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Is New Zealand’s Surveillance Controversy Over?

FEATURES: Line of Defence, April 2016

Kim Dotcom at a 2014 rallyKim Dotcom at a 2014 rally

Prof. Robert Patman

It is now almost three years since New Zealand experienced an intense and sustained debate over surveillance policy.

Growing public concerns in mid-2013 about the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) Amendment Bill intersected with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extraordinary surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) that strongly implicated New Zealand.

Among other things, Snowden said electronic communications in New Zealand are comprehensively intercepted and monitored, and that if “you live in New Zealand, you are being watched”.

While John Key’s vigorous rejection of such claims helped counter immediate political and diplomatic fall-out - the GCSB Amendment Act was narrowly passed in August 2013 - the impact of New Zealand’s surveillance controversy may be more far-reaching than government rhetoric suggests.

At the societal level, proposed changes to the 2013 GCSB Act stimulated some strong opposition in Parliament and nationwide protests. Opinion polls taken during that period showed that 40 per cent of New Zealanders did not have trust or confidence in the GCSB.

The Snowden leaks only served to deepen the debate within the country and prompted a number of commentators and academics to critically draw links between the proposed expansion of the GCSB’s powers and New Zealand’s membership of the Five Eyes Alliance. This controversy had political ramifications, with Kim Dotcom founding the Internet Party in March 2014, which pledged to stop mass surveillance of New Zealanders by the government. 

On 15 September 2014, and one week before New Zealand’s general election, the Internet Party organised ‘The Moment of Truth’, a live event that included speeches by, Glen Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

Prime Minister Key described Greenwald as “Dotcom’s little henchman” and said denounced the event as a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of the election.

Nevertheless, the Key leadership took limited measures to bolster public confidence in the government’s control of New Zealand’s intelligence agencies. In July 2014, the government appointed the first ever Deputy Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Mr. Ben Keith, and announced a newly created Advisory Panel consisting of three members, one of whom would be the Inspector-General, Ms. Cheryl Gwyn.

Shortly after Mr. Key’s 2014 general election victory, a re-organisation and strengthening of the security and intelligence sector was carried out.

Under the new arrangements, the Prime Minister took on the new role of Minister for National Security and Intelligence.  Meanwhile, the Attorney-General, Mr Chris Finlayson became the Minister in Charge of the NZ Security Intelligence Service and Minister Responsible for the GCSB. 

In addition, Mr Key indicated he would establish and chair a new National Security Committee of Cabinet.  These changes were, according to Mr Key, an attempt to structure the New Zealand system so that it could respond better to a changing security environment.

Here the Key government has pointed to a series of ‘game-changing’ terrorist attacks in 2015 by ISIS or its affiliates in places like Paris, Ankara, Garissa, Sinai, Baga, and Brussels to justify broadening government powers at the possible expense of individual civil liberties.

An intense national debate on surveillance in New Zealand did not readily translate into major political changes in policy terms. The Key government was decisively re-elected for a third term on 20 September 2016, and New Zealand under his leadership resoundingly won a seat on the United Nations Security Council a month later.

Several factors seem to account for this apparent discrepancy. First, according to Amnesty International’s Rebecca Emery, the New Zealand public probably felt ‘quite powerless’ in relation to a complex issue like surveillance. Blanket denials by the Key government and the reluctance of the Labour Party to clearly challenge Key’s narrative meant that many New Zealanders tended to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt on this issue.

Second, the mass surveillance controversy only emerged in earnest in 2013, and the running on this new issue was largely made by relatively small political parties like the Greens or the Internet party and individuals like German-born entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, foreign journalists like Glenn Greenwald, and foreign whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden.

Third, the Key government has signaled that it wants to balance greater powers of government surveillance with more accountability of the agencies involved in the process.  In October 2015, the annual report of the Office of the Inspector General of Intelligence maintained the GCSB and the SIS were generally acting in compliance with legislation.

In addition, a review of New Zealand’s intelligence and security agencies conducted by former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Sir Michael Cullen and lawyer Dame Patricia Reddy, recommended in March 2016 that GCSB should have more powers to conduct surveillance of New Zealanders to protect national security. But it also said the GCSB and the SIS should be governed by a single law to strengthen oversight of these organisations.

However, there remains a wide gulf between Prime Minister Key’s firm denial that New Zealand is involved in mass surveillance and continuing revelations from Edward Snowden that strongly implicate New Zealand’s intelligence agencies in such activity. In October 2014, documents released by Snowden seemed to show the NSA and partners like the GCSB had been involved in intelligence gathering activities in friendly countries.

Meanwhile, reports that New Zealand had been spying on China sparked a firm diplomatic response. The Chinese Embassy in Wellington issued a statement saying that Beijing was concerned about such reports and that it would ‘firmly safeguard our security interests’. In addition, the Brazilian government reacted angrily to reports that the GCSB had spied on its successful campaign to get diplomat Roberto Azevedo elected as Secretary General of the World Trade Organization.

Such developments point to the very real prospect of a credibility gap in the national security policy of New Zealand. New Zealand has branded itself internationally as a small, democratic, Pacific state that has a diverse and independent foreign policy.  But moves towards mass surveillance by the Five Eyes alliance could undercut this image.

It would be naïve to believe that the Key government is unaware of these risks. However, the cumulative impact of Snowden’s revelations is likely to keep the surveillance issue alive in New Zealand. In particular, the growing realisation that Five Eyes members like New Zealand can circumvent their own national laws regulating surveillance by uploading what is captured directly to the NSA and then accessing the results in a backdoor fashion could provoke domestic pushback.

Furthermore, the Key government could face growing international pressures to adjust its national security policy so that it is more consistent with what is claimed to be an independent and diverse foreign policy. New Zealand relies heavily on soft power and trust to protect its international interests, and is therefore particularly vulnerable to retaliatory measures from states like Brazil and China that could be irritated by New Zealand’s involvement in Five Eyes spying operations.


Professor Robert G. Patman is head of the Politics Department at the University of Otago. He is a Fulbright Senior Scholar, a Senior Fellow at the Centre of Strategic Studies, Wellington, and an Honorary Professor of the NZDF Command and Staff College.

Robert’s research interests concern US foreign policy, international relations, global security, great powers and the Horn of Africa. He is an editor for the journal International Studies Perspectives, is the author or editor of 11 books, and provides regular contributions to national and international media on global issues.


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