Gordon Campbell on David Shearer, and intelligence agencies’ legal powers

The conference speech that David Shearer will deliver this weekend is shaping up as one of those Masterchef/New Zealand’s Got Talent events where the nation is sitting with his score cards on its lap, primed to give him a roasting. It is hard to imagine what Shearer could possibly do this weekend – short of biting the heads off small animals onstage – to turn around the perception that he lacks the political bloodlust to be an effective leader of the Opposition, let alone Prime Minister. If the conference speech is socially compassionate he’ll only confirm the Too Nice image, and if he tries to fire up the troops with passion and rhetoric, the results are likely to be false and embarrassing. That’s the bind he faces. He’s in a situation where just being himself is the problem.

One can sympathise (a little) with Shearer. The emphasis being placed on this speech is pretty arbitrary. The conference just happens to be coming at year’s end, at a summing up point on the calendar – but such milestones are artificial. After all, 2012 also happens to mark ten years since John Key first entered politics and that particular anniversary co-incides with the New Zealand economy and almost every social indicator going backwards. Yet no one in the mainstream media seems to be marking the occasion by writing Key’s political obituary for his decade of unfulfilled promise and current failure to deliver.

I’m not saying that Shearer hasn’t been a disappointment, or that the buck for failure doesn’t stop with the party leader. Yet it seems unfair to hang so much onto this one speech to a party conference – where inevitably the focus will be inward, and will be mainly about motivating the faithful rather than galvanising the nation. Plainly, it isn’t going to do the latter, and what exactly is supposed to count as compelling evidence that it has done the former? If anecdotally, five or ten delegates tell our roving reporters they like the speech, and Shearer has thereby earned more time? Or if David Cunliffe is seen rending his garments at Shearer’s damnable eloquence?

It should be stressed that Shearer’s speech is not primarily going to be addressed to the waverers on the centre left who are drifting to the Greens, or to the soft centre right voters who have reluctantly concluded that National has lost the plot. They’re not the prime audience this weekend. Conference business will be about the internal structure of the party and about housing policy. With that limited agenda, all Shearer can hope to achieve this weekend is to offer the party re-assurance that he can be a competent steward of (a) the internal democratization of the party (b) Labour’s core values and (c) his own parliamentary caucus.

That last one is going to be hardest. This Labour caucus deserves to hang together and not just its leader, separately. If Shearer has under-achieved, so has his team – not only vis-à-vis the government, but in comparison to the Greens. At the same time, the likes of Shane Jones have been allowed to run amuck across the portfolio areas of his own colleagues, in order to launch wild attacks on the one coalition partner that Labour desperately needs in order to govern.

If Shearer wants to convince the country that he has steel in his backbone, he could start by whipping his own caucus into line, and requiring them to lift their game. Right now…does anyone really think that the Labour front bench would be performing any better, and would be any more internally united, under a David Cunliffe or a Grant Robertson? Not really. Currently, Labour’s problems ran far deeper than the man at the top, and shuffling the leadership deck now would be cosmetic. The evaluation should come in May of next year. That will have given Shearer a further three months in Parliamentary battle to define himself and to get traction – while still leaving any new leader about 16 months before the next election.

Closed Courts, Secret Evidence

Ever since the Ahmed Zaoui case in New Zealand brought home to us all the threat that is posed to open justice by the use of secret intelligence information – and the ridiculous sanctity with which this mélange of fact, hearsay and speculation demands that it be treated – there has been a fear that the use of such information would spread, and the ability to challenge its premises and expose its errors would be choked off. Britain is now going through an exercise of exactly this sort, with the introduction of an Orwellian titled “Justice and Security Bill” that will allow the Cameron government to create a new generation of secret court hearings that block the public disclosure of sensitive intelligence material.

Even some Conservatives oppose the move:

Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Treasury select committee…who has campaigned against extraordinary rendition over the past decade, said: “I am extremely concerned about this bill. Judicial discretion may be heavily curtailed.” The bill is opposed by an array of civil rights groups which believe that plans to extend secret hearings, known as closed material procedures (CMPs), into the main civil courts in England and Wales represent a major threat to open justice. The bill would restrict access to some sensitive intelligence to the trial judge and to special advocates, who would be cleared for security and would represent claimants. Tyrie said: “Closed material procedures are opposed by the people who know most about this – the special advocates.”

In Britain, the motivation for the Bill is to enable the government to bury its mistakes.

It was triggered by the disclosure by British judges two years ago of CIA information which showed that MI5 and MI6 knew that Binyam Mohamed, a UK resident and terror suspect, had been unlawfully subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment.

As New Zealand found in the Zaoui case, the position of Helen Clark’s Labour government and of the centre right are indistinguishable on security issues. You might think Labour would be more sensitive to the potential for abuse of such powers, but this is not the case. Here, for instance, is British Labour shadow justice spokesperson Sadiq Khan, who nominally opposes the Justice and Security Bill but also – somehow, simultaneously – supports one of its key premises. Namely, the “need” to conceal within judicial proceedings the secret information being supplied by foreign intelligence sources.

[Khan] acknowledged there was a need to protect confidential intelligence material from other countries. “The control principle is very important,” he said of the process in which a country retains the right to demand that its intelligence is always protected.

“The way international co-operation works is the country whose intelligence it is should have control over whether it should be disclosed. That is right, otherwise the symbiotic relationship doesn’t work.”

Right. So the keeping the tap flowing of secret information from foreign intelligence agencies is to be regarded as more important than the right of your own nationals to fair and open treatment before the courts. Despite the fact that time and again, the secret information in question has been shown to be flawed, flat out wrong and/or obtained by dubious or even illegal means, such as by torture or unlawful surveillance. Again, its hard to imagine that a government headed by David Shearer would be any more likely than one headed by Helen Clark (or by John Key) to challenge the powers of intelligence agencies in such matters.