Earlier this month the government cancelled the New Zealand passport of a woman living in Australia, citing classified security concerns. Stripping a NZ citizen of their passport might seem unprecedented – but it’s happened before, writes David Belgrave.
Most of us in New Zealand believe that we have a basic right to travel outside the country. Most would also expect that if we were denied a passport by the government we would be given an explanation. However, New Zealand governments past and present have shown they are willing to withhold their citizens’ passports – and their reasoning for doing so.
The recent secrecy around a court hearing involving a woman living in Australia whose New Zealand passport was cancelled by the government due to classified security concerns reopens an old debate about our right to travel and whether the government must provide reasons to restrict our movements. While we do not know the exact reasons for the cancellation of this woman’s passport, in the recent past it has been the threat of terrorism that has made authorities worry about the free movement of people. As the Islamic State emerged in Syria, the Australian government took steps to deny passports to individuals believed to want to join to the fight in Syria on the side of the extremist movement. New Zealand was more reticent in its policy, yet its willingness to deny passports in certain cases goes back decades.
In the 1950s it was communism rather than Islamic militancy that was the core concern. Australia and the United States denied passports to communists to prevent them travelling to international conferences, let alone for more potentially violent purposes. New Zealand was more relaxed about granting communists passports, although this was for purely practical reasons. At the time, it was still possible to leave the country without a passport. The government feared that a communist might make a public stink about being refused a passport only to leave the country anyway, making the government look powerless.
Wellington’s policy was tested when a well-known communist applied for a New Zealand passport in Australia. Cecil Holmes had been a successful New Zealand filmmaker. But in 1948 he was outed as a communist after his New Zealand Communist Party membership and plans for industrial action were stolen from his car and given to the press. The Labour government used the incident to turn up the anti-communist rhetoric and fired Holmes from the National Film Unit. Despite successfully appealing his dismissal in the courts (he had broken no laws), Holmes left for Australia, never to return.
Holmes continued to make films in Australia, but anti-communist sentiment was no less intense across the Tasman. Australian fears of communist espionage came to a head in 1954 when a colonel in Soviet intelligence defected to Australia and provided information on a spy ring operating in Canberra. All communist believers were considered potentially suspect and authorities wanted to keep them in the country, especially after espionage had recently been uncovered.
Unfortunately for Holmes this was the time he hoped to travel to Europe, including communist Czechoslovakia, to promote his films. Australian security officials had no interest in interviewing Holmes regarding the espionage investigation, but the highest levels of government wanted to keep him from travelling. The Australian prime minister Robert Menzies made a direct request to the New Zealand government. Canberra did not want its New Zealand residents to be able to obtain passports to travel to communist countries or events any more than its Australian citizens. Wellington was asked to deny Holmes a passport and to give Holmes no explanation for the refusal. The Australian federal election was less than a month away and Menzies presumably didn’t want negative publicity. Canberra also provided a list of 17 other New Zealanders it wanted to be denied passports should they apply.
Prime Minister Sid Holland agreed and denied Holmes a passport and an explanation until after the Australian election. It was another nine months before he was finally granted a passport.
The Holmes case showed that New Zealand had its own passport policies but was willing to accept Australian positions for New Zealanders living in Australia. We cannot know whether the recent court case is a repeat of the Holmes case of nearly 66 year ago, but many of the same concerns and debates still exist. New Zealand’s policy is still less explicit than Australia’s. Australian dual-nationals accused of fighting for Islamic State can be stripped of their Australian citizenship. While such a policy has not been suggested here, it is now clear that New Zealand is willing to cancel passports if the holder’s travel is believed to represent a security risk.
Managing a balance between the need to preserve secrecy and the rights of the individual is always difficult. Closed court sessions where the public, the applicant, and the applicant’s lawyer are all excluded do not represent democratic principles. It is, as Justice Dobson has described the situation, “anathema to the fundamental concepts of fairness”. However, it is equally understandable that intelligence services are unwilling to share their classified methods and material to someone they deem a security risk.
Given this tricky balance and imperfect judicial oversight, it is perhaps small comfort that the applicant was given a court hearing at all. It was not an option for Cecil Holmes. Regardless of whatever imperfect solution continues, the public needs confidence in government and the judiciary that those denied passports represent real security threats and that the decision has more to do with sound reasoning than Australian political expediency.
David Belgrave is a lecturer and tutor in social policy and civics at Massey University
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