Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Key defaults to arrogance in handling of bill criticism

Key is progressing the bill as if the world had never heard of Edward Snowden, Prism or metadata. Photo / NZ Herald
Key is progressing the bill as if the world had never heard of Edward Snowden, Prism or metadata. Photo / NZ Herald

When Green co-leader Russel Norman suggested that John Key was becoming Muldoonist, he was understandably scorned.

But after Key's dismissal yesterday of the Human Rights Commission's critical report on the GCSB bill, expanding its powers to spy on New Zealanders, maybe he was right.

Suggesting - even for effect - that the Human Rights Commission could lose its funding because it delivered its report too late is arrogance in the extreme.

"If they're going to continue to be a government-funded organisation they should meet the deadlines like everyone else did," Key said, remarkably.

Actually it's not too late; it's inconvenient because MPs are heading off on two weeks' recess.

The bill is being worked on by officials now and it is due to be reported back to Parliament in two weeks, on July 26.

It would have been better if it had been delivered a week or two earlier but the Human Rights Commission paints big-picture concern.

In any event, the Prime Minister had it before the Intelligence and Security Committee meeting on Wednesday night, its first meeting since the public hearings on the bill.

The more important issue is that the commission is expressing without restraint its concerns about the bill - and the vacuum of information in which the bill is being progressed.

"People in New Zealand," says the commission, "are entitled to know if mass surveillance of data, such as metadata, relating to them, is being collected through surveillance by New Zealand's intelligence services or its international partner agencies and for what purpose."

They have a point. Key is progressing the bill as if the world had never heard of Edward Snowden, Prism or metadata.

People are worried about metadata and Key has not addressed those concerns.

If he is not up with the technicalities of how the current law and bill treat metadata, his office or a trusted minister or other expert should be able to openly answer factual questions about it.

Key's oversight of the bill does not give one confidence in his oversight of the spy agency itself.

He has not convincingly tried to get cross-party support from New Zealand First leader Winston Peters or Labour leader David Shearer.

The decision to hold hearings in public was a good one. But the three concessions mooted so far have been half-hearted: a panel of two for the Inspector General to use as a sounding board, adding a set of principles that might include having regard to the Bill of Rights Act; and a review in both 18 months then every five years.

He has said he would only consider the review as a way of getting Labour on board.

The Human Rights Commission wants much stronger oversight and also wants a full and independent inquiry, echoing Labour and the Greens.

The HRC report may have been wiser to omit the inquiry and appear less political.

But it is a commission that cannot be dismissed as a creature of Labour - quite the opposite.

Almost all the commissioners, including Chief Commissioner David Rutherford, were appointed by the National Government and signed off by National's Cabinet honours and appointments committee.

The Human Rights Commission was hailed by Key in opposition when it highlighted appalling weaknesses in the proposed electoral finance legislation.

It deserves greater respect than Key gave it yesterday.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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