I have spent a lot of time over the past two weeks at meetings of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (of Parliament) debating the ‘Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill.’
Members of the Muslim community in New Zealand spoke at the Select Committee hearing, saying that they are being unfairly picked-on, particularly women who are easily identifiable as Muslims because of their headscarves.
That is concerning because they are among the most peace-loving people in New Zealand.
If they hear of radicalisation occurring here, they are the ones likely to tell the Police.
Keeping a dialogue and the lines of communication open with our Muslim communities is one of the most important things we can do in New Zealand to nip problems in the bud and prevent violence.
Sadly, members of the Muslim community told us that they had requested for a meeting with Prime Minister John Key and Ethnic Communities Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga and that both turned down the request.
As was pointed out, the government respects Muslim values when it involves multi-million-dollar halal meat exports, but less so when Muslims themselves feel worried about their safety.
One Muslim woman spoke with great dignity saying, “We are not Muslims in New Zealand; we are Muslims of New Zealand. Like everyone else we want our children to have a safe place to grow up.”
Keeping New Zealanders safe has to be one of the top priorities of any Parliament.
The government’s rationale for the bill was that there are rising terrorist threats to New Zealand as a result of Middle Eastern conflicts and growing extremism.
New Zealand is bound by UN Security Council Resolution 2178 to ensure that no New Zealand citizen travels overseas to commit acts of terrorism.
The issue for me was to be convinced of those threats. We had briefings by the SIS, then brought them back and asked further questions in secret.
After those briefings, I believed that the law put forward by the government increased the powers of the SIS beyond the scope of the threat.
I felt it was our responsibility to be absolutely sure that any increased SIS powers should be for the sole purpose of addressing terrorism. I wanted to make sure this Bill will not become a backdoor for a widening of SIS powers more generally, particularly as we had no opportunity for a proper debate or to consider the bill carefully over time.
Politically it was also clear that the government had the numbers to pass the bill without the Labour Party.
But by engaging as we did, we have an infinitely better piece of legislation that I believe gets the balance about right between ensuring New Zealanders’ safety and protecting our basic human rights.
In fact, from what we heard from the Inspector General of Intelligence – the office that is the watchdog of our intelligence agencies – is that the SIS will be scrutinised more closely than it has ever been before.
I am also grateful to about 600 New Zealanders who submitted their views and suggestions on the Bill. Many of them felt sufficiently concerned to submit to a Select Committee for the first time.
The rushed process was appalling, and simply not right for legislation as important as this. But the follow up with the Muslim community is just as important.
David Shearer is elected Member of Parliament from Mt Albert. He is Labour Party Spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Consumer Affairs. Read our Editorial, ‘Muslims deserve better treatment’ under Viewlink.