Graham Mandeno: Open letter to John Key

Photo / Michael Craig, Herald on Sunday
Photo / Michael Craig, Herald on Sunday

Dear Mr Key,

On 22 August 2007, in a speech to the National Press Club on the subject of the Electoral Finance Bill, you said:

"I believe you get the democracy you are prepared to stand up for.

"Here in New Zealand we often take our democratic freedoms for granted. We think they will always be there. We have a Bill of Rights which is supposed to protect our right to freedom of expression. What on Earth could go wrong?

"I have a different view. I believe what Thomas Jefferson said - that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We cannot and we must not take democratic freedoms for granted.

"Because, in reality, it is not a Bill of Rights that protects our rights. It is not up to a solicitor in the Crown Law Office or an official in the Ministry of Justice. In the end, it is not up to the government at all.

"The protection of rights lies with us, the citizens of New Zealand. There are times when we have to stand up for our rights, and the rights of our neighbours and friends, and indeed the rights of people we totally disagree with, or else these rights will begin to erode away."

Do you recall uttering these principled words of wisdom? What has happened since then?

First, you have passed several new laws which remove the rights of citizens to appeal to the Judiciary in cases where they feel they are unfairly treated under the law. Examples include the Public Health and Disability Amendment Act, and legislation which prohibits legal challenges to the High Court or the Environment Court in matters concerning the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery legislation.

Secondly, there are a number of cases of new legislation which allow the Executive to change laws by regulation, without going through the parliamentary process. Ostensibly, this is a sensible means to cut through red tape and allow legislation to be tweaked easily where necessary, but a legislative process that bypasses Parliament also bypasses democracy. Where does that place us with Thomas Jefferson's philosophy?

Thirdly, there has been an alarming increase in your Government's use of urgency to pass legislation. Once again, this could be seen by the pragmatic as a sensible way to "get things done", but urgency stifles debate and in many cases bypasses the select committee process. Both of these undermine the protection of democracy.

Now you are seeking to pass the Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security (aka "GCSB") Bill. This will allow the GCSB, an agency answerable not to the Judiciary but only to the Prime Minister and his appointed Commissioner, to monitor the meta-communication of all New Zealanders, both between themselves and with other parties overseas. A "warrant" to further investigate the content of this communication can be issued, not by the Judiciary but by the PM or the Commissioner, and such a warrant can be issued not only for individuals, but for a "class" of people within New Zealand.

Why should we be worried? We all know you're a nice bloke, and that the only reason you would use these powers is to prevent us from harm - say, when a disaffected employee of Sky City with Islamic connections asks his Al Qaeda mate for a bomb recipe to blow up the casino. Don't we only have something to fear if we have something to hide?

Surely we all should be more concerned about how many snapper we are allowed to catch?

But consider the deeper ramifications of these powers, and how they could be misused in the hands of someone who was not such a nice bloke. Consider what life might have been like for New Zealanders in 1982 if we had this law and out current technology.

At the time, you may recall, about half the population were deeply unhappy about the continuation of a Springbok rugby tour, which was seen as strongly supporting the Apartheid regime in place in South Africa. The Prime Minister at the time, determined that the tour should proceed, had instructed the Police to take a hard line against the protestors, and for the first time in New Zealand we saw riot police armed with helmets, shields and long batons clashing with crowds of civilians and beating them to silence their protests.

With today's technology these protests would have been organised electronically, via social media, and with the backing of your proposed law the Police would quite sensibly have requested "assistance" from the GCSB to monitor the communication of a certain "class" of individuals comprising about half of all New Zealanders. I don't think Sir Robert would have refused their request!

So I and all my friends, and another million or so people, could have been spied on in our own homes, having all our communication scrutinised by faceless individuals in a bureau that is answerable to almost nobody.

And then there were the protests about nuclear ship visits, and French nuclear tests in the Pacific, and the Vietnam War, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 60s ... the list is long.

So, why should we be worried? Because, in your own words in that speech in August 2007, you said: "One of the key planks of democracy is that all citizens are free to express themselves on all political issues." Furthermore, you said: "This is not just a poorly written bill, not just an ill-conceived bill, and not just a bad bill, although it is certainly all of those. Most of all, this is a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New Zealand.

"We should rightly be proud of our democracy. It is a very real New Zealand achievement and we should celebrate it. A lot of other countries never made it. Plenty have tried democracy and let it slip through their fingers. Other countries never had the chance."

I therefore urge you to recall the noble and honourable principles you were expressing just a few years ago, and consign this bill to the dustbin where it belongs.

Graham Mandeno is an Auckland-based software consultant

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