Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A stitch-up on spying

Last week I started asking some questions about the statutory Intelligence and Security Committee, and why we don't have one at the moment. Legally, the Prime Minister must nominate one "as soon as practicable after the commencement of each Parliament", but it's been five months. During which, no-one is keeping an eye on our spies.

In addition to a couple of OIA requests, yesterday I asked Andrew Little outright whether he'd nominated anyone yet. He replied promptly: David Shearer. Which has caused a bit of a ruckus:

The Government has sewn up a deal with Labour to ensure no minor parties are on the parliamentary committee overseeing a major review of the intelligence services.

The move left the Green Party fuming. Co-leader Dr Russel Norman said that an illegal spying scandal occurred under the watches of both major parties.

And he telephoned Labour leader Andrew Little to blast him, after he learned of the snub yesterday afternoon.

"I think it's a bad call," he said.

"It means it's the old boys' club - Labour and National - both of whom have been responsible for illegal spying.

"The Greens were the only ones on [the committee] with clean hands . . . the spy agencies will be extremely happy. The duopoly of illegal spying will be maintained without any independent oversight."

And he has a point. If we want robust oversight of our spies, we don't want the oversight committee to include only representatives of the establishment. While their ability to speak out is necessarily constrained (its the nuclear option; use it wisely), minor party representatives provide an alternate viewpoint and a far better check and balance than those responsible for the jailing of Ahmed Zaoui and illegal GCSB spying. That's why it's been so useful to have not just Norman, but Tariana Turia and Peter Dunne on the committee over the years.

It speaks volumes about Labour's commitment to "reform" that they're part of this stitch up. And it is not going to increase public confidence in the spies.

It is open to the government to fix this - there's no reason why Key couldn't nominate Norman. But he has apparently already chosen Chris Finlayson and Amy Adams, ensuring a majority (just in case Labour aren't willing to do whatever they're told behind closed doors). Our democracy will be poorer for it.

In the long term, I think this shows the desperate need for reform of intelligence oversight. The ISC needs to be expanded, and made responsible to Parliament, not the Prime Minister. And it needs to be given proper oversight powers, rather than drip-fed only what the spies want it to know. In a democracy, the spies are meant to work for us and obey the law. The current "oversight" arrangements give no guarantee that that is happening.