Gerald McGhie: Transparency more than a buzz word

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An obligation not to deceive should be assumed with accountability and disclosure, writes Gerald McGhie.

New Zealanders want open discussion on the issues around the GCSB legislation. Photo / Doug Sherring
New Zealanders want open discussion on the issues around the GCSB legislation. Photo / Doug Sherring

Two current issues need a great deal more transparency - the GCSB legislation and the Trans- Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Politicians readily see their actions as "transparent" almost as if the word itself imparts an aura of plausibility to what they are doing. The fact is that "transparent" and "transparency" are elusive terms and not easy to define.

For some transparency can mean simply accountability and disclosure. Others emphasise performance indicators and, especially in a democratic society, disclosure and discussion. Each of these has its merits but I would add my own preference. That is, transparency assumes the obligation not to deceive.

Take the current discussion on the revision of the GCSB legislation. The Kim Dotcom incident has revealed evidence that, over the past decade, perhaps 80 New Zealanders have been subjected to illegal surveillance by the bureau. To a degree increased state directed surveillance is understandable.

The events of 9/11 deeply shocked the Western world and governments have hastened to comply with security norms pretty much established by the United States. On the whole New Zealanders may be prepared to relinquish some privacy in exchange for the promise of greater security in their daily lives. But we probably share the New York Times' view that "we have a vague feeling of uneasiness about increased surveillance which rarely translates into serious thinking about where we set the limits".

The massive haemorrhage of highly classified material by a former contract employee of the United States National Security Agency is a reality check. Clearly, the leaks have caused official embarrassment but probably what we have to recognise is that, in an age of random acts of terror, there is a need to adjust to life in a regime of heightened official surveillance.

In a democracy the need assumes an obligation - that is, the provision of solid assurances that we will have intelligent and balanced regulatory oversight of surveillance operations. What any supervisory role must aim to do is keep potential abuses of power from becoming a serious menace to the freedoms we assume to be part of our New Zealand identity.

The parliamentary debate on the renewed GCSB mandate gives little encouragement to those who seek a comprehensive and transparent discussion on the issues. This concern relates particularly to safeguards designed to maintain an overview of the corrosive inroads of international or domestic hackers and mavericks.

But, even more pertinent, in seeking the compromises needed to pass security legislation, the Government must demonstrate that the final result provides the New Zealand public with a full understanding of how the changed regime will affect their lives.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another clear candidate for greater transparency. This grouping aims to establish a broad-based "free trade" agreement ranging from Vietnam and Peru to Australia, Japan the US and New Zealand. Together the 12 partners in the negotiations make up about one third of world trade.

There are two problems. First, China, now our biggest trade partner and a major player in world trade, has been excluded from the negotiations.

Second, to date the parties have debated the terms of the treaty in secrecy. Thus we have had little more than informed speculation on the contents which, we understand, set new rules for food safety, financial markets, medicine, internet freedoms and much else. President Obama says that he wants a signature on the agreement by October this year.

Four months is a very short time for the public to consider such a change-making document. Will the effectiveness of Pharmac be compromised? How will the new regulations affect our food producers? How can New Zealand patents withstand pressure from highly paid US attorneys? But more importantly, in each sector of the treaty, what are the specific advantages for New Zealand?

As ever the TPP negotiations are accompanied by references to jobs and economic growth. As ever the devil will be in the detail and, as ever, New Zealand must look closely at the wider implications of the agreement, especially in terms of our overall partnership with the US and our vital trade relationship with China. Beijing is taking a very sceptical look at what a completed treaty might mean for China - and for those who have signed up to it.

There is room for a great deal more transparency on security and trade issues. Political posturing is no substitute for introducing greater public scrutiny and substantive input that draws on the democratic traditions and need for engagement in a changing society.

- NZ Herald

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