David Farrar
The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Parties, police and privacy

The Supreme Court ruling came after armed police arrested Tame Iti and others for planning terrorist activities. Photo / APN
The Supreme Court ruling came after armed police arrested Tame Iti and others for planning terrorist activities. Photo / APN

This week we saw minority Government in action.

On Monday the Government announced that it needed to urgently amend the law to allow police to undertake video surveillance as the Supreme Court had ruled the current law doesn't allow them to do this. The plan was to pass it next Tuesday under urgency, through all three stages a law has to pass.

But National only has 57 seats out of 120. It needed to get either Labour, ACT, Maori Party or the Greens to agree.

Few were surprised that the Maori Party were unwilling. The court case which led to the Supreme Court ruling was the Urewera case, which saw heavily armed police arrest Tame Iti and others, charging them with planning terrorist activities. The nature of the police action had been a sore point for Tuhoe, and many in Maoridom.

The possibility of the Greens supporting a law which makes it easier for the police to do their jobs is miniscule. The chances then of them supporting a law change under urgency with no public hearings was around the same probability as Charlie Sheen being elected Pope by the College of Cardinals.

So all eyes were on Labour and ACT. Phil Goff was a relatively conservative Justice Minister whose instincts might well be to support the law change. He would have been thinking about headlines blaming Labour for dozens of criminals getting off on what many of the public would see as a technicality.

We don't know what internal discussions were held in Labour, but Charles Chauvel fronted on the issue, and blogged that he thinks police should have the power to do video surveillance, but that he is against urgency and bypassing a select committee process. This view became the official Labour position.

That left ACT. They also could be torn on the issue. Many of their supporters want a tough line on law & order. They don't want criminals undertaking serious crimes getting off on technicalities. However ACT also has many classical liberals who don't like the idea of giving the Police extended powers under urgency and without public hearings - even if only for a temporary 12 month period.

Finally ACT came out with a position, that on the surface anyway, was similar to Labour's. They would support the bill at first reading but want a select committee to hear submissions on the law.

The situation is complicated by the looming election. There are only six sitting days left before the House rises. If the law is not amended by Thursday 6 October 2011, then the status quo will remain until at least February 2012. During those four months the Police, we are told, will have to cease video surveillance in potentially dozens of investigations.

So it looks likely the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill will have its first reading on Tuesday 27 September and be referred to a select committee for urgent hearings. I presume it will be under orders to report back by Tuesday 4 October. This means that the House would have to debate the second reading on Tuesday 4th, undertake committee of the whole stage on Wednesday 5th and have its third reading on Thursday 6thimmediately prior to the adjournment debate. Or they may use urgency to combine some stages to leave Thursday free solely for the adjournment debate.

This of course all depends on whether any other party will back the bill beyond the select committee. Some have argued that the police can still use video cameras in cases of serious crimes, even though it is illegal. The Attorney-General in a letter to Charles Chauvel (found at the link to the bill) says that now the Supreme Court has ruled, the Police can not use video surveillance at all until the law is amended.

Another issue is whether any law change should be retrospective, meaning that any video evidence gathered before the Supreme Court ruling, can still be used in court for other cases. The argument against is the laws should never be retrospective unless absolutely critical, especially in the area of criminal law. The counter argument is that it was not known it was illegal until the Supreme Court ruled.

It will be interesting to see how it resolves. Will a compromise emerge that both National and Labour can agree on, or will it be passed by National and ACT, with Labour opposed? Or will it fail to pass at all before the election, in which case the blame game could form a significant part of the election campaign.

* David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.

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