An 'affront to democracy'

Supposedly, New Zealand warrants its ranking as the world's best in last year's Transparency International's corruption perception index.

Supposedly, we score high on human and individual rights, on democratic institutions, on personal protections. Yet, the Thompson and Clark scandal has taken place, another blot on the nation's escutcheon.

What has occurred provides lessons. It blasts a warning about the insidious nature of state power and the need for vigilance and protection.

Those who would disregard civil liberties for what they might think is the greater good should think again. Big brother and big sister are an ever-present threat.

This is even more so in the electronic age. It was first thought the internet might lead to more freedom and more opportunity for dissent. But the massive losses of privacy, the ease with which data is collected and modern data analysis all hand more potential power and surveillance ability to big business and big government.

Granted, there are cases for secret surveillance of groups and individuals. Southern Response, the Government's insurance agency working for claimants of the Canterbury earthquakes, initially contracted Thompson and Clark after death threats against staff. These were real and extended to harassment and abuse of staff and board members.

But what happened, according to the State Services Commission inquiry, was the brief shifted. The security firm then began spying because of concerns about reputational damage to Southern Response. Lacking, too, were proper oversight and safeguards.

Infiltrating a claimant group and secretly recording meetings are quite simply wrong when the aim is to prevent your organisation looking bad, or to gain insight into the claimants' legitimate approaches.

Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Megan Woods went to the heart of the matter when she said: ''New Zealanders need to be able to trust that covert surveillance is only ever used in the public interest, with appropriate safeguards and to the highest ethical standards.''

The inquiry also criticised MBIE and the use of the security firm to report on climate advocates, animal right activists and iwi. Abuse of access to vehicle ownership records were specified, as were far too cosy relationships and police officers moonlighting for the security company.

Again, in the face of death threats and harassment - as with 1080 extremists - there is a ''health and safety'' reason for hiring outside security help. The inquiry looked at the Department of Conservation's use of Thompson and Clark and found it was undertaken properly and within the code of conduct. ACC has for many years has used security firms to help detect and prosecute fraud. This passed the inquiry's muster.

The likes of Southern Response and the various Government departments which used Thompson and Clark need to operate efficiently and safeguard taxpayer money. But they must have a broader ethical duty to do what is right.

They must remember they are not servants for the ''state'' but primarily ''public servants''. This should bring with it not the ''us and them'' attitudes which were identified but an ''us and us'' view of the world.

The use of Thompson and Clark spread disconcertingly. How easy it was for branches of the Government over 15 years to justify to themselves what they were doing. How insidious was the behaviour. How close the links with the company became.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes called some of the behaviour ''an affront to democracy''. He detailed a list of breaches of the State Service Code of Conduct and he, too, summed the matter up succinctly.

''I am clear that it is never acceptable to classify a person or group of people as a security threat just because they lawfully exercise their democratic rights, or use that as justification for gathering information.''



Its all PR talk as this government plays in the shadows / seems if your PC you can/ anyone says anything they are offended and will tell the UN/