Gordon Campbell on secrecy about charter schools, and Dotcom

So the Act Party and its friends in government have concocted a fresh piece of legislation – aka the Education Amendment Bill 2012 – that will exempt crucial elements of their charter schools experiment from public scrutiny under the Official Information Act. Meaning: the taxpayers who will largely bankroll this exercise will be prevented from knowing much about how their tax dollars are being spent, or about who is turning a profit from state-sanctioned education. In all likelihood, we won’t even know who is “sponsoring” the charter schools concerned. So much for transparency, and open government. Given this deliberately induced informational fog, surely the new Bill should be being denounced by someone in the Act Party as being tantamount to taxation as theft?

The people who set up charter schools will be exempt from public scrutiny and Official Information Act requests under legislation that is being pushed through Parliament to pave the way for the schools to open in 2014… The groups that run charter schools are called “sponsors” in the Bill, and are given powers to set teachers’ pay rates, hire unregistered teachers and set their own hours and days of operation.

Frankly, why don’t they simply declare each charter school to be a film set, which would allow them to re-define school teachers as independent contractors and the pupils as hobbits? They could then give the charter schools cool names like Breaking Dawn, New Moon, An Unexpected Journey and Power Rangers and impose the medieval contracts that seem common within foreign film and television productions operating on New Zealand soil.

Unfortunately, this new education legislation includes a grab bag of other search and seizure ideas that apply far more widely than the charter schools proposal. The seizure of cellphones is nothing new, but this now extends to accessing the content on the phones – presumably text messages – if teachers happen to think that such information may be “preventing learning.” Oh, and each child under six will be assigned “a national student number.”

The search and seizure rules will apply to information stored on computers or other forms of electronic device, including cellphones, if a teacher believes they are endangering a person’s safety or preventing learning.

The bill prevents physical touch or use of force during a search of a student. It also prohibits random or blanket searches, the use of drug dogs and the collection of bodily samples… Other changes include:
The introduction of a national student number for children aged under 6.

The national student numbering move has been interpreted by the Greens as being part of the government’s welfare reform process:

“The most concerning change is the ‘national student number’, which is a veiled device to force families who receive a benefit to send their young children into early childhood education (ECE),” said Green Party education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty. “The forcing of only a select group of young children into ECE will happen regardless of the family’s circumstances…or whether there are even any places available in ECE centres.”

Joining the Dotcoms

Charter schools are not the only areas where an informational fog is being generated. We are now being told that yes, a camera was present at the controversial GCSB kitchen gathering in February with Prime Minister John Key, but – just like the PM’s memory – it was not switched on. Either way, the chances of that tape emerging into daylight are about as likely as…oh, the Parliamentary committee for the security services demanding that it be produced, and/or a briefing on just what is commonly recorded by security cameras within the GCSB building, and who has custody of said tapes.

In this scandal, we are currently at much the same point as the Watergate proceedings got to, when the Senate committee headed by Senator Sam Ervin crucially intervened. Right now we have sufficient indication of official obstruction and convenient memory lapses to necessitate the intervention of a Parliamentary inquiry, since we can’t seem to get anything like an independent inquiry up and running. Short of sending in Nicky Hager one dark night to find the tape, can Parliament at least establish whether the GCSB routinely operates a CCTV system on events that occur within their own building? Just saying.

The latest revelation – that the GCSB knew of Dotcom’s true residency status in February before it briefed Key on February 29, but allegedly failed to realise the implications of this knowledge throughout the subsequent court proceedings and until it briefed the PM again in mid-September – is literally unbelievable, as David Fisher intimates this morning in the NZ Herald:

The GCSB was told of Kim Dotcom’s residency status in February – months before the bureau told the Prime Minister it had illegally spied on Dotcom. The bureau is now saying it failed to understand the implications of Dotcom’s residency status when it received details in mid-February.

GCSB director Ian Fletcher said last night: “It was checked soon after the arrest which is when the Inspector General noted there was an incorrect legal interpretation.” The Herald confirmed with the bureau it made a second check about a month after the January 20 raid on Dotcom’s Coatesville mansion – meaning for eight months the GCSB had all the information it needed to know it had broken the law. It also means the GCSB held the information at the time its agents briefed John Key on their involvement in the raid on February 29.

So now we have the spooks who did not speak to set alongside the camera that wasn’t switched on and the PM who can’t remember a thing about his visit to the GCSB, or about his briefing concerning an unprecedented FBI/Police raid with choppers, on a mega-millionaire’s residence located in his own electorate. What is there about Kim Dotcom that engenders such debilitating spasms of Political Alzheimer’s in everyone – John Banks, John Key, the entire GCSB – who happens to cross his path?