I am in the middle of writing up a post on the only true rock star of NZ politics but given the growing furor/scandal around the Panama Papers that’s sucking in politicians and governments around the world, including our own safe little tax haven/shelter in NZ, this particular piece of Latin sprang to mind recently and keeps on echoing as I read about various politicians trying to dodge difficult questions about their taxes.
It means “Gods may do what cattle may not”.
Readers may note that just rolls off the tongue when said (or chanted) and could make a nice placard for any planned protests.
The sentiment though is one displayed by elites around the world time and time again and just reinforces the need for greater scrutiny and fairness of the tax system in NZ (and elsewhere). Sadly while John Key has caved to pressure to allow “independent” review of our Tax system, he has not taken the David Cameron like step of disclosing his full taxes.
I’m not going to say much more but its nice to see Andrew Little and Labour trying to make hay with this one but Little has also tempered that by announcing a coming party retreat in Dunedin to work on policy/strategy etc and that the main focus will still be job/economy/housing/education (read same old stuff).
If Labour has any moxie they will be taking this, and any other related issues, to the limit as this is the perfect stick to beat Key and Co with unless Labour has its own tax baggage hidden away.
Posted on 15:10, April 7th, 2016 by E.A.
Apologies in advance for the hyperbole but once I got on a roll it was impossible to stop.
I got bagged last week by some who knew me and read my post about Andrew Little and Labour as I appeared to them (and not all of them would fit into the mold of Left or Liberal) as a closet or crypto sympathizer for National and John Key and all they stand for.
This of course would be far from the truth, as on the political spectrum, I consider myself a fascist anarchist and in no way supportive of National. But as I said last week I am no fan of Labour but some took my last post as a clear vote for the Senor Key and Co. So to keep the karmic balance this post will peel away the blue on National corpse and see what lies underneath (I was planning to write about the security services in NZ but c’est la vie).
The difference between my analysis of Labour and National is that while my focus on Labour was on the failures of the party over the failures of individuals, National is the opposite it’s the failures of individuals that dominates the party and has done so for over a decade now.
To start John Key has been very successful as a politician, so successful in fact that it would be easier to call National the “John Key Party” than refer to them as National. But Keys success as Politician has come at a cost, to both himself and the John Key Party.
Firstly Keys success as politician does not translate well into actual leadership, legacy or being remembered as PM. The multitude of screw ups, gaffs, scandals, dodgy behavior, greedy and corrupt behavior by Keys minions is legion which shows that despite his high polling he has been unable to keep his employees from running amok when his eyes are not directly on them.
This is because that Key has his own version of the Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) in play here. He may not have started out as the dictator of National but as the success of the party rests entirely on his ongoing popularity it’s become his show and his show only and much like other dictators Key keeps those under him busy squabbling for power so that they don’t have time to unite against him or do too much damage.
Unfortunately political golems that comprise the party, such as the reptilian Judith Collins, failed Wagnerian/Faustian Jerry Brownlee and power hungry Steven Joyce, feature regularly in the press but rarely for good reasons.
Collins misdeeds are numerous and not even worth mentioning here except that it’s clear that Key brought her back into cabinet after the scandal of Dirty Politics and who she was dining with in China under the old adage of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. The smiling assassin wants to see the blade coming and by keeping Collins on a short leash and continuing to utilize her attack dog qualities he keeps her occupied and not with no further time to plot his overthrow, as had been rumored.
Brownlee also has been a useful tool to Key as flak catcher for the growing disquiet around the Christchurch Rebuild (nepotism, shoddy work practices and questionable dealings) but Brownlee is really known for little but his escapades in the media where he tried to start a war with Finland, Flouted Civil Aviation Authority rules and has demonstrated that his mouth is not connected to his brain. Also his placement as Minister of Defense, while seeming important, is actually a demotion to a backwater government department as a way of keeping him busy and out of trouble (much in the same vein that Murray Mcully’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs kept him out of the way by keeping him out of the country as much as possible) with all those “important” meetings overseas.
Meanwhile Steven Joyce oversaw his Frankenstein creation of MBIE (among other misdeeds), cobbling together disparate ministries and sections of government into an unholy (and unworkable) creation, staffed at senior levels with barely competent DCEs and then jammed into a chicken coop of a building complete with opulent surrounds at taxpayer expense. It was a power grab pure and simple and much in the vein of the SS in Germany capturing police and security functions under the banner of “centralization” but it’s become a bloated sagging beast with a toxic work culture and extremely high union membership.
But it’s not only the senior ministers that have appeared in the media as creatures that you’d rather not sit next to on the bus. Arron Gilmore will be forever remembered as for his arrogant outburst regarding who he was in regards to his membership in the John Key Party and current troubles with Todd Barclay’s staff show that the newer members of the party won’t be lax when it comes to acting like they are to the manor born.
And these are just examples that I am pulling off the top of my head. There are so many more that it does seem at times that the New Zealand political press are running a concerted campaign to discredit the Senor Key Party by publishing only the bad news but the truth is that the behavior of the members of the party has long been grossly out of touch with expected standards of decency and behavior. The short lived political career of Pansy Wong springs to mind or the highly inappropriate behavior of Maurice Williamson in calling the police when a rich “friend” was in trouble for are just a few more that freely spring to mind.
But there is a method to my madness in cataloging these examples of nether-spawn here and it’s to place the popularity of Key in clear contrast to the Party (and its dismal inhabitants) he fronts.
Key is the Golden Boy, popular in the polls and able to appear in public during daylight hours. But the shadow he casts is long and dark and it’s in the darkness that things grow and thrive, things which cannot go into the light lest they die from exposure.
This is a tale of horror and dark deeds, of human sacrifice and blood, of a pact with demons, a deal with the devil.
Our tale begins in 1999, after nine years in government (and the last three at the behest of Winston Peters) Jenny Shipley (now being sued as a former director of Mainzeal) steered the party onto the rocks of Defeat and Helen Clark led Labour into power. Nationals performance in 1999 was dismal but was nothing to the beating it got in 2002 (20%; it’s lowest ever election result and a nadir even lower than anything achieved by Labour at the polls).
Then several strange things happened but to sum it up simply the party was taken over/bought out in aggressive coup by right-wing interests fronted by Don Brash and the Business Roundtable (Now known as the New Zealand Initiative in an attempt to re-brand its tarnished image). Bill English (possibly the last real link to National of the past times) was sacrificed publicly and painfully on the altar of political convenience and John Key entered the party (or if rumors are to be believed he was aggressively recruited due to his wealth and connections).
Weather Brash had sold his soul to get the leadership or was a patsy may never be known but it’s around this time that the remaining country elements of the party were being cleared out and put off to pasture (no pun intended). Dark words and incantations had been whispered and evil things summoned and now the life that flowed through the party was no human blood but a mix of money, religion and spin.
Shortly after Brash self-destructed in an orgy of greasy stories about his sex life and revelations from Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men showed that the party was not only beholden to larger business interests but also rapidly becoming a vehicle for money and religion in ways that mirror the strange nexus of religion and power in US evangelicals. Stepping into the breach in 2006 at this time was John Key and the party’s fortunes mysteriously began to rise (to be fair Brash’s infamous Orewa speech had helped to raise the party’s fortunes but his own personal culpability was still poison to the party).
And rise they have but only in relation to Keys personal popularity and when he falls the party will fall with him.
By listing only some of the stains found on the scaly carcass of the party it’s clear that the John Key Party is not only wholly corrupt but incapable of behaving in any manner that requires honesty, decency or integrity and that without the magic of John Key National would have either self-destructed (ala Labour with endless power struggles and coup attempts) or faded into electoral irrelevance by now.
So what’s the plan in the post Key environment for the misanthropes of National? Which of the shambling horrors currently prowling the halls of the Beehive would the average Kiwi voter go for?
The first (and only) name that springs to my mind is Simon Powers. He was being groomed for the role by being chief whip and had the looks, and ability to speak without putting his foot in his mouth but Powers left after two terms (perhaps sensing the poison in the chalice being offered to him) for greener pastures (Run Simon, run!).
Other than that it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine anyone of the current crop of National MPs now sitting at the top level being able to either lead the party without its descending into a hellish power struggle or elicit any positive reaction in the polls to the grotesque suggestion that they may be likable or have any human feelings (or perhaps are even human). Further with the junior ranks either imploding due to swollen hubris or simply because so many National MPs (like Labour’s middle and bottom tiers) are just seat fillers, cautious drones taking their nice salary and doing little for their electorates, no voter in their right mind would be ticking their name on the ballot form either.
A clear example of this hideous electoral dislocation is Winston Peter’s astounding win in the Northland by-election. In what was supposed to be a safe National seat (until Mike Sabine was found to be under investigation by the Police for Assault in another instance of reprehensible behavior) Winston took his traveling medicine show out on the hustings and reaped the spoils of Nationals arrogance and terrible treatment of the electorate.
And if your still reading at this point you may be getting the picture. National is a party that is on life support and that life support is John Key. As soon as he leaves or no longer has the magic touch in the polls the party will be a shambling corpse, an undead husk full of nothing but vile waste and human maggots.
No one is going to vote for Judith Collins, Jerry Brownlee or any of the others grim specters as leader or as PM and the desperate reliance on dirty tricks and heavily manufactured (official and unofficial) spin has left the party desperately hyping and protecting its one and only political life line, John Key.
But zombie parties do not die, they have to be killed and the question is who will do the killing? Vernon Small pointed out in today’s media that John Keys current position in the wake of Panama Papers (the usual Key safe, clean and neat statements) is effectively “handing a cudgel” to the opposition. But who will swing it? Who has the strength?
The Greens and NZ First most certainly have the will but not the strength to really kill National. Labour has the strength but is unable to get its house in order and remains timidly cowering in the corner (in the tradition of many classic horror movies) paralyzed with fear while the beast runs amok among other victims.
Possibly in combination could these three, like some sort of political transforming robot, combine their powers to take out National but that is unlikely (an issue to be explored at a later date) and the odds that come November 2017 we will either see John Key lead his party into a fourth term or a Coalition Government with Labour, NZ First and the Greens in uneasy coexistence are high.
If National is defeated in 2017 then it’s the end of Key, he won’t hang around and will go off to reap the rewards promised by his backers way back in 2002. If National makes a fourth term then all bets are off and Key will rule as long as his popularity lasts.
And that is the final key (no pun intended) to the puzzle, his popularity. As Phil F pointed out in the comments to my last post (and is echoed by the folks over at Redline Blog), a large section of the New Zealand electorate has been docile and passive in the face of the Machiavellian antics of Key and Co.
Voter apathy in the wake of endless scandals by the National party and John Key means that where acts which would have people out in the streets or at least an uproar in other countries have been met with large doses of indifference and ignorance, which are fuel for the polling engine that drives Team Key. Part of the blame lies with the mainstream media but the other with the general public themselves (again fodder for future posts) and it’s rapidly becomes a chicken or egg argument in determining which causes which.
So to end what has again been a long post (I do apologize for the length) it’s worth summing things up. National is a dead party walking as soon as it no longer has John key to prop it up (be it in person or popularity); it’s filled with corrupt individuals and backed by larger business interest for said interests. Its policy is a mild brand of conservatism, watered down to enable it to hold the middle ground and engineered in-line with failed and discredited Neo-liberal principles.
This is a party fighting a holding action to enable those who currently benefit from 30 years of rapacious public policy to consolidate their gains and maintain their lifestyles. The fact that National is literally rotting away before the nations eyes and lead by a necromancer king has yet to generate the fear and loathing that it should in this climate of change shows that we are either under Keys spell or things will remain as they are until history does the job for us and removes the horror for us.
In times like this a heroine or hero is required, or the peoples will must be manifest, both of which have their dangers but it’s clear that the beehive is now more akin to Dracula’s castle looming over the peasant village below and at nights dark and monstrous shapes can be seen in the windows.
Posted on 07:50, March 31st, 2016 by E.A.
Thanks to Pablo and the crew for letting me post here and apologies for the length. All opinions are entirely mine and my controllers. :)
Around Waitangi day this year it appeared if Labour had final nailed its colors to the mast in terms of where it stood with the TPPA by stating that it would not sign the TPPA if it were in government*. This was swiftly corrected the following day by Andrew Little stating that while Labour opposed several aspects of the deal it would not pull out of it.
Also at this time several Labour MPs (Phil Goff and David Shearer) broke ranks and came out in support of the TPPA. Goff was allowed to do this (under the pretext of his previously being trade minister) while Shearer was not and subsequently censured for his actions.
In the months leading up to Waitangi day as the TPPA furor built to a head and was then sideswiped by the flag debate both concerned members of the electorate and political press were wondering aloud where exactly the party stood in the issue. More than one commentator had pondered where Labour really lay on the issue and how its failure to make clear its position was hurting the party not to mention that it was losing a golden opportunity to get some traction in the polls on an issue which seemed well suited to a low polling party desperate to climb out of the opinion funk into which it had sunk.
To be fair, Labour and Little have clarified their position after Waitangi and made it clear that while Labour is the “party of free trade” they oppose the aspects of the TPPA which infringe on the sovereignty of the Government to make law in NZ without being beholden to offshore and corporate interests. Some of these had been echoed on the parties own website previously but a party website is hardly the forum to get the message out and its message in the public space on the issue had either been low key or just not getting any traction in the media due to statements lacking substance when compared to the rhetorical bedrock of the Greens and NZ first.
All of this makes sense in a spin doctor sort of way but there is an eerie disquiet around the party and its future in the face of the coming general election, its leadership issues, fall in standing in parliament, ongoing poor polling, the lingering stench of distrust that stretches all the way back to 1984 and the current inability of the party to clearly establish its position as the leader of the opposition.
To be clear, if National wins the 2017 election it will be the first time since Keith Holyoake that any party will govern for 12 years straight and at this time the election is Nationals to loose not Labours to win.
Despite the rising tides of sex toys, mud and vitriol being thrown and dumped on National MPs, John Key remains high in the polling as preferred Prime Minister and the party has based its electoral strategy on playing the PM personality card as strong as possible; going so far as to have Keys grinning mug on all electoral candidates billboards as if it was him and not the actual candidate that people were voting for, which of course was the strategy all along.
Nationals brain trust, despite its inability to stop living in the 90’s, was shrewd enough to realize that no one was going to vote for either the aging party hacks; which have infested the party like a persistent fungus and have dragged the party down time and again in various scandals and corrupt activities; or the flock of pimply faced geeks turgidly swollen with their own arrogance and self-importance without a clear and direct linkage to its one ace in the hole: John Key and his high polling popularity.
This has been Nationals game since Key took over in 2007 and is the only game the party now knows how to play. It’s been fantastically successful for both Key and the party and brought them back from the brink of political oblivion after the Brash Coup and religious/money infiltration in the early 2000s but its success is tied directly to Key’s popularity and the day his polling fails to make the nut is the day that the seat of power is up for grabs.
And this is the problem for both Little and Labour. It became clear after Helen Clark left for greener pastures that leadership in the Labour was not in abundance. As the cavalcade of neutered Clarkites came and went in succession before Little took the job clearly illustrated.
First in the wake of Helen there was the ever smiling Phil Goff, like some grinning Labour doppelganger to Nationals Lockwood Smith, Goff and his ever present smile led the party into the post Clark world and lost the 2011 election due both to his own inability to fight Key on popularity but also due to that ever present factor in New Zealand politics: third term arrogance. Labour after nine years in power had done what many third term governments do, simply forgotten how things work and acted like pompous douche bags (to be fair under Clark it was probably toe the line or get the cut and tuck but none the less) and their loss in 08 was echoed again in 2011.
Then the knives came out and in scenes familiar to those who were watching NZ politics in the late 80’s, the pretenders to the throne made their plays.
Next there was David Shearer, touted as Mr International he failed to make his mark on the electorate and his “sense” of his colleagues was ill judged as less than a year after getting the job the rumours were already swirling about leadership challenges and before he could celebrate the second anniversary of being in the role, and with an election approaching, he was deposed and another David stepped up.
Enter David Cunliffe, and then exit David Cunliffe. At no point was his position ever secured and his mark on the party was to lead it to a hideous beating at the polls in 2014. A beating that almost broke the party in the public’s eyes and gave both the Greens and NZ-First a shot of vitamins; making them more credible parties (by giving them room to grow) and helping to set up the Greens eventual usurping the role as moral leader of the opposition and Winston’s win in Northland (although it was Little’s age comment about Peters that seemed to really rile the electorate).
The key theme in all three of these “leaders” was the depressing air of abject impotence about them and all the reek of failure by men who truly know they are not worth the crown but will stake a claim none the less.
Then came Andrew Little, obviously hoping that the “three times a charm” magic of Clark would be bestowed upon him as it had her, after the dingbats antics of Palmer and Moore had been allowed to soil the top floor (and in Palmers case the balcony with his teenage saxophone solos) of the Beehive with their greedy dreams of power. Just as Shearer and Cunliffe had done their dash now it was time for the “real leader” to step up.
So the question that has yet to be answered is this. Is Little going to lead the party in the manner of Helen Clark or Norman Kirk or will he simper away and eventually be rolled by others with more ambition than him?
Up to this point; under Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe; Labour has tried to fight Key on his turf and at his game; ie personal popularity, the cult of personality and in the mold of US style leadership campaigning rather than promoting a broad social vision or attempting to energize the electorate, which were catalysts for both labour under Kirk and Lange.
And this is where the obtuse responses to things like the TPPA are going to hurt Labour. It’s not the issue itself in many cases that counts but a clear and unambiguous position to whatever the issue is which shows the party as a genuine party of the opposition and not a craven bunch of eunuchs waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a position. In these areas NZ First and the Greens have consistently taken up the slack left but Labours tepidity by clearly stating their position on an issue.
In recent weeks there have been signs that someone has realized that ‘boring = stupid’, as the release of ‘10 big ideas’ about the future of work has shown. It’s not just a step in the right direction but an also indication that there is nothing to lose by floating out ideas, concepts or plans which are not just new and interesting but clearly in opposition to the staid, boring, innately conservative and business as usual approach that is the hallmark of the National government (in fact it’s all National knows but that’s a discussion for another time). Whoever is behind this approach clearly is not a victim of Clark’s neutering.
But is this Little’s doing? Is he behind this? In his time in the role, just over a year now, it’s clear that Andrew Little does not want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors but it’s also clear that his current mode of politics is simply to play it safe, close the doors and wait for the Government to make a mistake, a wholly reactionary approach to politics and not one that is likely to endear itself to the electorate, nor one that will reap any serious dividends while the Teflon on Key is still in effect and the innately conservative approach of his party does not offer up many opportunities to strike. And even when opportunities have presented themselves (such as the TPPA, Serco, refugees or even things like the Canterbury Rebuild) Little has played it safe and stuck with comments which do little to give any indication that he would have done different or actually shows any passion on any issue.
In part this is because of the process by how Little came into the top job in the Labour party and how the cabal of professional politicians, which occupy much of the upper ranks of the party, don’t want him, never wanted him and would happily see him out and replaced by one of their own.
To start, the rise of Andrew Little to leader of the party came through the strange electoral mechanics of the Labour party itself (40% caucus, 40% party and 20% union). The close race between Andrew Little and Grant Robertson showed that when it came down to the wire it was the 20% of the union vote which gave Little the job and not any hearty support from those he sits in cabinet with.
Relics of the Clark years like Goff, Dyson, Mallard, Shearer, Cunliffe, Cosgrove, King and Parker show there is a core of hardened professional politicos who have less to do with representing their electorate and more with ensuring they remain in paid employment as their options outside the safe confines of politics are dim (for those thinking I’m picking on Labour here don’t worry National is in a worse state with its dead wood but again that’s for another day and they at least have the magic of John Key to keep them in their day jobs).
It’s safe to say that not all of these long term politicians are fans of Andrew Little in his role as leader, a fair few didn’t vote for him or want him there (Grant Robertson swept the caucus and the party votes in the leadership election and it was only the vote spread for the other candidates in the first round (Parker and Mahuta) and the 20% union vote which allowed Little to pull ahead in the second and third rounds).
And this is where it gets all Game of Thrones for Andrew Little, complete with incest, violence, sex and lashings of intrigue. He must fear the knives which are all glinting out there, just waiting for his exposed back, hidden behind friendly smiles and handshakes at the party meetings. It’s clear that this fear of making a mistake is part of the reason why he has spent the last year doing little to lead the party on the attack and plenty of time trying to consolidate his position. But again to go back to an earlier point; the coming election is Nationals to loose not Labours to win. Labour is going to need more than a spiffy training montage set to 80s synth rock to make the grade come the main event. Plucky underdog it is not!
In the short, gut based analysis of the situation it appears that Labour, like the current crop of republicans in the US, would rather harm its own chances of election rather than let “that Little bastard” have the job of PM. The only difference is Little is nowhere on Par with Trump.
But Andrew Little is also not Norman Kirk (an innately popular politician who lead Labour through two loosing elections as leader before winning the third on a combination of his own personal appeal but also by building the party up as the answer to a stagnant National under 12 years of Holyoake). Little’s popularity is low and the prospect of facing him off against a still popular Key is akin to throwing kangaroo meat into a lion enclosure. Nor does Little have the luxury of losing two elections before winning it in the third. The day after electoral defeat in 2017 is the day that he will start hearing more than one blade being sharpened.
Little can perform in the house but this is as far as any strategy of playing Key at his own game (that of popularity/personality) is going to work as in the general media he comes across as a concerned vaguely liberal uncle. Not a sandal wearing tree hugger but a quiet, responsible person who has never kicked out the jams in his entire life and who certainly would not mug for a selfie, pee in the shower or dislocate his jaw while deep throating a hot dog.
In fact while Andrew Little is certainly not a man in the mould of Norman Kirk he could take a leaf out of Kirks playbook in regards to how he and Labour won the 72 election. Kirk went in with a new platform, a new manifesto of change and better things ahead and swept the field, winning a margin of 23 seats and a mandate to make NZ anew. And this was after two previous losses to National in 69 and 66. The situation is not exactly the same but the parallels are significant.
Of course it is not so easy under MMP to pull off such a feat but the current state of Labour at this time shows no indication of even moving in this direction (its 10 steps as the noted exception). Perhaps there is a grand strategy hidden away behind closed doors, just waiting for the right moment to put it into operation. If so then it could be a long wait as politics, like romance favours the bold, not the plodding and the mood of the NZ electorate is like that of a crowd watching a romantic comedy where the male lead can’t get up the nerve to make the first move and the audience is yelling “Kiss her you fool!”.
That’s right, like having kids, there is no special time to do it and Andrew Little has a fair few seeds to sow between now and November 2017. Labour will not take any future election alone unless there is some firebrand, walking talking Jesus figure hiding away who can better Key in the selfie mugging, showering peeing and hot dog fellatio stakes (in fact the only current contender in this area for the golden hot dog would be Winston Peters, but Peters would never stoop to going down on a processed meat product). This means that while it’s not simply enough to roll out a new plan for NZ Labour also must get the Greens and NZ First to buy in as well (or more likely accept some of their policy ideas into their own intellectual portfolio).
So while the TPPA remains a missed opportunity and the flag debate is done and dusted there is still time for Little and Labour to step up their game and take it to the hoop. If they don’t Key will rule for 12 years as PM, the lizard people will finally take over and Labour may as well just give up the ghost.
Labour can’t fight Key in the personality stakes and can’t remain inert and neutral in the face of Keys capture of the middle voter NZ (all 37% of them). As I have said before now is the time for Hail Mary’s and wild new ideas. If Little has looked at the mood of many western states across the globe he may have noticed the polarization of voters and the rise of those promising a change to the squalid BS of the established order.
While Andrew Little is no Jeremy Corbin or Bernie Sanders he doesn’t have to be to win over NZ. What he needs are some new ideas, some new faces, the courage to take the issues to the electorate and the humility to not treat the required coalition partners like serfs under a feudal lord (as Labour has been known to do). Labour may lose come 2017 but they certainly won’t win playing their current style.
1) I swear I saw this article come up online on Waitangi Weekend but subsequent searches have failed to locate it since, it could have been an overeager journalist but the fact that it was followed a day later about Labours party retreat and Little allowing Goff to walk on the issue seems to me that it was something said in haste and then rapidly backed away from.
Due to the press of externalities, the KP collective has shifted over the years since its inception in 2009. Lately it has been mostly me who has been doing the posting but that is about to change. Lew and I are delighted to welcome E.A. Blair on board.
E.A.’s background is in government/education/military/security with a decade spent living/working in Asia and an overall interest in Asia and the Middle East. E.A. spent five years dealing with high risk for a major government department which included areas such as Asia/Africa and Counter Proliferation, and currently works in another government department with a similar work function but an internal focus.
E.A. will starting posting in the very near future, so please extend a reader’s welcome!
Posted on 14:49, March 29th, 2016 by Pablo
I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.
When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.
In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.
Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).
Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!
In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.
In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.
I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.
In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”
I beg to differ.
Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.
The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.
But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.
I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.
Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:
163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).
Cover for operations and employees
78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.
79. “Identity information” should include anything that could be used to establish identity – such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).
80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.
81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.
82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a person’s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.
83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.
84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.
85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agencies’ request or direction.
86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).
89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agencies’ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.
90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.
Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.
The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?
These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?
The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).
Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.
The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.
Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?
The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.
Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.
I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.
As readers may be aware I am delighted by the Trump candidacy because it is destroying the Republican Party and will pave the way for an epic defeat in the November general elections. Not only will the GOP lose the presidential race because none of its candidates will be able to muster the votes needed to overcome the Democratic advantage (be it Hillary or Bernie who lead the ticket). It could well lose control of Congress on the negative coattails of the presidential race (the entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs, with the Democrats needing to win 4-5 current Republican seats in order to gain control of the Senate). It does not matter if Trump is the GOP presidential candidate or if he or another Republican go independent in the wake of the convention, which itself promises to be a bloodbath. The vast majority of swing voters and independents, who tend to vote on the Left in any event, will be galvanised to vote against whatever the Republicans have to offer, Trump in particular. For all his bluster about bringing out new voters on the Republican side, what he really has done is bring out new voters on both sides–most of whom are against him. As a result, the GOP is doomed and could well split into Tea bagger/populist and “moderate” right parties in the wake of what is looming as an electoral catastrophe of historical proportions.
A tipping point has been reached this week with the escalation of protests against Trump at his rallies and the retaliatory violence of his supporters and campaign staff and security against those who dare confront him on his xenophobic bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric (and one has to ask why local law enforcement and the Secret Service act as his praetorian guard when removing peaceful protesters at his behest. After all, they are not in his employ and are not legally authorised to detain, handcuff and arrest people exercising their right to protest in public spaces just because he wants them forcibly removed).
The cancellation of a Chicago rally because of protests will only encourage more of them, and they will be increasingly large and organised in nature. That in turn will enrage Trump, who does not have the good sense (or even basic ability) to moderate his venom, which will bring out the full nut case element in his support base (which has already started to appear more and more frequently). Unfortunately, it is now a very real possibility that someone will be killed or seriously injured at a Trump rally, and the perpetrators will be his supporters, not his opponents.
When that happens, the wheels will come off the Trump political cart.
By then the damage to the GOP “brand” will have been irretrievably done. But what I find just as wonderful is that Brand Trump itself is now irreversibly damaged as well. However illusory, it used to represent luxury, opulence, quality, style and the excess that comes with success. It had global recognition. It was synonymous with capitalist high rolling, only in part because of his obsession with casinos.
In the wake of this presidential campaign, that image has been replaced by something less illusory and much darker. “Trump” is now synonymous with racism, xenophobia, buffoonery, demagoguery, narcism, sociopathy, chauvinism, misogyny, war-mongering, bullying, cheating, lying, senseless violence, stupidity–the list goes on. Whatever people may have done by way of word association with the name Trump in the past, my bet is that the first thing that now comes to mind when his name is mentioned is some of the negative terms mentioned above. In fact, the word Trump may well become an adjective or verb, as in “that old white dude went all Trump on me when I said that Obama was not a Kenyan,” or “that reactionary fool is just plain Trumped in the head.” It could even be used as a noun, for example, as in “Trumpster:” n.: an idiot, fool, dolt, ignoramus, numbskull, someone who is gullible, slow on the uptake, blindly naive or prejudiced in the extreme.
His tarnished brand may survive in the US, perhaps in red neck resort destinations like the Florida panhandle and the coastal Deep South and/or parts of Appalachia. But many Americans, and not just “ethnic” Americans or Democrats, will shun his products, services and anything with his name on it. There may be boycotts and protests organised against them. And with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia (given the mutual admiration society he runs with Trump), as a global brand it is finished. Think of the Arabs, Latin Americans, Asians and even Europeans that Trump has scapegoated and insulted. Any current or potential Trump business partner or investor now has to wonder if they will be tainted by association with him and whether their business will suffer as a result. Given daily revelations of his less than salubrious past business dealings, profound dishonesty and myriad failures that have ruined others much more than it has hurt him,what foreign governments other than those of tinpot dictators are going to want a bar of him as an investment partner? Even better, increased scrutiny of his business dealings may well result in criminal charges being laid against him, which will only add to the tarnish on the brand.
The hard fact is that the Trump campaign will prove deleterious for Trump business holdings, which explains why his managerial minions, “the best people” in his words, are currently in the process of putting legal and PR distance on him. The trouble for them, however, remains embedded in that ubiquitous name.
This is the silver lining in the Trump cloud. Not only has he exposed the ugly side of US politics. He has exposed himself and his illusory brand in doing so. He is taking the GOP down along with him, and neither it or his brand will survive the fall intact.
That is truly a good thing.
It seems that a fair share of people are concerned about the Intelligence Review Committee’s recommendation that the GCSB be allowed to spy on the private communications of NZ citizens and residents, most often with a warrant adhering to a three tiered process that requires the signature of the Attorney General and Judicial Commissioner for the most intrusive searches of private individual’s communications and, under highly exceptional circumstances (involving the combination of imminent threat and the need for immediate real time information), accessing private individual’s communications without a warrant.
This essentially codifies what is already being done in practice under the GCSB’s “assist” role whereby it can offer its technological capabilities under warrant to other government agencies when asked and can engage in warrantless spying on NZ citizens and residents if they reside abroad or work for or are associated with foreign-based entities like NGO’s, IO’s embassies, corporations, charities and CSO’s. Remember: this is targeted eavesdropping and signals intercepts, not mass (meta-) data collection or mass surveillance. The argument goes, and I tend to agree in part with it, that the NZ threat environment has become increasingly “glocal” or “intermestic,” meaning that the boundaries between global or international affairs and domestic and local concerns are increasingly blurred thanks to advances in telecommunications, transportation and economic transaction. Hence the need for targeted GCSB involvement in matters of domestic espionage when warranted.
In any event my first question is this: why, if people are concerned about the publicly-debated legal extension of the GCSB’s de facto “assist” role, are they not concerned about the use of military assets (specifically, the deployment of light armoured vehicles, a helicopter and troops) to assist the police in the Kawerau police shooting and siege? After all, the use in a police operation of combat designed equipment and soldiers trained and equipped for external combat would seem to be stretching the proper, legally defined role of the NZDF even if we consider its civil defense responsibilities (which, if I am not mistaken, would only apply to armed intervention in instances of civil war or insurrectionist (read: Maori) upheaval). Should there not be a clear separation of NZDF missions and police matters delineated in law? Pardon my ignorance, but is there? Is there a legally outlined “assist” role for the NZDF in armed confrontations like this latest incident and the Napier siege of a few years ago? Or is the operational relationship between the NZDF and Police more ad hoc, informal and circumstantial in nature?
Then there is the suggestion by Michael Cullen that future Intelligence Reviews could consider merging the GCSB and SIS. This would be akin to merging the NZDF and NZ Police. So my next question is: would we ever consider merging the NZDF and Police? If not, why would we consider merging a signals intelligence collection agency with a human intelligence collection agency?
There is more to ask. Most of what the GCSB does is foreign intelligence collection on behalf of the 5 eyes network. The domestic side of its targeted spying is relatively small in comparison and again, done in service of or in concert with domestic agencies such as the SIS and Police, most often under warrant or given the exceptions listed above. Otherwise and for all intents and purposes, the GCSB is a branch of the 5 Eyes on NZ soil, not a fully independent or autonomous NZ spy agency. Think of the amount of money that the GCSB receives from 5 Eyes, amounts that are believed to be well in excess of its NZ government-provided budgetary allocations (the exact figures are classified so are what is known as “black” allocations under he “reciprocity agreement” that binds the GCSB to the rest of the 5 Eyes partners). Think of the highly sensitive technologies it employs. When the GCSB was first established, was the equipment and personnel used completely Kiwi in nature? Is the equipment used today completely Kiwi in nature and are the people manning the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana today all NZ citizens?
Given the network resources at its disposal, were the GCSB to merge with the SIS it is possible that the latter would be subject to institutional “capture” by the former. That would mean that the intelligence priorities and requirements of 5 Eyes could come to dominate the human intelligence priorities of the SIS. I am not sure that is a good thing. And if we consider that the separation of powers concept that is at the core of democratic practice should institutionally extend beyond the tripartite structure at the apex of the state apparatus (executive, legislature, judiciary), then centralising the most intrusive spying powers of the state in one agency answerable almost exclusively to the executive branch seems to be antithetical to that premise.
It could be the case that the possibility of a merger is being floated so that the SIS and GCSB can concentrate on external espionage and counter-espionage, with the domestic intelligence function reverting wholly to the police (who already have their own intelligence units). But even then the GCSB will continue to have a role in domestic signals collection, so the result of the merger would mainly impact the focus and organisation of the SIS.
I was fortunate to have a private audience with the Review Committee. From what I have read in the report so far, much of what I recommended was ignored. Even so, I do believe that the committee tried to balance civil liberties with security requirements and take what is a hodgepodge of disparate intelligence legislation and craft a uniform legal framework in which the iNZ intelligence community can conduct its operations. Heck, they even have recommendations about the legal cover given to undercover agents, both in terms of the process of assuming false identities as well as in terms of their immunity from liability when discharging their undercover tasks (apparently no such legal cover exists at the moment or is patchy at best).
Although I was disappointed that much of what I recommended to the committee did not appear in the final report, I am satisfied that their recommendations are a step forward in terms of transparency, accountability and oversight. I realise that this sentiment is not shared by many observers (for example, Nicky Hager was scathing in his appraisal of the report), but to them the questions I posed above are worth considering. To wit: If you are comfortable with the military getting involved in domestic law enforcement in exceptional (yet apparently regular) circumstances, then what is the problem with the GCSB getting more publicly involved in domestic espionage in similar circumstances?
There is much more to discuss about the Report and I may well do so as I wade through it. For the moment, here is a good critical appraisal worth reading.
Posted on 15:25, March 8th, 2016 by Pablo
I was invited by the nice folk at sustainnews.co.nz to contribute a short essay related to sustainable economics from my perspective as a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant. The essay wound up making the connection between political risk and sustainable enterprise, and more importantly, the relationship between sustainable enterprise and democracy. You are welcome to view it here.