The Founding and Early History of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties

Transcript of a presentation by Lindsay Ferguson at the NZCCL AGM 3 November 2021 at St Andrews Church, 16 The Terrace, Wellington. Copyright reserved.


Looking back at why the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (‘Council’) was formed in 1952 has been a very interesting exercise, as has been looking back at some of the more significant issues that the Council became involved in during its first four decades of existence.

Given time constraints I will just provide a brief account of those issues.

The idea for developing this paper/talk arose whilst I was doing research on another matter at Archives New Zealand. I came across an old Police Special Branch file titled ‘New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties’.

So, after reading some of the content of that file, I thought that I should check the Council’s website to see who the current secretary was. From there I was able to make contact with Kevin McCormack, the Secretary of the Council.

I asked Kevin if I would be able to look through any old minutes of Council meetings. Kevin, most helpfully, put me on to the Turnbull Library. There I found quite a lengthy series of the Council ‘s Executive Committee minutes. There was a gap from 1952 up to November 1961. Then several meeting minutes up to the middle of 1962.

Following that there was a gap from June1962 to April1975. But after that an unbroken sequence through to April 1991. So, looking through those meeting minutes and looking at the Police Special Branch file (taken over by the NZSS from1956) I was able to piece together what I thought to be an interesting little history.

There had been police interest in whether or not civil liberties groups had been set up in New Zealand from about the mid-1930s. This had been stimulated by an enquiry from MI5 concerning whether there were any such groups in New Zealand.

A police circular to various police districts enquiring whether they were aware of any attempts to set up civil liberties type groups in their regions was answered in the negative.

Subsequently, I came across some other papers that suggested that a group was set up in Dunedin in 1935. Unfortunately, it was rather short lived.

There had been an attempt to form a group in Auckland in 1933. That also didn’t lead to anything. Then in 1940 another group of concerned citizens who were worried that the government was going to take excessive powers in the cause of the war effort. That group also did not last very long.

Context of the Times Post World War 2

The Cold War Was Well Underway

After World War Two, the onset of the Cold War saw the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies engaged in a battle for influence and ideological dominance around the world.

The Labour Party government in New Zealand was strongly opposed to communism and did not hesitate to identify communists in trade unions when it suited them to do so. The subsequent National Party government was also firmly in the USA-led camp and contributed troops to the Korean War. It would be fair to say that a proportion of the general populace had also become concerned about the spread of communism.

Waterfront Emergency Regulations (1951)

The 1951 waterfront dispute/strike/lockout, take your pick, was effectively a lockout until the government changed the rules in the Waterfront Emergency Regulations and redefined it as a strike. I guess you can call it what you might wish to.

The Waterfront Emergency Regulations, put in place to break the Waterside Workers Union action, were quite repressive. The police were given extended powers to enter premises, seize property, break up meetings, stop picketing and do a wide variety of things that were quite inimical to a citizen’s rights and liberties in a supposedly democratic society.

Amendment to the Police Offences Act (1951)

The latter part of 1951 saw the passing of the Police Offences Amendment Act, which was an attempt by the then government to carry forward some of the more repressive aspects of the Waterfront Emergency Regulations. In essence, the government wanted those powers in their back pocket to deal with any subsequent industrial action that they did not like.

Some of the more repugnant provisions included moving a large part of the burden of proof onto the accused, a new wide and vague legal concept of ‘seditious tendency’, no time limit for prosecutions, etc.

Official Secrets Act 1951

The end of 1951 saw another piece of poor legislation entitled the Official Secrets Act.

Again, there were a lot of technical issues with that Act which basically followed the United Kingdom Acts of 1880, 1889 and 1911. There were amendment Acts in 1920 and 1939. Most of this was already technically in force in New Zealand because of the English Laws Act 1858 through to the passing of the New Zealand Statute of Westminster Act in 1947.

Then in 1951, our government moved to put its own Official Secrets Act in place.

It has been debated over a lengthy period of time about whether the real reason for the Official Secrets Act 1951 was actually to combat espionage or was to try and save embarrassment through the actions of officials doing things that could lead to embarrassment for them and their political masters.

There was quite a lengthy history in the United Kingdom of various scandals involving the release of official information at inconvenient times for governments and obviously you could see an incentive for governments to try and put a stop to that.

Anyway, I think that we could say that the legislative impacts and the dangers to civil liberties arising from the three pieces of law discussed above were causing concern in what I would describe as the more educated and enlightened circles in Wellington – but not of course in the Police Special Branch.

Public Meeting Chaired by Sir Thomas Hunter in June 1952 to Look at Setting up an Organisation to Defend and Enlarge Upon Civil Liberties in New Zealand

Concern culminated in June 1952 when Sir Thomas Hunter, who could hardly be described as a dangerous radical, convened a public meeting of concerned citizens, many of whom were academics from Victoria University, around the setting up of an organisation to protect and, if possible, enlarge civil liberties in New Zealand.

From that meeting a group was charged with developing a draft Constitution and reporting back to a further public meeting on 18 August 1952.

Committee Reported Back at a Meeting on 18 August 1952 at Which the NZCCL was Founded

At this meeting the draft Constitution was tabled and a committee elected.

The committee was comprised of some people who were or became household names in New Zealand.  Dr J C Beaglehole, later Professor Beaglehole, probably in the 50s 60s 70s was one of, if not the foremost, historian in New Zealand.  Dr Martyn Finlay who became Minister of Justice and Attorney-General in the Kirk government. The Labour Government’s Ormond Wilson, who was well known in pacifist circles.  Frank Coombes, who I think was the local Member of Parliament, Alan Brassington became a Christchurch solicitor and the committee chairperson, Walter Scott, who would have been known to many Wellingtonians at that time as deputy principal of the Wellington Teachers College and later the principal of it. Other members included Raymond Stroobridge and Jack Lewin who was well known.

Then the committee, Ralph Brooks who became a professor at Victoria.  Mr. Cameron, I don’t know much about.  Mr Ferguson [no relation] was a senior public servant and Neil Taylor was a partner in the law firm Duncan Matthews and Taylor, who I mention again a little further on. 

 Objects of the Council

The objects stated in the Constitution were:

‘to assist in the maintenance of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly, to advance measures for the recovery and enlargement of such liberties and to take such steps as it may seem necessary to attain these ends’

And it went on further to say that the Council should be non-party and non-denominational.

The founding of the Council was reported in newspapers on the 19th of August. However, it was also reported in other places as well, i.e. the Police Special Branch which had an officer in attendance at the meeting taking notes and reporting to the Commissioner of Police who presumably advised the Minister of Police of this development.

Report on the Founding of the Council by the NZ Police Special Branch

I thought that I should bring this photocopy with me. It was taken from an original on the file at Archives New Zealand. It is a memorandum for the information of the Commissioner of Police from a detective sergeant in the Police Special Branch.  It is dated the 22nd of August 1952 and the cover sheet states as follows:

“For the Information of the Commissioner, please.” and there is a lengthy report attached. The cover sheet then goes on to note ‘this is clearly a communist front organisation, the activities of which are to be watched’. The subsequent watching and reporting provided the content of the ongoing file.

People might like to have a look. It has a lot of annotations on it but there are pen portraits of some common and some prominent people involved. Very clearly a number of those people were, according to this, ‘on record’.

Mr Walter Scott is described as being on record for his leftist sympathies. Ian Campbell, a professor of law at Victoria University, who had not previously come under ‘adverse notice’. James Cawte Beaglehole, lecturer in colonial history at Victoria University College, whose activities have been recorded by this office and then there is reference to personal files on these people. And so it goes on.

Others were described as being known for leftist sympathies and still others were described as communists. James Winchester’s background was described and it said that he was well known to radio listeners as King of Quiz. Then there was a Reverend Duncan Hercus.  It said this man was not definitely identified but he was in clerical garb and was addressed as Mr. Hercus so the watcher/reporter was in no doubt that he was as stated and further that Mr Hercus was a Presbyterian rector attached to Scott’s College, Wellington, and so it goes on.

Given the political context of the time, much of the material on file was of a defamatory nature. Some of the information recorded against individuals was quite clearly wrong. And some of the rest of the comments were quite frankly grossly offensive.  So, it didn’t take the Police Special Branch long at all to start to take an active interest in the Council, they were in at the birth of it.

The Rest of the 1950s

Efforts to Have the Official Secrets Act 1951 and the Police Offences Amendment Act 1951 Repealed

One of the major activities of the Council following its creation was to try and have the Police Offences Amendment Act 1951 and the Official Secrets Act 1951 repealed.  They didn’t have success with that for quite some time notwithstanding the amount of lobbying that they did.

Finally, after 31 years, the Official Secrets Act 1951 was repealed by the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA).  The OIA turned the previous requirement for secrecy on its head with the requirement that government held information should be made available unless there was good reason for withholding it.

One of the interesting aspects about the Police Offences Amendment Act was that the Prime Minister of the time, Sidney Holland, said it had been improved by 50 odd changes that had been made to the Bill after receiving correspondence from the public.

However, you still ended up with a piece of legislation that quite frankly would not have been out of place in the Eastern Bloc at that time. Reading it you would think that you were looking at something coming out of East Germany or one of the other Soviet satellites.

Founding of the Canterbury Civil Liberties Union – (1954)

Papers in the Police Special Branch file revealed that the Canterbury Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1954. As with the founding of the Council in 1952, the Police Special Branch had a person attending the founding meeting and reporting on it.

In the report I saw a reference to Wolfgang Rosenberg who was a prominent economist employed at Canterbury University at that time. I met him about 1970 when he was actively involved with protests about the Vietnam War. I saw his address and his wife’s name there as well and recalled attending some very good parties at their home.

 One of the techniques used by the Police Special Branch/NZSS/NZSIS was noting down the vehicle registration numbers of people attending such functions so they could be traced, identified and a file opened on them.  

In effect this meant that you could be completely non-political, but you could have a social acquaintance like Wolfgang, or indeed a friend who happened to be an active trade unionist or a political activist and be invited to a social function at their place and while you were inside enjoying conversation and refreshments there could be some jobsworth lurking about outside noting down vehicle registration numbers so that the people there could be traced, identified and have a file opened up on them.  

The further I got into this and read the comments in the file on the individuals, and then the gentleman who told me about his school holiday job, I thought what is the difference really, between New Zealand, so widely regarded as supposedly a free and open democracy, and East Germany around 1955 with the Stasi in full operation? Although at least here people did not get pulled out of bed at four in the morning and were never seen or heard from again. It was however very concerning.

Set Up of the New Zealand Security Service (NZSS) – (1956)

The Council were very concerned about the NZSS, particularly its funding and seeming lack of accountability.

When it was set up in 1956 some of the key identities in the Police Special Branch did not move into the NZSS.  There was a whole new staff there and they inherited the Special Branch files and seemingly the attitudes.

By sheer chance, it must have been three or four years ago, I met a gentleman who had had a school holiday job in the mid-1960s at the NZSS Wellington office doing filing.  This gentleman’s father was one of Brigadier Gilbert’s senior officers when the NZSS was set up. He told me, that even as a schoolboy he was absolutely staggered by the number of files that they were holding and secondly, that some of the files were on people who were regarded at the time as being household names.

A Council member, John Roberts, who later became Professor Roberts at Victoria University, was particularly concerned over a lengthy period about inaccurate record keeping.  He drew a parallel with the British MI6 defector George Blake who became a double agent for the Soviet Union. After being caught, charged and convicted Blake received a 42-year prison sentence.

Professor Roberts indicated that because Blake had been charged, he had the opportunity to mount a legal defence. However, if you appeared in a file at the Police Special Branch/NZSS/NZSIS, you wouldn’t have the same chance because you wouldn’t know about it in those days. So that was a great iniquity lasting several decades.

However, it can be seen that the Police Special Branch/NZSS/NZSIS were not observant of those sorts of legal niceties and carried on opening files on anybody who was involved in any sort of political, trade union, or other activity that presented any challenge to authority and, I suspect, the perceived conventional wisdom of the time.

In the 1950s, there seemed to be a premium placed in New Zealand society on conformity and fitting in. People who stood out became easy targets.

Telephone Tapping in New Zealand – (1957)

The next surprise I got during my research was a paper where the then Minister for the Post Office, Tom Shand, who was a prominent National Party cabinet minister for many years was asked in Parliament whether tapping of telephones happened in New Zealand.

In answering he admitted that yes, telephone tapping did occur in New Zealand.

The answer was seized upon by the Council who wrote various letters and the few replies they got were unsatisfactory ones.

Opposition to the Banning of the Book ‘Lolita’ – (1959)

1959 saw the Council taking on the issue of censorship. The Indecent Publications Tribunal had declared Vladimir Nabokov’s book “Lolita” indecent and banned its importation and distribution.

The Council took the issue up under the broad umbrella of censorship and went to Court after being unsuccessful at the Indecent Publications Tribunal. 

They lost that case but were finally able to persuade the Minister of Customs at the time, Jack Marshall, to be given representation on an appeal committee to be set up to consider books being imported.

It was interesting, in terms of the legal action, that the Council had Professor Ian Gordon, a well-known professor of English at Victoria University, appearing as a witness to say that the book did have some literary merit.

Opposition to the Proposed 1960 All Black Tour to South Africa – (1959 and 1960)

The 1960 All Black tour to South Africa was again another issue of interest for the Council.

In late1959 there were public protests about the sending of a white/pakeha All Black team to tour South Africa.  The NZ Rugby Union was insistent that the team would go. The Council made public statements opposing the tour unless a team selected on merit rather than on a racial basis was selected to go.

In a briefing, Brigadier Gilbert the head of the NZSS assured Prime Minister Walter Nash that ‘if it wasn’t for the communists, there would be absolutely no opposition to the tour whatsoever’.

I thought this was a fascinating insight into the mindset of the man who was leading the NZSS.  

So, in other words, you could see from the tone of some of the police reports, public comments by Brigadier Gilbert and others, that it was almost like they saw a red under every bed to use a popular expression of the time.  

Council’s Annual Report – (March 1959)

I thought that in the Council’s 1959 Annual Report Mr. Scott was being very modest when writing about the Council’s first seven years of existence. He said that the Council has ‘always regarded its work as unspectacular, but necessary. Its main justification is its continued existence and readiness to take up matters that come along’.

There weren’t many people or organisations through the 1950s that were tackling issues that really did pose a serious threat to the civil liberties and freedoms of New Zealanders. You only had to look at the three pieces of law passed in 1951 and ponder how much longer they could have been kept in place if the Council had not persisted in drawing public attention to the repressive nature of them and demanding the repeal of two of them.

In the 1960s

Lack of Transparency in NZSS Funding – (1960)

One of the early issues for the Council in the 1960s was the lack of transparency in how the New Zealand Security Service was funded.

Rather like MI5 at that stage, the NZSS was not mandated by legislation. That didn’t happen until 1969. They were trying to keep its existence quiet with varying degrees of success. I think in terms of legislation it was not until the 1980s that MI5 was given a statutory existence.

 I was able to identify through other literature two places where the NZSS funding was hidden. One was in the provision for Prison Warders Overtime.  The amount of money in there I believe to be somewhere in the region of 95,000 pounds. That actually went quite a distance in those days, much further than 190,000 dollars would today.

I think the Department of Justice funding for cleaning was another hiding place for it and so that continued for quite some time. It could have ended up as the limousine service budget or petrol budget or could have gone anywhere. Anyway, the key aspect was the complete lack of transparency and the Council rigourisly pursued the issue.

They wrote a letter to the Auditor-General who was the overseer of the spending of public funding and asked whether or not the Auditor-General was willingly complicit in this deception of the New Zealand taxpayer.  I was unable to find any reference to a reply which was not surprising.

 So that lead me to the next issue that I thought was worth raising.  In 1962 Brigadier Gilbert stepped out of the shadows in a reported speech to the Returned Services Association in which he complained that the New Zealand public had not really realised the magnitude of the communist threat at the time.

Mr Scott and Professor Roberts were quoted at length in the newspaper and at the Council AGM talking about the issues involving the NZSS.  In a report on the meeting where Scott and Roberts had spoken, I was not surprised to see a Police Special Branch officer give quite a detailed account of the meeting to his superior. He described Professor Roberts as being ‘extremely naïve’ and then further on as being ‘a woolly-headed thinker’.

Having been a former student of Professor Roberts, I would have to say I never detected any hint of any attitude or behaviour like that. So, it was almost like the officer was describing someone who was just walking down Lambton Quay.

So that continued the thrust for the Council’s continual examination of the NZSS. It was followed by yet another interesting event where there was a brief mention made in the police file that they’d come across an agenda for the Council’s 1959 AGM.

It had emanated from some papers that they had obtained from the rubbish bin of the Wellington law firm Duncan Matthews Taylor. Neil Taylor was a member of the Council. This again showed the sort of level of activity the NZSS was engaging in. It was going through rubbish from the law firm and probably other targeted individuals as well.

Godfrey Affair at Auckland University. Statement by Professor Ralph Brookes – (1966)

Moving into the mid1960s, some people may well remember the Godfrey affair at Auckland University where the NZSS, in perhaps a reflection on the intellectual capability of its officers, had to get special admission for one of them to attend Auckland University for the purpose of spying on other students to ascertain who was saying what or who was thinking what.

Anyway, agent Godfrey was duly unmasked and quite a fuss occurred. I remember it myself although at the time I was still at high school. In the midst of the fuss there was an amusing statement in the newspaper from Ralph Brookes who had become a professor at Victoria. University. He urged the NZSS to employ university graduates who were capable of sophisticated analysis of political ideology and theories. He felt that may help the NZSS to lift its game.  I don’t know how successful that suggestion was.

The same comment was also made by Walter Scott a few years before. If those gentlemen had seen some of the contents of those files, which really just substantiated their viewpoint, they would likely have expressed even stronger criticism.

Mr Scott commented that it seemed that the Special Branch/NZSS had difficulty distinguishing between concerned citizens, liberals, academics, and communist ideologues.

In other words, it seemed that as far as the Special Branch/NZSS were concerned, anyone who was critical of perceived authority was fair game regardless of whether, or not, they posed any serious risk to the New Zealand political system and/or way of life.

In the 1970s

Wanganui Computer Centre – (1975)

In the 1970s we are starting to see computers becoming more proliferate in New Zealand and of course, some of the challenges that they presented. The Wanganui Computer Centre. The Council was concerned about that and around what checks and balances there were on it.  

They could obviously see the potential for building up large data bases of information on people, again, that people may not have known about and would not have had any right to correct mistakes and what have you. And with that I believe Mr. Dunning was on the Policy Committee for the Centre representing the Law Society.

The initial functions of the Wanganui Computer Centre were fairly modest really in dealing with applications from government departments that could conceivably depart from the provisions of the Act in relation to privacy. So, there were no huge threats to civil liberties emerging to protect at that early stage. 

I noticed in the file that Mr Hugh Price had some issues a bit further down the track when he tried to access a printout.  He had suffered a theft from his car with material to the value of about 100 pounds. When he got the printout, rather than appearing as the victim, it looked like he might have been the perpetrator.

He complained about it, as was his want I believe, and it ended up in an absolutely absurd situation where the State Services Commission was brought into it and they actually sought a legal opinion on whether or not printouts obtainable from the Wanganui Computer Centre had to be legible or not.  I didn’t see any more than that and I was left scratching my head.  So, you have all these odd situations that kept coming up.

Amendment to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969 – (1977)

The proposed 1977 amendment of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969. drew widespread criticism. The Muldoon government was seeking to bolster the powers of the (now) NZSIS. That lead to quite a public campaign and of course also involved the Council in making various representations opposing greater intrusions into the civil liberties of law-abiding New Zealanders.

Freedom of Information, Dank’s Committee – (1978)

We could probably say in terms of the 1970s, that information and freedom of information issues had really got going in New Zealand. In the United States it was a decade or so before us.

The Danks Committee, which ended up looking into the wider issue of freedom of information, received a submission from the Council. I remember going through some of those submissions at Archives New Zealand on that and on the Privacy Act, and so of course the Council appeared to me definitely to be very interested in freedom of information.

List of Threats to Civil Liberties in NZ – (1978)

In a set of meeting minutes, there was a list of threats to civil liberties in New Zealand at that time. 

I thought one was particularly worth raising here. It was expressed as the ‘intellectual impoverishment of ultra conservative commentators’.  Some things don’t change do they? 40 something years later the concern is probably even greater now I would think. 

In the 1980s

Doubling of SIS Budget – (1980)

Moving into the early 1980s the NZSIS budget remained a continual area of interest to the Council. In 1980 it was almost doubled. I don’t know for sure where the increase was going but I suspect that Muldoon was thinking about beefing it up for the proposed 1981 Springbok Tour.

So, the Council again made inquiries, but unfortunately, didn’t seem to get anywhere. It was disappointing to read in the Executive Committee Minutes where the Council would write to public servants who did not have the basic courtesy to respond to them in an intelligent manner.

That behaviour was not just limited to this issue. I noticed going through the minutes there were various instances where the Council would write letters to people, and there would be no reply received, or it would take ages to get a reply.

Muldoon/SUP/NZSIS – (1980)

In 1980 a list of the names of about thirty prominent members of the Moscow aligned Socialist Unity Party was released to the public by the then Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon. A number of newspapers published the list but some declined to.

The Council made critical press releases and gave serious consideration to taking legal action by way of seeking a declaratory judgement that the release of the list was unlawful in terms of the NZSIS Amendment Act. This led to the Council being attacked by Muldoon.

The issue generated a considerable amount of heat however the Council ultimately decided not to proceed with legal action.

It had been widely suspected that the list had been supplied to Muldoon by the NZSIS and that he was using the NZSIS for party political purposes which was inappropriate.

Springbok Tour – (1981)

Now the Springbok Tour.  Yes, obviously the SIS was gearing up for that. The Council of course was very concerned about the tour and expressed opposition to it along with a lot of other people, but all sadly without a favourable result.

At that time I was working in Christchurch and an acquaintance of mine, who was prominent in the young Rotary group, got approached by a person who asked if he would be interested in having a few months away from his job joining the Halt All Racist Tours group and leading protestors in to some law breaking activities on the promise that he would be granted immunity from prosecution should he be arrested.

He was quite shocked by this and refused to participate. So, I would imagine part of the doubling of the SIS budget in 1980 would have been looking ahead for the use of the NZSIS to impact on the protest movement before and during the 1981 tour by trying to discredit it.

Official Information Act 1982

1982 was a slightly better year I think for civil liberties up to a point.  The Official Information Act was passed, and of course that repealed the Official Secrets Act. Effectively, it turned the presumption underpinning the Official Secrets Act that government information would not be freely available and put it on its head and said government information will be freely available but with several stated exceptions. But what has happened since 1982, as a person who has used the Official Information Act from both sides of the counter, is that the number of exceptions have grown and grown.

And the Act now, personally I wouldn’t say it has come into disrepute, rather the problem has been the operation of it by government agencies and bodies that are the subject of it. In many cases now the poor performance is in not showing the appropriate level of respect for the taxpaying public.  I feel that it is still better to have it than not to have it. And particularly I guess, from a civil liberties perspective, having been able to get information, obviously, is essential.  So that’s another one for another occasion.

SIS Vetting of Public Servants – (1983)

This became quite a big issue. I had been doing a lot of reading in the last couple of years about what had been going on in the United Kingdom over the past six or seven decades.

They had a lot of trouble in terms of MI5 and MI6 with Soviet double agents and people defecting and all the rest of it. In addition, some people employed in other sensitive government defence agencies were caught selling secret information to the Soviets.

This ultimately gave rise to the vetting of public servants in the UK. We followed suit in1983  although I’m not quite sure whether there were many parts of the New Zealand state sector/ public service that would hold secrets that would be of great interest to spies or couldn’t be discovered by legitimate other means. But nonetheless the SIS got into the vetting game.

Police Infiltration of Protest Groups – (1983)

This had been an ongoing issue for the Council for quite some time.  The reason I put it in for 1983 was the Council had meetings with the Commissioner of Police and others and were actively campaigning that if the police were going to insert their officers into any protest group then they should have to obtain some sort of interception warrant.

Sad to say the Council did not have a lot of success with that, as you might imagine, but it was great that they did raise it.

Department of Customs Opening Mail and Passing it to the SIS – Owen Wilkes Case – (1983)

The Department of Customs opening of mail and passing it to the SIS was a further issue taken up by the Council in the 1980s. 

Owen Wilkes was a peace campaigner and he took a great interest in protesting about the Waihopai and Tangimoana ‘spy stations’ as he called them.  I thought that the SIS would definitely have been interested in Owen and so they were.

They were utilising the Department of Customs to keep an eye on his mail and any packages he was receiving from overseas. In addition, I would be confident that those actions would not simply have been limited to him.

Tim McBride’s Paper on ‘Whether NZ is on the Way to Becoming a Police State’ – (1984)

There was a conference in 1984 and Tim had offered a paper on whether New Zealand was on the way to becoming a police state. I think the 1981 Springbok tour had quite an impact on people vis-a-vis the police. Generally, the image of the police in New Zealand, I think up to that point, had been relatively benign, unless of course you had reason to fear them.

However, some of the common characteristics of a police state had become evident.  You could go back quite some time. I mean, during the Depression, its aftermath, during and after World War II, and into the 1950s we saw some draconian legislation giving the Police and intelligence services some very wide powers. Much of this remained in force for very lengthy periods and was added to in relation to the NZSIS.

After the Springbok Tour I had a lot of people in my family looking at the police in a different way after they had been at protests and seen people peacefully protesting being waded into by the Red Squad or the Blue Squad or whatever squad the police had present at that time.

Passing of Walter Scott – (1985)

By the time we got towards the mid-1980s some members of the original Executive Committee that was formed in 1952 had retired. However, it was also notable that a good number had stayed on the Council providing a sound core of experience and skill to the Council as it continued.

The passing of Walter Scott in 1985 was commented on in the police file. For 33 years Mr Scott had been one of the stalwarts of the Council and his contribution was acknowledged in the Executive Committee meeting minutes,

Privacy – (1987)

It was privacy that originally stimulated my interest in a PhD. I felt there had been inadequate research and I have always viewed privacy as a civil liberty. 

With the earlier onset of the computer age, and the capacity to build databases and store information, privacy had really started to become a significant concern.  I think it was notable that there was no legislation in New Zealand dealing with privacy as a discrete topic and focus until 1993.

My early research revealed that there was an abortive attempt by Roger Drayton, a Labour Party MP, in early 1972 to put up a private member’s bill. It was unsuccessful.

I thought, well, maybe the Kirk government might have moved in that area with a statute, but they didn’t. Then in 1991 Peter Dunne put up a further private member’s bill, but that didn’t go anywhere either.

It wasn’t until1993 that a Privacy Act was finally enacted. I regarded it at the time as, fundamentally, just an information act that really did not go far enough.

However, the Council’s submission signalled its concern around the potential impact computers could have on privacy and was certainly noted.

Public Safety Conservation Act 1932 Repealed – (1987)

The Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, under which the Waterfront Emergency Regulations were made in 1951, was finally repealed.

It was, I think, great to see that off the statute book, but the repeal was perhaps more symbolic than anything else.  Some of the material in it had simply been moved into the Crimes Act, which had also been bolstered in various areas.

Waihopai – (1988)

Again, the Council expressed concern about New Zealand being too closely pulled in with its allies and helping them to spy on other countries, including a number of which were friends.

It seemed to me the concept of plausible deniability was assisted, shall we say, by Waihopai supposedly not being used to spy on New Zealanders but it could be employed, by virtue of satellites, to spy on say Canadians.  Australian based facilities could have been spying on Americans. American based facilities could have been spying on the British and the British could have been spying on us.  So that is an issue that continues to live on.

Civil Rights or Civil Liberties? – (1989)

When I saw on the Agenda for the AGM that Mr Nat Dunning was to be present to receive a Life Membership, I thought I should make reference to a paper written by him some years ago that I found attached to a set of the Council’s 1989 minutes titled “Civil Rights or Civil Liberties”. In it Mr Dunning lucidly outlined the differences between the two concepts.

I suspect the Council, at that time, may have had some people who were interested in broadening the scope of its activities to include civil rights in other countries but that wasn’t taken up due to constraints on resources and people’s time and the fact that the Council had more than enough civil liberty issues occurring in New Zealand.

NZCCL on NZ Intelligence Agency’s List of Subversive Groups – (1989)

Minutes of the Council’s Executive Committee meeting on 13 February 1989 disclosed that the Committee had become aware that the Council was on a list of ‘subversive groups in New Zealand’ that one of the NZSIS’s predecessors had supplied in response to a request from the British defector Kim Philby while Philby was still working for MI6.

This matter came to light in the controversy surrounding Peter Wright’s book ‘Spycatcher’ which was published in 1987. Given that Philby defected to the Soviet Union in January 1963 the list is likely to have been requested by him some time prior to that date. I suspect that the list would have been passed on by Philby to his Soviet handler for wider dissemination.

This matter further bears out the concerns expressed by Walter Scott and Ralph Brookes that the Police Special Branch/NZSS/NZSIS lacked sophistication when considering the level of threat posed by groups like the Council which operated in an open and legal manner.


So that is a very short trip through the Council’s history from 1952 until the beginning of the 1990s. Much more could be said but hopefully what I have said gives you a sketch of the topic.

Thinking particularly about the earliest days of the Council, who knows what could have transpired if it was not for the Council and its supporters saying enough is enough in 1952 and taking action to form the Council. Who knows what risk was posed to member’s careers by reporting from the Police Special Branch and its successors.

While some Council members might sometimes have expressed concern at how effective the Council has been, I think that the state of civil liberties in New Zealand could well have been worse than it currently is if it was not for the Council taking up issues as they arose.