While we were locked down…

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

24 thoughts on “While we were locked down…

  1. I think I detect the hand of what we laughably claim to be “intelligence services” in the National coup… what do you think Pablo

  2. Interesting your take on a coup before a coup i.e. Muller and Nikki being set up. The thought had crossed our minds also ( in this household). Judith Collins is the only politician National has. Unfortunately for her no one seems to like her much but you don’t really have to be liked to be a polly, because what she does have is the rat cunning they need. Is she the regina in waiting? Or will the rich old white men prevail?

  3. Jim Bolger was rolled by Jenny Shipley after bad polls. Several Labour leaders lost the job for being unable to poll well until Jacinda broke that jinx. Aside from losing elections, that’s the normal situation in which Labour and National party leaders lose power.

  4. AVR:

    I was referring to the poor mechanics of the National party coup, not the fact of it.

  5. Thanks for that very informative update, Pablo. I think many of us have thought it would be quite possible for even a slightly small event to trigger war in these unstable and uncertain times and your post confirms that – quite terrifyingly.

    Like Barbara, I’ve also been wondering about the National Party coup and I heard some pundit voice a similar opinion to hers, but rather than Judith Collins being the replacement for Todd Muller, Christopher Luxton would be the heir apparent once elected. Who knows?

    Anyway, it is all pretty depressing and alarming reading but I prefer not to keep my head in the sand and much prefer to be enlightened. At the moment I am so happy to live in New Zealand under our present government – although I cannot but wonder how safe from marauding hordes we might be should war be declared, especially if if occurs in or near our region. Very careful handling of our international affairs is needed, especially now. I’m unsure if or how we can do that without taking sides, but this is what we need to do. But contemplating our situation (should that happen) is not the sort of thing I like to think too hard about on a lovely sunny morning. Off for a walk in the hills, I think. Enjoy your long weekend.

  6. Well I have no idea if it was planned or just an accident but if you look at the Wuhan Virus it’s effectively forced the whole western world to blocked itself and Beijing didn’t even have to lift a finger it’s just such a beautiful master move.

    Love Trump or loath him I think he recognises something is up and enough Americans will really to him come the election in the US in a few months. God help us.

  7. Barbara and Di:

    Although I was just using the National Party coup as a hook for the larger discussion, let me address a couple of things. I believe that there are two large factions, now openly quarrelling, in the National Party. One is the Key/Luxton/Groser corporate “multinationalists” who see NZ as an international trade platform that serves as a convenient laboratory for (mostly finance capital-led) market-oriented experimentation. To them market openness is an end onto itself, with the NZ economy basically being a rest stop in a larger global project regardless of whether that means accepting foreign (even Chinese) control of NZ productive assets.

    The other faction is made up by the Bolger/English/Hooten traditional, agrarian based “liberals” who see NZ’s future being rooted in its past, with notions of competitive advantage added to traditional comparative advantage beliefs in order to increase the value-added component of the export commodity-based economy. This faction has a more nationalist bent in the sense that it wants to control the country’s economic destiny based on local control of productive assets, albeit one that is inserted in a global market chain. There is some tactical or opportunistic shifting of position between the two factions by various MPs and Party elites, but the fundamental cleavage, IMO, is this one.

    However, an upstart, insurgent faction has emerged. It takes its lead from the success of nationalist-populist movements elsewhere, and particularly the successes of the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Like their foreign heros, this group delves into the darker recesses of mainstream conservatism, dog-whistling to alt-Right and evangelical Christians on cultural war fronts. This group is led by Judith Collins. She is neither a liberal or a multinationalist. She is for herself.

    During his last year as leader Simon Bridges, who was morally and personally weak and untethered to either of the large factions (something both sides were acutely aware of), began to adopt some of the insurgent language. He engaged in a little race-baiting, crime-bashing (these often linked), gun-reification and condemnation of selected “alternative” behaviours. His insincerity was palpable, as was the whispered guidance of the person who was pulling his strings on these matters. When he became a liability and therefore disposable, the puppet master turned her attention to pretenders to his throne. Todd Muller was the first off the rank.

    Judith Collins knows that she cannot run head to head in an election with a popular female Prime Minister like Jacinda Ardern. That would be like pitting Cinderella against an Ugly Sister in the court of public appeal. So the next best thing is to encourage another bald, pale middle aged male to mount an insurgent challenge, ensure that he gets the votes needed to be successful, and push for weaker females to be his deputies at the same time that a more threatening female rival (Paula Bennet) is consigned to the back benches. Because she is widely feared and yet necessary for any successful coup, the objects of her temporary affection, blinded by their own ambition, could not see the longer-term play being put into motion and fell for the ruse.

    Once Muller and co. are trounced in the upcoming election, Collins can purge the party of those that she despises. It appears at this juncture that this may be the liberals, who will be easier to target after an election failure and whose economic approach and old school Kiwi ethos run counter to the business interests and practices of her husband. Remember again that she is for herself.

    With Muller shown the door as a reward for his ambition and her internal enemies in disarray and at her mercy, she can then embark on a long march campaign of attrition against Ardern marshalled along cultural lines. That could well be a contest for the ages: Ardern as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South and Collins as Momba, the Wicked Witch of the West. The Crusher will return with a vengeance, and she may even have Winston at her side when the next election rolls around since a nationalist-populist alliance would be a natural for the old dog. The contest will be a cage fight that crosses generational, class, ethnic and other identity lines, with Momba Crusher’s campaign wrapped in moralism, fear-mongering, stereotypical phobic mantras and apocalyptic predictions in the event that Glinda Ardern and her godless minions prevail. Heck, I bet we could even see ole Brian Tamaki on the hustings for Momba Crusher!

  8. Thank you Pablo for your time and very considered words. The stateless strategy is an ironic strategy for Crusher to adopt. This just needs to be headed off, snuffed out right here right now.

    As a leader rather than punish subordinates like many parliamentarians and woke online media social activist crave, Gicinda instead councils those who makes mistakes and awards people when they improve or shows creativity in there success. Jacinda also doesn’t get rid of people unless they show obvious signs of disloyalty and conniving in there actions. She also listens to advisors and takes there opinions into consideration before making her next move. She didn’t have to ban machine guns and could have easily gained more votes by crushing the gangs there for the people respect Jacinda and are proud she is Prime Minister.

    Jacinda much to her credit is not at all over confident or arrogant in her scorn. Where Collins advances Jacinda must not, she will not hesitate to admit defeat and retreat where necessary, rather than not, and lose popularity just sustain ones ego.

    When it comes to tactics, going up against something as well orchestrated as what Pablo has proposed one has to be an absolute genius and rise to the occasion and right now that genius on the rise is Jacinda. And we do this by studying opponents art and culture and learning how they are as people and learning not only how they would act but also react in certain situations giving the tactical genius an ability to predict an opponents moves with ease.

    Jacinda believes in her heart of hearts that the Labour Party is her best bet of solving child poverty and I believe under a unified party with a strong leader willing to do anything to achieve her hearts desire will be unstoppable and can protect the people from subversive threats no matter how devious and genius they are. Although Jacinda has great concern for the people and there well being it is perhaps her greatest weakness. Despite her weakness she must learn how to commit evil acts such as orchestrating assignation plots as John Key did against Afghanistan villagers or raiding Tuhoe villages, but if a leader cares so deeply about these people then who should she commit evil acts against? Perhaps it might be transnational, perhaps she might impose a capital gains tax on slum lords, or perhaps she may commit evil acts against Judith Collins and her constellation of financial interests if she was stupid enough to fall for it.

  9. Thank you, Pablo – there is much food for thought. I also think you have summed Judith Collins up perfectly. Her history with the likes of Cameron Slater, Jason Ede and Carrick Graham was made very well known in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and I wonder if perhaps someone like Jason Ede is still lurking about somewhere near Judith Collins, or even if the likes of Sean Topham and Ben Guerin are somewhere in the mix. Reading yesterday about National’s “intelligence Unit” in order to dig up dirt on members of the CoL confirms exactly what you say about some in the National Party taking their lead from the likes of Trump or Johnson only confirms this – and BoJo did have Topham Guerin to give him enough guidance on how to convincingly win an election, just as they did with ScoMo in Oz. It gets harder not to be rather depressed about all this and hard to know how things will pan out here. Labour look very secure at the moment, but with the prospect of a looming deep recession and loss of so many jobs, all it could take is some nasty scandal involving senior government figures and the lead Labour hold could be greatly diminished. For that reason, I’m glad Jacinda stuck to her guns to keep the election date in September. Short and sharp and steady as she goes will (hopefully!) win the day. But absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

  10. Hmmmmm …. interesting view from the outside Pablo but might it just be that with 29% looking a good number for Bridges come the election and with the phone off the hook the caucus decided to do what Jacinda did to Andrew and take it from there.

    As for Jacinda and steady as it goes … cranking the money printing presses up to overdrive Zimbabwe style is no substitute for a coherent policy designed to navigate us out of recession. And if you think Labour is good on policy then all I need to say is … Kiwibuild.

    I suspect Pablo you are better served in surveying the international scene rather than trying to unravel NZ domestic politics which has been stood on its head thanx solely to Covid-19.

    Should be an interesting few weeks.

  11. @20% NZ government debt to GDP moving up to about 50% while America is close to 100% government debt to GDP is hardly making the money printers go brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. To what bases do you make that assertion, Mr The Veteran? Genuinely interested in your answer.

  12. Vet:

    Agree on Kiwibuild. But there are failures on all sides when in government, so Kiwibuild, while bad, needs to be considered in fair context. It includes putting CV-19 and its response in short-term context and that includes government responses to a terrorist massacre, a volcanic eruption with fatalities, and assorted lesser crises. Contrast that with the Key government’s response to the earthquakes, to say nothing of various other missteps.

    As for me commenting on domestic politics. It sounds like you are mansplaining me to “stay in my lane.”

    Pablo don’t do lanes and does not take unsolicited advice. :-0

  13. Thanks Pablo, you are a non- parochial beacon of light in a murky world. I love the witches at war scenario!!!

  14. Pablo one of the things I admire about you is that, as you say, yo don’t do lanes – you have always encouraged others to comment on areas they are not experts in and welcomed their contributions, so it is only fair that others extend you the same courtesy!

    As for the National Party I think you have hit the nail on the head with Collins as the silent puppet master.

    I am surprised though – do you really think the government handled the Christchurch attack well? I remember talking with you at the time about how government failures of intelligence gathering allowed the attack to happen and with a counter-terrorist strategy that was not incompetent, Tarrant would have been arrested during the planning stage. Have you changed your mind? Or did I misunderstand you?

  15. Gorkem.

    I was referring to the post attack response. As for what led up to it, I believe that the failures spanned more than the latest government, and were institutional more than political.

  16. Gorkem, from what I recall from news reports immediately after the mosque terrorist attacks, both the GCSB and SIS were concentrating more on possible Islamic terrorist threats, rather than watching far right groups. That really aligns more with who was at the helm of those agencies during the previous government’s reign rather than the CoL as that was early days for the Ardern government. The blame cannot be laid squarely at their feet for that reason. It would be hard to know how any other government may have handled the mosque terrorist attack any better than this one has.

  17. Sure the sorry state of the NZ intelligence services is not something that started with the Labour government but at the same time as the government of the day they take ultimate responsibility for what their government services do, including the intelligence services. I know in the past you expressed doubt about Jacinda’s ability to effectively supervise the intelligence community – it is odd to back away from your claims now they have been proven right!

    The post-attack response may well have been good but that is tantamount to saying that the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff was very good.

    @Di: Yes they were focused on Islamic terror. That was obviously a mistake as it turned out the threat they were focused on was not the biggest threat. That seems like an error to me.

  18. You are confusing two things. The PM was out of her depth on intelligence and security matters when she assumed office and during her first year in office (witness the “no Russian spies” debacle). Burned by crticism, she responded well to a steep learning curve but more importantly, seems to have understood her weakenesses and delegated responsibility accordingly. That means Andrew Little. He clearly was the victim of bureaucratic capture in the early months but after March 15 we can only hope that he has wised up to the problems in his portfolio. Time will tell if he understands the gravity of institutional bias and myopia that he inherited, and the Royal Commisson report will tell if that is true (since he will have a large hand in determing what is reported).

    Whatever the case, this government inherited a threat assessment portfolio that downplayed white extremist violence and overplayed jihadist capabilities in NZ. After all, when said portfolio mentions the threat of jihadi brides coming home from Syria as among the first priority concerns that the incoming Labour-led government needed to consider, it is clear that the angle of defense was skewed in the wrong direction. And since that angle was charted by the security agencies involved in threat assesment, given the lack of experience of Ardern and LIttle on intelligence matters, it is not suprising that they went along with the collective wisdom of the agencies that so epically dropped the ball on Tarrant–for reasons that may involve more than just institutional bias.

    Again, we shall see if the RC produces a whitewash or a transparent critique.

  19. I feel like Di Trower is almost there but not quite. Yknow we have had white supremacist insults in New Zealand over many years well before Tarrant came along, and you have to wonder why a brown person can be shot and killed by police for mistaken identity or for smashing up cars in the middle of the night but when a white guy shoots 50 brown people he’s still god dam breathing and yes I am heated over what happen to George Floyd in Minneapolis America. The threat profiles here are cartoonish obvious you’ve got to be a conplete asshole to be able to ignore it.

    There has just been no political will to stock pile PPE to insulate society from a pandemic, there hasn’t been any political will to insulate brown people from institutional racism. There has been plenty of will to insulate the already wealthy financial friends of politics, and this has all been allowed to take place because we handed over these social insurances to private enterprises and they had to run it all down because there just isn’t any profit in keeping objective levels of medical resources and other social insurance in reserve because there simply is no profit in it.

  20. Yeah, the Labour government inherited a sclerotic intelligence assessment, but they inherited a lot of sclerotic policies in all fields. In some they have been able to turn them around. In intelligence, they were too slow. Andrew Little was indeed a victim of bureaucratic capture. The intelligence agencies are ultimately part of the government and the government is accountable for their failure. Things may indeed have improved since March 15 but ambulance, cliff, etc etc.

    The government is ultimately accountable for its failure to prevent the Christchurch attacks. It was a government error. Yes, there were factors that contributed to that error – but that’s true of every error in every policy field ever, including the ones that you do count as errors (e.g. there are powerful institutional reasons that made Kiwibuild hard to implement, but we still count that against the government, and rightly so).

    Just to be clear lest somebody accuses me of conservative trolling, I do think that overall the fifth Labour government’s accomplishments in its first term outweigh its failures – this time last year I would have given them a B-, but at this point I would upgrade it to a B largely due to a competent response to the COronavirus. (Key’s National never got better than a C+ and was usually a D). I feel that their accomplishments outweigh their failures – but nonetheless as a political observer I feel we still need to account for their failures honestly, and I think Christchurch was a failure. Yes, it was a failure that had causes that predate the term of the fifth Labour government, but ultimately when a party runs for government, and a person runs for Prime Minister, they are implicitly accepting responsibility for everything that goes on when they are Prime Minister. They know (or should know) that they are going to inherit problems and bad habits from their predecessor’s government, but they take the job knowing, or at least hoping, that they can turn this around. Jacinda and Little took their respective jobs knowing the scope of the need for change in the intelligence and security services, and knowing the risks of not implementing that change, but they were too slow and innocent kiwis in Christchurch paid the price. And I think it is OK to acknowledge this specific failure while still having a positive overall picture of the government.

  21. I don’t disagree with much of what you say, Gorkem. But let’s not forget that Jacinda Ardern had very little time to prepare for becoming PM and would have been behind the eight ball in terms of what she knew of national security and terrorism threats. And both she and Andrew Little would only have the information he was given by security service advisors anyway – I imagine that would have been the exact same advice the National Government would have been receiving at the time. Pablo hits the nail on the head when he speaks of bureaucratic capture, I think – public servants and advisors who have had relatively comfortable positions (a lot of them people of an age who have never known anything other than neo-liberal type policies and politics) and who may struggle with ideological change, even if it is only a slight shift. I do also recall around that time, there was a predominant focus on returning Jihadi brides, and also focus on the 30 – 40 NZ citizens who were being kept a very close eye on for their possible links to Islamic terrorist groups.

  22. Thanks for that reminder of international flash points whose potential danger has been swamped in the news by Covid-19 – interesting and informative, though rather depressing.

  23. The thing is, bureaucratic capture is something that it is incumbent on the government of the day to solve. It explains the failure, but it doesn’t excuse it. Ministers and Prime Ministers have come out from under bureaucratic capture before both in NZ and elsewhere. It’s not an unsolvable problem.

    If we discount failures caused by bureaucratic capture, we should discount failures with other causes too – which means we discount all failures, because all failures have some sort of cause, so nobody ever fails, so all politicians are great. Yay! Except, no.

  24. I want to answer the question about could Judith Collins defeat Jacinda Ardern in a general election?

    I want to begin by saying that I agree with what Pablo has said about National party factions but unlike most National MPs Judith Collins promoted herself only as a political hand grenade and laser beams everything in her path with her squinty little eyes. As the several chapters about Mrs Collins says about her in Hagers Dirty Politics book, Mrs Collins is extremely involved in dirty politics. But when it comes to simpler more boring day to day HR and staffing matters, or running a government department as opposed to digging up dirt on everyone, she is pitiful, and never achieves any lasting political friendships or long lasting kiwi values. In truth most political staffers are more advanced in these departments than Judith Collins is. The reason for this, I claim, is because Judith Collins never desired to be proficient at these aspects of politics only how she could smear and discredit other people that are in her way and there for that is what Judith Collins is.

    Further more it takes far more than that to become a Prime Minster because they need to understand and dominate more than just the dirty politics side of parliament or to use political power for no other reason than to simply destroy someone else’s career. Something that always bothers me is duelling as a political tool is outlawed, no one draws their sword when political subordinates fail or draws power from the combative side of politics, rather than relying on gaining power through intelligence and manipulation of public perception and an understanding of her enemies which are all attributes that I believe Judith Collins lacks.

    I believe how ever that taking the statement that Judith Collins could defeat Jacinda Ardern in a general election at face value. What I mean is Judith Collins could become Jacinda’s superior in the combative aspects of politics but never in full control of the the whole thing and dominance over the narrative.

    I want to point out though that popular political polling is exaggerated every time they’re released. As before John Key was promoted as being the most popular Prime Minister to have lived, which is a statement that is obviously manipulative and false. In all honesty I believe that the National Party room will go with anyone else with a 29% beside there name than to choose Judith Collins as leader of the National Party. I do believe that if John Key had of groomed Judith Collins over Bill English then certainly Judith could have had the potential to grow into the equal of John Key and National very well could have gone on to 6 consecutive terms. But in all aspect of politics John Key and Judith Collins are far from equals.

    All though Judith and John Key are close to dirty politics I still believe that Judith has the potential to defeat Jacinda in a general election giving enough time and development in the boring aspect of being a Prime Minister. Again though I am only speaking to the raw power and combative aspects of dirty politics and not its over all use of political power.

    I also want to point out that potential is rarely achieved as Simon Bridges is the most obvious example of this. Jenny Shiply was a practitioner of dirty politics and she failed to win a general election, Bill English practiced dirty politics and he failed to win a general election 2 times, Don Brash, John Key won his with his corporate accent, Bill again. Simon Bridges dabbled in dirty politics or more to the point Paula Bennett was a heavy practitioner of dirty politics with foreign flavours and she failed to win a general election. But as Judith Collins isn’t so much a late adopter of dirty politics but rather she has fully adopted the craft of dirty politics right from the beginning, she is a true dirty politics practitioner with all the correct connections and relationships in this particular field.

    But remember the key word here of “potential.” Potential is a statement that is so true of every National Party Leader who practiced dirty politics.

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