Chairperson's Report 2020

Issues and Events in NZ

The Council started off 2020 well with our policy and strategy sessions putting us in good shape for a productive and effective year. But what we and everyone else didn’t realise was how our world and our lives were going to be upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19

The pandemic and the government response brought up many issues. Could the government lock-down an entire country? What other emergency powers could be justified? Who should exercise those powers - the health bureaucracy or the Minister? Could the government block returning New Zealanders from entering the country? How should we track people’s movements for the purpose of tracing the spread of disease?

On balance we believe that the government actions were justified and proportionate to the threat. We appreciated that the main Covid 19 Response Act was limited to only enabling actions for the purpose of controlling the pandemic and both those actions and the Act itself were time limited.

On the other hand, we were unimpressed by the speed with which the Bill was passed (we had barely 16 hours to respond!) and we thought that the reporting requirements should be improved. We also wanted to see more provision for allowing public protest that would both maintain safety while still allowing freedom of expression.

The Election

The Council avoids partisan politics but as part of the lead-up to the election we released a “6 Things We’d Like to See from the Political Parties” wishlist. These were:

  1. A rights-protecting constitution with a stronger role for the NZ Bill of Rights and recognition of Te Tiriti of Waitangi as a founding document of our country.
  2. Expand open government - further commitment to open government and particularly strengthening and broadening the Official Information Act.
  3. Police governance & oversight - reforming the IPCA and giving it some teeth, plus external control of the introduction of new technologies and policies.
  4. Extend oversight to all use of surveillance - the IGIS-style oversight of the intelligence agencies should be strengthened and extended to other agencies such as the Police, Customs, Work & Income, etc.
  5. Improving access to justice - policies to ensure that justice is available to all in a timely fashion.
  6. Protect freedom of expression - we want intelligent proposals to defend freedom of expression for all while also providing protections from the worst speech harms.

Other issues

Some other issues of note include:

  • The NZ Police further eroding our tradition of an unarmed police force by introducing Armed Response Teams - roving permanent squads of armed police. After much protest these have been abandoned.
  • The government proposing to apply wide-ranging censorship of the internet. A Bill introduced by MP Tracey Martin, we wait to see if it will be picked up by the returning government.
  • In response to findings in the Supreme Court and the Waitangi Tribunal, New Zealand has returned to the earlier status where prisoners sentenced to less than three years can vote. We are disappointed that this wasn’t extended to all prisoners.
  • We note that the new Inspector-General of Intelligence Services has let the civil society Reference Group of which we were a member fall into disuse.
  • The government, alongside its Five Eyes spy partners, is asserting that it should be able to force the major internet companies to make all data accessible. This is widely seen as an attack on the encryption standards that make secure communications on the internet possible. A major concern of ours is that if one government gets this, all others will expect it as well, thus strengthening repressive regimes the world over.

Actions of the Council

Some of the activities the Council was involved in this year include:

  • Releasing a joint letter with Amnesty and others calling for substantive OIA reform.
  • Co-signed a letter from the OGP Steering Committee concerning the Covid-19 response.
  • Opposed the creation of armed Police squads. These have since been abandoned.
  • Hosted a well-attended session about the Algorithm Charter.
  • Published a guest post about the improper use of bail for Covid-19 control.
  • Did our normal work of providing advice and assistance to people who write to us asking for our help.

Media

We spoke to the media on multiple issues, appearing in print, on radio and on television. Significant topics included:

  • Police use of facial recognition and Armed Response teams.
  • Our submission on the APEC Bill.
  • A number of interviews about Covid-19 response issues including government response and technological tracking solutions.
  • The government’s new internet-filtering proposal.
  • A wide-ranging discussion on the 1/200 podcast.

Submissions

We made numerous submissions on the following bills and other matters (all submissions are available on our website):

Internal Council Matters

The Council started the year in good shape and with hopes to further our work. Like many, we found that the pandemic got in the way. Meetings were harder or impossible, people suffered from stress, and attention was directed elsewhere. Some of the things we did do include:

  • Successful strategy and policy sessions at the beginning of the year.
  • Moving our collaborative work to our own instance of Google Suite.
  • The use of Zoom video meetings to continue working together. Implementing an online sign-up form on our webpage.
  • Starting a bi-monthly newsletter for members.
  • Continuing to use our Facebook and Twitter presences to spread our message.

Some disappointments that we hope to continue work on next year include:

  • Migrating our website to a new web platform.
  • Learning more about how civil liberties and the NZ Bill of Rights sit with Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Thanks to our committee members, members and supporters, and thanks once again to Kevin McCormack for his work as treasurer and secretary.

Plans for the future

We continue to do our work. Issues of the coming year will continue to include the ongoing Covid-19 response as well as government plans to implement internet filtering and impose wide-ranging data interception powers.

We need your help

The Council does important work but we need to be doing more of it. 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 or on +64-21-805040

Thomas Beagle

Chairperson, NZ Council for Civil Liberties

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