Sir Michael back in the limelight and thriving on it

Sir Michael Cullen.
Sir Michael Cullen.
You can take the man out of politics but Sir Michael Cullen's bravura performance when delivering a briefing on the review of intelligence agencies shows you can't take the politician out of the man.

It has been eight years since Sir Michael left politics, and at the media briefing it became clear he was relishing having an audience again. It was somewhat like being briefed by an entertaining raconteur over dinner.

He came up with scenarios such as bombing the Clyde dam and got happily diverted into remembering a speech he delivered in 1980 when he suggested it be blown up in advance rather than after it was built ‘‘and it became too dangerous to blow it up''.

‘‘Too late now, as it were.''

He told a lengthy story about stopping Holocaust denial historian David Irving getting on a plane in London in 2004, whether an Order in Council to stop him coming was signed before or after Mr Irving was stopped, and whether a Qantas steward would be capable of stopping Mr Irving.

Nor did he stint from criticising the Government for the GCSB legislation in 2013 - a law he described as ‘‘incompetent'' and which had the opposite effect of its intention.

Sir Michael proved the perfect man to front the report for the Government. His own lengthy tenure as Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney-general meant he was well aware of the type of information the intelligence agencies provide, and the importance of that information for a government.

He has a mind like a steel trap. He had the media skills to explain complex issues in simple language and deliver quotes he knew the media would use. He told the spy agencies to up their game when it came to public relations if they wanted to reduce public scepticism about their role.

He then proceeded to do that PR for them, running through a list of threats to New Zealand from domestic attacks to cybercrimes. He spoke of whether the GCSB could help if a New Zealander was lost at sea or taken hostage - hypothetical situations but based on actual risks New Zealand had faced.

That it also makes it harder for Labour to quibble with the recommendations put forward is almost the only the cherry on the top.

Prime Minister John Key has said he will not embark on legislative change without the support of Labour. If Labour does not offer that he is in a pickle because one thing Sir Michael made very clear is that there does have to be change.

The Government cannot simply leave things as they are after Sir Michael's stark warning that confusion in the law and the GCSB's gun-shy approach to its work after the controversies had meant some near-misses and the Government risked failing in its duty of protecting New Zealand.

Nor can Labour ignore such a warning. The other point Sir Michael was at pains to emphasise was that the agencies do not only do John Le Carre novel-style spying. They also gather intelligence that provides critical information on the actions of other countries active in the Pacific and allows the Government to respond.

That was effectively a message to Labour that come the day it gets back into government, it will need those agencies to be operating effectively.

National is betting that many of the public are somewhere between the paranoid and the hawks and accept the trade-off between security and privacy rights is necessary. But both it and Labour will want any major changes made before the 2017 election so it does not become a distraction. The ghost of the last election's spy scandals still haunts them.

Labour has another reason to work with National on change now. The Green Party. For Labour, change now means less trouble than change later.

If Labour is in power after 2017 there is a strong chance the Greens will be there, too, and starting off with a major scrap over spy laws is not ideal. Nor will Labour want to be seen to be soft-pedalling on security if there is an incident in the future.

Labour's main problem with the report is the proposal for the agencies to have wholesale access to some government department databases, such as Immigration NZ. The agencies can already get limited information from government agencies but this would open up entire databases. Andrew Little's concern is this will result in the agency trawling through innocent people's information.

Labour's concerns are justified. Questions should always be asked when information gathered for one reason is used for another. If there is much ‘‘creep'' in this respect, it risks having a chilling effect and people will be nervous about handing private information over to government departments.

The result could be to allow more restricted access to those databases and require robust processes before any further databases are added to the list.

Mr Little is also concerned about whether the changes to allow the GCSB to spy on Kiwis would give it any greater powers than agencies such as the SIS and police already have.

Sir Michael has argued that allowing the agencies to target Kiwis only if required for national security actually pegs back the SIS' current powers, which are very broad and let it spy on Kiwis for economic or international wellbeing reasons, as well.

There are also areas in which National may baulk. It is likely to be reluctant to restrict the SIS' powers to spy on New Zealanders for reasons that are in its economic or international interests, not least because of the risk of commercial espionage.

A further tricky area is likely to be around the proposed regime on the intelligence flow between New Zealand and other countries. Sir Michael and Dame Patsy Reddy recommended requiring special authorisation for New Zealand to access intelligence from other countries to ensure they were not used to gather information the SIS and GCSB could not lawfully collect itself.

That addresses the issues raised by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations that the Five Eyes partners circumvented domestic laws by using each other to spy on citizens they could not spy on themselves. The Government is unlikely to want any significant restrictions on that flow.

The report points out New Zealand benefits from it more than it gives - for every report the SIS handed over to other agencies it received 170 back and for every report the GCSB gave it got back 99. It notes that Five Eyes offered New Zealand much more than it could do on its own.

Half of the SIS ‘‘leads'' came from foreign powers.

For all Sir Michael's ‘‘based on actual events'' scenarios, among his many diversions was a tale of his visit to intelligence officials in Canberra. He announced to the astonished officials that Australians were the biggest threat to New Zealand's security.

Who? The fruit flies.

Claire Trevett is deputy political editor of The New Zealand Herald.

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