Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Spy bill do-gooders get their comeuppance

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Impudence. Sheer impudence. When the namby-pamby do-gooders at the Human Rights Commission expressed misgivings about the new GCSB bill and its sidekick the telecommunications interception bill, John Key showed them who was boss.

He slapped them down like a sandfly.

They said the proposed bills were "wide-reaching without sufficient safeguards against abuse of power". They said there was "inadequate oversight and inadequate provision for ensuring transparency and accountability". They droned on about threats to things like "public trust" in light of the global mass surveillance revelations. Time for "a full and independent inquiry into New Zealand's intelligence services", they shrieked.

Mr Key rolled his eyes. The commission had failed to file a submission on the bill in time, he scoffed, untroubled by the fact that they were exercising their statutory capacity to report directly to the Prime Minister.

"They need to pull their socks up," he said, fanning the chequebook like a deck of cards. "If they're going to continue to be a government-funded organisation they should meet the deadlines like everyone else did."

Devastating. With the wit and charm of Queenie from Blackadder, the argument was extinguished. Who's prime minister?

When you look at things like this, all the detractors serried against the legislation can be swept away as swiftly as a Britomart beggar.

Take the privacy commissioner. She may emphasise that the new GCSB powers should be "demonstrably necessary and justified". She may argue for a postponement of the whole process, and that "a body such as the Law Commission should be asked to investigate the most appropriate shape of legislation to govern the intelligence agencies".

But, as with the bleeding-heart human rights bludgers, this argument is easy to demolish. Starting with "Privacy Commission": what kind of a name is that? "Privacy?" Sounds suspiciously like they've got something to hide.

And the Law Commission now? How many of these things are there? If you're not careful, we'll merge them all into one great big Commission Commission, with Susan Devoy the one commissioner to rule them all.

Then there's the Law Society. The bore society, more like. In a tediously detailed submission they say they're concerned that "in the absence of compelling grounds for urgency, its use degrades the democratic quality of the legislative process". They bemoan the lack of a "full and informed debate" and "proper analysis" on the need for "the intrusion represented by these reforms".

They warn that making the GCSB a contractor to domestic agencies risks in turn lending them "the imprimatur and secrecy and immunity protections of the GCSB Act". Lawyers are such nit-pickers. Compliance with the Bill of Rights? Snore. Cheer up, already!

The former director of the GCSB, Sir Bruce Ferguson, is another who has said the legislation should not be going through under urgency. Fine. But, look at it this way. How can you take seriously the views of man whose name is an anagram of "GCSB urine furores"?

What about the Legislative Advisory Committee, appointed by the Minister of Justice and tasked with advising on good legislative practice, public law and all that? They reckon the bill lacks clarity and could do with providing greater safeguards and oversight. But they would say that. Also, guys, think for just a second: who's prime minister?

Internet NZ, meanwhile, witter on about the absence of provision for "meaningful, adequate, independent oversight", as well as the "lack of sufficient checks and balances", and something about "offending the principle of the rule of law". But you know what these internet people are like. Hackers, pretty much. Or, worse, bloggers.

Along with Tech Liberty and a bunch of other people working in the IT sector, they've also been banging on about metadata: about the failure to define this rapidly swelling and information-rich stuff, and the potential for its indiscriminate collection.

However, what none of these so-called experts has managed to explain is how they'd feel if their attitudes paved the way for the systematic extermination of all the world's kittens by masked terrorist gangs. All of the kittens, dead.

Taken together, the detractors' arguments could be seen to lay bare legislation that is slipshod, unfit for purpose, a bill attempting to clarify the law by way of a mudbath. They could be regarded as exposing numerous shortcomings, incoherence and nil justification for urgency.

But, come on, when you think about it, why would you take seriously the independent watchdogs for privacy, for human rights, former agency directors, internet experts, the national regulator of the legal profession and concerned members of the public, especially when backed by a bevy of devil-beasts and knuckleheads?

It may very well be the case that just one out of the 124 submissions to the intelligence and security commission gives the proposed GCSB legislation the thumbs up (as an "interim measure" pending a wider overhaul of intelligence structures).

But like everything, it depends how you look at the statistics. The fact is, 100 per cent of the submissions in favour of the bill support the changes. And, anyway, how about that royal baby?

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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