5th Labour government, National is keen to ramrod more encroachments on basic rights in pursuit of the challenged elite project. Having eroded the right to organise and collectively defend worker’s interests while opening up the country to a variety of investors,Â yet having its hopes for asset sales to foreignersÂ Â and de-regulated mining on public lands thwarted by public resistance, National has turned to the old canard of “security” to dupe the public into giving up more rights to the State.
Raising the spectre of security threats provides a convenient cloak for the assertion of State powers of control and punishment on all those who challenge it, criminal or benign. That is whyÂ Mr. Key wantsÂ hearings on the proposed changes to be held behind closed doors, because if they were made public then open challenges can be made to the justifications for an expansion of SIS powers as well as the underlying reasons for them.
Mr. Key and his minions must be resisted as the closet authoritarians that they are. Â In democracy. law changes need to receive a full and open airing, it is changes to security and intelligenceÂ laws that threaten the fundamental rights that lie at the heart of democratic society.Â The proposed changes areÂ one such instance,Â which makesÂ it too important a matter to be left to the privacy of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee in the run-up to the RWC. Mr Key cannot have it both ways: either he believes in democratic accountability when it it comes to national security matters and its impact on fundamental rights and restrictions on them, or he believes in elite perogative, to include the issue of balancing of security and rights.
The only way to find out is to force him to choose, and for that to happen requires an Opposition that understands–surprise, surprise– that political advantage can often be gained by standing on principle. One can only hope that is now is such a moment of realisation for Labour, even if it means turning on the monster that it created nearly ten years ago.