June 4, 2023

A national security-shaped hole in our political agenda

A national security-shaped hole in our political agenda

As we face an unprecedented era of national security challenges, it’s high time we had an open conversation about critical government investment needed to make NZ a safer place to live, says Dr Peter Grace

Opinion: Asking a spy chief to talk about transparency is a bit like asking your grandmother to tell you about her first date with your grandfather: all smiles until you eventually reach a point where Nan has told you too much – and now grand-mum’s the word. Similarly, the national security people reach a point where the smile becomes fixed and the tongue firmly pressed against clenched teeth. The smile lingers but the conversation is clearly over.

The Review of the Intelligence and Security Act (2017) may be such a case. Here is a report that focuses mostly on the democratic oversight of our intelligence agencies, but is so far for the PM’s eyes only. It was tabled with Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee this Wednesday. Whether we will see it released publicly is not yet known. Yet this is not the time for tight lips.

When we talk about the oversight of our intelligence agencies this is related mostly to their ‘intrusive powers’, which the act is there to control, and to allow only with careful deliberation. The history has been one of a gradual awareness that checks and balances were required: often added late and never implemented without a shrug that more was probably needed.

Legislation was siloed, and as a consequence imbalances occurred between the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) oversight. It is time to look more closely at control of agencies such as the police and defence intelligence, who don’t come under the same scrutiny.

When this is finally recognised as the major expense item that it is, national security will become a dominant feature of the political agenda

The intrusive powers of our spy agencies is quickly becoming an anachronism, when companies such as Google and Facebook know more about what we do in our daily lives, and on-sell what they learn to other businesses. There is concern that government departments in New Zealand now have access to this very same information, and are using commercial tools as well as buying data to learn more about their ‘customers’. These departments sit outside the oversight mechanisms in place for SIS and GCSB.


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The Intelligence and Security Act has been reviewed at the same time as the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) has been writing New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy. There is an acknowledgement that this kind of thinking is overdue, and playing catch-up after the criticisms of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Christchurch terror attacks.

It would be naive for New Zealanders to let oversight of our intelligence agencies remain the purview of a few politicians at the top

The DPMC is also taking an inventory of what New Zealand spends on national security. Defence is likely to be about two-thirds of our investment, but when the accountants stop adding up all the figures my guess is that shock is going to set in. When you start including the ancillary costs it is going to bring home just how big New Zealand’s expenditure on national security really is. As our concept of security broadens to take in the effects of climate change, disinformation and emerging technologies, there may be few items left on the Government balance sheet that don’t have a national security component.

When this is finally recognised as the major expense item that it is, national security will become a dominant feature of the political agenda. New Zealand politicians have not traditionally talked about this: John Key’s November 2014 speech and Jacinda Ardern’s counter-terrorism hui speech late last year are very rare blips on the threat-scape radar.

The more our leaders talk about national security, the more politicised it will become. It would be naive for New Zealanders to let oversight of our intelligence agencies remain the purview of a few politicians at the top. We need to review how Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is appointed, away from the dominance of the two major parties, and open it up to members outside of the political world.

Once a full inventory of costs is completed, there will be talk of what kind of investment we need to make New Zealand a safer place. Not whether we need new weapons or more of them, which the war in Ukraine may change our opinion about, but what is good money spent and what is throwing good after bad. The unspoken threat we face is ignorance.

As citizens, we simply don’t know enough about national security. We have traditionally been very compliant when asked: New Zealand went to a war in Vietnam that Britain and Canada largely distanced themselves from. The time has come to have a long and intelligent debate about dangers now and in the future. And have the Government commit resources to it. Let’s pour ourselves a glass of wine, offer two or three to the national security people, and get a few tongues wagging. We need a national security conversation and it needs to be a real one.

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