I have a joke magnetic sticker on our fridge which my Kiwi partner doesn’t like very much. It reads, “Be Nice to America, Or We’ll Bring Democracy to YOUR Country.” But over the past few weeks, it seems we don’t need to send an army to impose American style “democracy” any longer. Rightwing politicians in New Zealand and Australia are more than happy to impose it on their citizenry all by themselves.
New Zealand has just passed legislation allowing its main intelligence agency to spy on her residents and citizens in contradiction with the New Zealand Bill of Rights, despite strong opposition from civil rights groups, international technology giants and the legal fraternity. Prime Minister John Key, and leader of the rightwing National Party, was keen to push this legislation through Parliament, even claiming most people in the country didn’t care about the spy bill... ignoring polls promptly showing a solid 3/4ths of the country care very much, thank you. Even Google and Microsoft have warned the Prime Minister that such a spy bill is going to be bad for New Zealand business.
Yet, in complete disregard to the passionate opposition from both the public and many in government, the bill to expand the power of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) passed by 61 votes to 59. The bill is already proving to be very unpopular, with Prime Minister John Key acknowledging it has many in the country feeling “agitated and alarmed.”
Gee, I wonder why.
But the allure of such Draconian power eroding the civil rights of the pesky public is like catnip to the rightwing in any country. After all, if it was good enough for George W. Bush, who started it, and even for Barack Obama, who seems to have found it convenient despite his campaign promises to end civil rights abuses, then why shouldn’t it be good enough for the likes of John Key?
One New Zealand Justice of the Peace and warrant Issuing Officer in Napier has resigned in protest after fifteen years of service, with an eloquent press release stating that he in good conscience could not continue in his unpaid appointee role with all its legal implications for a country which so lightly dismisses the fundamental rights of its citizens.
“The reason that the original Bill of Rights came into being,” Dr Robin Gwynn said, “was that people came to realise that while governments are necessary, they are also potentially so dangerous to their subjects that some basic bounds must be set to their powers. Powers to spy on civilians are, and rightly should be, exceptional – granted only when there is demonstrable cause to suspect particular individuals, at which point the public good overrides their natural rights. But here we have an Act which enables widespread state spying on New Zealanders, and couples it with the ability to collect and retain ‘incidentally obtained intelligence.’ This is not a power that should be held by any democratic government, of any country or any political colour or ideology. It doesn’t make any difference even if the Prime Minister of the day is the most trustworthy person in the world. It is a power that simply should not exist.”
As an historian, Dr Gwynn drew the parallel between the apologists of King James II whose abuse of power led to the original Bill of Rights in 1689, and the current PM now abusing the trust of his country. “When the Defence Force cannot distinguish between journalists and potential terrorists, when ACC cannot control leaks damaging to defenceless individuals, when even our Parliamentary Service will just hand over private phone records, the need for vigilance could hardly be more obvious."
His entire statement is well worth the read.
John Key has used the same excuse for pushing this legislation that Bush did, and now Obama, sadly, as well. “Trust me.” After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide, right? Just ask those people the NSA has spied on, such as current or former love interests, who probably don’t fall into any category of being a threat to our national security. Just ask those members of the United Nations who had their offices bugged, their videoconferencing and communications hacked. Just ask our friends and allies in the European Union embassy, only one of eighty embassies the NSA has bugged, how they feel about the NSA’s “Special Collection Service” spying on their diplomatic work.
“Trust me?” You've got to be joking.
Spying on your own citizens and friends is bad enough. But the United States government's lack of regard for any other civil rights we as Americans once took for granted as Constitutional protection has emboldened more rightwing politicians elsewhere. Here in Brisbane, the leader of the ludicrously named “Liberal” rightwing party and Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, has “apologised” for his unprecedented plans to turn the entire city into an armed mini-fortress during next year’s G20 forum, since these things are pretty much guaranteed to draw large protests. But that’s not going to stop him from imposing what amounts to martial law on Australian citizens.
He had previously expressed the hope the summit would create a “major boost” to small and large businesses and the local and state economy, and welcomed it as a “great opportunity to showcase Brisbane and Queensland to the world.” It certainly will be – nothing like a lock-down on Brisbane citizenry and the imposition of martial law to impress the world. And what a showcase it’s going to be: A huge ring of steel fencing is to be erected around most of the city centre, with any residents trapped inside this zone required to use access passes to move in or out of their own homes. A curfew will be imposed, with anyone out on the street after a certain hour arrested. The penalty for anyone entering these security restricted areas without such access permits will be a 12 month jail sentence.
The Brisbane Airportlink and the Clem 7 tunnels, major traffic routes in and out of Brisbane’s city centre, will be closed, except for transportation of world leaders like Barack Obama and the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
A long list of so-called “dangerous materials,” including bicycles, backpacks, kites and political placards, will be prohibited under special laws, and offenders will be arrested. Five thousand police officers rostered every day, including specialist covert teams and rooftop snipers, will be granted special detention powers and allowed to search anyone, confiscating phones and laptops to search emails and text messages. They will be able to demand names, addresses, fingerprints and identification documents, and strip-search and arrest anyone without charging them with any crime. Your papers, pleeze.
One city block, such as Musgrave Park, is to be set aside for “peaceful protests,” although protest groups will be subjected to the controversial tactic of “kettling,” i.e., confined in a small area where they will not be allowed to move, not allowed to leave, and no one allowed to join the protests for hours on end. The president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman, has said that as there is no specific charter of rights for people in Queensland, any challenge in court to such practices would be “difficult.”
As for the economic "benefits", small business caught inside the no-go zone will suffer, but hey! The new $59 million Royal International Convention Centre is now open, and Brisbane City Hall has had a $215 million restoration and can provide catering for up to 1600 guests. The Hilton Brisbane, Rydges South Bank, Sofitel, Brisbane Marriott and Novotel have spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading their facilities so that the G20 delegates can stay in style. Once they've left, however... hard to see where the rest of Brisbane profits from this big business windfall, particularly when it comes to finding money for such less glamorous needs like fixing the rapidly crumbling health care and dangerous road systems.
But, to off-set this massive abuse of power and civil rights, Campbell Newman is giving us all a long-weekend holiday the day before. Go to the beach, throw a few shrimps on the barbie, mate. Have fun, enjoy yourselves. A spokesman for Mr Newman has urged people to be “finding a bit of time with family and friends.” Should you be so unlucky as to actually live in the city centre and not have friends and family outside the restricted zone to take refuge with – well... just stay inside, draw the blinds, and ignore that your city has been turned into an armed camp, and your civil rights quashed. What could better exemplify “democracy” than the G20 coming to impose martial law on a city of more than two million inhabitants and treating Australians like they’re all potentially terrorists or criminals?
So far, like 3/4ths of New Zealanders unimpressed with the new spy laws, most Brisbaners have expressed rather less than enthusiastic support. After all, the G20 is supposed to be all about promoting international financial stability - so why hold the G20 in a major city, costing more than a third of a billion dollars of taxpayer’s money while disrupting the lives of the millions of residents when - as some have suggested - a suitable Army barracks out in the outback could provide more than enough security as well as accommodation, catering, and lecture halls? Or, if G20 leaders are too toffee-nosed for such less-than-five-star accommodation, it would cost far, far less to build a special centre with all the requisite bells and whistles still well away from any city as large as Brisbane, where the security would be even easier to maintain and all without the "necessity" of stamping on civil liberties Australia once guaranteed under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A few in the G20 themselves have proposed a permanent site to offset the massive expense and security disruptions in hosting such a closed-door summit, even South Korea proposing they all meet in "cyberspace."
Because, as more than one commenter on the Brisbane Courier-Mail has worriedly suggested, this will not end up being “temporary”; once power-hungry rightwing politicians like Key and Campbell and, should he win the upcoming election in Australia, Tony Abbot, get their foot in the door, then just like the collapse of civil liberties in the United States, this will be the first step in making such policing laws a permanent fixture of Australia. I suspect they're right.
New Zealanders and Australians have good reason to fear the “Americanization” of their civil liberties. And the US didn’t have to even employ one single soldier to do it, either.