Russel Norman

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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Where next for the Greens?

In the NZ Herald yesterday, following the announcement of Russel Norman’s retirement from the Greens’ leadership, Fran O’Sullivan essentially called for the head of Metiria Turei. Her argument was largely along the lines that Norman was responsible for providing mainstream credibility, while “Turei’s personal brand is associated with oppositional politics”.

O’Sullivan’s presumption, I guess, is that Turei will now become the main voice of the Greens, given her status as most senior leader. From there, all the bits of the Greens’ policy platform that O’Sullivan liked will be stripped away in a blaze of Marxist glory.

Ms O’Sullivan should, perhaps, at least wait and see who the new co-leader will be before she calls for Turei to walk. The front-runner, Kevin Hague, seems likely to continue in the Russel Norman mould. The party’s policy development for the last election is hardly likely to be thrown out with the bathwater.

O’Sullivan certainly champions that 2014 policy work:

At the 2014 election the Greens did roll out some interesting policies particularly with innovation: 1000 new tertiary places for students of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and the physical sciences; $1 billion of new funding for R&D. They got it that innovation was “one of the best ways to add value to our exports, raise wages, and better protect the natural world we love”.

However, she laments that “there just hasn’t been enough policy consistency in place for long enough for a new image to bed down”.

In the Norman/Turei tag team, Turei generally felt like the better advocate on social issues, while Norman was the more effective advocate on economic questions. If someone like Hague steps up to continue Norman’s role, there is no reason that Greens can’t bed that policy work down, using it as a springboard for 2017.

Of course, the leadership decision is in the hands of the Greens’ membership. Which makes it a little odd that so many commentators mention new MP James Shaw as a dark horse contender for the leadership (for instance, Andrea Vance gives him a plug this morning on Stuff, describing he and Hague as “the top picks”). Shaw was voted down the party list by the membership, who seemingly found him a little too pro-business for their comfort. It seems a large stretch for the party membership to abruptly go from down-grading his list placing, to supporting him for party leader.

Are you not entertained?

So life’s been rather frantically busy since my last post. A week and a half managed to flash by, filled with full Court days, interesting experiences with chainsaws, and visitations from Perth-based relatives. Sitting down at a keyboard to blog came a very distant second, third or possibly fourth in the ‘interesting things to do’ stakes.

Nonetheless, here’s a brief recap for those who were also avoiding the political world:

  • Much humour was derived from Green MP Steffan Browning and his advocacy on behalf of homeopathy as a cure for Ebola. For quite some time, the Greens had managed to project a face of relative sanity (setting aside Russel Norman’s flirtation with quantitive easing), only to end up the butt of innumerable homeopathy-inspired jokes on Twitter. On the plus side, the party leadership shut Browning down swiftly. And Middle New Zealand doesn’t give a damn about political jokes on Twitter, so no harm done… Or something. Regardless, it further interrupted Danyl McLauchlan’s blogging hiatus, placing it in the realm of Events of Great Significance.
  • Much less humour was derived from National’s Paula Bennett declaring that selling off state houses was “sexy”. Who knew? Personally, my definition of ‘sexy’ is a little different, but I accept that we all have our own unique peccadilloes…
  • And National decided that there should be flexibility in workers’ tea breaks. This bemused people like myself, who had always been fairly flexible already about when tea breaks were taken, even before I joined the ranks of the self-employed (at which point the issue became moot, and I discovered that four weeks’ holiday pay was a luxury that no longer existed). Frankly, I’ve never been part of a union, had always been happy to defer my tea break by half an hour if a job needed completing, and had always figured that workplace flexibility already existed if employers and employees had a half-decent relationship. Nonetheless, various unionists were obviously insisting on taking their tea breaks at contractually agreed times, and the power of the unions had to be broken… Productivity is key, don’t you know? That’s why we have (or was that had?) a Rock Star Economy. (It’s just a pity that the category Rock Star includes specimens such as Bono. Are we the Bono Economy, telling everyone what’s good for them?)
  • Oh, and the Labour leadership continues. Excitement has failed to abound, and charisma has been noticeably lacking. Perhaps Bono needs to become a New Zealand citizen and join the race…

The 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins – the John Key edition

It’s standard practice for Ministers and Prime Ministers to wear different “hats” in the course of their work. Work done as a Minister can obviously be separate and distinct from an MP’s ordinary functions on behalf of the constituents in their electorates. If a person calls their local MP to discuss a local problem, that person is hardly likely to want that discussion to be released to all and sundry under the Official Information Act.

Likewise, John Key is Prime Minister, a Minister, leader of the National Party and electorate MP for Helensville. The internal running of the National Party is separate and distinct from the running of the country, just as his role of dealing with constituency matters is distinct from his role of Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, sometimes the dividing lines can get a little fuzzy. John Key yesterday refused to answer the following Parliamentary question from Russel Norman:

“How many times since November 2008 has he spoken with blogger Cameron Slater on the phone and how many times, if any, has he texted him?”

John Key’s response?

“None in my capacity as Prime Minister.”

Apparently, any phone calls made by Key to Slater were in Key’s capacity as leader of the National Party, rather than Prime Minister. It all seems very ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’. After all, if Key calls Slater to discuss information that Key would like circulated via Slater’s blog, and that information has come Key’s way because he’s Prime Minister or Minister of a certain portfolio, surely the call cannot simply be classified as National Party business and therefore exempt from Parliamentary questioning or the OIA?

Just because something is in the interests of the National Party, it doesn’t mean that the OIA does not apply. After all, the alleged leaking of information by Judith Collins to Cameron Slater was in her role as Minister of Justice, and any documentation relating to the leaks must surely be subject to the OIA (although see this post at No Right Turn regarding the failure by Collins’ office to log Slater’s OIA requests).

Dishing dirt to bloggers hardly seems an activity that occurs completely outside of a Ministerial or Prime Ministerial ambit. John Key needs to get his hats in order.

UPDATE:

The NZ Herald reports that Parliament’s Speaker, David Carter, has ruled that John Key should have answered at least one of Russel Norman’s questions:

However, one

where Dr Norman asked if Slater was correct when he said Mr Key had told him the mother of a car crash victim was “the same woman f-ing feral bitch that screams at him when he goes to Pike River meetings” should have been answered.
The question “made a connection to the actions of the Prime Minister in response to Pike River Mine Tragedy,” Mr Carter said. “A connection having been made to a matter of ministerial responsibility an informative answer should be given.”

The Greens and National

I’ve got a $5 bet with Matthew Beveridge, author of the Social Media & the 2014 Election blog, regarding the Greens’ vote share in comparison to Labour (High stakes, baby! That’s half of a possible 2017 tax cut – not to be sneezed at!). Matt is betting on the Greens getting at least 50% of what Labour gets; I’m betting they won’t. With the way the polls are running, I’m definitely not on a sure thing…

Last week, One News reported that the Greens were “discussing a change of strategy in light of their strengthening support”. The “change of strategy” was apparently evident in Russel Norman’s reminder during last week’s minor party leaders’ debate that the Greens could work on a case by case basis with National. The plan is apparently to tell voters that even if Labour can’t form a Government, a vote for the Greens won’t be wasted, as they’ll be able to still advance specific policies with National.

There’s nothing new about the Greens’ approach. They’ve previously worked with National on home insulation policy, as part of a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties, although the Memorandum wasn’t renewed in 2012.

I’ve previously criticised the Greens for painting themselves into an electoral corner, where they’re entirely reliant on Labour for any policy gains. It seems that the Greens are now trying to backtrack from that position. Whether they hope to actually work with National after the election, should the Left bloc be unsuccessful in forming a Government, remains to be seen. However, it’s certainly a ploy to further cannibalise Labour’s vote, by picking off those voters who hope for at least some environmental or social policy concessions from National.

Although John Key has said he could work with the Greens on a case by case basis, National has also confirmed there will be no Memorandum of Understanding. That not really a surprise. Given that National have spent months, even years, attempting to paint the Greens as dangerous fringe lunatics, the last thing they want to do at this stage is to suddenly agree that they’ll work with them on anything other than a sporadic single-issue basis.

In the meantime, Labour may be laughing off the Greens rhetoric about supplanting Labour as the largest party on the Left, but Labour may well be anxiously watching their poll results, hoping desperately that their vote doesn’t collapse further in a Greens-ward direction.

Harawira’s $500 fine

Back in 2012, Hone Harawira got himself arrested in Glen Innes, protesting against the removal state houses in the area. He ended up being found guilty, was fined the princely sum of $500 and was ordered to pay Court costs of $132.89. At the time, Mr Harawira did a bit of a whip around, and found others to help him pay the fine. And there it ended.

Until this morning, with the NZ Herald reporting that the Mana Party’s Tamaki Makaurau candidate, Kereama Pene, was stirring up rumour, alleging that Winston Peters had paid Mr Harawira’s fine. Personally, I’m not particularly interested in whether Mr Peters did or didn’t. (For the record, Peters has denied it, asking – given that it was $500 – “Why didn’t he pay it himself?”) Mr Harawira is refusing to say who helped pay the fine, saying:

“I don’t want to go naming names. Some of them were ex-MPs, some of them were current MPs, some of them were just ordinary people from GI and from other walks of life.”

The bit that I’m interested in is the Herald’s assertion that the names of those who paid the fine should be disclosed in Parliament’s register of pecuniary interests. The register requires MPs to give “a description of all debts of more than $500 that were owing by the member that were discharged or paid (in whole or in part) by any other person and the names of each of those persons”.

Hone Harawira is refusing to disclose names and I’m not convinced that he’s required to, although it depends on how the donations he received to pay the fine were made. If the donations were made to the Mana Party, and were recorded as such, then they’re able to simply be declared as anonymous small donations. In my opinion, it would be irrelevant whether the donors intended for Mr Harawira to use the donations to pay off the fine. This isn’t a situation where someone wanders down to the local Ministry of Justice Collections Department, slaps down $500 and says, “This is for Hone Harawira’s fine”. To my mind (assuming the donations were recorded by Mana), it’s a situation analogous to Colin Craig or Russel Norman raising money to pay legal fees relating to Mr Craig’s defamation action.

Of course, if Mr Harawira simply pocketed a number of small donations which had been given to him for the purpose of paying his fine, didn’t run those donations through Mana’s books, and then used them to pay his fine, that’s a different story, and he would fall foul of the register’s rules if he didn’t declare who helped pay the fine.