Citing WMDs as a basis for ‘clarifying’ the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau wasn’t the best appeal the Prime Minister could have made.

After the USA’s adventurism in Iraq even the hawks among us will have a well-developed suspicion of that particular invocation as a basis for doing anything.  Put that together with our happy assumptions about our immunity from the world’s geo-political ills and the hill in front of Key got a whole lot steeper. 

If nothing else it played into the hands of those keen to keep their opposition to the Government's proposed changes at a polemical level; after all nothing ensures column inches like outrage well expressed.

And so, what might be well-reasoned and even desirable tweaking has become very easily tainted as National Party reactionism and a post-hoc (though not retrospective) reward for the illegal behaviours of GSCB in spying on New Zealand citizens and permanent residents.

Intended as such or not, that is the effect of the proposed changes to section 14 of the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003.    The ban on intercepting the communications of New Zealanders will be retained, but it will only apply to the foreign intelligence functions of the GCSB and not to the provision of cooperation and assistance to local agencies’ lawful investigations.

Sitting alongside this will be the quid pro quo – additional scrutiny to balance the widened powers.  People other than judges will be able to assume the role of GCSB watchdog, presumably broadening the range and experience of those in the Inspector-General’s role.  Also the Inspector-General’s office will be able to instigate its own inquiries more readily and report each year on whether the agencies it oversees have kept within the law. Compliance audits and reporting processes will be tightened up and the work of the Inspector-General will become more transparent. 

All good stuff, at least on the face of it.  But in the end it will come down to actual practice and the extent to which a culture of accountability can be engendered in organisations with ample reason – or at least perceived reason – for secrecy and self-justification.

Unfortunately, the behaviour of our public safety agencies does little to justify the assumption that accountability and transparency will be at the top of their list of priorities.  The intransigence of the Police in owning up to and showing accountability for errors, past as well as present, is a case in point. So too is the sustained illegality of the GCSB’s own activities, which cannot credibly be put down simply to confusion about their legislation.   Sins of omission or commission - it doesn’t really matter, the open question is whether we’ll see any scalps dangling in the wind.

On this front the most cogent opposition to Government policy comes from the Greens.  Casting doubt on the rationale for the GCSB’s powers and even existence, Russell Norman notes the persistent lack of detail in the Prime Minister's account of what it is the GCSB is there to do - a sharp contrast to the proposed transparency with which that function is to be carried out.   The lack of Parliamentary oversight and capacity to hold wrong-doers’ feet to the fire is his related theme.

Norman goes on to suggest that the reference to WMDs was intended to divert attention. Here he argues against himself. Public cynicism about political scare mongering and that over-used trump ‘national security’ will certainly divert attention, but probably away from the more credible threats that the Prime Minister called to mind.  After all extremism is a disease to which New Zealand is no less susceptible.

But our other problem is that our culture of accountability may just not be up to the task of balancing State intrusion with the arguable necessity of ensuring public safety.