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Broad support for spy laws

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 18/08/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

The vote in parliament on Thursday was 106-15 and it gave the government what it wanted - strong cross-party support for the new laws covering the spy agencies.

It was a first reading, and there are concerns about some of the bill's provisions, but careful work by a select committee should see it pass its remaining stages without any serious upsets.

It's a major overhaul of the legislation covering the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Bureau, which had the capacity to cause strife.

But Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, who is in charge of the agencies and who won praise from Labour leader Andrew Little during the first reading debate, has negotiated his way through it.

Labour, NZ First, the Maori Party and ACT backed the bill when it went to a vote.

The Greens and United Future's Peter Dunne didn't, although he's left the door open to changing his mind depending on what the bill looks like when the committee has finished with it.

The Greens won't change their minds.

"We see no sufficient case laid out in the review to justify the expansion of powers that are in the bill," the Greens' global affairs spokesman, Kennedy Graham, told parliament.

He was referring to the independent review of the legislation carried out by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy, which formed the basis for the re-write.

Following their recommendation, the bill brings both agencies under a single Act which replaces the four that exist now.

It gives them an explicit mandate to carry out surveillance on New Zealanders, which the GCSB doesn't currently have.

It puts them under the same warrant regime, which is stronger than the existing one.

It's called triple lock, because the attorney-general, the commissioner of warrants and the inspector-general of intelligence and security are involved.

Under the bill, New Zealanders can only be targeted on the grounds of national security.

There's a catch with that, because the definition of national security isn't written in stone. Before the bill becomes law it must be, because that's what allows the agencies to take action.

There is a lengthy definition in the bill but parliamentary counsel, the legal officers who draft laws, think it's unclear and unnecessarily complex.

They've suggested alternatives, and the government decided to let the cross-party select committee that scrutinises the bill decide how it should end up.

Labour sees the national security definition as fundamental, and unless it agrees with the final outcome it could withdraw support.

The bill has many parts and makes other significant changes.

It strengthens the oversight of the agencies and makes them more like government departments, while recognising their "inherently secret nature".

The inspector-general of intelligence and security, and parliament's intelligence security committee, will have stronger roles.

"Through independent oversight, a balance is struck between the secrecy necessary for the agencies to operate effectively and the public's expectations of accountability and transparency," documents released with the bill say.

That balance is going to generate intense debate before the bill is passed into law.

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