Methods have no place in our democracy

Last updated 06:57 09/12/2013

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OPINION: Thankfully, Parliament's privileges committee has confirmed what should have been obvious all along to those investigating the leaking of a sensitive document to this newspaper. MPs have rights that cannot simply be swept aside by prime ministerial fiat. Journalists have rights that cannot be trampled over simply because they are inconvenient.

Just because the prime minister is peeved that a report has made it into the public arena before he has had the opportunity to prepare a soothing press release does not provide justification for investigators to pore over parliamentary phone records, demand to see the content of ministers' emails or use electronic access records to track the movement of journalists and ministers in and out of the parliamentary complex.

The committee, chaired by Attorney- General Chris Finlayson and comprising political heavyweights from both sides of the House, last week released its preliminary findings on the conduct of the inquiry into the leaking of a report on the Government Communications Security Bureau.

It identifies two critical failings that contributed to the inquiry going where it had no right to go - a lack of understanding of the distinction between Parliament and the executive and a lack of understanding of the news media's role in ensuring Parliament remains transparent and accountable.

For that neither inquiry head David Henry nor former Parliamentary Service general manager Geoff Thorn can escape blame.

As a former senior public servant who once headed the Inland Revenue Department, Mr Henry could have been expected to have a better appreciation than most of privacy issues and the constitutional niceties that govern interactions between Parliament and the government of the day. But there is no evidence he gave either issue any thought as his inquiry bombarded the Parliamentary Service with requests for phone records, email content and access records.

For his part, Mr Thorn made some attempts to defend the rights of Cabinet ministers, but inexplicably failed to consult the Speaker as pressure mounted for him to turn over records to which the inquiry had no entitlement. He then compounded that error by confusing the security of Parliament with the security of information for which he had no responsibility and handing to the inquiry information it had no right to view - records showing Dominion Post journalist Andrea Vance's movements in and out of the parliamentary complex.

As the committee rightly notes, the news media plays a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the different branches of government. It cannot perform that role if investigators operating at the behest of the prime minister are able to spy on journalists' movements and eavesdrop on their electronic communications.

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A threat to the prime minister's dignity does not constitute a threat to the security of Parliament. The methods used by the inquiry to try to identify the source of the leak have no place in a representative democracy.

- The Dominion Post

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