Police Spying threatens democracy

State security infiltration and spying on protest groups is nothing new. Both police and the Security Intelligence Service infiltrated such organisations as the anti-Vietnam war movement and protest groups aiming to stop the 1981 Springbok Tour.

However last week’s revelations police paid Rob Gilchrist to infiltrate and spy on various animal rights, environmental and trade union groups over a 10-year period should ring alarm bells for us all. Greenpeace, the Green Party, Peace Action Wellington and Unite Union were among the targets.

Embarrassed by publicity from their spy who came in from the cold, the police have refused to engage in any significant public debate other than to darkly hint they’re perhaps more interested in individuals than organisations. However requesting personal information for state files on the lives and loves of individuals involved in democratic dissent is as repugnant as targeting legitimate organisations.

To put it simply when it comes to judgements on protest activity the police cannot be trusted. Their assurances they respect the right to protest have been shown to be demonstrably false on numerous occasions. These rarely gain public attention but it’s worth recalling one which did. It was the police handling of a protest by Free Tibet supporters outside the hotel where the Chinese President Jiang Zemin was attending a function in 1999.

After meeting with Chinese officials beforehand instructions were issued that police should “make every effort to minimise the impact of protest …”. What followed was a flagrant abuse of police power. Their actions, which resulted in a parliamentary inquiry, included standing on Tibetan flags to prevent them being waved while the President’s motorcade drove past; using buses to screen off the protests; closing the road (without legal authority) and pushing and shoving the protest group 100 metres down the street away from the hotel.

The police response, after an eight year (sic) investigation by the Police Complaints Authority was to change their guidelines for handling protests. The new instructions say protesters can be removed from the sight of visiting dignitaries if the protest behaviour is disorderly, or personally offensive and humiliating to the visitors. In other words the police will be able to justify similar actions in future because in this case the Chinese regime’s representatives felt humiliated by the Free Tibet protest.

Two aspects of this latest saga should be of added concern. Firstly police surveillance of protest groups is now routine. On any significant demonstration they turn up with video cameras to film everyone taking part. The last time I challenged this in writing the Police Commissioner blandly replied to the effect that it’s not illegal to operate a video camera in a public place and they reserved the right to archive the film for their own uses.

He’s right on the first point. Tourists regularly operate video cameras in public places but when those entrusted with enormous state power and huge resources spy on people exercising their democratic right to dissent then we should all be worried. This Orwellian state behaviour, which was a feature of Soviet Russia and is actively practiced by the current Chinese regime, is a threat to democracy itself.

Secondly the police have even greater powers and resources to spy on citizens than when they first recruited Rob Gilchrist 10 years ago. Since 2001, under the guise of the so-called war on terror, a plethora of legislation has been passed to extend their power to snoop and spy and they’ve been provided with fat budgets to do so.

Interestingly it’s the same group within the police who monitor so-called anti-terrorist activity who are charged with spying on protest groups. It’s no wonder they lose the plot. In a country which has demonstrably not been a terrorist target and where there are no terrorist groups operating it’s inevitable the focus of this police group shifts to groups active in political protest.

We saw the stupidity of this combination most clearly last year with the so-called anti-terror raids whereby political activists were targeted in a hugely expensive and pointless surveillance operation lasting some 18 months with little more than a pile of hot air to bring to court. The police are still tilting at windmills.

Neither is it OK to accept the hoary old line that “if protest groups are acting within the law they have nothing to fear”. Tell that to the five Free Tibet protestors who were arrested at the Jiang Zemin protest.

Yes the police have a hard job to do but targeting the right to dissent is not one of them. A public inquiry is needed alongside a lot more healthy scepticism of police action in relation to protest.