Labour supports 24 hr surveillance : the unenviable job of being in opposition

This week, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee reported back on the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill. The Government had been seeking, among other things, the ability of the SIS to undertake 48 hour warrantless surveillance, and for the Government to revoke passports for three years.

Quite why these measures were required were never addressed. After all, our terror threat level may have raised, but it remains on ‘low’. MPs such as Jamie-Lee Ross muttered darkly of tales of terror disclosed by the SIS: if we meek citizens only knew what the MPs knew, we would quake in our boots and immediately provide ringing endorsements of the Government’s planned changes. Of course, we mere citizens weren’t allowed to know. The SIS’s briefing was conducted in secret, open only to MPs, on the grounds of protecting national security.

The SIS’s briefing may have persuaded Mr Ross, but the opposition appeared rather less convinced. Labour MPs such as leader Andrew Little, Phil Goff and David Shearer held the line that the Government had failed to make a case for the increased powers, and one doesn’t have to be a genius to know that the Greens were never going to be convinced.

Nonetheless, the Committee has reported back, and Labour now backs warrantless surveillance, albeit for a maximum of 24 hours and only in relation to terrorist activity (as opposed to the SIS’s wider activities). In addition to that concession, the Government has also agreed to stricter oversight and more frequent reporting, in relation to the use of warrantless surveillance, and those individuals who have their passport revoked will have the ability to appeal that decision and apply for their passport back.

To my mind, 24 hours less warrantless surveillance isn’t a huge concession. Warrantless surveillance is still warrantless surveillance, and the Government has still failed to make the case as to why it’s necessary. After all, in emergency situations involving terrorism, s10 of the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987 provides the ability for police to intercept private communications and interfere with the operation of any part of the telecommunications system in the area in which the emergency is occurring. For powers above and beyond that, which may heavily impinge on the rights of certain individuals, a proper case should be made as to why those powers are necessary.

By rights, I should be lambasting Labour for abandoning its principled approach and supporting warrantless surveillance. On the other hand, however, the Government had the numbers to pass the Bill in its initial form. Labour could have voted against it and achieved nothing. The Government wanted a vaguely bipartisan outcome, meaning that small concessions were achieved. That’s the unenviable job of being in opposition: Do you stick to your guns, opposing to the death for no reward, or do you give support on some issues, taking what gains you can in order to make the end legislation a slightly better beast?

Labour will have made the call that few New Zealanders really care about the issues of warrantless surveillance or revocation of passports. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, etc. Labour gets a positive headline or two for at least forcing a few changes; National gets its positive headlines for being bipartisan.

Everyone wins, except our civil rights.

And, as No Right Turn points out, this piece of legislation is just the beginning, with John Key already stating that the Government will look to further toughen security laws after a review next year. With Labour now on record supporting the thin end of the wedge, what will our major opposition party agree to next time round?

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