NZCCL in the 1980s
I have been involved with the Council for Civil Liberties on and off for more than thirty years.
n the 1980s the organisation was very different from that of today. We used to meet in the lounge of Hugh Price. Hugh was the Treasurer and very meticulous. He was also the expert on the SIS, and had vast numbers of files on that organisation hidden in the upper recesses of his attic. Indeed, so complete were those files that the SIS had itself once or twice consulted him to verify their own data.
The Council then consisted of seven or eight people. Jack Shallcrass was the president, and Nat Dunning took the position of chairperson. I was responsible for a magazine that was published twice a year. The issues seemed to be categorised, with a different spokesperson for each: police; prisons; Maori issues; constitutional issues; health,welfare and education; security and secret service. Some of the specific matters we addressed included national identity cards; file sharing between government departments; the Official Secrets Act; the need for a police complaints authority; the use of remand and parole; and the various interpretations of the Government Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Modern Day Challenges
The world of civil liberties is a very different place today. Though one or two battles have beeen won – we now have an Official Information Act and a Privacy Commission, an Independent Police Conduct Authority, a Human Rights Commission and the BORA – the powers of the police have been greatly increased, file-sharing between government departments is almost without restriction, public participation in government decisions and activities has been greatly constrained, and the BORA has been ignored or bypassed. Our secret services have been greatly enhanced through the development of the GCSB and file-sharing on a massive and automated scale with other members of the Five Eyes network, as well as through coordinating the activities of the spy agencies with the police and armed forces.
Probably the two biggest concerns that have occupied the Council over the last two or three years are the growth of electronic data gathering and sharing, and the role of the police in gathering information about and tracking the movements of people and vehicles. These two concerns have constituted a direct and dire threat to people's civil liberties, and ultimately to our democracy and sovereignty. In the name of the Council, Thomas Beagle has become a major and clear voice in both these areas. He has advocated a clear pathway for retaining an open internet free from interference by government or private business interests – in other words for extending the concept of free speech without fear or constraint. He has spoken in many forums about the dangers of government data gathering. He has investigated the use of cameras and other tracking devices by the police, and the linking of those with public and private security cameras.
The extensions of all these powers are often done in the name of national security or to counter terrorism threats. However both these reasons have been shown time and again to be fabricated to enable the government, and other governments in the Five Eyes network, to create an environment of fear and distrust that enables those governments to deny people their civil liberties and democratic freedoms. The truth, borne out by history in Nazi Germany, many South American countries, and other states around the world, is that increasing power to the police, the army and secret services leads to the silencing of opposition voices, the repression of minority views, and the rule of self-interested oligachies.
Why we do have something to fear
Although the argument is always put that people who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear, that has been shown again and again not to be the case. In the United States many of the prosecutions under anti-terrorism laws have been of animal rights and conservation groups. In England there has been a plan in place to develop profiles of every citizen and to track the movements of every vehicle. This combined with increased powers to seize cellphones at random and copy the data from them, has been used to target a range of organisations opposed to government policies. We actuallyhave everything to fear.
'Terrorism' is a weasel word. While there are huge threats to world peace at present, these have largely arisen as a result of America's intervention in other countries' affairs to counter so-called terrism threats at home. The further the war against terrorism stretches the more terrorism seems to increase. Under Obama the US has now used drones and other interventions to initiate antiterrorism activities in more than 75 countries around the world, many of them seen as allies of the US. These killings are done without proof, without public scrutiny, without trial, without any safeguards to determine right or wrong, and often clearly targetting people innocent of any political motives. Who are the real terrorists?
Actually what is happening is that the public has been misled about the causes, nature and extent of threats to the security of New Zealanders, and the consequent increase in data collection and information sharing. The information gathered is largely not to counter terrorism but to remove any threats to their neoliberal political and economic agendas. Many of the changes initiated over the last few years to reduce environmental laws, to realign laws relating to food products, to facilitate business interests over civic interests, to take away from local bodies their responsibility for the wellbeing of their citizens, to remove public consultation measures – the huge raft of legislation that has been passed is designed not to protect citizens but to control them and reduce their influence on government policies.
The Trans Pacific Partnership
The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement makes all this clear. It constitutes the biggest single threat to our participative democracy and our sovereignty. This is not only because of its secrecy, the primacy of business interests over government policies, the right of corporations to sue governments and the ability of congress to require changes to the laws of constituent governments even after the agreement has been signed. It is not only because of the ability of business interests to flout environmental and social and economic protections. It is because the assumptions underlying it are themselves inherently undemocratic, in that they contain no consideration of the rights, desires and needs of individual people, and see them as objects of exploitation rather than the fabric of humanity.
The Council for Civil Liberties has played its small part in the fight against the TPPA. I have myself participated in groups trying (successfully, I might add) to persuade local governments that the Agreeement is very much against their best interests. We have over the last couple of years tried (with considerable effort and little success) to persuade the national government to pay more attention to their responsibilities regarding the Bill of Rights Act and civil liberties themselves. We have intervened in many ways on behalf of people who believe their human rights have been denied them, and given our views on a range of issues, often at short notice and with limited information.
Wellington Community Justice Project
We once again give thanks to the team of student volunteers from the Wellington Community Justice Project, who this year have undertaken a study of legal issues relating to overstayers in New Zealand. The two leaders if the project, Fayez and Varshini, have also been participating in a number of the meetings of CCL, and I would welcome them to continue to take an active role in civil liberties affairs.
At the start of this year we changed our meeting structure so that all our committee meetings were open to anyone with an interest in civil liberties. This new structure has been quite successful, with a number of people becoming active members. It is timely as changes are coming, and the Council needs to play a unique and vital role in the defence of not only civil liberties but New Zealand's democracy and sovereignty in the coming years.
As for me, it is time for me to hand over my role to a younger person, more capable of negotiating their way through the world of the future. There are so many more adept, capable and concerned people around that I am sure the Council will grow in strength and influence in the years to come.
Chairperson, NZ Council for Civil Liberties
Monday 10 November, 2014