I’ve been using this site a lot more than usual over the last week to make available to the public relevant material over National’s attempts to put in place a temporary fix on surveillance powers. Yesterday, I issued 4 bottom lines that Labour says any legislation must meet in order to receive our support.
Someone told me today that No Right Turn - which I know often contains good commentary – has been critical of the bottom lines I issued yesterday on the temporary surveillance bill. So I just took a look. He has a right to his opinion, but I don’t think this is his best work. If you read his blog and are forming a view about Labour’s surveillance bottom lines, please read what I say below first.
Labour is a mainstream political party. We seek to act with principle, but also to apply pragmatism. Sometimes this means that we oppose implacably. But sometimes it means that we can’t be as pure as the driven snow. Last week’s debate on the Criminal Procedure Bill is a good example. We saved the right to silence, and stopped the Government from being able to try people in absentia. We got the usual level of credit – none – from the media, and from left-wing commentators. Ah well.
Did we stop poor un- or under- represented people being tricked into being sent to jail by giving high-minded speeches in the House and refusing to engage? No. We got our hands dirty. We sat down with the Nats and negotiated. That’s how we sometimes get change when we are in opposition. Labour has always had to take this approach when National is in government, otherwise the people we represent get screwed. We look out as far as we can for their interests, rather than shout ineffectually from the sidelines and maintain our purity until the political cycle turns in their favour again. I make no apology for that. I’m proud of it, even if those who can afford the luxury of purity of thought without action like to criticise us when we take that approach.
It’s the approach we have also taken on the Nat’s temporary fix to surveillance laws. Do the maths. There are 57 Nats. Peter Dunne gave them a blank cheque on day 1 on this issue. ACT has 5 MPs. That adds up to 63 and it’s a parliamentary majority. So if ACT are going to support the fix, the fix happens, and we open the door to a whole lot of human rights abuses.
Labour and ACT joined forces to make National hold select committee hearings on the fix. There was limited time for sumbissions. No Right Turn made one, and Labour MP Clare Curran turned up to hand it in (she got the usual credit for this, by the way - none. Ah well.) So unless we wanted to just stand aside from the process, the question became how to apply the evidence we heard at select committee to narrow down the scope of the fix to only what it absolutely needs to be, in a way that allows ACT to support such a narrow solution rather than the Nats’ excessively broad one.
We applied the evidence to our analysis of the political solution, and we came up with 4 fundamental positions:
- The Nats’ bill was too wide. In particular, there is no need to interfere with existing investigations. Despite all John Key’s rhetoric, the Courts have all the powers they need to control these, and we don’t need to and won’t agree to confer any more on a retrospective basis.
- 12 months is too long a period to apply a temporary fix to an issue that the Nats should have moved on ages ago in the current Parliament instead of pushing through law and order window-dressing like 3 strikes, depriving inmates of the right to vote, and boot camps. 6 months will do.
- Ideally, we’d require warrants for all surveillance, but the experts were emphatic that drafting the regime required in the few days left – even if based on existing law – could leave big loopholes. Meanwhile, we should limit any powers to strictly and only those that could be exercised before the Supreme Court decision.
- And what should happen to cases already decided in good faith by the courts on the basis of what they thought was settled law? Should those cases be able to be reopened by applying the Supreme Court decision retrospectively? The Human Rights Commission said – emphatically - that they should not. I agree. The Courts are busy enough and those currently accused of crimes – and everyone else in the system – should not be made to wait longer for justice because of the need to deal with a flood of post hoc appeals.
If we get legislation that complies with the four points I just summarised, the Nats will have lost big time in a major attempt to interfere with our human rights. And it won’t be because MPs from a couple of minor parties stood clear of the debate and held their noses. It will be because Labour pushed the envelope as far as possible given the numbers in the House. In most democracies, that would be regarded as a pretty significant achievement given the right:left imbalance in Parliament right now. Here, expect us to get the usual level of credit. Ah well.