Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Undemocratic and unconstitutional

Years ago we learned that the SIS spied on Green MP Keith Locke, both before and after he was elected to Parliament. Now it turns out that he wasn't alone:

A senior Labour politician was spied on by the SIS while an MP in the 1980s and 1990s - even though for part of that time he had an oversight role of the intelligence agency as chair of the justice select committee.

Richard Northey, a Labour MP between 1984 and 1990 and again between 1993 and 1996, said it was "outrageous" that the SIS had kept a file on him while he was a sitting MP with a democratic mandate.


After a request from RNZ, the SIS declassified documents held by Archives New Zealand, including letters sent and received by Northey while he was chair of the justice select committee overseeing the SIS Amendment Bill in 1989.

The documents included correspondence between Northey and then-prime minister David Lange, then-deputy prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and also advice Northey received from the commissioner of security warrants.

[Note: The position of Commissioner of Security Warrants was not established until 1999. So I'm wondering if this was correspondence with the Commissioner of Security Appeals - the forerunner of the modern Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. If so, it would be even more troubling for the SIS to have their hands on that advice]

The "justification" for the surveillance was Northey's campaigning for racial equality and nuclear disarmament - something which seems contrary to the political neutrality clause the SIS was subject to at the time. But as noted above, he wasn't just an MP, but the chair of the committee responsible for overseeing them, and for considering SIS-related legislation. Browsing the Hansard (pages 94 - 105) on the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Amendment Bill 1987 (which would have moved the power to issue warrants from the Prime Minister to the Chief Justice; it was sent to select committee and apparently died there), it appears that this was the first time that the SIS had been subjected to any form of Parliamentary oversight. It is bad enough that they were spying on people for their political views, who pursued change peacefully and democraticly. That is grossly undemocratic. But spying on one of the people who was supposed to be keeping an eye on them is downright unconstitutional, a direct attack on our system of democracy. And it really does make you wonder who they thought they were working for back then.

Officially, that sort of thing doesn't happen any more. The SIS officially recognises that it is not appropriate to spy on sitting MPs except in exceptional circumstances, and has a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the Speaker on the subject. Whether that actually means anything in practice is something we probably won't know for another 30 years. But give the change in policy, the least the SIS can do is apologise, to Northey and the people of New Zealand, for their past misdeeds. Until they do, we're perfectly entitled to believe that they haven't really changed a bit.