Monday, 1 December 2014

Constitutional Niceties

An Immoral Miscreant Shames the Nation

They say the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.  This truism points not to external so much as internal enemies.  Power corrupts and is addictive.  The apparatus of state always would elide into a tyranny, unless watched, checked, and more-often-than-not thwarted by checks and balances.

Elections are one bastion eternal vigilance can use to impede the drift towards tyranny.  The law and law courts are another.  A healthy and responsible media is another.  Unwritten constitutional conventions are another.  But all of these are weak and likely ineffective without having a more than just "a few good men" to stand upon the walls.  It is not until liberties are lost that people value what they have previously treated with disdain and neglect.

 Several years ago in New Zealand we were treated to the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, Phil Goff being caught out lying in the midst of an election campaign.
  Not unusual in a culture which celebrates dissembling as sophisticated and clever.  But Goff's breach was more sinister.  He had claimed he knew nothing of espionage activity by some foreign agents in the city of Christchurch.  It was pointed out that he had been indeed formally briefed by the head of the Security Intelligence Service of the very same.  He responded by digging deeper, excoriating the SIS head, Warren Tucker, whereupon Dr Tucker responded by releasing part of the briefing notes he had provided to Goff.  The Leader of the Opposition was thereby publicly exposed not just as a liar, but a liar about affairs and matters of state.

The media, largely in the tank for Goff and an anticipated Labour election victory, gave him a free pass and moved on.  Goff subsequently stumbled to electoral defeat.

To observe that the media and the Commentariat hushed over Goff's duplicity would be an understatement. In fact, Goff proved at that moment he would break every constitutional convention in his lust to hold the country in his thrall.  He had also breached constitutional conventions against attacking state employees in the process, but that was relatively small beer.

Now Dr Tucker has been criticised by an independent report.  He handled the matter wrongly.  He should have sought legal advice.  He breached a legal obligation to remain studiedly neutral towards all politicians and political parties.  If he had sought legal advice at the time, he probably would have done a much better job.

Several wry observations demand our attention.  The first is a positive endorsement of the changes made to the way the Security Intelligence Services operate.  There are now in place mechanisms of internal and external review which did not exist when the Goff scandal unfolded.  In fact, the very reason we are able to learn about the actions of Dr Tucker and his shortcomings is due to the new checks and balances which have been put in place.  This is a sweet smelling bouquet. It establishes that the separation of powers have been strengthened, and the neutrality of the SIS has not only been affirmed, but now much more protected and insisted upon.

The media, of course, are all agog and aghast over Dr Tucker's shortcomings.  But they fail to observe that the failings occurred four years ago, Dr Tucker no longer runs the SIS, and we are finding out about it because of successful efforts to clean house and make the cleansing institutional, and thus preserved.  That's good new, but significantly less headline grabbing, so the demands of a good scandal require that one's attention be directed elsewhere.  

Secondly, the media to this day still wallow in complicit silence over Goff's dishonesty and his naked lust for power-at-any-price.  Goff is not a nice guy.  In our judgment he is completely unfit to hold any political office in this country ever again.  The media today is engaged in a persistent attempt to find wrongdoing on the part of the Prime Minister and his office in his handling of the SIS.  He is the Big Fish.  If that means Goff's proven lies ought to be ignored (as yesterday's never-quite-news) whilst they go for the "Big Story" so be it.

But, here, once again, they are making the news, not reporting it.  We are regaled daily with stories about their intrepid Search For the Smoking Gun, whilst they ignore the real stench of cordite right before their blocked noses.  In so doing, the media are involved and complicit in the very Dirty Politics they themselves hypocritically condemn at every turn.  The fact that Goff still warms a seat in Parliament today is testament to just how politicized the media has become.  He remains there, slurping at the taxpayers' teat, because the media has given him a "free pass" preferring to deploy him as bait on the hook for bigger fish. 

Thirdly, there is plenty for the media to be legitimately focused upon.  Yes, there does appear there has been a blurring of the hard lines between politics and government in the Prime Minister's office.  That also breaches a constitutional convention.  It would seem that Key has been far too casual over such important separations.  The real focus should be upon necessary changes to policy, procedures, and operational conventions there need be in the office of the Prime Minister.  Granted that things have got much better with respect to the governance of the SIS, but what about other government departments?

Moreover, Key's drive to grant more powers to the SIS so as to "combat" ISIS terrorism is ill-advised, hasty, and altogether bearing hallmarks of unjustified panic.  The fact that some of our citizens may wish and plan to go overseas to Syria to lay down their lives in "holy" martyrdom does not constitute a clear and present danger to the rest of us.  Not if their passports are cancelled should they turn up in Syria.

Key's drive for urgency seems to arise out of a half-baked scheme that we have some kind of duty to cancel the passports of those who are intending to go and join ISIS before they leave the country, which is folly indeed.  That is the real issue which should be debated long and hard, for its possible ramifications would be dangerous indeed. 

There is a shameful postscript to this story.  The report on Dr Tucker was pre-released to the handful of interested parties under strict legal embargo.  But it was leaked to the media more than twenty-four hours before its public release.  The leaker?  Why, Phil Goff, of course, who has admitted the breach, and has proven repeatedly that illegalities will  never be allowed to get in the way of political ambition nor his lust for power.  His role in this breach is now going to be investigated.  He is an immoral miscreant.  

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