Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Democracy under attack, again

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Former Defence Force chief Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson. Photo / NZ Herald
Former Defence Force chief Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson. Photo / NZ Herald

Multiple spying scandals and sagas show that New Zealand is suffering from a democratic deficit. And it's not just due to the Government's contentious GCSB spying reforms - the latest major challenge to civil liberties involves state surveillance of journalists.

The must-read account of this is Nicky Hager's Sunday Star Times exposé, US spy agencies eavesdrop on Kiwi. Hager's explosive revelations and allegations suggest that the Defence Force is now monitoring New Zealand journalists, and regards some of them as enemies and 'subversives' - such as the investigative journalist Jon Stephenson. The response has been widely condemning. Prof Andrew Geddis of the Otago Law School says he's outraged - see his blogpost, Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian's fault.

Media expert Russell Brown also says he's 'angry' about this and wonders if his own correspondence with Stephenson has been spied upon.

He also points to further discussion about the surveillance of New Zealand journalists in his blogpost, The Real Threat. Blogger No Right Turn has two very good discussions of the issues involved and also raises strong opposition - see: We can no longer trust our armed forces and A point that needs making.

Numerous voices are coming to the defence of the media and its important role in holding power accountable without the state snooping on its activities - see for example Matthew Backhouse's Ex-Defence boss: Journalists not the 'enemy'. In this, ex-Defence chief Bruce Ferguson comes out as a surprising defender of Nicky Hager, saying: 'He gets a lot of it right, he gets some of it wrong but he keeps everyone honest, and I think that's probably a very healthy thing to do. And if you don't have those sorts of people, you're getting into autocracy and dictatorship, and I'd hate to see us go that way'. And Labour defence spokesman Phil Goff, has spoken out very strongly on the matter and called for government action - see Michael Daly's Defence 'subversives' definition slammed. Also, Peter Dunne (@PeterDunneMP) has tweeted to say such state surveillance is 'appalling and unacceptable'.

Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell says that as 'Disturbing as the Defence Force mindset may be, it would be misleading to assume that such attitudes are confined to the armed forces and the Police. The hostility to investigative journalism is an outcome of the ongoing politicisation of the public service' - see: On the Defence Force's paranoia about journalism. And blogger Martyn Bradbury asks, Was the Prime Minister's Office aware of the NZDF spying on a NZ journalist?.

State surveillance of journalists hasn't been limited to warzones. Disturbing attempts to track political journalists within Parliament and spy on their metadata has also been revealed. The Fairfax press gallery journalist Andrea Vance has been the victim of attempts by Government investigator, David Henry, to access her phone records and use of her security card. For the latest on this, see Tracy Watkins and Hamish Rutherford's Journalist's movements tracked by leak inquiry. It turns out that the Parliamentary Service was happy to hand over security card metadata, but drew the line at handing out information on the media's use of phones.

John Key has deemed the actions of his investigator to be beyond reproach - see Hamish Rutherford and Michael Fox's No action over phone log access attempt. But this article reports Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Thomas Beagle as believing that the request for metadata on the journalist 'appears to be going far beyond what is reasonable" and called the inquiry "a political witch-hunt". The move was a "direct strike against the media . . . and I don't think that's acceptable in a democratic society which has any sort of respect for the independence of the media", he said'. Blogger No Right Turn is also especially critical of the Prime Minister's role in the affair - see: And no responsibility and Spying on journalists II.

The Green Party's Russel Norman has come out to fight on behalf of media freedom - see TVNZ's PM sought journalist's phone records - Green Party - despite having earlier issued public calls for the Police to launch a criminal investigation after Andrea Vance published a leaked GCSB report.

The latest spying revelations, combined with the Government's GSCB reforms, have led a range of commentators to suggest that our democracy is under attack The marches in the weekend certainly had this theme. One very readable account of the protests is Jane Bowron's column, Could spying be a new growth industry?. And for a more radical report see: Protesting the GCSB. There's no doubt that opposition to the GCSB legislation is growing, but it's also become more mainstream, with the involvement of key parts of the Establishment - see Michael Timmins' Mainstreaming Dissent.

This is why John Key's dismissal of the protests (PM dismisses protests against GCSB Bill as 'misinformed') seems particularly hollow. Figures like Kim Dotcom amongst others are grabbing the public's attention and shifting this issue beyond the so-called 'beltway'. The logical conclusion of this, says Brian Rudman today, is that Dotcom should run for the Auckland mayoralty - see: Dotcom's the man to get city noticed. Another Auckland city mayoral candidate, Mana's John Minto has blogged a long list of recent legislation (since 2001) that he says has contributed to The Erosion Of Our Civil Liberties - I Think We've All Had Enough. (Incidentally, Michele Hewitson's Interview with John Minto is very good reading).

For more critical, and informed, discussion of the GCSB legislation, see Grant Duncan's What's good about the GCSB Bill? and Paul Buchanan's The political logic behind National's proposed GCSB reforms. And for a defence of it, read Peter Macaulay's Some reaction to GCSB Bill hysterical, highly politicized and Peter Dunne's No flip flop on GCSB Bill. Some of these arguments and sentiments are parodied by Scott Yorke in his blogpost, What is the thrust of their argument?. But for a more scary version of the whole spying issue, read Chris Trotter's fictional Interview with a Boffin: Is it possible to shut down the GCSB?.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

Boom. Like a grenade into the housing debate, Labour's latest policy announcement advocating a ban on foreigners buying houses is certainly creating polarising debate and an outbreak of accusations. Mike Hosking says today that 'This in a nutshell is pure racism' - see: Another headline-grabbing policy from Labour. He also says, 'I assume Winston will be fuming at Labour's housing plan - fuming but smiling. It's right out of his playbook. There is always fertile political ground by bagging foreigners, so with Labour looking to ban foreign ownership of housing unless they build, they might well be on to an electoral winner. It doesn't make it a good policy or sensible or logical, but then politics isn't always about doing the right or proper thing'. Similarly, Cameron Slater is attempting to attach the label of 'Chan Ban' to the policy - see: Labour's policy based on fear not facts. A more sophisticated analysis is offered by Liam Dann in his column, Home-buying ban runs high risks. But again he likens it to 'Kevin Rudd's hardline refugee policy', with the political objective of making the leader 'look tough'.

But is the policy really reactionary, racist or xenophobic? Labour says 'no' - see TV3's Labour denies housing policy 'anti-Asian' and Isaac Davison's Labour defends buyer policy. Unfortunately for Labour, however, Winston Peters is quoted in defence of the policy, using examples of Asian buyers and 'people in mainland China'. Damian Christie also provides a strong defence of Labour's policy in Johnny Foreigner & the Auckland Property Market.

So will the 'foreigner ban' policy even work? The verdict on that is still out, but already plenty of commentators say that the effect is likely to be fairly insignificant - see, for example, TVNZ's Realtor doubts impact of Labour housing policy. But for a highly rational rebuttal of Labour's policy, see Canterbury University's economist Eric Crampton's blogpost.

The spotlight is very much still on the vulnerability of Labour's leadership at the moment. The best recent commentaries on this are Vernon Small's Leadership woes undermine Labour, which says that the leader's 'last throw of the dice' is probably too late, and he explores some of the rival options. Fran O'Sullivan surveys those options too, and throws up the possibility of Phil Goff returning to the leadership - see: Shearer must cosy up to business bosses.

For an understanding of the Government's proposed changes to labour reforms - as well as the rise of Simon Bridges - see John Armstrong's very good column, Labour law first test for leader-in-making.

If you want to celebrate the wealthy and successful, as well as economic inequality, Matthew Hooton puts forward some strong arguments in his NBR column, Celebrate the Rich Listers. And to see how the NBR Rich Listers live, see Victoria Young's Top properties: Rich List special.

Finally, it's election time (at least at the local body level) so politicians are booking their photo shoots as well as their photoshoppers to enhance their appeal. The incumbent mayor of Wellington is the latest to get touched up - see Kerry McBride's Will the real Celia please stand up.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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