Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: GCSB saga becoming National's version of hell

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

There have been more plot twists in the saga of the GCSB, the leak to Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance and the Parliamentary Service than in Game of Thrones. Let us hit the live pause button to sum it up.

Once upon a time there was an inquiry into the spy agency the Government Communications Security Bureau. Then there was an inquiry into the inquiry after the first inquiry was leaked to Vance in advance. Now there is yet another inquiry, by Parliament's privileges committee, into the issues thrown up by the second inquiry, which was the inquiry into the inquiry.

It is the Green Party's version of utopia. But it is rapidly becoming the Government's version of hell.

Revelations the Parliamentary Service had "inadvertently" released Vance's phone records to the David Henry inquiry into the leak to Vance coincided with outrage and protests over the Government's GCSB bill, which will allow the bureau to employ its powers of surveillance on behalf of other agencies such as the Security Intelligence Service, police and Defence Force.

That bill is completely unrelated to the issue of Vance's phone records. In fact, even under its new, extended mandate, the GCSB itself could not have obtained the information the Parliamentary Service released so blithely on Vance.

Nonetheless, the GCSB bill's critics have used the Vance case to highlight their claims that the Government cannot be trusted with the personal details of New Zealanders. It couldn't have been worse timing for the Government, which has been on the charm offensive trying to persuade voters that it could indeed be trusted. This confluence of loosely related events might explain Prime Minister John Key's sudden public display of affection for the media, for which he said he had "enormous respect".

There were some quiet snorts over this, including from Labour MP Annette King, who pointed out on Newstalk ZB that it was only a few months ago that he was describing the media as "knuckleheads" over the coverage of his role in appointing GCSB head Ian Fletcher.

The only benefit in it for National was it succeeded in drawing attention away from Labour's latest policy to prevent non-resident foreigners buying property in New Zealand. Labour's timing was for the rather thinly veiled purpose of seeking to buck the old wives' tale that 'bad polls come in threes'. It has two bad polls under its belt - the Herald-DigiPoll and TV3's Reid Research poll. The next poll is due out this weekend, on One News. What better time to pull out a policy which will generate headlines to pander to the fear that foreigners are buying up the entirety of New Zealand than when the pollsters are about to head into the field?

However, by Tuesday even New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had moved from foreign speculator-bashing into martyr mode, pointing out to anyone who would listen that there were no such cries of outrage when the privileges committee looking into his donations in 2008 demanded he surrender his phone records.

As for the "inadvertent" release of Vance's records, nobody was sure whom they should blame. The Parliamentary Service was blaming the contractor, Datacom. The Speaker and Prime Minister were blaming the Parliamentary Service, which was apparently overcome by the spirit of giving after years of stubbornly refusing to release any information on anyone because it was exempt from the Official Information Act. The Green Party was blaming John Key.

David Henry's concern was that nobody should blame him.

It was Henry who blew the whistle after reading the Parliamentary Service had claimed he had sought the phone records, but it had stood its ground and refused to release them. Henry, quite rightly, took umbrage and contacted the Prime Minister's office to point out he made no such request, but the Parliamentary Service had handed over the phone records anyway and he had promptly sent them back without peeking.

The phone records topped off concern that Vance's security swipe card details were also requested and provided to Henry without any apparent qualm by either.

It was the 2001 Twin Tower attacks in New York that prompted the overhaul of security at Parliament and transformed it into a place in which staff and the media who work there need to swipe if they so much as wish to blow their noses. That system was put in place to protect against security threats. But, as has become clear, the information gathered under it is used for completely different purposes.

The Parliamentary Service's approach appears to have been one of "it exists, therefore we can use it", regardless of the ramifications or its authority to do so.

In the press gallery corridors now, journalists are thinking up all manner of subversive plots for tricking the metadata. The rules for swipe cards stipulate they cannot be transferred or used by any person other than the one they were allocated to. Parliamentary security staff are sticklers for the rules. Yet there is talk that journalists could - shock, horror - use each other's swipe cards to cover their tracks.

Another tactic is to set false trails, by popping in to have a cup of tea in offices all over the place so multiple MPs have a cloud of suspicion over them for hosting said journalist on the day in question, making it harder to identify the true leak. Such plots will, at least, be some comfort to the Defence Force, which may well have felt unfairly derided this week after it was discovered it listed reporters in a list of possible subversives.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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