Sitting MPs under surveillance by government agencies

It is good that the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security has confirmed that the all SIS files on sitting MPs have been closed.

It is not good for democracy when MPs are under surveillance by government agencies.

However, I think the Inspector-General has set the bar to low for the opening of files on a sitting MP. The test is going to be whether the Member ‘is suspected of undertaking activities detrimental to security.’

The problem lies with the broad definition of security in intelligence legislation. I don’t think an MP should have immunity if they engage in espionage, sabotage or an act of terrorism. But are we really likely to see one doing that?

The real problem is when MPs are deemed to threaten security

by engaging in “activities which impact on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being”. The words are those used both in legislation and the Inspector-General’s report.

What best advances New Zealand international reputation or economic interests is debated in Parliament each week. For example, the Greens argue that the free trade and investment agreement with China undermines New Zealand manufacturing, and allows Chinese interests to buy up our dairy farms.

The government holds that the increased New Zealand exports to China, particularly in dairy, outweigh any downsides. The government is worried Russel Norman tarnished our good relations with China by waving a Tibetan flag on the steps of Parliament. The Greens hold it enhanced New Zealand’s reputation with those struggling for democracy in China and Tibet.

For those who think it unlikely MPs would be spied upon for having views different from the government, that is exactly why a file was kept on me 55 years, including during my first six years in Parliament. The file demonstrates that my opposition to the Vietnam war, apartheid, and nuclear weapons was seen by governments of the day as a threat to security. The last entry in my file, in 2006, resulted from me having a different approach to the conflict in Sri Lanka. In 2003 I went to Sri Lanka on a peacemaking mission, talking to all sides in the conflict. This upset the SIS, which was clearly on the side of the Sri Lankan government. We can see today the tragic results of a failure to reach a negotiated settlement.

The Inspector-General discloses that by 2006 the SIS had accumulated personal files on 6,700 individuals, which is a huge number for a country more noted for its absence of politically motivated criminality. Who knows how many public service careers have been affected by the existing of such personal files. And who knows how many New Zealanders have been inhibited from engaging in public dissent for fear of having their activities recorded on an SIS file?

It is a positive move that the SIS has been reassessing the validity of keeping so many files and more are being closed. I agree with the Inspector-General’s view that more openness on this matter is desirable, and that public confidence would be enhanced ‘ if the Service’s annual report affirmed with such detail as appropriate that destruction of or closing access to dated records is a continuing process.”

Another issue addressed in the report is to what extent targets of SIS surveillance should be told about it, and given the opportunity to see their files, as I have. At the moment New Zealanders have to guess whether they have a file and apply for it under the Privacy Act. Even when they apply, many are told the Service will “neither confirm, nor deny” the presence of a file, which naturally upsets them. Generally they are people who, in my assessment, would not be under current surveillance and should be told about their records. The really dangerous people don’t generally apply for their files.