Ill tidings for oversight of spy agencies

We mere citizens don’t get to know too much about how our spy agencies operate and what they get up to. There are good reasons for that. A spy agency that gives out all of its secrets probably isn’t going to function particularly successfully.

Unfortunately, our spy agencies, just like the police, sometimes don’t appear to know the law. And sometimes, even when they do know the law, they choose not to follow it.

Which is why it’s rather vital that there’s oversight of our spy agencies. In New Zealand, that oversight is provided by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. It’s a five person committee, made up of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, two MPs nominated by the PM, and one MP nominated by the Leader of the Opposition.

Now you’d expect that the committee that makes sure the spies aren’t breaking the law would be lawfully appointed, wouldn’t you?

Turns out that Andrew Little didn’t appear to have read the relevant law. Section 7 of the Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996 provides that the member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition must follow “consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party”.

Little has nominated Labour’s David Shearer, which has provoked howls of outrage from the Greens and NZ First, both of whom say they were not consulted.

Russel Norman had previously been on the Committee, but was not nominated by Labour this time round because he’ll be stepping down as Greens’ co-leader in a few months. Little didn’t nominate the other Greens’ co-leader, Metiria Turei, because he wanted someone with “skills, understanding and experience”.

Labour’s view appears to be that there’s no breach of the law, because David Shearer hasn’t yet been officially nominated, and the party will consult with the Greens and NZ First before the nomination is confirmed. Quite what that “consultation” will consist of, given that Shearer’s name has essentially been put forward as a fait accompli, remains to be seen.

National, meanwhile, has announced that it’s nominees will be GCSB and SIS minister Chris Finlayson and Justice minister Amy Adams. They’re both National, meaning that no minor party will have a role in the oversight of the GCSB or SIS.

Now here’s the worrying party. John Key has previously signalled that the Government intends to introduce a new round of tougher surveillance laws this year, further eroding our rights. So he supports Labour’s stance, because:

“A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process.

“I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground.”

In short, John Key doesn’t want dissent. He wants as little scrutiny of our spy agencies as possible.

Here’s Russel Norman responding to Labour’s decision:

“I think it’s a bad call. It means it’s the old boys’ club – Labour and National – both of whom have been responsible for illegal spying.

The Greens were the only ones on [the committee] with clean hands . . . the spy agencies will be extremely happy. The duopoly of illegal spying will be maintained without any independent oversight.”

The spy agencies will indeed be extremely happy. They’ve been given an indication from Key and Little that, for the next three years, oversight of their activities will be rather less stringent than it has been in previous terms.

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