And they are right. Week after week our Australian friends have scratched their heads in amazement, they wonder, how can a prime minister, who is responsible for a country’s intelligence agencies, get away with being caught out unlawfully spying on its own people. How can John Key get away with resolving this illegal activity by creating legislation that will make it legal. How can the Executive Wing of government get away with conducting a drag-net operation, a trawl of all communication records relating to a minister of the Crown (and it isn’t the first time the Key Government has done this); a Parliamentary press gallery journalist; and all the people that journalist had phoned and emailed from February through to May – including all data stored by Parliament of her security swipe-card movements, times, access-points, locations.
This was all private information obtained against their will or consent.
In previous weeks, our Australian friends suggested that the New Zealand Government had become the Stasi of the South Pacific.
When you consider the above, you can understand why.
THIS WEEK’s REVELATIONS that David Henry, the Prime Minister’s inquiry head, acquired on ‘request’ all the phone and email records between a Minister of the Crown and a Parliamentary press gallery journalist. This gives us another chance to stand back, to look at the big picture, to consider the tapestry that New Zealand presents to our neighbours in Australia and the wider Pacific.
It offers us an opportunity to compare, to consider how New Zealand was once seen as an independent Pacific Island state, that punched above its weight on global issues, where our message and ethos was frequently elevated to a state of influence based on the strength of the morality of our argument.
Today, we represent a nation that is obsessed with itself, where foreign policy is hardly ever spoken of, where the efforts of legislative reform are consumed by trade-led compliance to the demands of the two dominating superpowers, where the reach of domestic search and surveillance powers are absolute, without assurances that our civil engagement with each other will not be provided or sold to overseas governments and corporations.
New Zealand today, presents an official culture that is poles apart from the days when we took in the Tampa refugees, refused to engage in a war justified on the basis of bogus intelligence, stood up and said it is now unlawful for nuclear powered warships or vessels carrying nuclear weapons to enter our territorial waters.
Today, it is understandable why our neighbours see us more as a contradiction: where we celebrate the liberty of people to marry irrespective of their gender, while we continue, as a nation (based on political polls) to support a Prime Minister whose government professes to be moderate while legislating to make lawful an extension of search and surveillance powers that has caused even Microsoft and Google to submit a caution: that the new legislation will place these multinationals in a position where they must choose to obey the laws of New Zealand or those of the United States.
Such is the ditch between what John Key’s bill proposes and that of which the United States currently has.
This is the backdrop to the big news this week that the New Zealand Parliament’s privileges committee has initiated a public investigation into why Parliamentary Services accessed and handed over to the Prime Minister’s investigator all email and phone records between political journalist Andrea Vance and MP Peter Dunne.
This investigation will test the propriety of the Prime Minister, his office, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the office of the Speaker, and Parliamentary Services itself.
The fact that Parliament’s inquiry is having to investigate at all is testament to how much of a shambles has emerged under the governance style of John Key.
What we know is the Prime Minister’s investigator David Henry was tasked by the Prime Minister to find out how a confidential report into New Zealand’s electronic spy agency the GCSB found its way into the hands of Andrea Vance.
This week it was revealed that all of Vance’s phone and email records, of communications spanning February to May, were ‘obtained’ by Parliamentary Services and ‘handed over’ to the Prime Minister’s investigator without the permission or consent of either MP Peter Dunne, nor Andrea Vance, nor any of the hundreds of other people she was in contact with during that time-span.
Understandably, there has been an uproar in Parliament.
The Speaker is responsible for what happens within the Parliament but also for what Parliamentary Services did. First this week the Speaker David Carter denied Vance’s phone records had been handed over to the inquiry.
By Wednesday the Speaker had to stand up in Parliament, beside his glorious chair rather than sit in it, and state he was wrong, that the phone records had indeed been handed over to the Prime Minister’s investigator.
Did the Speaker authorise this drag-net-operation? He says not. Was the Speaker aware that Parliamentary Services had trawled and acquired all of Vance’s communication records and security swipe-card data? He says not. Is Parliamentary Services operating in a rogue fashion? It appears so, at least at this stage in the saga.
The Office of the Prime Minister:
Did the Prime Minister’s office, or the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s servants, or the Prime Minister’s Chief Of Staff ‘request’ or demand information the Prime Minster’s investigator needed to discover who had been talking to whom on a matter of ‘National security’?
Well, that is the assertion of the opposition party leaders, and frankly is how any reasonably minded person would fathom the events that have been revealed this week.
The Speaker now states that the communication records were handed over by a lowly placed contractor to Parliamentary Services. But surely, that does not stack up when one considers the extraordinary pressure on the Prime Minster’s investigator to obtain that information, and the formal channels he must have followed (via the Parliamentary Service) to acquire the information. At some stage, at some juncture, decisions were made by senior office holders to comply.
- PLEASE NOTE UPDATE: Since this article was written the head of Parliamentary Services, Geoff Thorn has resigned, receiving three month’s pay as a golden handshake. The Speaker said in a statement: “… both he (Thorn) and I acknowledge that the confidence in Parliamentary Service has been undermined by events in recent weeks, and as general manager he accepts responsibility for this.” See: Fairfax report.
Did the Prime Minister’s chief of staff use his influence to persuade Parliamentary Services to cough up the information? Did all the Prime Minister’s men conspire to keep the Prime Minister and the Speaker estranged from the detail?
If we are to believe John Key and the Speaker this is not how it played.
The Privileges Committee Public Inquiry:
Parliament’s privileges committee, has considerable investigative powers and will now conduct a public inquiry into the matter.
The inquiry will evaluate the contradicting statements put before our Parliament.
For example; in Parliament the Prime Minister John Key denied instructing David Henry to acquire the communications. He also denied any knowledge of whether his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, had heavy-ed Parliamentary Services into acquiring the communications meta-data and handing it over to his investigator.
In any event, this operation caused a fundamental breach of private communications between a then minister of the Crown and a political journalist. This action is also, as both Labour leader David Shearer and Green Party leader Russel Norman have both argued, an appalling over-reach of the powers extended to the Prime Minister and his people, a deconstruction of the structure upon which the New Zealand version of democracy depends.
A Back-Story Of Power-Culture:
Today, Andrea Vance broke her relative silence on this saga where she eloquently paints a raw context of how this Prime Minister values the fourth estate’s role in this democracy.
He might well cherish the opportunities it gives him to beam into our living rooms at teatime, but it has become rather obvious that this government has a casual disregard for media’s true role as an independent watchdog.
Journalists were dismissed in a tantrum as “knuckleheads”.
The teapot tapes fiasco – when Key laid a complaint about eavesdropping on a personal conversation – led to police raids on newsrooms.
This week, the Defence Force stood accused of monitoring the phone calls of war correspondent Jon Stephenson, a man whose credibility Key has previously impugned.
That contempt for the press continued yesterday with the obfuscation around what Henry had actually requested.
He might not have asked for details of all the phone calls I made, but he certainly asked what calls I placed to ministers and their staff.
It amounts to the same thing.
Crucially, Key ordered that inquiry and he can no more shrug off responsibility for how it was conducted than Henry can.
Vance is correct. The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Either he instructed his investigator to acquire the communication records and security card data from Parliamentary Services, or he did not.
Or did this Prime Minister maintain a cavalier attitude, a position of being comfortable with however they chose to get their man, where he observed just the right distance necessary to give himself wiggle-room should things play out as they have, knowing that the culture of disregard for the media that he and all of his men have constructed would be instruction enough.
Did all the Prime Minister’s men take it upon themselves to retrieve this information from Parliamentary Services; where the sole object was to get their leaker; where the method of operation to get their man was paramount to any sensitivities that the lousy pinkos may hold dear? – Where the expression of office was all powerful compared to the views of opposition politicians, academics, civil libertarians, and those who recognise the importance of observing the independence of our democratic institutions?
This shadowy episode in the term of this National-led Government has parallels to a time in the 1970s that rocked the USA, where an over-extension of the powers of Executive Office was unpicked, by degrees, to finally conclude with the resignation of its president. There and then, that man, right up until the end, professed he had done no wrong. He said: “I’m not a crook!”
Yesterday, in New Zealand’s Parliament John Key, the man, said he was not aware of the communication records having been acquired, had not instructed his men to obtain the records, and was not responsible for the fact that they had.
Well, let Parliament’s privileges committee conduct a full, thorough, and satisfying inquiry with full powers of investigation, where facts rather than politics, spin, and cheesy lines are put. And once it concludes, sorry Prime Minister, we, not you will be the judge of whether you observed the standards of prime ministership that were inherited from your predecessors.