Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Security and the SIS

When I was a student in the late 1950s I became active in "ban the bomb" activities. I joined the New Zealand Peace Council and had the pleasure of driving Rewi Alley about town when he visited in 1960. When I won a fellowship to an American university in 1961 the trouble started. Our SIS had tipped off the Americans that I was fraternising with peace activists. I slowly realised that several officials in the Peace Council were card-carrying members of the Communist Party owing allegiance to a foreign power. As someone in a banned organisation I was technically inadmissible to the United States and had difficulty getting a visa. Since then my visa has always carried the inscription "212d" which alerts officialdom to the fact that my inadmissibility has been "waived". All because I kept dangerous company for a few months 45 years ago!

I still ask myself whether we need an SIS, and if so, whether it should have kept tabs on the Peace Council, and passed information to the Americans. On balance, the answer to these questions is "yes". While much of the Cold War anti-communist rhetoric was preposterous, and my fellow Peace Council members were in reality a danger only to themselves, they might not have been. There is a need for low-level surveillance of people on the political fringes. This is especially so when it comes to those who question the legitimacy of the democratic system our ancestors fought for, and we enjoy. Even more so since the New York, Bali and Madrid outrages.

Experience has shown me there is sometimes only a fine line between commitment, fanaticism and violence. Several campaigns I have known possessed a borderline member or two who thought a spark of violence might give them publicity. In recent weeks we have had someone who sounds like he was dropped on his head as a baby, arguing that he can issue valid passports; another with a doctoral degree telling us that she doesn't regard herself bound by the foreshore and seabed legislation, and will do as she pleases this summer; Ken Mair who occasionally threatens people; and someone who sank an axe into the window of the Prime Minister's electorate office. Each poses a somewhat more serious threat to New Zealand than my chauffeuring about town of an elderly Chinese icon. Talking of icons, shouldn't someone be watching that fecund fellow with nine kids who chopped down the iconic tree on One Tree Hill for truly weird reasons? Three years ago, eco-terrorists with close links to the Greens, tore up the experimental potato crop of an able young Christchurch scientist. No rational explanation. Worse, these days there are fringe dwellers propelled about the place by excess happy baccy, Methamphetamine, glue or other dope. No causes except self-destruction or death to others. Surely they need watching?

New political organisations often draw the discombobulated into their orbit. Keeping an eye on the Maori Party's radical fringe makes good sense. As I understand it, the SIS runs a quick slide rule over top people in public life, too. Why should Tariana Turia be exempt? A fair few misfits seem (temporarily?) aligned with her.

All of which raises the key question: why the recent hooha about the SIS? It actually has less to do with concerns for personal liberty than with Tariana's thirst for publicity, and a cut-throat war between three poor-quality Sunday papers. The market can only stand one, or possibly two if some classy journalists could be conjured into existence. Watching Cate Brett of the Sunday Star-Times defend her spying beat up concerning the Maori Party, I could hear only the musical chink of her paper's cash register. The article was co-written, so help me, by Nicky Hager. He no longer needs surveillance; his previous alarms and excursions turned out to be piss and wind. One of Ms Brett's "sources" for her paper's story, it transpired, had "gone postal", as the young endearingly put it. Another now claims he was wilfully misreported. Will Justice Neazor discover her third? Not, it seems, if Ms Brett can help it. She's interested in her circulation, not our liberties.

In the end, doing the greatest good for the greatest number necessitates governments keeping an eye on the fringes. Sad as it may seem, excessive crusading, even for the best of causes like peace, will always incur suspicion in the minds of the overwhelming majority. Enough to warrant our SIS.