Editorial: Labour could make mark on security report

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Labour Finance Minister Micheal Cullen. Photo / Ross Setford
Labour Finance Minister Micheal Cullen. Photo / Ross Setford

Little more than two years have passed since the country had an intense debate on the rightful limits of the state's powers of domestic surveillance.

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John Key seeks Labour backing on spy agencies overhaul

The Prime Minister told us at that time he was hearing more concern about proposed limits to the snapper we could catch, but the spying debate was fraught all the same.

It followed the external intelligence bureau's monitoring of Kim Dotcom and the revelations from Edward Snowden of how agencies track internet traffic.

The issue dogged John Key all the way to the 2014 election and it is a wonder he wants to revive the issue now.

Yet that is what he is about to do, possibly today, when he releases a review of the security services he has commissioned from Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy.

Since receiving their report last week, the Government has been discussing it with leading members of the Labour Party.

Mr Key said this week he would not proceed with any of the review's recommendations without bipartisan support. His choice of Sir Michael to do the review, and his request that its recommendations be shaped for bipartisan support, increase the chances. But the agreement he is asking of Labour should not be underestimated.

Labour desperately needs issues that might turn the polls in its favour before the Government's third term is much older. It has made this the year it aims to produce differentiating policy. It might calculate that a liberal position on security is unlikely to be popular and it would do better to neutralise the subject.

But it knows the Greens will occupy any territory it leaves vacant and Labour cannot afford to lose any of its core support.

So it will be looking to the Cullen-Reddy report for solid improvements in the judicial oversight of the security agencies and stronger safeguards against the political use of surveillance.

Labour would not be alone in that wish.

Much has changed since the passage of the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Act 2013 which gave the GCSB access to New Zealanders' private communications when its equipment could support warranted surveillance by other agencies. When the debate on that bill was raging the word Isis was unknown.

By the end of 2014, the spectre of Isis terrorism was prompting all Western states to adopt stronger measures of surveillance and passport control.

New Zealand allowed the Security Intelligence Service to conduct an emergency surveillance operation for 24 hours without a warrant.

The SIS was also allowed to trespass on private property to watch someone of concern. The act extended the time passports could be cancelled from one year to three years, and allowed the Government to suspend a passport for 10 working days when it needed to act urgently to stop someone travelling.

All these powers are due to expire in April next year. The Cullen-Reddy review has been asked whether they should continue beyond that date. It has also reviewed the powers given the GCSB in 2013 to see New Zealanders' internet communications.

The review has proceeded in a calmer political climate than previous debates and that should continue.

- NZ Herald

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