Gordon Campbell on what’s gone wrong with the SIS, and with Auckland transport

At what point did the SIS lose the technological ability to fulfil its statutory duty, which is to detect and to counter threats to our domestic security? Surely, out of its annual budget, the SIS should have been setting aside the funds required to update its surveillance technology – rather than letting things slide and relying on the GCSB, an entirely different agency, to come in surreptitiously and do the job for it, and for the Police? In other words, the stronger the case for changing the role of the GCSB to include domestic spying, the more misgivings one has to have about the systemic failure of planning and budgeting within the SIS.

That being the case, perhaps another inquiry needs to be conducted into the SIS and the apparent lack of proper Ministerial oversight, in order to explain why the agency vested with the task of carrying out domestic security has been unable to discharge this most basic aspect of its statutory duty, without aiding and abetting the GCSB to – illegally – do the job for it? Or are the demands of foreign intelligence agencies (such as the NSA) to expand surveillance activities imposing a fresh set of budgetary demands on both the SIS and the GCSB? If so, the government needs to come clean about this, and explain why compliance is in our national interest.

All praise then to Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council, for pointing out that (incredibly) there has been no financial assessment of the cost of upgrading the surveillance abilities of the SIS, before rushing to change the law to enable the GCSB to be outsourced to do domestic spying on the cheap. Independent MP Peter Dunne has now picked up this point, and seems to be making such an assessment one of the pre-conditions of his support for the GCSB legislative package. Good for him. All of which goes to show why this rushed, ill thought through piece of legislation needs to be withdrawn. As Labour has been calling for, perhaps a wide-ranging inquiry should be conducted into the role of our security services in the 21st century, the tools they need to do the job, and the sort of oversight mechanisms required to adequately protect the privacy rights of ordinary citizens. As things stand, Prime Minister John Key is proceeding with needless haste to create a system of mass surveillance that has had no proper assessment of its related financial costs, let alone the costs to personal freedoms. As for the proper oversight mechanisms …these seem to comprise the political minimum needed to get the legislative package across the line, with little consideration of what an adequate balance really should exist between national security and civil rights.

Beehive vs. Auckland
The latest round of skirmishing over the funding for Auckland’s future transport needs is also pretty disturbing. Central government seems to be baulking – in the mule-headed way we’ve come to expect from Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee – at all of the available methods to fund some $60 billion of projects. This funding will have to come from either a package of (a) increased rates, regional fuel taxes and tolls on new roads or (b) a boost in public transport fares and tolls on existing roads. Interestingly, the current battle lines pit the Key government against some of the main business lobbies in Auckland, as well as against its incumbent mayor:

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce and the National Road Carriers Association, which represents commercial road users, support some form of road toll or charge. National Carriers Association chief executive David Aitken says the group has opposed road tolls and charges in the past where there’s been no clear benefit, but it supports the proposal in this case.

However Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the Government won’t support any fuel taxes or tolls on existing roads, both of which would require Parliament to pass legislation.

The one good thing about this impasse is that it may call some of the more grandiose roading projects into question. At some point though, the government will need to take its head out of the sand – because it looks as if it is putting political ideology and its own electability (no boost to fuel taxes, no tolls on existing roads) ahead of sensible planning and funding for solutions to Auckland’s transport problems, that have been deferred long enough.

The Beehive may want to force Auckland mayor Len Brown to raise rates in a way that will undermine his re-election chances. Surely, it can’t get away with letting such short term political calculations shape Auckland’s public transport and roading solutions for the next three decades. In next year’s general election, Auckland’s transport – and housing – needs will be central issues in that campaign. Right now, the Key government is behaving more like an obstructionist party in Opposition, than a sensible manager of the national interest.