Oral submission: APEC 2021 Bill

Following up on our written submission we also appeared before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee to make up an oral submission. Here are our opening remarks (lightly edited):

I'm Thomas Beagle and I'm the chairperson of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties.

We're an incorporated society who are a watchdog for rights and freedoms in New Zealand.

You already have a copy of our written submission which makes a number of pointed recommendations, so I'd like to talk a bit more about where these recommendations are coming from, to provide a bit of context.

There are two major areas of concern for us.

APEC is Politics

The first starts with the fact that APEC is politics. 

It's dealing with the big issues of global politics. It's politics that will have an impact of everyone who lives in the APEC countries including New Zealand. And it's international politics where diaspora communities in New Zealand get to speak on issues that, for at least some countries, they wouldn't have dared to mention while still in the country of their birth.

And politics of course will lead to protest. To demonstrations and posters and slogans and chanting and all the rest of the activities associated with political protest. This is all part of living in a democracy and is explicitly protected in the NZ Bill of Rights.

But when we look at this Bill we see no mention of the right to protest. 

We see no consideration of how measures imposed for security reasons could be adjusted to also allow for legitimate democratic protest. Not even something to clarify that a protest sign or a flag can't be considered a security threat to be confiscated.

And then we think of what's happened in the past where police have taken steps too far in suppressing protest to protect the sensibilities of visiting politicians.

The obvious example is the 1999 visit of the Chinese President where the Police broke the law in moving protesters along, where they improperly arrested people for doing nothing wrong, where they organised buses to block the view of protesters. 

When you consider the findings of the resulting inquiry, not to mention the findings of the IPCA, the omission of these points becomes even more significant.

But there's more.

We see that this Bill, in clause 5, is to override all other Acts including the Bill of Rights Act, the Human Rights Act, the Treaty of Waitangi Act, the Privacy Act, and the Search & Surveillance Act.

We see that the Regulatory Impact Statement, in defining the high-level objective of "Secure" defines that as "ensuring all APEC World Leaders and attendees feel safe, secure and welcome."

Furthermore, the RIS also states that the proposed powers draw on legislation enacted in Australia for the 2014 G20 and the 2018 Commonwealth Games. During both those events there were complaints that the policing was particularly heavy and that there were extensive measures to limit and control public protest.

We see the co-opting of private security and the army to assist Police, groups who have even less training on the difficulties of policing political protest than the Police have.

And we see the empowering of armed foreign security agents, and we think of MP Russel Norman assaulted outside Parliament by Chinese security agents for daring to fly a pro-Tibet flag in front of the Chinese Vice President in 2010.

When we look at this Bill, with its security areas and secure transport corridors and its exclusion zones, we see it as a trojan horse where security will be used to "protect" the visiting world leaders from anything that might discomfort them too much. That it's as much about providing a politically sanitised environment as it is about providing security.

What we don't see is a commitment to ensuring our democratic rights are protected.

Other rights

But it's not only about political rights, it's also about our other rights

There's the closure of private places, with little right of appeal and, unless I missed it, no compensation. 

There's unreasonable search provisions. We were part of the debate around the Search & Surveillance Act and while we weren't entirely happy with the final result, at least it provides some protections and controls. This Bill removes a number of those protections and allows the searching of private property just because of its location.

Furthermore, it allows searching of people just because they happen to be in certain areas (which might include their home or place of work) including some fairly invasive measures involving having to remove outer clothing.

Searches are deeply intrusive. They involve the forces of the state coming into our private areas. Both of these are far from respecting our right in the NZ Bill of Rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

And then, it seems, that if we don't do everything we're told like obedient little citizens we can be fined up to $2000 or even put in jail for 3 months. A jail term of 3 months seems like a harsh sentence for wanting to exercise your reasonable rights.

Of course, this sentence doesn't apply to the officials. Rather it seems that section 111 allows anyone using powers under this act to be immune from prosecution as long as they believe that they're doing the right thing. This is not what we should see in a rights-based democracy which supports the rule of law, and smacks more of what you'd expect in a autocracy.


Now, one of the obvious comebacks you're going to respond with is "What would you have us do? We've already agreed to host it, we need these laws and provisions or else certain leaders won't come and APEC will be a failure!"

The only real answer to that is we don't recognise the right of the government to make commitments to other countries which apparently require such override of our rights. 

When we recommend not passing this bill, it's because even if you do adjust the balance in it to make it a little bit better, the overall emphasis is still on limiting and controlling the people of New Zealand unreasonably.

If the price of maintaining the general principle that New Zealand governments shouldn't unreasonably trample over the rights and liberties of the New Zealand people is that some other country gets to host APEC, we think that's a price worth paying.

What do we want

We'd like to see a commitment to allowing and even providing for meaningful political protest.

We'd like to see less unnecessary trampling over our rights, and where restrictions can be justified by careful consideration, better protection of those rights and fair compensation for those affected.

Finally we'd like to see a recognition that the price of hosting such an event may be too high in a rights-based democracy. Our rights should not be given up just so we can play host to an international meeting.

And what we don't want, is that in 2021 we don't want to see the need for another Parliamentary Inquiry to determine how we got things so wrong, again.

I hope that helps put our submission into context for you.