Editorial: Trust is lost when state abuses power

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The Inland Revenue department was criticised by Justice Simon France for "significant, avoidable and troubling" errors. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Inland Revenue department was criticised by Justice Simon France for "significant, avoidable and troubling" errors. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In a year in which the dubious phrase "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" was heard all too frequently to justify increased powers for the state, it is sobering to discover two late instances of government over-reach.

From the debate over extended powers for the Government Communications Security Bureau to data-matching deals in the bureaucracy, advocates of a needs-must, trust-the-state agenda have succeeded in curtailing some individual freedoms.

Government employees charged with protecting our borders and our tax base have long enjoyed powers beyond those of standard public functions. The powerful public interest in identifying threats to our security and to the revenue base which funds services has meant the Customs and Inland Revenue departments enjoy rights over the individual that can trump normal procedures.

Historically, the taxman is a hard-hearted stormtrooper of the state. Pay up or face compounding penalties, search, no right to silence, prosecution, bankruptcy and ruin.

These threats are seen to ensure the Government's desired tax revenues are received.

Last week's High Court judgment against the IRD in favour of a Rotorua woman shows, though, how unbridled power can corrupt that vital process. The department was criticised by Justice Simon France for "significant, avoidable and troubling" errors in gaining an ex-parte order to freeze her and her husband's bank accounts as it attempted to claim $462,000 in tax from their company's liquidator.

That order had been granted but only after the court was, according to the judge, misled by the "loose use of language" over-stating the risk of the money disappearing. He did not consider the order would have been made "had the correct facts been presented" and declared the IRD's actions "at the upper end of misleading the court". Setting aside the freezing order, Justice France made the IRD pay the full legal costs of the couple under scrutiny.

This is just one more instance of the IRD deploying its heavy firepower with disregard for individual circumstances. The public is lucky, in this instance, that the High Court was able to bring the department to heel. It should not, however, need costly court interventions to expect a government department to deal civilly and legally with citizens.

If the IRD is known for unilateral and unexplained actions against its targets, Customs inhabits a peculiar twilight zone at the border. Its decision to seize all electronic equipment from a young New Zealander returning home this month, after quizzing him and demanding his passwords, was revealing. Again, the public would not normally hear of such over-reach, but learned of Sam Blackman's ordeal when he made it public on social media and outlined the case to the Herald.

The men in uniform, all powerful in their airport jurisdiction, retained his two smartphones, an iPad, a laptop and an external hard drive. Initially they refused an explanation and out he went, digitally muted, to the arrivals hall.

Mr Blackman had attended a meeting in London last month at which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was present and the Edward Snowden NSA leaks were discussed. He was left to wonder if tweets by him about that event were being used against him. A day later the department had finished whatever "forensic" analysis it claimed to have conducted and returned the electronic gear.

An informal explanation was offered that someone of the same username for an internet provider account had accessed objectionable material six years ago. Which might or might not be so.

The vulnerable individual facing the state's power is not in a position to argue.

The courts and the media can help, but those holding the power need to temper their zeal if they are to retain public confidence.

- NZ Herald

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