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Gordon Campbell: Labour v Refugees & the SIS charm offensive

Gordon Campbell on Labour’s pandering to the redneck vote about refugees, and the SIS charm offensive

Labour’s readiness to play “Gotcha” politics over the 27 incidents where refugee status were first granted and then revoked is pretty shameful. According to documents obtained by RNZ, fraud may have been involved in some of these cases. Labour wants to know why the citizenship of the people concerned was not revoked – an outcome that would presumably have seen the culprits deported. Really? A little perspective might be in order, and one might reasonably have expected some from the Labour Party.

First, New Zealand has one of the lowest intakes of refugees – in terms of numbers per GDP - in the developed world. We can well afford to err on the side of compassion, especially since there is no indication of the number of years over which these 27 examples were spread. Moreover, the determination of refugee status is not an exact science, and many cases will fall into a grey area. Does Labour really think that New Zealand - having first decided to let these people into the country - should then after a period of time has elapsed, change its mind about its original decision and toss these families out again, back into some camp in the likes of Kenya or Malaysia?

It should be kept in mind that all refugee claimants – whether they come to this country via the UN resettlement programme, or via individual claims to asylum – are fleeing from terrible situations. They have an obvious motivation to make a case for clemency and exaggerate their plight, and this is entirely understandable. Thus, a certain ratio of “fraud” will always come with the territory. This is well recognised in the workings of refugee law. That’s why in the R v Uxbridge case (2001) the British law lord Simon Brown concluded:

The problems facing refugees in their quest for asylum need little emphasis. Prominent among them is the difficulty of gaining access to a friendly shore. Escape from persecution has long been characterized by subterfuge and false papers…Self evidently, the UN provides immunity for genuine refugees whose quest for asylum reasonably involves them in breaching the law….

To adopt that position is not to open the door to wholesale fabrication. But to repeat: it does mean that a recipient country with relatively ample means should be able to err on the side of compassion. That’s the position that one would have reasonably expected from the Labour Party, anyway. As yet, we do not know what level of “fraud” has been involved, and whether the deception involves the decision-making with respect to the UN intake, or individual asylum claims.

According to Labour immigration spokesperson Sue Moroney, she is calling for transparency on this issue in order to protect the integrity of the refugee programme, in the light of the ongoing debate about whether we should increase our UN refugee intake. Yeah, right. Coming hard on the heels of Labour’s recent statistics on Chinese contributions to Auckland house prices, its hard to see this as anything other than more of the same – an anti-refugee addition to the party’s dog whistling to the talkback crowd.

Given its track record in government, Labour has no credibility as the defender of the integrity of the refugee determination system. When the Refugee Status Appeals Authority declared Ahmed Zaoui to be a genuine refugee in August 2003, the Clark government fought those findings to the bitter end – right until its case collapsed in 2007, in an outcome that entirely vindicated the original RSAA decision. The incoming National government then dis-established the RSAA, along lines set out in Labour’s draft Immigration Bill which the Key government largely adopted.

Therefore, if a small incidence of errors in refugee determinations have since crept into the system they are either:

(a) inevitable, given the circumstances most refugees face. We too, would lie if it meant saving our children. Or
(b) they’re a product of the revamp of the refugee determination system that was endorsed by both major parties and anyway
(c) New Zealand’s miserly contribution to the global refugee problem means we can afford the occasional ‘grey area’ claimant. Labour really shouldn’t be trawling for votes on this issue, in this fashion.

The SIS Loves You, Man

Hard not to laugh at this week’s charm offensive by the SIS and GCSB. After spending most of their existence locked in a dreary Cold War mindset from the 1950s, our security agencies now seem hellbent on leaping all the way forward into…what, the 1980s? A time when people in power suits preached the gospel of freedom and openness, while insisting there was really no alternative. That seems about right. On RNZ’s Morning Report yesterday morning, SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge tried her best to do “warm”:

“I can totally understand why people want to know about what we are doing and that what we are doing is authorised and proportionate and lawful. I completely get that. And we've got quite a long way to go. I think there's a lot more that we could do to put more into the public domain and we are working on it now," she said.

If one took that literally – or as a Freudian slip - Kitteridge was saying the SIS had “quite a long way to go” before its activities were “authorised and proportionate and lawful.” Plainly, she didn’t mean that. Instead, Kitteridge ‘completely gets’ – in a David Brent sense - that the public want the SIS to be more forthcoming about what it is they do, and why they do it. The precedent for this public relations exercise in “openness” by the spooks was of course, Stella Rimington, MI5 chief in Britain during the early 1990s.

On 16 July 1993, MI5 (with the reluctant approval of the British Government) published a 36-page booklet titled The Security Service, which revealed publicly, for the first time, details of MI5's activities, operations and duties…

But hang on. Despite the public’s natural curiosity and right to know and all that, Kitteridge and acting GCSB head Una Jagose are not ready to go as far in New Zealand right now as MI5 did 22 years ago. Not just yet , anyway:

Acting director of the GCSB Una Jagose agreed the electronic spy agency could also tell the public more about what it did, but without giving away how it did it. She said, for instance, it was possible the GCSB could provide more information about just where threats to the country's cyber security were coming from.

"We need to get into that position. I'm not sure that we're there yet.

So…. Kitteridge and Jagose both like the idea of being more open, even though the SIS has “quite a long way to go” to get there, and the GCSB isn’t quite sure its there yet. But they completely get it, they really do. Its just hard, that’s all. Why, by merely being a wee bit more open – or talking a bit about it, anyway - the people they’re spying on are being less open, and seem less willing to be spied on. Gosh, that hardly seems fair. Here’s Kitteridge again, telling it like it is:

“Even the amount that's been made public so far has meant that a lot of people have changed the way that they communicate in order to avoid that kind of, any kind of monitoring that we might be doing."

Seriously, its easy to see why Jagose would be unwilling to name where the bulk of the cyber threats are coming from given that – around the world – most of the cyber threats to sovereign nations are either coming from her biggest intelligence ally (the United States) or from our largest trading partner (China). Russia is also a major concern. Given the diplomatic and business sensitivities, intelligence agencies prefer not to name names. For example: four years ago, when Canada was being hit from cyber attacks originating from China, the Canadian security agencies were telling the government not to confirm that, officially:

Chinese government hackers have unsuccessfully attempted to break into the Canadian finance department's computers to obtain secret economic data, CTV News has learned. Sources say the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has advised government officials not to name China as the country where the attacks were launched, or even talk about the situation.

China, of course, denies it is doing any such thing. In its view, the cyber-attacks may be coming from hackers using Chinese servers, not from Chinese hackers per se.

The local point being: lets not expect this outbreak of imminent openness by the SIS and GCSB to lead to anything much at all . For obvious reasons, the US, China and Russia will not be named or shamed.

And of course we can expect no revelations about SIS or GCSB operational targets, techniques or technological capability. That doesn’t leave much. Ultimately, what do Kitteridge/Jagose plan to be more forthcoming about – that the agencies they head are doing a really important job, really, really well? That they, personally, are modern and relatively media savvy, such that they do not automatically run away in terror from a camera or a microphone?

Call me suspicious, but this pantomine of openness looks like a pre-emptive strike to soften up the public. The current Cullen/Reddy review of the security agencies due in February is likely to result in an extension of the powers of intrusion by security agencies into our daily lives. Thus, the current charm campaign to make the agencies seem more likeable. As a quantum of solace.

Watching Me, Watching You….

Charm, shmarm. If we’re talking about a 1980s mindset for our intelligence agencies, Rockwell’s 1984 hit seems the appropriate choice.


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