Spying and the end of the world

And now White Island is getting restless. It’s all a bit disconcerting, isn’t it? It’s as though the whole country is having a wee stretch.

If we lived inside a Hollywood blockbuster, all of these shakes and rattles would eventually culminate in a climactic scene in which the entire North Island tips up like the Titanic and everyone slides into the ocean, all except for one brave everyman and his two cute children and their puppy. They’re left dangling at the top and are rescued in the nick of time by a crazy comic-relief crackpot who built his own gyrocopter earlier in the movie.

Long before that, the everyman dad – who just happens to be the only person in New Zealand to fully understand the danger – is seen running around trying to warn the Government about our impending doom. He manages to get into John Key’s face but John Key doesn’t pay him any attention, of course, because John is too busy trying to get a spy bill updated.

Our hero then tries to contact Campbell Live, but John Campbell is too busy travelling around the country asking ordinary people if they don’t want to be spied upon.

Well, duh, of course they don’t want to be spied on, if that’s how you ask the question.

I didn’t follow much of what went on with the GCSB Bill amendment myself; I was too busy clearing my emails.

Rather than raising questions about privacy, the whole debate made me think about how poorly we understand the Government’s decision making processes.

The most common sentiment I heard over the past week was, “Aw, what’s the point, they’re not listening to us, they’re going to push the bill through anyway.”

These bills and amendments always go through an established set of formal political hoops. The process includes public submissions that most of us pay very little attention to.

When John Key was acing John Campbell in their interview showdown, he pointed out that there were only 124 public submissions made about the GCSB Bill.  His point was meant to be that no one cared about the GCSB, but that’s a kind of institutional blindness.

Formal submissions are the domain of a limited number of people who engage with an entrenched system. It’s where lawyers and concerned organisations go to write comprehensive critiques of the proposed legislation.

Everyone else goes to the Campbell Live poll.

I tried to keep track of the submission process during the so-called anti-smacking debate and the marriage amendment debate. As far as I could tell, the subsequent versions of each bill sought to address the points that were made by public submissions. The submitters’ points were always acknowledged, even if they didn’t change the end decision.

While many people were running around signing petitions and writing inflammatory letters to the editor, the formal democratic process was quietly doing its due diligence.

If there’s a problem here it is that the formal process passes too many ordinary people by. We are left to assume that ticking a box on Campbell Live’s website is the best way to get our democratic voice heard.

That’s what our heroic everyman will say to John Key when they are thrown together by amazing coincidence during one of the climactic 3D disaster scenes in the Hollywood movie. John Key will say, “You’re that guy who kept trying to warn me about this, aren’t you?”

The everyman will say, “Why didn’t you listen to me?”

John Key will say, “You didn’t make a formal submission. That’s the process that matters when we’re dealing with the intricacies of legislation.”

As the earth opens up and the Prime Minister tumbles away along with hundreds of other computer generated victims, he will cry out, “The formal process wooooorks!”

And the everyman will quip sardonically, ‘It worked in your world, Prime Minister. It worked in your world.”


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 23 August 2013. Reproduced with permission.