Publisher: APCNews Wellington, 17 July 2013
Last Friday the Prime Minister called the Human Rights Commission “tardy” for sending a report on the Government Communications Security Bureau Bill just a few days after submissions on the Bill had closed and seemed to make thinly veiled threats to the Commission’s funding. In fact, the report was right on time1. The Commission’s vigilance in exercising its unique statutory power to report directly to the Prime Minister on ‘the implications of any proposed legislation … that the Commission considers may affect human rights’ is precisely what taxpayers are funding the independent human rights watchdog to do.
The Commission’s power to report directly to the PM is separate to its other powers to advocate promotion and protection of human rights. As a former Commissioner, I know this power is exercised very sparingly – perhaps the last time was in relation to the foreshore and seabed legislation about 7 years ago. While I can’t speak for why the Commission exercised this power here, I suspect it was because of the extremely significant and serious human rights issues, invasive new powers of surveillance, grave public concerns, the fact that the Prime Minister has a unique role in this particular legislation and in the process considering the Bill. It is precisely because these kinds of extraordinary situations can occasionally arise that the commission was given the power to report directly.
73% of respondents to a recent AUT survey support extension of offline human rights to their online lives. A third of respondents consider rights online should not be curbed for any reason, while 64% consider that on balance people’s right to privacy on the Internet is more important than other people’s right to freedom of expression. Yet our naïve belief that we have protection of our rights online is increasingly exposed. Research on Internet freedom in New Zealand, released at Net Hui, shows that we fail to meet nearly half of international standards for protection of privacy and freedom of expression.
Public concerns about the process for these new laws and the apparent disdain for dissent is deeply worrying (especially given the Commission’s expert advice came from Commissioners who are predominantly appointed by the current government). The Commission was right to call out these concerns: it’s their job. Preemptive reactions are yet more evidence of why concerns about the bill and the proposed new powers are justified. All eyes are on the next step. Major changes to the Bills are needed if the public is to have any confidence that the Prime Minister is really listening.