Archive for ‘governance’ Category

Blog Link: Is all against enough?

datePosted on 12:40, April 12th, 2010 by Pablo

This month’s Word from Afar essay focuses on the nature of and differences between proactive and reactive political movements, with particular reference to the Tea Party movement.

The EAB becomes the NAB.

datePosted on 19:03, March 19th, 2010 by Pablo

 It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.

The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM.  It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.

Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated

In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).

This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will  now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.

Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.

As some may remember, I have been in NZ on a mix of research and personal business (truth be told, I am in NZ accompanying my partner on her research leave. The title of this post is her idea, with a hat tip to Brian Easton). As part of my project on the security politics of peripheral democracies (which has NZ as a case study), I have been interviewing a cross-section of people involved in political life both in and outside the Wellington beltway: politicians, journalists, academicians, policy analysts, community and political activists, opinion-makers, bloggers (!) and a few very smart friends. Oh, and Lew (albeit informally, over a very enjoyable lunch). Some of those conversations were illuminating, some were lucid, some were disappointing and some, well, forgotten in the haze of a very good time.

Notwithstanding the fogginess of my recollection of a few of those conversations, one coherent theme has emerged. NZ’s so-called “number 8 wire attitude,” supposedly evidence of Kiwi pragmatism and resourcefulness, is actually the logical result of a chronic and perpetual lack of planning and an ex post, ad hoc approach to policy-making. One interlocutor phrased it as “policy by anecdote,” where politicians relate stories they have been told as proof that similar approaches elsewhere can work just fine in NZ (such as the repeated mention of Singapore as a developmental model for NZ because it is a small island economy, ignoring the obvious fact that it is authoritarian, stratified and in fact a state capitalist welfare state rather than a true market economy). Others simply noted a lack of vision, or a lack of reward for innovation. Some blamed the NZ character, others colonialism and imperialism, partisans blamed their opponents, analysts blamed the politicians, politicians blamed the analysts, journalists blamed the tabloidisation of news ….the range of explanations ran the gamut.

Be they on the political Left or Right, time and time again these keen observers of and participants in NZ politics and policy-making, some with storied histories of commentary and involvement in the debates of the last 25 years, noted that NZ political elites continually re-invent the wheel, adopt quick fix or knee-jerk responses and plaster solutions to concrete problems, and generally go with the cheapest option regardless of the complexities and repercussive consequences involved. There appears to be no full appreciation of the consequences of any given policy decision (including the shift to market economics and adoption of a nuclear-free status), and whatever sucess NZ has in the global arena is more a product of luck and chance (fortuna) rather than strategic planning and foresight (virtu). The current government is no exception and in fact is considered by this select crowd to be one of the shining examples of the syndrome.

In the view of these participant/observers, the situation is compounded by the lack of political and policy talent available. Beyond those who move overseas, the problem is generally seen as a product of the dunmbing down of political and historical knowledge in schools, media disinterest in anything other than scandal, risk-adverse cultures and abject mediocrity within the public bureaucracy, a gross lack of intellectual acuity and political nous on the parliamentary backbenches, and a general attitude of the part of both policy bureaucrats and politicians that “she’ll be right” regardless of what they do. That, and a loss of ethics, principle and integrity amongst the NZ elite in general.

I invite readers to ponder and comment on this. Given the range of people I have spoken to, this is not just the comments of a small group of disgruntled personalities. At another time I will reflect on what was specifically said about those people and agencies involved in security policy–that the MoD is less than useless, that the NZDF is a bastion of short-sightedness and political ignorance, that the NZSIS is a politicised, vengeful, incompetent cesspit, that the EAB is worthless and deservedly ignored, that the Police are as much a problem as they are a solution to domestic security issues, that the advice of all of these agencies and others are routinely ignored by the politicians in government at the moment–the list of grievances is long but the consensus amongst the consiglieri is strong: NZ needs a serious change in political and policy-making culture if it is going to really “punch above its weight” rather than simply muddle along–or be relegated to the lower tiers of democratic capitalist development within the next ten years.

Life mimicking art: Heatley’s resignation

datePosted on 12:41, February 26th, 2010 by Lew

The extravagant mea culpa does strain belief just a little. The only way it could have been weirder is if Key and Brownlee had joined in the self-flagellation. Or if there’d been a musical accompaniment.

If you prefer, auf Deutsch:

L

Unmix these metaphors

datePosted on 22:57, February 23rd, 2010 by Lew

ace_of_spades

In the last couple of weeks the government’s pistons have started pumping. After a year’s worth of blue-boiler-suited (non-unionised) engineers making sure the sleek machine is primed and fuelled and oiled and ready for action, the engine has roared into life and is beginning to blow out a cloud of smoke in preparation for a screaming burnout. As it proceeds, the party has dealt its Labour opposition a decent hand of cards; you could say they’ve built a house of them, which the mighty engine is in danger of knocking down. After campaigning on a platform of returning integrity and effectiveness to the Beehive, the public are beginning to get an inkling that the emperor may lack a couple of vital articles of clothing.

hughes12

Returning to cards: the strongest card is the decision to mine the conservation estate, announced last year. Classic crony capitalism is shaping up to be the trump suit. The other cards: Hide‘s junket timed to coincide with a wedding; Harawira‘s trivial but more spectacularly mismanaged junket; Key‘s and McCully‘s mining shares; revelations that Brownlee lied about being lobbied by mining interests which would stand to benefit from his actions as a minister; attacks against Radio NZ which benefit Joyce‘s former business partners; attacks against ACC which benefit the insurance industry to which the party has well-known ties; and ministers Heatley, Brownlee and Groser who were pinged pinching from the public purse for their own private pleasure.

corporate_crooks

Mining the conservation estate is the keystone of all this, the central peg on which the whole thing hangs — because the allegations cannot be denied outright, only explained. Particularly in the cases of Key and McCully’s shares, the value of the conflict of interest is irrelevant. It probably should be relevant, but it isn’t really: either there is a conflict of interest, or there isn’t. While there would be (much) more hay to be made from a large shareholding, that isn’t necessary to plant the seed of doubt in the rich loam of the electorate’s and the media establishment’s collective consciousness.

plant-a-tree

Likewise the other issues: trivial, but they ring true and all riff on the same themes. Hide’s transgression was much more significant in actual material terms than was Harawira’s, but Harawira was punished much more harshly because he failed to recognise the symbolic matter in play: both required abject, cringing apologies. Key’s “sloppy” uranium shares, which he was “too busy running the country” to recall owning is reminiscent of John McCain‘s failure to remember how many houses he owned, for which he was rightly crucified by a country staring down the barrel of an economic crisis which would cost many people their only home. The smiling visages of the three ministers on the front page of the Dominion Post: the Minister of Economic Development who can’t be trusted with a credit card; the Fisheries Minister who likes to splash out on feeds of kaimoana for his mates and party hangers-on; the Minister for Climate Change Negotiations wining and dining the former National minister who was an integral part of the Copenhagen negotiation, and now heads the environmental branch of the OECD apparatus. And so on. These are symbolic issues, not matters of real actual wrongdoing. But the government can’t just dismiss them outright, it needs to argue the merits, and by the time you have to argue the merits on this kind of thing, you’ve probably already lost the symbolic battle. This sort of behaviour passes the public’s sniff-test about how they think about the National Muldoon gave us. And it fits the narrative of the modern Key/Brash-era Nats as wheeler-dealers, well-heeled fat-cats with a finger in every pie, feathering the nest for their secretive plutocrat mates. It brings to mind an iceberg, with the tiny, trivial transgressions peeking above a glassy surface which hides the monstrous mass below.

iceberg

The job of the opposition is to tie all this into a coherent story which people can understand and feel in their guts: a myth that trips off the tongue at the pub or in the line at the football, in the front seat of a taxi, sitting on the bus, standing around the water-cooler or in the smoko room — in as many variations as there are poets of the NZ electorate.

This post cannot end without a mention of the good work the folks at The Standard — particularly Eddie — have done toward assembling the blocks for this narrative pyramid. I am often critical of them, and their tendency toward partisan hackery frustrates me, but they do a lot of good work, and it shouldn’t go unrecognised. They’ve covered all the main aspects listed here, but they can only go part of the way: now is for the opposition parties and their allies to lurch into action. All the cards have not yet been dealt; the ace of spades may yet be seen. Although the raw material is all there, it won’t be easy writing this story — just ask Lockwood Smith, who only by dogged repetition and worrying away at the Taito Phillip Field bone managed to raise the electorate and media’s awareness of that actual and manifest case of political corruption. But this is the opposition’s job, and if they can untangle the metaphors and lay them out for people in simple, appealing, resonant terms, they will gain some traction. Then perhaps, they too will begin to belch smoke and fire, and roar down the road to victory.

L

You are only as good as your opposition.

datePosted on 15:47, February 16th, 2010 by Pablo

During the years that Labour was in government, I was appalled by the lack of serious discussion on security and defense issues (or any other issue, for that matter). Instead of asking hard questions of the government about defense policy, strategic focus, the military budget, reasons for the TSA,  Zaoui’s unfair inprisonement, the competency and purview of the NZSIS, oversight of police intelligence etc., National barked about petty scandals and personal pecadillos. Its strategy was to snipe from the sidelines, make no statements of policy or specific commitments to substantitive changes, and to wait until labour self-destructed and/or voters got tired of its incumbency and opted for change for changes sake. The strategy worked.

The irony is that now in opposition, Labour has not been successful at doing the same. That affords National the political space to continue to test the winds on issues like taxation, defense, educational standards, climate change and mining of national parks without firmly commiting to a course of action. It appears to be a strategy of policy by stealth osmosis: simply announce a proposal, let the pundits and informed public debate the merits, go with the flow and shift the specifics depending on how public opinion polling shows the response to be, or offer rhetorical placations while leaching through the opposition. In some cases (GST perhaps?) that may means abandoning the proposal entirely but in most cases it means saying one thing, speaking of compromise, but doing another without meaningful concession.

The irony is that by being so wishy-washy, National prevents Labour from making political capital out of its opposition. Although it seems to have tried to copy National’s playbook for the opposition–snipe, nag, whine but not commit to a policy or course of action that would directly confront National’s proposals in antithetical terms–which may be due to a belief that the first year in government belongs to the government, with the proper role of opposition being to offer no real alternatives until closer to election day, the strategy has failed Labour.

In an interview Selwyn Manning (of Scoop fame) noted that Key and his advisors could afford to do do policy reversals and utter vague, retractable promises because there was “no cabinet-in-waiting” on Labour’s side of the aisle. The insight is spot-on: with no quality opposition pressing hard, specific, technical questions in a number of policy areas on it, and with the  front and back-benches surrounding Phil Goff populated by lightweights or mealy-mouthed opportunists,  National has the luxury of being indolent. It is the default option, the easy way out, basking in the afterglow of the “anything but Clark” attitude of many in the electorate. Given the abysmal state of political reporting in general, and majority disinterest in, if not distaste for politics, this gives National a triple dose of insulation from sharp questions and better alternatives.

However, that may have begun to change. Evidence suggests that at least some voters who shifted their preferences to National out of a sense of fatigue with Labour, or who thought that National would be more moderate and pragmatic than dogmatic in its approach to policy-making, are beginning to reconsider their support for the Key government (including those who may still like Mr. Key personally).  That in turn offers an incentive to Labour to stop playing the attack poodle role in opposition and to develop some policy bite along with its bark. For that to happen, though, Labour needs a shake up in its ranks, not so much in its Leadership (after all, is there really an attractive alternative other than Mr. Goff?), but in the seats that have potential ministerial rank should they return to power. Best to do that sooner rather than closer to election time, in order to stake out an alternative policy platform that erodes National’s policy justifications while firming up the expertese and debating skills of the pretenders to cabinet jobs in a future Labour government.

NB: I write this after a week in NZ after a year-long absence. My thoughts are preliminary and driven by my alarm at the absence of serious policy discussions, or perhaps better said, the absence of coverage of policy discussions in the NZ media (the kerfuffle over Key’s stake in a uranium mining outfit being an example of political coverage that hammers the margins rather than the meat of its policy implications). That is either a sign of mass comfort or apathy (or both), none of which makes for an informed public and accountable government. After all, a government may only be as good as the quality of its opposition, but government and opposition are only as good as what the informed public demand. At this juncture, I see little public demand and limited quality depth in NZ political society.

Scrambling for morsels.

datePosted on 21:44, December 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

I do not mean to be unkind, but does it not seem like John Key is gallivanting around the world looking to stuff his nose into major leader’s derrieres without substantive returns for his efforts? He claims to be exercising “leadership” and showing the flag at various and sundry conferences (recently APEC, now Copenhagen), but in reality he is an incidental player looking for a photo op. At the APEC meeting he did not have a single bilateral meeting with anyone of import–his breakfast handshake with Obama does not count. Heck, even other small players did not give him the time of day, and that much vaunted agreement to continue discussions about enlarging the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) was no more than a US delaying move while it sorts out trade issues with bigger regional players such as Malaysia and Indonesia (even if the P4 agreement involving Chile, NZ, Brunei and Singapore is used a possible model for the larger deal). In reality, NZ got nothing from the APEC meetings (the bilateral trade deals announced during the time of the meetings had already been finalised and the occasion was merely used to reveal that fact), and the way advanced economies are feeling the heat (no pun intended) over extending climate change controls in the midst of a global recession as of yet in course, the Copenhagen conference  looks to produce a lot of hot air and little concrete action.

Meanwhile political tensions in NZ are picking up, and in fact are the tip of a growing iceberg of social unrest that has seen recent divisions over race, corruption, social policy and cultural mores all hit the media front pages. Meanwhile Mr. Key burns a few carbon credits and gets his passport stamped every two weeks on his way to “summits” in which he has no real say, while Bill English actually runs government policy direction. As an example, think of the Don Brash’s 2025 recommendations–it was English, not Key who dismissed them as unreasonable, and Key has not voiced an opinion to the contrary (perhaps Mr. Key choose to be charitable to the guy he rolled). In fact, Mr. Key presents himself as Mr. Milquetoast–nary a hard word can be heard emanating from him regardless of the skullduggery happening beneath/over/behind him.

That makes  me wonder whether what we are seeing is a National version of the French system, where there is a figurehead president who does diplomatic work but has no real policy making power, and a PM who does the real business of governing. From the looks of things Mr. Key is National’s president, but it is Mr. English who pulls the strings of his globe-trotting puppet. This may be an unkind thing to say, but the more important question is whether it is untrue.

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