‘Anti-terror’ raids leave a battered democracy in their wake

On Tuesday last week, Rongomai Bailey appeared in the Auckland District Court to seek bail. He was one of the 17 arrested in paramilitary dawn raids the previous week as part of the police “anti-terror” swoop. Seven police officers had arrived at his home at 6am and arrested him on firearms charges.

He’d then spent eight days in Mount Eden Prison before his bail application was heard.

The police opposed bail and were required to indicate the strength of evidence against him. It was a somewhat bizarre legal discussion which followed. It transpired the police had no admissible evidence to justify laying the arms charges. In fact, they had no direct evidence whatever that he had ever even touched a firearm of any sort. What they did have was evidence gained under surveillance which cannot be used as evidence on the arms charges.

So here was a person arrested on gun charges but then detained on evidence inadmissible under our gun laws but admissible for denying bail for charges under the gun laws. Confused? I was.

So the police proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes or so reading what they regarded as the juiciest excerpts from the surveillance transcripts. These were obtained by bugging conversations in a car on a couple of road trips.

I’d like to record here the details of these transcripts but that evidence is suppressed. Suffice to say, these conversations were nothing one wouldn’t hear on a Saturday afternoon at any gun club around New Zealand – even before the beer comes out.

It was all quite surreal. Those of us sitting in court were incredulous. The lack of substance to the evidence we heard was frankly embarrassing.

Rongomai was given bail but the bigger question of how he ever came to be arrested in the first place is utterly beyond me and I have no confidence it will ever be answered satisfactorily.

On the police action in general the feeling of New Zealanders seems to be we should just let this whole legal process play out and see what’s left after the evidence is tested in court. This seems the only sensible approach but it’s just not good enough. It leaves very difficult questions unanswered.

The police and Security Intelligence Service have conducted intensive surveillance on a wide group of people (much wider than the 17 arrested so far) for at least 15 months now and they have not yet been able to produce evidence they feel confident would constitute a credible terrorist threat to New Zealand. If they had they surely would have referred this to the Attorney-General long before now and had a decision.

The case itself will take at least 18 months to get to court and whatever the outcome, enormous damage will be done in the meantime. The New Zealand public will be softened up to accept we have terrorist threats or potential terrorist threats in the country which justify the huge additional resources given to the police and SIS since September 11, 2001. This will be seen by many to validate the existing Terrorism Suppression Act and its various amendments and the unthinking will accept even greater restrictions on our civil liberties.

This has been the pattern established by the authorities in other countries.

It seems to me the path we have started down leads only to self-fulfilling prophesies. Once additional resources are allocated to fight terrorism then the authorities must show the money is well spent. They need to find some terrorists. They thought they had when Ahmed Zaoui arrived and sought refugee status. The result was an embarrassing back-down.

It seems the latest arrests and the spectre of terrorism rise directly from the additional resourcing which has meant the threshold for investigating threats to New Zealand has been lowered to the point where groups and individuals going about the business of political activism are being targeted.

Former police inspector Ross Meurant has brought a fresh insight into how the police evaluate information they receive. He slammed the evaluations as subjective with bad judgments being self-reinforcing within a tight police culture. He is appalled at the so-called “anti-terror” raids last week.

There are few times I’d agree with this former Red Squad member but knowing several of those arrested very well I think he has hit the nail on the head.

The Government tells us the police, SIS and lawmakers are all working hand in hand to keep New Zealand safe. The truth is that our lawmakers are blindly putting in place savage attacks on civil rights, while the police and SIS are eager to test their new powers and seem excited at the prospect of at last joining the war on terror.

Left in the wake will be a badly battered democracy and decent Kiwi activists like Rongomai Bailey whose lives have been changed forever.

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Tuhoe sovereignty

 

Twelve years ago I was one of four teachers taking a group of 30 secondary school students on a five-day tramp through the heart of Tuhoe land in the Urewera National Park.

The tramp was from Ruatahuna to Ruatoki following the Whakatane River.

We arrived by bus late one afternoon and were met by a local Tuhoe family who had agreed to carry some of our bulkier food supplies on horseback and drop them off in the first couple of huts along the way.

It was after dark when we reached the first hut and we didn’t appreciate the rugged splendour of the area till we got moving the following morning.

Much of the land had been stripped of large trees in earlier times but now the unhurried but steady growth of native vegetation is slowly returning the land to its former glory. In 200 years it will be stunning.

Like any long tramp it was challenging and rewarding. The locals on horseback waded the river back and forth while we tramped along the side of gorges, across open scrubland and through densely-canopied forest. We bunked in huts, slept in tents and washed in the river. Every few minutes of every day brought new sights and new highlights.

The carrying of food on horseback was a mixed success. I remember a couple of huge plastic bags of oranges reduced to slush after a couple of days bouncing across the saddle of a pack horse in rugged country. More effective than a lemon squeezer.

We treated lots of blisters, smelled lots of interesting smells and tasted some dreadful food offerings from 14-year-olds experimenting in groups. We met plenty of hunters carrying pig and deer carcases out on horseback and were excited to find a glow-worm grotto just a few yards from the last hut.

The river itself shifts from gorge to gorge initially but on the last couple of days opens out onto a wide river flat as it nears the Bay of Plenty coast.

We were very lucky to have fine weather till the last morning when the rain and mist closed in. Tuhoe are called “children of the mist” for good reason.

We were worn out but exhilarated by the time we straggled to the road-end. A bus met us and drove us to a marae in Ruatoki where we’d arranged to stay. I’d known Tuhoe activist Tame Iti for many years and asked one of the locals if he was around. Yes and he lives just a couple of houses away over the fence I was told. And as luck would have it he was at home. I called him up and he came over.

Later when everyone was settling down for the night in the wharenui Tame talked to the kids about the history of the area; how Tuhoe has never ceded sovereignty over their land to anyone; how they had never signed the Treaty of Waitangi; how a great deal of their best land had been confiscated by the government. He talked about Rua Kenana and the settlement at Maungapohatu (the sacred mountain of Tuhoe) which was raided by 70 armed police during the First World War.

They killed two and arrested Rua for speaking out against the war. He’d argued against Maori fighting for a pakeha king and country while the same king had stripped land from Tuhoe just a few decades before. Tame explained what was involved with the most recent local issues. A forestry block here, some sacred burial sites there, building self belief in the young.

It was a rare privilege for these mainly pakeha teenagers to hear first hand from such a living legend of Tuhoe as Tame Iti.

It was the kind of history lesson we’d never had at school and I can’t help thinking New Zealand would be a very different country today if we’d learnt history from a Maori perspective alongside the pakeha perspective we were taught.

I don’t think most of us have anything but a superficial appreciation of the depth of hurt, anger and alienation felt so keenly by Maori in Tuhoe and elsewhere.

A Maori acquaintance said to me that Pakeha move ahead with their history behind them but Maori move ahead with their history in front of them. This was not meant to say Maori were always looking backwards but that when they move into the future their past is an integral part of who they are.

It was a privilege for us to be in the Ureweras but it was not a right. That right belongs to Tuhoe and we were their guests.

Anyone driving along roads in the area and finding signs declaring “Tuhoe Nation – Keep out!” should delight that the spirit of resistance of these New Zealanders is alive and strong.

And they should stop in respect and ask politely for permission to proceed.


Campaign support good but PM needs more commitment

“The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, And wretches hang that jurymen may dine” goes the line from an Alexander Pope poem.

In 18th century England Pope was commenting on the low value placed on the lives of the working class poor. Hangings for petty theft were common with no regard for fairness or justice. Just the crude loathing of the poor by pompous, self-righteous judges.

We like to think the world today is more enlightened but the evidence isn’t strong.

Last week the Prime Minister joined New Zealand to an international effort alongside Amnesty International to have capital punishment abolished. As part of the campaign the Government is sponsoring a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly this month calling for the abolition of the death penalty across the globe.

On the face of it, it looks winnable in the longer term. More than 130 countries have abandoned the death penalty – apparently Venezuela was the first to do so in 1863 – and over the past decade an average of three countries per year have given up capital punishment either in law or practice, or both.

The problem countries are obvious. According to Amnesty International 91 per cent of all known executions in 2006 took place in just six countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States.

In the US there is a large body of research to show that the death penalty is closely linked to poverty and race. It has been clearly demonstrated that US juries are more likely to condemn to death African-American defendants than white defendants in similar circumstances.

The colour of the murder victim plays a role, too. Defendants are more likely to receive the death sentence if their victims are white than if their victims are coloured.

Similar discrimination applies to gay and lesbian defendants. It’s been estimated that 40 per cent of women on death row in the US have had suggestions of lesbianism made about them at some stage of their trial whether or not it was true. Prosecutors, too, often see their role being to inflame passion based on prejudice to get the penalty they want.

And just as in Pope’s day, death row in the US is predominantly populated by the poor.

In fact, it’s a sure bet that in every country where it is practised, those that face capital punishment will be poor and/or from a racial minority.

China leads the way. The country our Government is negotiating a free-trade agreement with is estimated to execute as many as 10,000 of its citizens each year. And as in most countries the death penalty is used in China as a means of political repression.

The last death penalty carried out here was in 1957 but the respect for life in this part of the world has a thinner veneer than we may think. Helen Clark, who earlier described the death penalty as the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of human beings, in the next breath undermined New Zealand support for the abolition of the death penalty by refusing to comment on the death sentences shortly to be carried out in Indonesia for the Bali nightclub bombings. She made herself “unavailable for comment”.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who has never been one to miss a chance to exploit cheap populism over principle, also refused to speak out against the death penalty imposed on the Bali bombers “because they had been involved in an act of terrorism”.

Comments like this may well have a feel-good factor for the likes of George Bush or the Sensible Sentencing Trust, but just what difference this makes to Winston Peters’ stated opposition to the death penalty is not clear.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard went a step further. He said he supported the death penalty for the three convicted Bali bombers because Australian lives were lost but then called for the death sentence against an Australian drug smuggler to be commuted to life imprisonment. Green MP Nandor Tanczos described the clear inconsistency as racist. The label is a comfortable fit for Howard.

The Amnesty International campaign is well deserving of New Zealand’s support. As a small country we can always punch well above our weight and were the Prime Minister to be seen as more than a convenience-first supporter of the campaign then the respect generated for us would far outweigh any political cost. As it stands, she has undermined New Zealand support for the campaign by failing to display the sort of courage we like to think is a part of the New Zealand character.

In the meantime, we have set aside the death penalty ourselves but our prisons are full of poor, predominantly brown New Zealanders.

National’s education policy just welfare for the wealthy

The last two weeks have seen a flurry of long- awaited policy releases from the National Party. If there’s a common denominator then it’s increased privatisation of public services and infrastructure in one form or another.

In education National has shied away from its more controversial policies like compulsory bulk funding of teachers’ salaries and the formation of so-called “trust schools”, but there is plenty to be concerned about.

National’s first initiative is a proposed increase in funding for private schools. This should not be a surprise because during the 1990s National increased funding for private schools while public schools were kept on starvation subsidies. Government funding for Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, for example, increased by 219 per cent ($455,374 to $1,453,645) from 1994 to 1999 while operational funding for public schools was kept below the rate of inflation through most of this time.

Just why the best resourced schools supposedly have greater needs than everyone else is never explained.

National’s second proposal is a privatising policy whereby the corporate sector would build and own new schools with the Government leasing them back and running them as public schools.

Most New Zealanders are now inherently suspicious of privatisation. Thank heaven we’ve learnt something from the economic disasters of Rogernomics. The problem is that National’s wealthy backers see these public disasters as successful. Many of them became enormously wealthy through privatisations and they are demanding more of the same.

National is presenting the policy to us based on the notion that it is cheaper for the private sector to build, own and maintain schools over the first 25 years of the school’s life. The Government doesn’t need to front up with the cash. Instead, it just pays a lease for the buildings and land over perhaps 20 to 25 years and then buys the school back.

But how could this arrangement possibly be cheaper in the long run? The Government itself can borrow money more cheaply than the private sector, and with private companies out to make healthy profits from such arrangements it’s clear the proposal is a rort. There is no educational benefit. It is a policy to deliver unearned income to the corporate sector.

Overseas experience confirms this unequivocally. In Canada, for example, these public-private partnerships are more costly and despite claims to the contrary the financial risks for the most part remain with the Government.

In Nova Scotia, the provincial government encouraged these lease-back arrangements and there was a flurry of 56 new schools built by the corporate sector. On the face of it the costs were lower and the government claimed it had less debt, but as the local auditor-general, Roy Salmon, said, “there is still a commitment to make lease payments for 20 years, and that is the next thing to a debt”.

He went on to criticise the government’s rush into these lease arrangements saying “accounting treatment should not drive decision-making”.

And this is at the heart of the problems. These deals are based on creative accounting where the calculated benefits all too often evaporate before the ink is dry on the contract. There are plenty of horror stories.

Evergreen Park lease-back school in New Brunswick was set up under this arrangement with the local authorities estimating it would cost $184,000 less than if the government funded and built it. In fact, it cost $900,000 more; $400,000 of this came from the extra cost of private finance (paid by the provincial government through the lease), while the government is also paying another $421,000 over the 25-year lease to lease back land they sold to the private sector corporation for just $274,000 in the first place.

Independent calculations were done to compare public and private costs of building Horton High School in Greenwich, King’s County. The private-sector deal cost $4.3 million more than it would have cost as a public venture. Similar calculations are common for these deals.

None of these arrangements are anywhere near the end of their leases yet but there is very real concern that corporations will let buildings deteriorate as the leases approach renewal, leaving enormous bills for the taxpayer.

New Zealand had real experience of this after our rail network was privatised. The original private buyer, Tranz Rail, sold out and left deferred track maintenance of around $270m which has to be paid by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the private operators leave with the loot.

In some cases, Canadian communities are facing stiff increases in after-hours rental of school facilities for sports practices and so on because the corporate owners want an extra pound of flesh. Serious concerns have been expressed about low- income communities now struggling to find the fees to keep their children in sport and out of trouble.

Decent education policy can only be driven by proposals to improve children’s learning. There is none of this in John Key’s announcements. It’s just more welfare for the wealthy.

Case against arming police

We all appreciate the police often have very difficult situations to handle and they deserve community support in facing these situations. However, we also have some of the most vulnerable members of our community who face very difficult situations and struggle to cope.

Some years back a neighbour of mine with mental health problems had a violent argument with his flatmate about missing stereo speakers.

He went round the flat ranting, raving and smashing windows. It was 3am and when the police arrived he was outside the house still on a smashing spree.

The police handled the situation really well. They kept well back and spoke respectfully and professionally to him. They calmed him down and called in mental health support whereupon they all went off to the police station to sort it out.

I don’t think that would happen today. Instead, he would be batoned, pepper-sprayed or shot.

In my observation there have been unfortunate changes to policing over the past 30 years. It appears the average age of police officers has decreased and certainly in our low-income areas here in Auckland the situation is dire. A police inspector in South Auckland told me last year that a very high proportion of their officers have less than six months experience and at some of the small stations it was common for a new recruit on his or her first posting to be shown the ropes and given on-the-job training by another officer who themselves had only six months experience.

Alongside youth and inexperience, I’ve personally noticed the lack of tact and diplomacy in defusing difficult or potentially difficult situations. It’s becoming far too common for police officers to take a black and white view, and instead of using good judgment and common sense their reactions inflame the situation. Ready access to arms makes such situations all the more volatile and dangerous for everyone.

The police killing of a man armed with a hammer in Christchurch last week provides powerful evidence against further arming of the police with either guns or Tasers. There are enough undisputed facts in the public arena to know this situation should not have ended in a man’s death.

The Police Association says that had the police officers in Christchurch been armed with Tasers they could have avoided the use of lethal force. This is disingenuous. We don’t need police to use the tragic death of this man as a public relations exercise to demand Tasers. The Taser was never to be deployed as an alternative to guns. It was proposed as an alternative to pepper spray or batons which were the first but unused options in the most recent shooting tragedy.

It’s not too cynical to say the outcome of the police investigation is predictable. They will deem their officer acted in self- defence irrespective of eye-witnesses. They will say their officer thought his life was at risk and that’s all that matters. End of story. The police will once again have investigated their own with nominal oversight by the under-resourced and intentionally ineffectual Police Complaints Authority.

In the meantime, there are five arguments which give a rock-solid case against arming the police with Tasers or guns.

* Tasers and guns encourage a culture of violence in policing. They both introduce another element of violence into the relationship between police and the general public that we don’t need. New Zealand has a long history of relatively unarmed police which has served this country much better than the culture of heavy violence in policing in the home of the Tasers – the United States. Our police and community are safer as a result. Police in the US are at far greater risk of injury or death than police in New Zealand and we should aim to keep it that way.

* Police inability to follow guidelines. Pepper-spraying was introduced into New Zealand some years back and is now being used willy-nilly around the country. It is used routinely as a first resort simply because it is there. Just having weapons such as Tasers and guns readily available means police will bypass other options much more quickly and guidelines for their use would become blurred and irrelevant. In the Stephen Wallace shooting, for example, while the police officer was predictably acquitted of the charges laid against him, the police would not have been carrying guns that night if they had followed police guidelines in the first place.

* Tasers and guns are both lethal. Tasers are often thought of as non-lethal but the death toll from their use is rising rapidly. More than 167 people have died after being Tasered in the US and Canada since September 1999. Despite the police spin put on these deaths, each of these people would be alive today had they not been tasered.

* Community control of police powers. Police have been given very broad powers of arrest and restraint on freedom and so it’s very important that the community has democratic control and scrutiny of police activity. However, in the case of Tasers the police made a unilateral decision to trial them and only called for “community consultation” after the event. Despite this the Government didn’t raise an eyebrow. There are plenty of examples around the world of police forces that have become a law unto themselves and are outside effective democratic control. It’s our job to ensure this doesn’t happen in New Zealand.

* Police priorities: public confidence in the police has taken a real hammering over recent years with police at the highest levels charged with rape, fraud, theft and violence offences. The police priority must surely be to rebuild community confidence and trust rather than see it eroded further.

We don’t need police routinely armed with Tasers or guns.

The more difficult the situations the police may face, the greater the need for training, professionalism and the following of guidelines.