The Greens are understandably upset that Rob Gilchrist also spied on them for the Police. Not to be fair to the Police, I very much doubt they asked him to do so. He probably just sends them any stuff he thinks is useful. But there are real issues of judgement for the Police involved. They should have made very clear that he should only report on activities where people planned to break the law, not all sorts of protest action. If they are paying him $600 a week, they do have some responsibility for his actions.
If a group of protesters are planning to break the law by breaking into private property, and digging up GE potatoes (something that elements of the Greens have done in the past), then the Police are acting properly in monitoring this and trying to prevent this.
But if a group are just planning to hold a public protest against say the Police having tazers, then the Police have no legitimate role in collecting information about that protest.
This issue is posing some dilemmas for the Government, even though it all actually happened under the previous Government.
On the one hand the new Minister of Police doesn’t want to start the job, by undermining the Commissioner. They need to have a healthy working relationship. And also generally Police Ministers should stay as far away as possible from operational issues. Of course this rule is not absolute as we saw with the Commission of Inquiry into police conduct in the 80s.
But the element of possibly spying on a political party makes it a problem for the Government, especially as Rochelles Rees has scores of e-mails, documents and phone calls between Gilchrist and the Police. I imagine these documents will be revealed to the public a bit at a time over the next few months. And that means every few days the Government will be asked what is it doing about the issue. And the Greens will try and portray National as endorsing or being unconcerned about Police spying on protesters and even other political parties. The irony is of course it happened under Labour, and National has been victim of spying, leaked e-mails and secret taping more than any other political party. But perception is more important than reality, sometimes.
So is there a solution for the Government? Well, yes, a simple one occurs to me. Why not refer the issue to the Police Complaints Authority. This wipes the issue off the front page, and will ensure that some independent scrutiny is given to the issue. This is ideal for the PCA and is much better than having a formal external inquiry by a QC.
And here’s the clincher for me. I am 99% sure that after two months of released emails, documents and phone calls, Mr Hager or Ms Rees (or someone from the activist community) will themselves complain to the PCA. So why let it drag out in the media for weeks, and months. Just refer it to the PCA now.
Interestingly Garth George is also supportive of the Greens criticism.