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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The Search and Surveillance Bill: Fighting the Trifle

I almost yearn for those far-off days when environmental issues seemed distinct from all those other problems. In my mind there were the whales, nuclear energy and logging on one side, and the human rights abuses, genocides and death penalties on the other. They had no connection; there was no bridge between them. There was custard and there was sponge cake, rather than a big ole’ bowl of problem trifle.

Back then I was happy, in my naivety, to see environmental difficulties as the sole focus, the sole subject to rant about at unprepared indie kids after too many glasses of cheap red wine. Climate change changed all that. Suddenly, it didn’t make sense to separate the environmental from the social, political and economic—it was all tied together in one sprawling monster, with our current economic and societal system at its centre. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am still essentially an environmentalist in my dreadlocked, barefoot heart, but now I see a slightly bigger, more holistic picture. And it’s not that pretty. This is no trifling trifle.

Even on the most superficial level, social justice and environmental justice seem to be inseparable. For instance, if you want to protest about the environment anytime soon, then you should be wary about the recommended reform of the Search and Surveillance Bill.

Human rights advocates around the country are twitching with dissatisfaction at the bill, which was based on a Law Commission report that recommended reform of search and surveillance powers held by the state.

I’m no budding law student, but this is what I take out of the recommended reform:

  • It allows warrantless searches of the homes of any police detainees, alongside allowing police to take anything in “plain view” during a raid, without specifying it beforehand.
  • It takes away the right to refuse to participate in one’s own criminal investigation, as police could apply for orders which force the surrender of documents and compulsory questioning. This is akin to taking away the age-old right to silence.
  • It would create “residual warrants” which allow state agencies to use any new surveillance technology, even if there hasn’t been enough time for parliament to create guidelines.
  • Under this bill, ongoing surveillance is treated as if it was same thing as a one-off search.

One sizeable qualm is that the bill extends these powers to 70 state agencies. Some commentators have noted these rights should not be granted to the police, let alone agencies such as WINZ and the Pork Board (of all places).

This bill should totally worry you if you like protests and/or social movements for environmental or climate action. The Human Rights Commission has voiced concerns that removing the right to silence could be used to target political activists or union leaders falsely accused of minor charges. So if you were suspected of organising some sort of civil disobedience then it would be completely within the police’s rights to rifle through your emails.

Those who support the reformed bill say that it merely sets down procedures regarding presently unregulated powers. Besides being blatantly untrue, this only highlights an existing problem: that the public has no idea of the current limits powers of search and surveillance. This is not good. Not good in the realm of “I can’t tell what type of meat I’m eating in my vegetarian lasagne.”

It seems that state power is creeping, privacy is being eroded, 1984 allegories abound. It’s all a tad worrying. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that Aotearoa was all about protecting our freedoms and rights? One freedom that many New Zealanders will doubtlessly use in the coming months is organising or participating in large protests about mining. 

If you’re interested, there are groups across the country organising against the Search and Surveillance Bill, you can find out more details at

The Search and Surveillance Bill is a prime example of how we sometimes need to protect social freedoms to protect the environment. Here we have social justice and environmental justice interminably linked in a delicious sherry-soaked trifle allegory. Bon Appétit!


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  1. Felicia Jollyfellow says:

    Great Article! I believe that one of the 70 state agencies is Studylink.

  2. Liz W-M says:

    Thanks Felicity. Studylink?! That’s crazy (and worrying).

  3. Hey Liz. Very good article. I wanted to comment on your realization that there is in fact a bridge between environmental destruction and the killing of human beings. I’d like to suggest you look beyond climate change as the sole connection between these two terrible acts our culture so regularly engages in. There is something much deeper going on here. Our culture has an underlying disregard for all life, be it the health of the earth, or of our fellow human beings around us. I’d suggest 2 books that totally opened my eyes to “the bigger picture”: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, or The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.
    =) Thanks for making your voice heard.

  4. Liz W-M says:

    Thanks Daniel, I really appreciated your comment. I’ll try to track down both those books. Ishmael has been recommended to me three times in the last two weeks; it must be good.

    I haven’t heard of Jensen’s book – but strangely enough it turns out I have a quote of his written in the back of my diary, about the importance of activists confronting systems rather than navigating systems with integrity.

  5. baz says:

    yep, under this bill, studylink will be able to install a camera in your home to find out what your living situation and whether you are in fact entitled to allowance payments etc. scary

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