Chairperson's Report 2015

I was elected as the chairperson of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties at last year’s AGM. At the time I wrote about how and why civil liberties matter to me. Ultimately I, “…believe that a freedom and rights-based democracy is the best way to build a society that gives everyone the chance to be the best they can be.”

But when I look at the events of the past year, I fear that we’re going backwards.

Events in New Zealand

Our Police force are moving further away from the old policy of policing by consent. Taser usage has increased and now all frontline Police are carrying Tasers.  Strangely this policy change was announced by the Police Commissioner as if it’s a trivial operational matter rather than a political issue that should have been fronted by the Minister.

At the same time, Customs are looking to expand their already considerable powers at the border in order to push their desire to become more of a security/law enforcement agency. In particular they have asked for the ability to force people to give up passwords at the border, thus enabling Customs to examine someone’s whole life - just in case.

At the same time we have seen the government step up attacks on dissent, by pursuing journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson for challenging the official narrative.

TPPA

A big issue for many this year was the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement which was recently finalised. Negotiated in secret with the text still not available to the citizens of the countries who negotiated it, this is potentially a serious blow against our democracy.

This is not so much for the contents of the treaty, although this is still to be determined, but because it’s expanded far beyond a simple trade agreement into many other areas. It increasingly looks like an attempt by the negotiating governments to lock-in certain policies into international treaties to remove them from the democratic realm.

Official Information Act

One positive note is that activist Jane Kelsey challenged Minister Tim Groser’s rejection of her request under the Official Information Act for documents concerning the TPP negotiations. After her appeal was rejected by the Ombudsman, Jane applied to the court for judicial review.

While in theory she won the case with the requests being returned to the Minister for proper consideration, in practice the outcome will probably be the same and it appears to be too late anyway.

However, the judge made a number of comments critical of both the Minister and the Ombudsman and provided some firm guidelines to assist politicians and government employees in making such decisions in the future. This would seem to be a win for the Official Information Act.

I note that the Council helped fund this court case as we thought that it touched upon some important issues around transparency in government.

In other OIA news, earlier this year the Ombudsman raised the alarm about how government departments are responding to OIA requests and is currently midway through an investigation. We hope that this will result in more substantive changes than the weak, and seemingly abandoned, recommendations of the Law Commission

Bill of Rights

In a second example of the courts standing up to the government in support of civil society, the High Court has for the first time declared that a New Zealand law is inconsistent with the NZ Bill of Rights Act. Justice Heath found that the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act was clearly in breach of the rights in the BORA (as was submitted by the Council at the time). While this is good news, unfortunately our toothless Bill of Rights means that nothing will happen and the law is still in force.

Other issues of note

Other issues of note include the furore around the short-term banning of the book Into the River, an action that ended up damaging the credibility of the Film & Literature Review Board more than anything else. The book is now freely available again.

The issue of euthanasia also appeared again with lawyer Lecretia Seales losing her own court battle to receive a medically assisted death. ACT MP David Seymour is now proceeding with another attempt to pass a euthanasia bill, for which he has asked for input from the Council.

Actions of the Council

The Council has engaged with a number of issues over the past year.

Nagging the government

Some of this engagement can just be described as “nagging the government”. This includes asking the government what it intends to do as a follow-up to the report of the Constitutional Advisory Panel about New Zealand’s constitution. Sadly the government’s sole interest in constitutional matters seems to be around changing the flag and I do not expect to hear anything more from them.

We also continue to ask how the government is going to respond to the issue of prisoner voting after the recent court decision, but once again we are yet to receive any substantive answer.

Spying and surveillance.

A major part of my activity this year has been around the issues of spying and surveillance.

The Council has been part of the Stop the Spies. This is a loose coalition of groups formed to oppose the spy agencies and to help inform people around the time of the Intelligence Review. The Council hosted public meetings in Wellington and Auckland, as well as contributing to a separate meeting in Christchurch.  I also assisted in the production of the People’s Review of the Intelligence Agencies, a far more wide-ranging review than the narrow official review (available from our website).

We also wrote to the intelligence agencies asking them to help reduce the ambiguity around their governing laws by publishing their own legal interpretations of what they could and couldn’t do. The GCSB has already started doing so while the SIS has said it would be impossible.

Submissions

The Council did not make many Select Committee submissions this year. We refused to take part in the farcical two-day submission period for the Countering Terrorist Fighters Bill, instead writing to express our concern with this bastardisation of the process. A Select Committee member later revealed that they never even looked at the written submissions anyway.

Public meetings

As well as the public meetings for the People’s Review, I was very pleased to have David Williams come and talk to us about the Treaty of Waitangi and how it has been compared to a Maori Magna Carta. It was a fascinating talk and we hope to have the video up on our website soon.

Online activity

The Council website at http://nzccl.org.nz continues to be updated with activities, events and copies of speeches and submissions. I particularly wish to thank Stuart Moriarty-Patten for his regular monthly feature Liberty Watch, a round-up of civil liberties related news.

The Council also has a Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/civillibertynz that we use to publicise events and comment on political issues of the day.

Christchurch

Stephen Judd has stepped forward to start up a Christchurch chapter of the Council for Civil Liberties. A couple of meetings have been held already and I hope this continues into the next year.

Media

Finally, we have responded to a number of media enquiries over the course of the year with appearances on a number of radio shows and in print.

Plans for the future

It’s clear that we need to keep working to promote civil liberties in New Zealand. I see this as taking two main streams:

  • Helping to hold the government to account.
  • Promoting the importance of civil liberties to New Zealanders.

Holding the government to account

We will continue to comment on government actions and plans when they interfere with civil liberties.

My interest is around privacy and surveillance/spying. With the Intelligence Review being released in February and the government’s plans to reset the privacy social contract and repeal/re-enact the Privacy Act, I expect to be busy.

Promoting civil liberties

However, I believe our main focus as a group has to be around promoting civil liberties to New Zealanders. The best protection against government erosion of civil liberties has to be a populace that values and defends them.

This year we made some steps towards this with mixed success. We hosted and promoted some public meetings, but the turnouts were disappointing and we obviously have something to learn about how to create and run successful events.

However, this is an age of digital activism and we need to go where the people are – online.

While some deride this as ‘slacktivism’ where people might click a Like button but not put any more effort in, we believe that we need to cater for these sorts of ‘soft supporters’. Firstly, they’ll give us a base of like-minded supporters to talk to and speak on behalf of. Secondly, they’ll help share our message. Thirdly, it’s an easy entry point that will, over time, provide an easy way for some to get more involved in the future.

We’re thinking about what we need to do to implement this and hope to have something up and running in the new year. Alongside this we also need to update and modernise the Council’s website.

We need your help

The Council does important work but we need to be doing more of it as I fear that we are currently losing too many battles. If you think you can help we would be grateful for your ideas, your efforts, your resources, and your time. Please contact me at thomas@nzccl.org.nz

Thomas Beagle
Chairperson, NZ Council for Civil Liberties

28th October 2015

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