An uneasy truce on anti-terror bill

5:12 pm on 5 December 2014

The two main political parties have settled on an uneasy truce over the anti-terror legislation, despite public consultation held at breakneck pace and a significant expansion to the powers of New Zealand's domestic spying agency.

Prime Minister John Key

Prime Minister John Key said he particularly wanted the Labour Party's support. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The Government bill aimed at curtailing the threat of foreign fighters will become law next week, but not before it underwent significant changes at the hands of MPs on the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade select committee.

The process the Government employed for the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill has been roundly condemned as rushed and undemocratic, and occurred in an environment where some politicians and the public are wary of such changes.

That was acknowledged even by the chair of the parliamentary committee that considered the bill, Mark Mitchell, who said while it's a not a perfect world, the committee had to work within the parameters it was given.

In initial discussions, Labour warned the Prime Minister's office it was going to give the Government a kicking over the speed at which the legislation would go through Parliament, but would nonetheless be willing to work constructively over the actual content of the bill.

Prime Minister John Key's public comments that he wanted Labour in particular on board, set the scene for a bi-partisan approach that's left the two parties relatively satisfied with the final shape of the bill.

Labour's main concerns centred around the new powers of visual surveillance being sought by the Security Intelligence Service; under the current law only the police can carry out video surveillance.

However, the police have certain thresholds for such surveillance, including that the crime they suspect is being or about to be committed carries a penalty of seven years' imprisonment or more.

Labour Leader Andrew Little announcing Labour's new caucus

Labour leader Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Labour and other parties were concerned that the SIS was seeking to obtain the right of video surveillance within the anti-terror legislation as Trojan Horse, but then use it in a much wider application.

Therefore, that was one of the issues over which the members of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee grappled, and in the end amendments were made.

The committee recommended that any visual surveillance, be it under warrant, or for 24 hours without a warrant, be restricted to terrorist activities.

If that compromise had not been reached, that could have scuppered the cross-party agreement that resulted in the warrantless surveillance period being reduced from 48 hours to 24, and several provisions giving the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security much great oversight.

The committee also recommended that this legislation expire in April 2017, a year earlier than originally proposed.

This still fits within the timeframe for a general review of the intelligence services from which permanent legislation will flow; the Government's intention is to complete that review by the end of next year, well before the new sunset clause kicks in.

By all accounts MPs on the committee, in the very short time they had to hear public submissions and recommend changes, worked in a non-partisan and co-operative manner.

Certainly more so than than the political process that delivered the contentious changes to the act governing the Government Communications Security Bureau, where opposition was entrenched and vocal.

At that time, the Government seemed happy to lean on the still disgraced United Future leader Peter Dunne to deliver the one vote majority needed to get the legislation over the line, rather than engage in meaningful or constructive negotiations with the other side.

For this legislation, the tone was set by the leadership of the two main parties, who gave MPs on the select committee the mandate to strike a deal over any changes, which would subsequently be adhered to when the bill came back to the House.

While questions still remain, as expressed by citizens, legal institutions and other interested organisations through public submissions, the political co-operation has resulted in more robust legislation and a smoother path for the bill's passage next week.

Follow Jane Patterson on Twitter @rnzgalleryjane

Waihopai spy base

The Waihopai spy base in Marlborough. Photo: Photo NZ

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