Last fortnight in Parliament, I spoke on the first reading of the Bill intended to reform our intelligence agencies.
The ‘Intelligence and Security Bill’ is intended to bring our intelligence laws into line with today’s environment and context.
Terrorism continues to change and evolve, and the increase in cybersecurity attacks on our government departments and organisations has been staggering.
We need the best defence to protect Kiwis, but there is possibly no more sensitive an issue than the work of our intelligence agencies.
The challenge we face is this: We need to make sure New Zealanders are safe and secure and our basic rights and freedoms from attack are protected, while at the same time ensuring that our privacy is maintained.
In a positive move, the government has sought the support of Labour over the proposed bill and has left some fundamental decisions – for example the definition of national security – to be defined through the select committee process after listening to submitters.
A bipartisan approach will help to ensure the resulting laws will be strong and robust.
As one of the five members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I welcome this new direction taken by Attorney General Chris Finlayson.
Three years ago, (Prime Minister) John Key rammed new spy laws through Parliament with a majority of just one. That short-sighted move eroded the confidence of the New Zealand public in our intelligence agencies.
We need and want our agencies to have the broadest possible powers to combat threats to New Zealanders, but to only be permitted to use those powers in carefully-defined circumstances and with a full range of checks on what they are doing.
For example, it is currently illegal for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to use its electronic expertise to spy on any New Zealander.
That has thrown up some problems: imagine a New Zealander is taken hostage in Syria and we detect a New Zealand telephone being used there and believe it is linked to the hostage situation. Sadly, we cannot listen to any conversations because the phone might belong to a New Zealander and the GCSB is forbidden to spy on New Zealanders.
The same problem could occur if a New Zealander travels overseas to join the Islamic State. It would be illegal for GCSB to listen to that person’s phone despite the fact it could pose a security threat.
Under the new legislation, New Zealanders will be able to be spied up on by the GCSB but only in exceptional and highly regulated situations.
GCSB must obtain a warrant from the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Warrants, who is a retired judge.
On top of that, every warrant will later be scrutinised by the Inspector of Intelligence to ensure that it was justified.
Striking the balance
In this way, we strike a balance between enabling the agencies to combat terrorism and stamp out people trafficking and other heinous crimes by giving them the powers they need to do that, but ensure that New Zealanders going about their everyday business can never be spied upon – or ever fear they are.
The Bill will go through the Select Committee of which I am a member.
There are aspects of the Bill we will scrutinise closely, and will want to obtain advice on from experts such as the Privacy Commissioner, the Law Commission and others, to ensure that it is rigorous but enables the agencies to do their jobs.
However, I have said on many occasions that when it comes to terrorism, intelligence agencies can only do so much.
The terrorism that we have seen around the world stems from people who are isolated and disenfranchised in the communities they live, and many of them have mental health problems.
It is the strength of our relationships with every member of our community, in particular the Muslim community, that is our first and most important line of defence against terrorism.
Overwhelmingly New Zealand’s Muslim community is law-abiding, hard-working, family oriented and puts a premium on good education for their children so that they can prosper and contribute to New Zealand.
Having strong, fair intelligence laws is vitally important, but it’s only part of the picture.
David Shearer is an elected Member of Parliament from Mt Albert in Auckland and Labour Party’s spokesman for Foreign Affairs.