The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos.Â
Regardless of the Â subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).
Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared.Â
Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.
So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.
Well done Pablo! A fine post on a topic far too many (including Labour, Maori Party and ACT it seems) would rather sneak through without scrutiny.
The powers being granted to the spy agencies and police are frightening, and all too easily abused.
Have youconsidered submitting this post to the Herald as an opinion piece? It would reach a much wider audience.
“Private” does not equal “secret”. The two concepts are very different in Parliament.
Information in a secret session of a Select Committee can never be made public. Information in a private session can be made public by anyone there once the committee has reported. Before a session of a select committee can be made secret, there must be unanimous agreement of the members, even on actual national security matters at the Security and Intelligence Committee.
Thanks Graeme, for the clarification.
My view is that if the press cannot cover and report on the hearings in real time, the public is not invited to attend the hearings and the participants cannot divulge their discussions in them as they happen, then de facto the hearings are secretive in nature, even if temporarily so until the committee has reported.
Between Secret and Private sessions there is a double layer of opaqueness in the workings of this committee, something that to my mind is simply not justified on national security grounds and which runs counter to the principles of accountability and transparency that are intrinsic to democratic rule.