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The Privileges Of Parliament & Peter Dunne | 500 Words

The Privileges Of Parliament & Peter Dunne | 500 Words

It is hard not to conclude - in the wake of more than a year of half answers, miss-truths and outright lies around key aspects of the GCSB debacle - that we are now dealing with a rogue Government.

Now the latest monumental balls-up/gross abuse of power (you pick your description) has dragged the Speaker into the net and that has really opened pandora's box.

And with this the upcoming meeting of the "Powerful" Privileges Committee may end up creating new constitutional law around the privileges attached to those working in the Parliamentary complex.

Firstly they will likely make law around the privileges attached to MPs email and phone communications, and secondly establish clarity around those attached to activities of members of the Press Gallery.

In the days after news of Andrea Vance's swipe access being released to the Henry inquiry first emerged the Press Gallery met with the Speaker to clarify what had happened. We were given assurances around what had happened.

On 9 July we received an update from the then Press Gallery chair Jessica Mutch (of TVNZ). I do not think there is anything confidential in this so I will share it in full.

Hi there,

Claire, Katie and I met with the Speaker at 11am this morning to raise our concerns about Andrea’s swipe card information being handed over in the Henry report. We made it very clear how worrying it is for journalists to be monitored around the Parliamentary precinct and stressed that it would make it hard for us to do our job if this continues.

SECURITY RISK
Parliamentary Service felt justified saying it was a “security breach” and that’s why the information was handed over without permission or knowledge of the journalist involved or the Speaker. We disagree and have asked the Speaker to clarify the definition of a “security breach” and pass our concerns on to Parliamentary Service.

PROTOCOL
We want a formal agreement with the Speaker to protect journalists working in the Press Gallery. The Speaker is working on some kind of protocol to formalise that and it will be Parliament wide. I have requested that the Press Gallery be heavily involved in setting that protocol. The Speaker will know more in the next few days.

VIDEO
The Speaker says Andrea’s swipe card access was released but to the best of his knowledge no video surveillance was accessed. We have requested clarification on that and David Carter will get back to me this afternoon.

UPDATE: I have just had an update from the Speaker in regard to video surveillance and he says "no video was viewed or released".

Jess

And back then the notion that Press Gallery phone records might also have been accessed was also being discussed - and I vaguely recall being assured by someone that they hadn't been.

What is clear is that the speaker and the Press Gallery were taking this very seriously from the outset and the Speaker had made inquiries to try to determine what precisely had happened inside Parliamentary services.

Last week - three weeks later - the speaker answered written questions on the matter saying that Henry had asked for phone records but not been granted them. We now know this was not true and that in fact three months of records were supplied.

Taken together the facts support the testimony of Peter Dunne MP who now says that not only did Henry tell him he was seeking Andrea Vance's phone records, but that he said he had them and that he intended to match them against his own records.

What is however abundantly clear is that someone or several someones inside the Parliamentary Service, Henry's inquiry and the PM's office attempted to cover up what had happened. I personally believe the Speaker when he says he was in the dark on all of this - and he must be completely livid at what has happened.

And in the light of all this however we can now look at Peter Dunne's ministerial resignation press conference in an entirely new light. Peter appeared to be somewhat bewildered at that press conference. And that is hardly surprising.

As Peter Dunne faced the volley of flash photography he must have been wondering what on earth was going on? Had he somehow been transported to Eastern Europe before the fall of The Wall?

Firstly his Parliamentary emails had been accessed by David Henry without his permission (which incidentally was what Russel Norman was primarily pursuing in his written questions posed on the matter).

Then he agrees to hand over his phone records only to be told that they are going to be verified against Andrea Vance's. He may well have wondered at that stage whether his cell-phone metadata and home-phone metadata was also fair game for Henry's inquiry.

We already knew that the PM's Chief of Staff - "If you speak to him you speak to me" - Wayne Eagleson was involved in the final days of Peter Dunne's ministerial career when he sought to negotiate a release by Dunne on the contents of his emails.

On the face of it Peter Dunne faced a trial by meta-data.

And he was convicted on that meta-data alone when he refused to give up what remained of his rights to privacy.

This of course puts the GCSB Bill which seeks to legalise the wholesale gathering, warehousing and mining of meta-data (which is not defined in the Bill) by the Government without warrant.

What happened to both Peter Dunne and Andrea Vance is deeply disturbing in a way that is not that easy to convey to the public.

For those who work in Parliament it is a place which feels a bit like a sanctuary.

Parliament Security (and their systems) are there to protect you not spy on you - and they have always seemed to be staunchly independent of the executive.

And this is good because the Executive (the Government) is inherently intimidating.

It has massive resources, massive powers, unlimited time to meddle and arms like the SIS and GCSB with powers of interception and which operate with secret mandates and report only to the Prime Minister. There are powerful people in Government who would love access to better information if they could get it - but the understanding I had was that they also knew that civil and political rights - and protections of freedom of expression placed limits on those desires.

Parliament provides an on-going critique of and oversight of the Executive. It makes the law and appoints the Executive. It is the only thing that stands between us and dictatorship.

And this can only be done if Parliament is protected from the executive and that is what "Parliamentary Privilege" is for. The most commonly cited privilege is not to be sued but there are - I understand - also restrictions on arresting MPs when inside Parliament and the Queen's representative is not allowed inside the House because back in the day King Charles 1st was keen on having his representatives flogged.

These days when members of the public have problems with officials of the executive - e.g. WINZ officers, fisheries officers, medical officers of health etc. etc. - a common way to seek resolution of their issues is to petition their MPs and to contact the media.

It has always been understood - at least for the 20 years that I have been in the Press Gallery (which were admittedly all post Muldoon) - that these communications inside Parliament were not subject to executive inquiry.

Now the "Powerful" Parliament Privileges Committee will consider all of this and my guess is that it will come down very strongly on the side of Parliament.

This will hopefully restore the balance.

But the amount of damage that has been done here should not be underestimated and it will not go away quickly. The Press Gallery will remember this.

Coming on top of the months of obfuscation and outright lying and evasiveness over every aspect of this story from the Kim Dotcom raids and who knew about them when, to the illegal GCSB spying, to the appointment of a child-hood friend of the PM's as GCSB Director and now the Andrea Vance and Peter Dunne affair - we will remember.

- Alastair Thompson | 500 Words | Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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