OPINION: Leaks are a vital safeguard against the abuse of power. In recent years they have been the means by which the public learned that New Zealand's diplomatic efforts were being compromised by indiscriminate cuts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and that some of the country's richest people and companies were using offshore tax shelters to avoid paying their fair share of tax.
More recently they were the means by which the public learned that the Government Communications Security Bureau had run off the rails.
Labour leader David Shearer's call for police to seize UnitedFuture MP Peter Dunne's emails and question him under oath about the leaking of the GCSB review suggests he has a remarkably short memory. It is little more than a year since Labour colleague Phil Goff used leaked Mfat documents to reveal that cuts within the ministry were undermining New Zealand's diplomatic capability. The Labour leader's comments also show a worrying lack of understanding of important principles. Is Mr Shearer really suggesting the police should have the power to seize material from anyone suspected of embarrassing the government?
NZ First leader Winston Peters' call for a criminal investigation into the leak shows an equally worrying lack of understanding of the law. Section 78 of the Crimes Act makes it an offence to reveal classified security information. But as the inquiry into the leaking of the GCSB review makes clear, the information leaked was politically "sensitive", but did not prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand.
Mr Dunne's refusal to hand over the emails he exchanged with Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance in the weeks leading up to the leaking of the report has cost him dear. He has lost his ministerial post and put his reputation and the future of his party at risk.
However, frustrating though it may be for Mr Shearer and Mr Peters, the argument he advances for withholding some emails and editing others has validity.
As a general rule people should be free to communicate with their elected representatives privately. If they were not able to, Mr Peters might never have obtained the winebox full of documents that led, eventually, to the tightening of tax laws. The public interest demands, meanwhile, that journalists be able to hold confidential discussions with sources, whether they be politicians, sportspeople or criminals.
Rather than call for Mr Dunne to be stripped of his rights, Mr Shearer and Mr Peters would be better advised to ponder the message events of recent days send.
Now it is known that MPs' phone and email logs can be accessed and that their movements in and out of Parliament can be tracked, who is going to alert an MP to malfeasance or even raise matters of private concern?
The possibility that someone will blow the whistle is an important check on the abuse of executive power. The GCSB witchhunt sends a chilling message to potential whistleblowers. It is that Big Brother is watching. That is not in anyone's interest.
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