Editorial: Surveillance law shows MMP's worth

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Prime Minister John Key says that some very serious criminals could go free. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister John Key says that some very serious criminals could go free. Photo / Getty Images

When voters at next month's general election are confronted with a referendum on MMP, they might remember a bill passed in the last gasp of the Parliament that rises today. The Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill is as serious, and its passage is as hasty, as its name suggests. It involves police powers and citizens' privacy and it would have passed too easily if National had been governing alone.

Its partners, Act, United Future and the Maori Party, hesitated to grant police retrospective authority for the use of hidden cameras to gain evidence of criminal activity. Like the Greens, the smaller parties in the Government were not persuaded that the Supreme Court's ruling in the Urewera case required such drastic correction, and they were right.

The court had ruled that search warrants did not permit the police to use video surveillance on Tuhoe-owned land but the judges allowed the evidence to be used against four of the accused because they considered a charge the defendants faced was sufficiently serious to justify the surveillance.

If that sounds like a fine distinction, it is the sort of balance that often needs to be struck when the interests of law enforcement and civil liberties collide. Most people naturally side with law enforcement, as National did. The Prime Minister declared that unless the court's ruling was quickly over-ruled by legislation, numerous police investigations and prosecutions were in jeopardy and "some very, very serious criminals could go free".

In fact, the ruling left intact the law that permits judges to admit video evidence if the charges are serious enough. Nobody has argued that the law as it stands is satisfactory. The police deserve to know what the law permits them to do at the outset of an investigation, not depend on the discretion of a judge at the end. But clearer law must also make fair provision for the citizen's rights of privacy, freedom and dignity.

Needing the votes of another party to pass urgent legislation, National has been forced to make authorised video surveillance in all circumstances subject to protections in the Bill of Rights Act against unreasonable search and seizure. It has also agreed to make the bill more temporary, with a life of six months rather than a year.

These concessions, sufficient to win the support of Labour, Act and United Future, may be minimal but they are probably the most that was possible in the time remaining to the Parliament, and they would not have happened without the votes of at least three of Act's departing MPs.

Crucially, the smaller parties heeded the warnings of lawyers that this Government was becoming a "canteen that never closes" for laws that police want.

In fact, the police want only clarity on the legality of camera surveillance, whichever way the law goes. The earlier expiry of the temporary legislation will force the next Parliament to pick up a comprehensive Search and Surveillance Bill that has been languishing in the House for years. The previous Government was in power when a Law Commission report drew attention to a gap in the law where video surveillance was concerned.

The commission has pointed out that several law-enforcing agencies beside the police want to use hidden cameras, which might make the law-makers' task more difficult. But it could have been completed long ago.

The final acts of a Parliament are often rushed and seldom edifying, but this one is at least instructive for the referendum. Whatever the faults of MMP, it has given minorities a voice where it counts.

Parties that seek the votes of the majority can be hard to persuade that civil liberties also count. Today, the minor players can take a bow.

- NZ Herald

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