Wednesday, 27 March 2019

There is no need to need to review the structure of the security services in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque killings. Both the SIS and the GCSB have already been heavily reviewed in recent years, made more accountable in their operations, and had their funding increased. The SIS and the GCSB are structurally quite different organisations from what they were five years ago.

Indeed, it is barely two years since the Cullen/Reddy review, the first of the five yearly reviews of the security services, ushered in by the 2013 changes to the GCSB legislation. The Cullen/Reddy review led to significant changes to the structures and accountabilities of both the SIS and the GCSB, and a significant budget boost besides. And the next regular review is barely three years away. In the meantime, there are the periodic public reports of the Inspector-General on the operations and practices of both services, which always receive significant media coverage.

On the face of it, little is likely to be gained from a further review, albeit by a Royal Commission, of how our security services are structured, in the wake of the appalling events in Christchurch. That said, there is undoubtedly a requirement to look into the operational conduct of both organisations in the lead-up to the attacks, and why they both seemed so totally taken by surprise by them.

Because of the unusual and sensitive environment within which they work, the security services have always operated at arms length from the  government of the day, lest there be any suggestion of collusion, or politically inspired surveillance taking place. While there are good reasons for maintaining that arms length day to day separation, it may actually be part of the problem, although there would be strong resistance to bringing the security services under any tighter political control. Thankfully, no-one has seriously suggested that.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of huge concern that the build-up to the events in Christchurch was missed completely by the security services. Even more so, is the revelation since March 15 that the SIS's strong historic focus on Islamic terrorism and threats, has meant that very little attention has been paid over the years to right wing extremist nationalist threats and activities, even though there has been plenty of evidence such groups were active in New Zealand.

The question has to be asked how on earth can this be? Where did the focus on potential Islamic terrorism stem from? And why were right wing, ultra nationalist, white supremacist groups apparently ignored altogether? Is it an outcome of the institutional prejudices of the organisations over time, and if so, what drove those? Or was it driven by the world view of the other Five Eyes partners, principally the United States, for whom the Islamophobic focus was paramount?

Following on from that, we need assurances that specific, solid steps have been taken to overcome the deficiencies already identified and that the operational focus of the services has been immediately broadened to include all potential forms of subversion or terrorism, regardless of where their perpetrators might fit on the ideological spectrum. We need those assurances clearly and swiftly and we do not need to wait for a lengthy Royal Commission to get them. A public cross-examination of the Directors of the SIS and the GCSB, under oath, by a Parliamentary Select Committee could obtain the answers far more quickly.

So, why is the government apparently so keen to include a wide-ranging review of the security services as part of the Royal Commission's brief? In part, it is a simple case of convenience - best to have it dealt with there,  rather than separately. And there is a certain logic to that, which is difficult to object to, if that is all. But calls from the Leader of the Opposition about the need to revive the comprehensive surveillance that could have occurred had Project Speargun proceeded, and muffled statements from some Ministers about the trade-offs between more security and personal privacy raise afresh the spectre of additional intrusive powers for the security services, which should arouse more general public concern. Horrific as they were, the events in Christchurch cannot be used as a justification for further moves in this direction.

Yes, we do need to find out why the security services failed so badly on this occasion. And the situation does need to be rectified to ensure such a gross lapse cannot ever occur again. But, at the same time, we must be vigilant to ensure no more of our individual liberties are compromised or surrendered in the process.               

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

In school, we all learnt the phrase, "Beware the Ides of March" courtesy of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. The soothsayer's warning to Caesar was brushed aside and Caesar assassinated a little later in the day. For the last nearly 420 years since Shakespeare wrote the phrase, it has become a harbinger of impending doom.

Friday 15 March, the day of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch, marked the Ides of March for 2019. In many ways, it was our equivalent of the 9/11 attacks in New York, so dramatic was its impact.

As events around 9/11 were unfolding, President George W Bush was visiting a school in Florida. Photographers have recorded his being advised by aides whispering in his ear of what was happening, and all the while he had to sit quietly, and stonefaced through a students' performance, gathering his thoughts, before his hurried departure. His subsequent public addresses helped - indeed had to - quell the shock, grief, anger and horror of the American people, while at the same time having to come to grips with what had happened, or might be about to yet happen, and working out the national response. The photograph showing him addressing the people, megaphone in hand, from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, quickly became a metaphoric and iconic symbol of defiance and determination.

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern would have faced similar circumstances and emotions as last Friday afternoon's tragedies began to unfold. Like President Bush, she would have had limited time to process the information being received, and deal with her own inevitable emotions and reactions, before being expected to address the nation, both to offer information about what had happened; comfort to the distraught and bereaved, and reassurance to the country about the national response. Her subsequent now iconic photograph at the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre with the Christchurch Muslim community was, like President Bush's all those years ago, a classic example of a picture being being worth a thousand words.

The image of a pained Prime Minister wearing a hijab, like that of a President in windbreaker and speaking into a megaphone, conveyed all the appropriate emotions - empathy, determination, resolution, and even the fear that both leaders must have felt about the path their countries may now had begun to travel down. Above all, they were images of their humanity, something we often forget about our political leaders. They too have feelings like the rest of us about the evil, injustice or whatever of the events, but they also have the responsibility of laying those to one side, and representing the nation as a whole, as they deal with what has happened.

Both President Bush and the Prime Minister gained the warm glow of popular support for their measured responses to the appalling tragedies which, undoubtedly, coupled no doubt with massive bursts of adrenalin, helped sustain them during the dark days. Sadly, as we know from the case of President Bush, mistakes and errors of judgement are likely to occur as time passes, and the immediate wave of public sympathy wanes. That is not a politically loaded observation, nor a judgement call. It is simply a statement of fact. They are both human beings, after all, and no human being is ever perfect.

The essential point is that the Prime Minister, like President Bush before her, is genuinely trying to her best, as she sees it, by the country in these unprecedented circumstances. Her efforts deserve the tolerance of our support, whatever our political allegiances. Normal political hostilities will resume over time, but, for now, the situation is one that should be above the partisan fray.

Many words have been spoken and written about the victims and their families since last Friday. No matter how eloquent, how undoubtedly well-meant and sincere, or how compassionate, they are inadequate compensation for the lives so needlessly lost, but they are the best human beings can do in such circumstances. May all of us in our daily lives stand resolutely with those who have suffered and been so pained, and may we determine to never let hatred and intolerance take firm hold in our land. Kia kaha. تصحبك السلامة 




Thursday, 14 March 2019

It is often said that no government can legislate for commonsense. And it is also often said that the first thing every new Minister should do upon appointment is read and comprehend the provisions of the Cabinet Manual. Both statements are particularly apt in the case of Defence Minister Ron Mark.

The Cabinet Manual is the primary authority on the conduct of Cabinet government in New Zealand, and its confirmation and endorsement is always the first item of business considered by any new Cabinet upon taking office. It covers the full spectrum of Cabinet functions, including spelling out the roles and powers of Ministers, and their financial responsibilities and legal obligations. It also offers guidance as to how they should conduct themselves in carrying out their official duties and the management of any potential conflicts of interest.

In particular, the Cabinet Manual notes that, "... at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional." Elsewhere it notes that, "...In all areas of their work ... Ministers represent and implement government policy." Thus the scope for individual Ministerial action, particularly of the capricious kind, without the authority of the Cabinet, is constrained.

Now, there is an inevitable tension between the role as a Minister in the government, and the role as an individual Member of Parliament representing a political party. In these days of multiparty government, there will be times when the policy of an individual's party may not necessarily be the agreed policy of the government. These situations require a certain subtlety of judgement, something clearly lacking in the case of Mr Mark.

As a coalition partner, he is obliged to show clear support at all times for the collective government position, and in the words of the Cabinet Manual "... show careful judgement when referring to party policy that differs from government policy." Interestingly, a confidence and supply partner (like the Greens) are bound by a lesser standard being bound by collective responsibility only in relation to the particular portfolios they may hold, or when representing the government outside New Zealand.

Mr Mark's speech to veterans, apparently linking continued funding to political support for his party clearly did not breach the Cabinet Manual standard of acting lawfully. However, whether the essential crudity of his message that veterans and defence personnel should be voting New Zealand First "or else" met the "highest ethical standards" test and demonstrated "a professional approach and good judgement" is an entirely separate matter.

It may be easy and tempting to dismiss this incident as just another example of the immature strutting bluster and swagger that generally accompanies this Minister's behaviour, but that is no real defence. Any Minister, should, by virtue of the office they hold and their consequent seniority in the political process, know and act better, particularly after almost 20 years as a Member of Parliament, as in Mr Mark's case.

The more worrying aspect is that after almost eighteen months in the job he does not to have learnt the constraints that go with it. This is not to say that Ministers should be muzzled from making partisan political speeches - far from it, they are politicians after all, with a right to promote their re-election - but that they need to act with a dignity and decorum that was lacking on this occasion.

It all comes down to, as former Speaker Margaret Wilson once declaimed, a question of "hats" and people making it clear which hat they were wearing on a given occasion. Had Mr Mark been making his speech as a New Zealand First MP, and not as the responsible Minister, it probably would have no raised no eyebrows, which is where the good judgement question arises.

Yes, Ministers like the trappings of office and they way they are deferred to. They often make the mistake of assuming that gives their pronouncements a greater than normal authority, but there also times when Ministers need to become mere mortals again and make it clear when they are not speaking in a Ministerial role to meet the standards of the Cabinet Manual. The worry here is that even at this stage of his Ministerial career Mr Mark seems unwilling or unable to make and comprehend the distinction.

Mr Mark can feel relieved on one point though. The Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that, "Ultimately Ministers are responsible to the Prime Minister for their behaviour." As the Prime Minister has consistently shown in the case of the serially errant Mr Jones, that means no substantive action will be taken, so long as the Minister is from New Zealand First.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Wellington public service bureaucracy still maintains an aura of political neutrality about its operations. Public servants are, as tradition expects, generally loyal to their Ministers and the government of the day, and do not seek to cause them any embarrassment, if that can be avoided. Successive governments have been able to rely on the tact, discretion and continuity of the public service to guide and advise them on their policies as appropriate.

All that is as it should be. Indeed, the neutrality of the public service is a core feature of our system of government. The government of the day has to be able to rely on the public sector to make its policies work, and deliver them to the public, as well as offering free and frank advice to Ministers on the real likely impact of their policies and how difficult or otherwise they might be to implement. It cannot do so, or becomes severely limited in its ability to do so, without the support of the public service, or if there is any hint that the public sector is not in step with the government's agenda.

However, none of this overlooks the reality that public servants are individuals like the rest of us, with the same prejudices and viewpoints. And, like the rest of us, they express these informally from time to time - to colleagues, friends, family and other associates, sometimes discreetly, other times less so. (Intelligence sector agents have long said that the best source to find out information about what is really going on in government is the loud conversations in the Koru Lounge on a Friday evening!)

The present government's term is approaching its midpoint, and government officials will be starting to assess whether or not it is likely to re-elected, not so much from a party political perspective, but more from the perspective of future policy development and implementation, and its likely longevity. After all, why dedicate too many resources to a government policy project that may well not survive a change of government, if that seems on the cards?

Much of that consideration will be based on an informal assessment by the public sector and its leaders of the performance of individual Ministers as they see them interacting with the various government departments on a day to day basis.

After the initial flurry following the change of government in 2017 when bureaucrats had to get used to, and then house-train, a bunch of inexperienced new Ministers, many of whom appeared somewhat shocked to be in the role at all, there has been a settling down period where the worth of their political masters can be assessed more dispassionately. As always, there have been surprises - some Ministers have performed far better than expected, and others less so.

Soundings around the public service suggest that the current government sits very much on the cusp at present. The initial view that this government was likely to be in office for a minimum of two terms has waned somewhat, although it has not yet evaporated. Now, the coalition government's re-election prospects are rated about 50/50, a position not too out of step with public opinion polls, and probably not too bad at this stage of the electoral cycle, but one from which it cannot afford any slippage.

Nevertheless, with half its term nearly over, and no significant policy runs on the board as yet, the government is facing a significant, although not yet insurmountable challenge, to make the Prime Minister's "year of delivery" a reality. If doubts about the government's re-election prospects remain, or even intensify, the enthusiasm for implementing new policies will diminish, especially if it is felt those policies could have only a brief life-span.

Much of the view about the government's longer term chances hinges upon the perception of the performance and competence of individual Ministers. While most still seem to be considered in the nonentity category, two names crop up constantly as just not up to the job - Housing Minister Twyford and Health Minister Clark. The worrying thing for the government is that both are in high-profile areas, which the government has identified as central to its agenda. And here is the rub: officials are generally unlikely to go the extra mile for Ministers and policies that do not inspire their confidence, so things are likely to get worse in these areas before they get better, and all the while the electoral clock will be ticking.

Amongst other Ministers, Foreign Minister Peters is now seen as increasingly harmless; Police Minister Nash brittle and erratic, and Defence Minister Mark still too strutting.

On the other hand, Education Minister Hipkins seems highly regarded, but overworked; Finance Minster Robertson is seen as a safe pair of hands; Trade Minister Parker and Justice Minister Little generally on top of things. There is growing admiration for Energy and Technology Minister Woods, and increasing puzzlement that Civil Defence Minister Faafoi remains so underutilised.

At the same time, there does not appear to be much enthusiasm for the National Party, more a sense of resignation that its return to office still remains a possibility. This should hardly be too much of a surprise - Wellington is after all a Labour city, and public servants form a large component of its voting population. Their professionalism means they usually separate their personal political preferences from their official roles. However, a good yardstick of a government on the way out is when the number of leaks from the public service to the media or the Opposition increases.  That does not apear to be happening as yet.

Of course, the Wellington bureaucracy gossip will not determine the outcome of the next election, but it is worth noting nonetheless.  It is after all a gathering of the views of those who work most closely on a regular basis with Ministers. And it will all be being passed on to others, innocently and in casual conversation.  Although it is informal, and unscientific, a wise government would be foolish to ignore it.