Key's security speech raises concerns, questions

02:04, Nov 05 2014

John Key's Guy Fawkes Day speech is not short of fireworks.

He used the speech to reveal that up to 40 people were on a watch list for participating in extremist behaviour such as travelling to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS), or trying to but were prevented from leaving by New Zealand authorities.

Others were involved in funding terrorism or trying to radicalise others, he said.

Key proposed measures including the power to cancel peoples' passports for up to three years or suspend travel documents while urgent investigations were carried out.

The changes bring us into line with much of the international community following a United Nations Security Council resolution urging member states to take urgent action against the foreign fighter threat.

Key also spelt out a limited contribution in Iraq to the US-led military response to the Islamic State - regular forces might be involved in training and advising the Iraqi army but the SAS would not be deployed.

Given the brutal tactics of IS in Syria and Iraq, the response does not seem disproportionate based on Key's statements today.

But Key's statements do not spell out the full extent and nature of New Zealand's involvement down the track which opposition parties have honed in on as a source of unease.

And despite the hype beforehand, that was clearly never the real intention behind Key's speech.

The major focus was to announce sweeping changes to Security Intelligence Service (SIS) legislation.

Some of those changes, such as the ability to carry out video surveillance on private property, appear designed largely to drag decades-old SIS legislation into the modern age.

Most New Zealanders would probably be surprised to hear that the SIS does not have those powers, given that they are among the arsenal of powers given to other agencies like police.

It seems likely, in fact, that these changes were already in the wind regardless.

That begs the question whether the Islamic State threat has become a convenient peg on which to hang the Government's case for change in an area that has been hugely sensitive in recent years.

Certainly, most New Zealanders would be alarmed at the reference to individuals in New Zealand who are "attracted to carrying out domestic attacks of the type we have seen prevented in Australia and recently take place in Canada".

Asked at his media conference later whether that meant specific plots to commit terrorist acts had been uncovered, Key responded in the affirmative. But he also confirmed, when asked, that none of these plots had resulted in anyone being arrested.

The implied reason is that our agencies like the police and SIS don't have the necessary powers at their disposal to charge or monitor people in those circumstances.

That would be alarming if true, but Key has not clearly stated that case.

It also fails to tally with the most recent assessment of New Zealand's terrorist threat level.

That was raised from very low to low - which means that while the risk of terrorism has increased it is still not expected.

Key's speech today begs the question of why that assessment has not been raised further.