Sometimes in politics actions belie words , philosophers call this a `performative contradiction`. Well I think I`ve spotted a classic case. Just after the National Party conference John Key smirked that New Zealanders cared more about snapper quotas than privacy issues. Protestors, pointy heads` Campbell Live` watchers and other non-National voters may carry on regardless. Middle New Zealand doesn`t care a toss and government poll ratings remain high. Why then, did John Key suddenly decide to front John Campbell? That was last Wednesday. And, if one agrees with the view that Key dominated proceedings why did he release a press statement on Friday pledging strict controls over GCSB warrants to surveill emails?
These performative contradictions have damaged government credibility.
By giving the GCSB bill added media profile Key has made it more difficult for his communication managers to frame and manage the issue. Here, one can only conclude that National`s private polling is delivering mixed results. Are some of their supporters feeling uneasy over recent events?
On Saturday the New Zealand Herald featured a column from Rodney Harrison, a prominent legal critic of the bill. He was given ample space to rebutt John Key`s earlier statements from the `Campbell Live` interview. Harrison conclusion was as follows , `the Prime Minister`s attempt to reassure New Zealanders we are not sleepwalking into a total surveillance society is, unfortunately, flawed in its legal analysis and fails to convince.`
Ouch! The New Zealand Herald doesn`t usually give National`s opponents this kind of opportunity. Another sign perhaps that some conservatives were concerned about the bill.
This situation reminds me of Margaret Thatcher`s Poll tax from twenty years ago. Her attempts to force non-property owners to pay municipal rates failed because it threatened individual liberty per se. As opposition to the tax spread from left to right some conservative MPs expressed disquiet. News coverage intensified as Maggies spin doctors lost control of the issue. Could something similar be happening here over the GCSB bill? Before we answer there is a prior question to consider. If the GCSB bill passes will that end the matter? Or is the surveillance issue likely to resurface before the next election?
Well, if Monday nights Auckland Town Hall meeting is any indication the debate has only just begun. Over 1500 people. Stalls,balcony and `the gods` were full as our speakers took the stage. Under a `big brother` video screen featuring the Waihopi spy base, compere Martyn Bradbury waved a fishing rod and talked briefly about snapper quotas before getting the night under way.
The audience was expectant, not just activists and middle class liberals but an older conservative cohort that should have worried National Party strategists. Daily Blog visitors can observe the meeting for themselves, let me just add some pertinent observations. Rodney Harrison`s distillation of the legal concerns was exemplary. He set out clearly the new powers accorded to the GCSB; the right to spy on New Zealanders and gather communications data without specific justification. Kim Dot Com`s address reminded us all that the surveillance question was here to stay. There will be further revelations from Edward Snowden and more to come from Dot Com`s own defence team about what the Prime Minister knew and when. The big German wasn`t sweating at all. Jon Stephenson`s first person account of how a journalist becomes a subversive was quietly chilling. His travails predate the new surveillance legislation, how will journalists fare in years to come? Infotech specialist Seeby Woodhouse discussed the Telecommunications Interception bill. As high-speed Broadband cables roll out, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be shoulder tapped by the GCSB ;legally sanctioned Intelligence access to internet communication will become routine. A number of speakers noted that some people were surveilled more than others and that this inequity was likely to increase. According to Helen Kelly, Jane Kelsey and Marama Davidson , workers, anti-corporate protestors and indigenous rights activists would attract even more surveillance from intelligence agencies. What then could we expect from our politicians? Labour leader David Shearer resolutely opposed the GCSB bill and promised an independent inquiry into our intelligence networks followed by a replacement of National`s legislation. But it was Russel Norman from the Green Party who looked and sounded like the leader of the opposition. `People should not live in fear of their government`. `People should have trust in each other`. New Zealand should not be` second deputy sheriff to the great United States`. This was standing ovation material and the rhetoric cut across political lines. Feeling proud of our country and not wanting to be bullied and spied upon were sentiments which challenged the sneering cynicism of our Prime Minister. And, Winston Peters too wound up the pressure; `we will not support a bill that makes our Prime Minister all powerful`. By this stage audience enthusiasm was at a high pitch , `yes, he is going to make 5 per cent` I thought to myself. Mana Party leader Hone Hawariwa re-iterated the inequities of surveillance, beneficiaries experienced daily the insecurities of intrusions from the IRD, Work and Income, ACC , the Department of Corrections and their data matching programmes. By all means oppose the bill, he was saying, but widen your social vision. And, finally Nicky Hager; his early concerns about the Echelon network seemed so prescient now. The international context was foregrounded. Our new security laws will bring us further within US directed security operations, alongside citizens from the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The GCSB`s offshore allegiances were the real problem; as the `war against terrorism` continues without end New Zealand effectively becomes a US colony. `Not a pleasant prospect` I thought as Mr Bradbury wound up proceedings. As he implored us to vote out the government I could hear David Shearer thinking ,`I wish I had said that`.
So, as of Monday August 19 it looks like the GCSB bill will pass. However,this matter is not settled. Monday`s meeting bought together an unlikely coalition of interests,from left activists to concerned conservatives. It’s the latter group the Prime Minister should be concerned about as we head to the next election. Could the GCSB bill be John Key`s poll tax?