Playing us for suckers.

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 that NZ’s most elite troops would be used as guards or stand-bys for a sporting event held in 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?  Are these threats of such a magnitude that basic civil liberties must be 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?

Truth 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 civil 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 public 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  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. Having supported the equation of dissent with terrorism while in Opposition during 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, yet having its hopes for asset sales to foreigners  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 why Mr. Key wants 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.  In democracy. law changes need to receive a full and open airing, it is changes to security and intelligence laws that threaten the fundamental rights that lie at the heart of democratic society. The proposed changes are one such instance, which makes 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.

14 thoughts on “Playing us for suckers.

  1. if you want democracy, you must get democracy. well, after you figure out what it is..

    but for now, appealing to one set of politicians to save you from another set of politicians, hmmm, maybe you have all the freedom you deserve, and more.

  2. That’s a long article about the state increasing surveillance powers and spending more money on it for no apparent reason – but what’s your opinion of the content of the SIS Amendment Bill?

    As far as I can tell, it gives them very little. The law as currently written already allows them to do pretty well whatever they like. The only real extension is allowing them to use tracking devices – which surely we have to accept are less intrusive than the bugs they’re already allowed to use.

    I’d rather people spent more time worrying about the Search & Surveillance Bill and calling for a proper review of the SIS Act.

  3. Thomas:

    I realise that the bill does not give the SIS much more powers than what it already has. What I object to is the use of the RWC as an excuse to push it through without proper public debate. Even if the extensions in this bill are minor the cumulative effect of ten years of incremental expansion of the security/repressive apparatus is a universal erosion of civil liberties. That alone justifies public hearings. I agree with you that the S&S bill has far more ominous implications.

    al: I am aware that you have a poor opinion of bourgeois democracy but the only practical way to get this proposed legislation debated in the public arena is to work with what is available. It might not be ideal but it is all that is available. The Greens just need a “big brother” to back their opposition to the way in which the bill is being handled. Together they may not have the numbers for a majority (although ACT should also be concerned about infringements on the right to privacy etc.) but they can certainly steer public attention towards the subject.

  4. I think Pablo that your answer to Thomas pretty aptly illustrates why we have seen a series of incremental advances, not a single large one. No individual bill is extremely objectionable in and of itself, but the cumulative effect is extremely objectionable – but there’s no single legislative measure for that objectionable effect to be directed against.

    It all seems very cunning and Machiavellian. Kind of surprising this is the same bunch who gave us the Ten Ton Hammer legislative approach of the Earthquake Recovery Act.

  5. Graeme:

    As far as I know, the likes of Animal Control, the ARC or AK Supercity enforcement agencies. Local councils, in other words.

    I could be wrong and it is only DOC, Forest and Bird, and various other non-security agencies who can request extended powers of search and surveillance, but I defer to your superior legal knowledge on the matter.

    Which begs the question: what is your opinion about the legal expansion of the powers of State coercive authority? I have not seen your writing on this.

  6. The search and surveillance bill restricts audio surveillance and visual surveillance involving trespass (including telephone interception etc.) to the investigation of offences punishable by seven years’ imprisonment or more (and offences under sections 44, 45, 50, 51, 54, and 55 of the Arms Act 1983).

    The effect of limiting the use of these forms of surveillance in this way acts, in effect, to limit those agencies permitted to employ these forms of surveillance: currently only the New Zealand Police, New Zealand Customs Service, and the Department of Internal Affairs (in respect of offending under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993) investigate offending of this nature.

    Which begs the question: what is your opinion about the legal expansion of the powers of State coercive authority? I have not seen your writing on this.

    Not a fan, but there is a lot of good (even liberal) stuff in the bill. I started writing something, but the task I felt I needed to do to do it justice was kind of daunting. I may find myself with time over the summer…

  7. Labour has continued the “bi-partisanship” on security issues.

    The continuing trend is to increase further and further surveillance of internet communications – the end game is no anonymous use of the net – where privacy is only maintained at public centres such as librabries (where agents will remain on station to visually identify users as they operate via cell phone cameras).

  8. ok al, now you are just being silly. If you cannot add anything to the discussion other than snippy and uninformed remarks, why bother?

  9. Interesting discussion that has me asking more questions to myself about where I would stand!

    1. If there is a serious threat domestically by foreign individuals using NZ as a base then yes surveillance ability should be stepped up BUT

    2. If there is evidence of such probable or actual events taking place- will the SIS and other agencies (NAB, etc) actually use the media to give the “gullible publics” the basis of a truth as to show there is this threat to the “national security” of NZ. AND

    3. If there is a pending threat, being of course such a probable threat at RWC 2011 it speaks two ways: It is justifiable to increase surveillance, and if not why is the need for revamp happening now? What is the real context aside RWC?

    the double bind that is currently screaming in my brain is uncertainty of what is really happening and why. Like I said, there seems to be an unclear answer to this new push.

    4. Where did the noise about this law change come from? – if the SIS is such a secret organization and who benefits from the mayhem now attached to the issue?

    Personally I’d need to read between the lines a bit more as I feel that there is something else happening with the new push.

  10. Well what do you expect when the NZ bourgeoisie are lickspittle little yankees flattered to be visited by a Clinton and apeing the anti-terrorist mindset and laws of their big brother.
    And if Assange is any indication, heavy breathing will fall into the ‘terrorist’ category. Whoever beats NZ for the RWC will be lucky to get out of the country alive with the SAS on their case. Especially if they dont wear condoms.
    So look forward to more civil disobedience of the Waihopai kind, internet warfare, counter-SIS hacking.

  11. The SIS has always lived in fear of being caught out, and this most commonly can happen when they deploy agents or undertake surveillance – ie. when their staff are out and about amongst the public.

    The use of tracking devices (which the new legislation specifically authorises) means they no longer need have surveillance agents so close to a target that they risk being seen. Instead, they can plant a tracking device on a vehicle and track its movement remotely via GPS, from an unseen car 1km away instead of a more visible 100m away.

    Similarly being authorised to monitor a suspect’ PC remotely is an easy way to read their E-mail and peer inside their computer to look at their files. This is much much cheaper than deploying agents against a target – and guaranteed risk-free with respect to being caught.

    It coincides also with the SIS’ declining ability to train and retain suitable agents – they don’t have the human intelligence gathering capability they had 10 years ago so that means greater reliance on electronic information collection methods instead.

    Every couple of years I act as a referee for acquaintances security clearance and the SIS would send someone along to interview me about them. Well, that’s all changed now because a few months ago, instead of being interviewed by a real SIS person I was asked to log on to some secure website and write my own comments about the person needing the security clearance. So they don’t even use or have staff for benign security clearance interviews now.

    There is no substitute for the SIS getting out and speaking to the public, and now I read in yesterday’s paper that their website is even imploring the public to contact them in the first instance, instead of the other way round.

    May the SIS top brass should fold their tents and admit defeat.

  12. “What I object to is the use of the RWC as an excuse to push it through without proper public debate.”

    I agree. If the RWC is the reason we need these changes, why aren’t they temporarily introduced and then removed again after the alleged threat has gone? Similarly, will the SAS be sent back to Afghanistan after they’ve finished their back-up guard role?

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