Having achieved some significant changes to the GCSB bill, Peter Dunne has agreed to provide the single-vote majority required to pass the spying legislation. The United Future leader, once an opponent of the bill, said he was now satisfied with it. It went, he declared, "a long way towards improving the legislation, the accountability of the GCSB and the transparency of its operations, as well as updating and modernising the definitions of private communications to meet today's circumstances".
Sadly for a matter concerning national security, none of the parties opposed to the bill shared his enthusiasm. Their attitude was, in one regard at least, understandable.
The Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill will be an improved piece of legislation when it is amended by Parliament. The changes go much further than the "cosmetic" tag attached by the Greens.
Two stand out. The first dictates that the country's foreign intelligence agency will be the subject of an independent review in 2015 and an automatic review every five to seven years after that. A five-year review echoes the situation in Australia. It also goes quite some way towards satisfying the call by Labour and the Greens for an independent inquiry into the country's security services, even if they wanted this to precede the passage of the legislation.
The second important alteration states that if a government wants to expand the domestic agencies which the GCSB will be able to help beyond the police, the Security Intelligence Service and the Defence Force, it will have to get the support of Parliament for another amendment bill, rather than Cabinet simply ticking it off via regulation. That negates the possibility of the likes of Customs, the Immigration Department or Inland Revenue using the GCSB's sophisticated cybersecurity equipment without a considered debate on the ramifications. This is important because the bill extends the bureau's objectives beyond national security to the sweeping "economic wellbeing of New Zealand".
The changes also require the GCSB to be more transparent about the number of warrants and access authorisations it gets each year, with an annual public declaration. Additionally, a previously agreed amendment means a panel of two will act as a sounding board for the agency's watchdog, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. But in this area of oversight, the bill's opponents still have justifiable reason for concern.
Regrettably, nothing concrete has come from a suggestion first advanced by Winston Peters that every interception warrant authorised by the minister responsible for the GCSB and the Commissioner of Security Warrants should be reviewed within three weeks by an independent authority. This body would be selected from the judiciary, the Defence Force and the police. The proposal appealed as a means of ensuring that any surveillance of a New Zealand citizen or resident by the GCSB would be appropriate in terms of the security risk and also involve an appropriate method of surveillance.
Broader concerns about the agency's access to 'metadata' and what precisely defines a 'private communication' are not yet addressed.
According to the Prime Minister, the bill represents "a balancing act between national security and doing our best to keep New Zealanders safe, and the privacy of New Zealanders". Considerable reservations voiced earlier this month by the Privacy Commissioner, the Human Rights Commissioner and the Law Society confirmed the first draft fell far short of this objective. The changes in the bill as reported back yesterday and those achieved by Mr Dunne improve that situation somewhat. It is a real shame, however, that they do not go further. The public deserves stronger reassurance.