When the Green MP Keith Locke complained recently that the Security Intelligence Service was keeping a file on him, many might have wondered what was wrong with that. Nobody, of course, wants to be considered a security risk but the SIS has to vet senior public servants and others who are not thereby suspected of posing a threat to national security. It may simply be that their position is sensitive. If files are kept on the likes of judges and public servants, why not MPs?
That question was not asked by the Prime Minister when he referred Mr Locke's issue to the Inspector General of Intelligence, Paul Neazor. But it is addressed in Justice Neazor's report this week. The contention is that a security file breaches the constitutional independence of MPs who are given certain privileges in law to ensure they can do their job. They must be free to pursue political proposals and solutions that may differ from the Government's approach and free to meet individuals and groups that do not have the Government's approval.
Of course, the mere keeping of a file does not inhibit this work unless intrusive methods of surveillance are used, or unless the existence of the file becomes publicly known. Ordinarily, the file's existence would not be known even to the MP. Mr Locke went to some trouble to see his file, as was his right under the Privacy Act 1993.
In Parliament, he is a frequent critic of Western intelligence efforts and could be expected to attract more of the service's attention than most MPs. But the worst the Inspector General found in his file was a single reference that Justice Neazor describes as "unprofessional" and which "ought not to have appeared on a file of a neutral intelligence service".
If Mr Locke had found plainly false material in his file, we would have heard no end of it by now. If he set out to discredit the SIS's records, he has failed. But if he simply wanted to reduce the service's ability to keep a file on an MP, he seems to be succeeding. It can be wondered whether he is a good example of parliamentarians in this respect, and whether it is wise to write general rules on the basis of this case.
Justice Neazor concedes that monitoring of MPs could inhibit them in their job. He also recognises the "unpalatable" possibility that an MP could become involved in activities that amounted to a threat to security. To resolve his dilemma, he suggested the SIS should be required to get the permission of Parliament's Speaker to collect information on a sitting member and would need "good grounds" for suspecting activities prejudicial to national security.
This sounds reasonable until it is remembered that the question is about nothing more sinister than keeping a record. Everyone has a right to see their file unless the SIS can satisfy statutory grounds for refusing. That access seems sufficient safeguard for everyone else. What is different about MPs?
One of the principles that distinguishes a liberal democracy from totalitarianism is the ability to ensure domestic spying agencies cannot become an arm of the ruling party. It is part of the Inspector General's brief to see that the SIS does not act in a partisan way. It does not seem necessary to go further and forbid it to maintain any record of MPs' activities, particularly those whose affiliations were of interest before they were elected.
Perhaps the suggested reference to the Speaker could be obligatory only when intrusive surveillance was thought necessary.
To order the service to take no further note of the activities of anyone elected to Parliament seems needlessly restrictive and unduly deferential to those who have a privileged seat in national affairs and can always check their file.