Thursday, December 16, 2021

New Zealand: where being "anti-government" results in police surveillance

Things are worse than we thought. 

Blogger Cameron Slater recently learned from an OIA request that the blog he’s associated with, The BFD, was under police surveillance. An unnamed police intelligence analyst was concerned Slater would “continue to publish uncorroborated information to denigrate labour [sic] party policies and individuals linked to them”.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are people in the police hierarchy who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This was also the mentality of East Germany’s Stasi, South Africa’s BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier’s murderous Tonton Macoute.

(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin didn’t care for dissenters either, as he made clear in a 1920 speech: “Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticised? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” Lenin subsequently set up the OGPU, which eventually morphed into the KGB, to ensure he wasn’t bothered by such irritations. Someone like Slater would have gone straight to the Gulag.)

The documents released to Slater also included a request from an unnamed officer, couched in military-style jargon, describing him as racist and “anti-government” and asking for a “rundown” on him. The documents note that Slater’s reporting on Siouxsie Wiles, whom he labelled a hypocrite for appearing to flout lockdown restrictions that she had urged the public to comply with, was “consistent with past behaviours” such as defamation, breaching name suppression and “publishing erroneous reports on political opponents” – all of which are matters for civil, not criminal law, and therefore not the business of the police.

Ominously, a police intelligence briefing disclosed concern that Slater “will continue to public voice opinions on topical matters which may add to conspiracy theorist engagement across social media”. And an unnamed senior sergeant wondered whether the cops should pay Slater a visit because he posted “possibility [sic] controversial racist comments” about the September terrorist incident at LynnMall.

It’s hard to take this alarmist nonsense seriously, but we must. The documents reveal there are people in the police who think it’s their function to protect us against the free exchange of ideas and opinion – a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act. To put it more bluntly, these commissars-in-waiting apparently regard democracy as dangerous.

So being anti-government is now seen as a potential threat to public safety? This is the type of state paranoia that ultimately leads to monitoring of phone calls and knocks on the door at midnight. Slater was right to describe it as sinister.

As recently as two years ago I wouldn’t have imagined this sort of thing happening in one of the world’s most open democracies, but it’s surprising how quickly freedoms can be eroded. It starts with the marginalisation of unapproved views (the mainstream media are complicit in this) and advances rapidly to the point where dissent is denounced, suppressed and even made illegal. All it takes is a passive and apathetic populace – oh, and politicians too timid and too unsure of their own values to make a stand for individual freedoms.

Couldn’t happen in a liberal democracy like New Zealand? Don’t be so sure. During the 1951 waterfront dispute a National government invoked extreme powers under the Public Safety Conservation Act. These gave the police power to censor all publications, broadcasts and even private letters; seize printing presses and typewriters; arrest people who provided food, money or other support to striking workers and their families; ban public meetings; arrest people without warrant; and enter and search properties without a court order.

All of these powers were exercised by the police on the pretext that it was for the public good – and what’s most disturbing is that a compliant public and press went along. Who can say that under an equally determined government of the left, supported by a similarly sympathetic media, police won’t again be empowered to interfere with basic democratic freedoms? The appetite appears to be there, at least among some officers with dangerously inflated (and deluded) ideas about their function. 

What next, I wonder. Will we hear people like Slater described as “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the people” – phrases used by brutal totalitarian regimes of both the extreme right (Nazi Germany) and extreme left (the Soviet Union) to justify the incarceration of troublesome individuals on the pretext that it’s for the good of society?

In this case, thank God, the unnamed police busybodies were over-ruled by wiser and more grounded senior officers. But the realisation that this type of censorious zealotry exists within the police should strike a cold chill in the heart of anyone  who values open democracy – and all the more so when it remains possible that under so-called “hate speech” laws, the police will be given power to determine what we can and cannot say.

Disclosure: I haven’t met Cameron Slater, but I have written guest posts for The BFD and it has republished some posts from my blog by agreement. I have publicly disagreed with some of Slater’s tactics in the past. But freedom of speech is not a right that depends on the acceptability of the opinions expressed. Orwell (as so often) put it best: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”


Ian P said...

The police are obviously very sic.

Trev1 said...

Deeply disturbing. Why hasn't this been raised in Parliament? Those responsible are unfit to serve. Coster and his hapless Minister must be taken to task over the very existence of a Scanning and Targeting Unit". This is Stasi State stuff, straight out of "the Lives of Others ".

Phil said...

The Government have also accused the elected Councils of New Zealand of spreading misinformation about 3 Waters. It appears anyone who disagrees with this Government is spreading misinformation.

Ricardo said...

I suggest a measure of calm here.

First, Police surveil for a variety of reasons. It is what Police do, even in an open democracy. This was not illegal. Some language used was clumsy and open to attack, but no one was subject to rendition and torture. I am sure a lot of other sites across the political spectrum are also regularly surveilled, possibly even this one.

Secondly, nothing happened from it. Perhaps wiser heads prevailed. But nothing happened.

Thirdly, the OIA has worked and this "scanning unit" etc is brought to light. Now, the debate can occur and rightful examination/denunciation/explanation can be produced.

Thirdly, Parliament is in recess. Let's look forward to its next opening. In the mean time, political opponents of the government are free to use this as they want.

Max Ritchie said...

Defending Cam Slater is not a thing politicians would do readily. Giving Mussolini some credit - he made the trains run on time - would be on a par. Nevertheless this is appalling. If the police are going to surveil (new, good, word) people who make outlandish political criticism then they’ll be watching every MP, 75% of Maori radicals, 90% of political candidates, every blogger and at least half of the patrons of every pub in NZ.

hughvane said...

Whilst I have little or no time for Cameron Slater, I would urge you Karl to postal mail (not email) a copy of this item to every news outlet in the country, a Priority Urgent copy to the Commissioner of Police, social media; plus a copy to every genuine journalist known to you in particular to be 'old school'. I'll happily reimburse the postage costs Karl.

Graham Adams said...

Very few people — including the media and politicians — will want to stand up for Slater. He has a chequered history, shall we say, but that is no reason to look the other way when he is placed under police surveillance for expressing and publishing views the police deem to be critical of the govt.
Police wondering whether they "should pay Slater a visit" is extraordinary.
Once hate speech laws are passed, however, the police arriving to check your thinking will become much more common.

Brendan McNeill said...

"oh, and politicians too timid and too unsure of their own values to make a stand for individual freedoms."


Max Ritchie said...

Ricardo: bulls…t. This is an awful abuse and you are just encouraging this dreadful behaviour. Very reasonable and I’m sure you’re kind to old ladies and puppies, but, really, get a life.

Ricardo said...

Max Ritchie. Let's unpick your rant.

First, this is not abuse. If it were then I am sure you agree with Nicky Hager and the Urewera guerrilla trainees that police surveillance is abuse, anywhere anytime.

Next, nowhere in my post do I encourage this "dreadful behaviour".

Yes, I am kind to old ladies and puppies.

Finally I do have a rich and rewarding life. I don't need to get one. My advice to you is to use concepts like reason, logic and evidence. They are quite useful and far more rewarding than spittle laced abuse.

cheers Ricardo

Max Ritchie said...

Hardly a rant, Ricardo, and I’m sure your life is good. My comment is solely about applying sweet reason to excuse an appalling act worthy of a police state. Being reasonable just doesn’t cut it. We all have to resist this sort of thing. Your approach will just encourage further abuse.

SidH said...

One needs to be mindful of where the Victoria police went as a result of Covid and keeping everyone safe. Journalists visited about their content, cameras and recordings confiscated, protesters visited before demonstrations, a lady getting arrested due to a facebook post in her home and who can forget the TV images of over the top violence on its population. This did not stem from some individual police officer making a call. It doesn't work like this. It has higher leanings, as was telegraphed to the media by serving officers in Victoria.

There has been often daily actions in NZ, both city and small town, of police "checking" on business re masks and QR code mandates. Supporting hastily legislated roadblocks in Northland, checking cafes, clubs and hospitality (with implied threats of licence loss) and of course reacting to the dobbing of people for folks not wearing a mask. No individual police officer will have made this call.

Im not an overt Cam Slater fan, but I am a freedom and right of expression (within the law) sort of person, and support his right to express that.. I think that although nothing major has occurred here, that we are aware of, the connotation of what was suggested needs to be noted.

I am sure the Melbourne police got to where they got, from people with far higher pay grades and not some individual copper having a "good" idea. A lesson here perhaps.

Robert Mann said...

Good column Karl, up to your usual high standard.

EXCEPT among your list of extreme measures open to the NZ police during the 1951 waterfront dispute {thanx for using correct noun there} you give
> arrest people without warrant
I've never heard anybody suggest a constable should require a warrant to arrest somebody s/he has just observed committing a crime. Actually you too have that power, tho' it's rarely used. Power to arrest without a warrant continued during 1951 and rightly.

Quintessential New Zealand said...

“Urewera guerrilla trainees”... you know not what you are talking about!

Those trainees were, in fact, learning bushcraft skills and preparation to apply for firearms licenses. One young woman, charged, had actually been encouraged, by local Police, to go and get some experience with a rifle first before applying for her license. She wanted to legally deal with a possum problem on her family’s rural property. A friend of Tame Iti, she asked to join one of the firearms training sessions he was running. Neither Tūhoe, or a Maori guerrilla, she was just doing as the Police officer issuing licenses had suggested. Another, Tame’s own nephew, needed a gun license to get a job with DoC controlling possums in Te Urewera. He was filmed in the bush during a training camp and that footage was shown on tv screens night after night during the trial of the ‘Urewera 4’. Btw he wasn’t even arrested during the Police raid of his family home, and he got his gun license and the job with DoC too. The Police covert surveillance, initiated by Auckland DIB officer, Aaron Pascoe, setting up cameras in Ruatoki bush was deemed illegal by the Solicitor General.

Karl du Fresne said...

Robert Mann,
Thanks for picking up that error. I should have spotted it myself.

Ricardo said...

To Quintessential New Zealand

Thank you, you have made my day and I am still chuckling. "learning bushcraft skills" you say... be still my heaving guffaws of laugher

Six training camps, telephone intercepts talking of violent action, Molotov cocktail training on film, ambush techniques, patrolling techniques, explosives training....

Evidence was found to be inadmissible in a court, but the evidence still exists in the real world. Four people were convicted on firearms offences.

But let's look on the bright side, I still laugh at one of the photos showing a bespectacled guerrilla with semi-automatic pointed, obviously a keen eyed scout not noticing the surveillance camera about 3 feet in front of him.

All in all a huge waste of time and resources over a bunch of deluded clowns.

Unknown said...

"The documents reveal there are people in the police who think it’s their function to protect us against the free exchange of ideas and opinion – a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act."
Surely you've noticed - the police hierarchy is fully onboard with protecting us from all the other BOR rights Jacinda has decided to take away!