“Second image” issues in NZ foreign policy.

The term “second image” in international relations theory refers to an argument about the domestic sources of a nation-state’s foreign policy. The argument posits that it is the nature of those domestic sources that determines the way in which nation-states perceive and approach foreign policy. Conversely, the phrase “second image reversed” refers to the international/foreign influences on domestic politics in individual nation-states, arguing that the type and extent of foreign influence in a nation-state has a strong impact on the nature of its domestic politics. These notions have been offered in order to explain the differences between authoritarian versus democratic foreign policy-making as well as the impact of power differentials, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation on public perceptions of foreign events as well as on the very nature of political life in targeted countries (such as is claimed to be the case with Chinese influence campaigns in places like NZ). One side sees domestic politics shaping the broad contours of foreign policy; the other sees international events and influences framing the nature and conduct of domestic politics and local approaches to foreign policy.

Both views can be true and co-exist at the same time. The way in which domestic politics influences foreign policy-making can in turn be informed by foreign influence and intervention in domestic politics. Again, the way Chinese interests have influenced political and economic elites in NZ (covertly or overtly) has had a clear impact on the way NZ has approached the PRC as a foreign interlocutor. Academic Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about PRC use of “magic weapons” such as influence campaigns in NZ and elsewhere, but one only need think of former politicians like Jenny Shipley, Don Brash and John Key sitting on the boards of a Chinese bank and companies with NZ interests to understand how reversed second imagery works.

The second image aspect of foreign policy-making is particularly noteworthy in NZ because of its one-sidedness. As mentioned above, there is plenty to suggest that there are numerous foreign influences helping shape NZ foreign policy-making. Some are legitimate and open in their presence, such as NZ membership in various NGOs, treaties and conventions with binding rules governing standards of behaviour by members, as well as in NZ’s abiding by international norms and conventions when it comes to things like domestic labour laws, environmental regulations, intellectual property and patent rights, emissions trading schemes, various health, welfare and safety standards and the like. Others, such as PRC “sharp power” direct influence campaigns, are more opaque in nature and often unrecognised or unacknowledged by those on the receiving end of them. Whatever form it may take, it is widely recognised that in NZ the reversed second image is very present when it comes to foreign policy-making.

Less so is the second image itself. The NZ foreign policy community is small, with a select number of academic and private sector actors joining government officials in shaping the country’s approach to the outside world. Public involvement in foreign policy is minimal and the political class treat it as if it was rare earth. Not surprisingly, in this year’s election campaigns discussion of foreign policy has been conspicuous by its absence. With some exceptions noted in outlets like Newsroom, the Spinoff, 36th-Parallel.com and the works of people like Matt Nippert, Gordon Campbell, Selwyn Manning and David Fisher, much of this is due to the corporate media’s focus on controversy and gotcha moments rather than on in-depth analysis of substantive issues of any sort, much less those involving foreign relations. NZ based academics like Robert Patman, Rueben Steff and Van Jackson all write thoughtfully about foreign policy matters, to include aspects of NZ foreign policy, but their contributions in the media are (often self-) limited and do not inform campaign or political party policy coverage (as far as I know).

Political parties are not saying much either. Except National, parties have offered short–sometimes very short-– manifestos (thanks to The Spinoff for collating them), and interestingly the Greens have the must robust policy platform, even if in a touchy-feely, tree-hugging, climate-centric sort of way. For its part ACT just wants to increase defense spending and buy more ships, planes and guns because that is what the BIG BOY ALLIES DO, while NZ First as well as ACT want to ignore/withdraw from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ACT says ignore, NZ First says withdraw, so it is a matter of conjecture as to whether ignoring is better than withdrawing from a legally non-binding Declaration that NZ initially opposed but eventually signed up to).

Te Pati Maori are all about increasing support for Pacifika leaders and not much else, while Labour is pretty much all about trade, trade, more trade, more trade involving Maori and the derivative issues from trade (such a patent and intellectual property rights). Focusing on the blue rinse plate special, Winston and his motley crew of racists (increasingly shared with ACT), anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers want to move the Naval base from Devonport to Marsden Point. The Greens oppose AUKUS, South Pacific militarisation and support using the military for climate change mitigation purposes. Te Pati Maori have nothing much to say about Defence, nor for that matter does Labour in its campaign documents (as much as I have seen of them). Interestingly, no party speaks about intelligence issues in spite of the recently released reports advocating for intelligence community reform in the wake of March 15 and the rise of domestic white supremacist and other forms of seditious extremism. National is especially distinguished because it has nothing much to say on any foreign policy position, but if I was to hazard a guess as to what it may be, I reckon that it would be “more of the same” with a “please be nicer to the PRC” spin added to it. (NOTE: I stand to be corrected if Labour and National have put out comprehensive foreign policy platforms but so far I have not found any when doing cursory searches).

To recap: foreign policy is woefully underrepresented in the current election campaign, much as it was in previous elections. While NZ gets the second image reversed treatment in spades, the domestic sources of foreign policy are limited to a handful of foreign policy elites who in large measure appear to be unchecked by and do not receive significant policy directives from the government and political class of the day. Instead, it is the other way around.

Although foreign policy has always been the province of elites in most countries due to the requirements of educational backgrounds, international knowledge and experience, added to the necessities of maintaining consistent diplomatic relations across home and foreign governments over time, in NZ this is worrisome because the public has virtually no input, via civil society organisations, lobbies or political parties themselves, into foreign policy perspectives and decision-making processes. For example, much is said about (and I have argued against) the notion that NZ has an ‘independent” foreign policy. But how is that informed by domestic agents and interests? Certainly not by public referenda or informed consent voiced in elections. Certainly not by academic debates about the theoretical and practical meanings of the term “independence” in foreign policy. Certainly not by community public hall forums. Certainly not by journalistic challenges to the official line.

Economic elites may have an inside track in foreign policy-making and even work hand-in-glove with Foreign Ministry officials to ensure that trade-centric policies are the core of NZ’s international position regardless of who is in government and what NZ proclaims on other matters, but who else gets a look in? Academics? Perhaps a chosen few (certainly not this ex-professor). Consultants? (Likely more than a few, usually retired diplomats or military officials, and again, certainly not this one). Lobbies (certainly, but in very limited and exclusive numbers). Religious organisations? Unions? Environmental Groups? Human Rights Organisations? Sadly, although these latter groups may have a presence on the home front, their input into the foreign policy process can be considered to be largely negligible.

The hard truth is that foreign policy making in NZ is made by a relatively small group of bureaucrats and well-connected, self-interested private sector insiders and interest groups largely unchecked by the political elite, much less public opinion. They have little accountability of a vertical sort, and even less on a horizontal level (i.e. accountability to their political overseers’ and the public, on the one hand, and to other State bureaucracies on the other). That poses a problem because horizontal and vertical accountability of public agencies is considered a hallmark of liberal democracies. They answer to the public, to politicians and to each other. Unfortunately, in NZ the foreign policy elite largely do not.

This is problematic because of the syllogism involved. If we accept a) that in NZ the second image reversed phenomenon is very real, with foreign influences having a significant impact on foreign policy elite perspectives and decision-making; and b) that little second image input goes into NZ foreign policy-making outside of a small group of overlapped and interconnected elites that are largely unaccountable to anyone but themselves; then c) NZ’s foreign policy is shaped more by foreign-influenced elite perceptions and interests than those of the voting public at large. In an autocracy this would be the normal state of affairs, but for a liberal democracy it is a concerning issue, to say the least.

Perhaps as the election campaign moves closer to decision day there will be more robust discussion of foreign policy issues, including those related to intelligence, defense and international security. Perhaps there will be debate on whether NZ is truly independent or not, whether the trade-centric focus is still fit for purpose, and what NZ’s approach to Great Power competition should be in an era of increased multipolarity and broadening of areas of contestation in regions such as the South Pacific that were once thought to be “benign” strategic environments. But as things stand that seems unlikely, and instead we will be treated to an endless series of stories and debates about which party and candidate sent out the meanest tweet, who got caught out telling porkies and who dog-whistled the most in order get media click-bait coverage.

If so, that is not good enough.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

Stuck in two worlds.

I have been loath to write more about the situation in my cyclone-ravaged coastal community, but since we are going on a month since Gabrielle hit and things are not quite optimal, I thought I would offer this brief status report.

Basically, we are largely trapped in place between two dangerous roads. Supplies, food and fuel are being ferried to us and rubbish taken out by helicopter thanks to Auckland Emergency Management (AEM). We have power and cell phone coverage thanks to the lines company. But when it comes to fixing the roads–admittedly a major undertaking– Auckland Transport has basically been indifferent to our plight. Their very poor communications with the community essentially are that a) they will take 3-4 weeks to complete a feasibility study on how to repair the slips; and b) it will be over a year before normal road use can be restored. Meanwhile a posse of local builders have worked tirelessly, using their own tools and money, to shore up the slide areas and place plastic rain seal covers on slips so as to prevent further erosion and falls. But the roads are an unsafe mess and barely passable as things stand today.

AT actively discourages this private party work and hints at liability for those who do it. It has also officially closed the two roads to all but emergency and essential travel, thereby voiding vehicle insurance for non-emergency/essential workers who attempt to transit them at their own risk. This is a major quandary because there are around 50 school children in the valley who need to reach school buses on the main arterial road above the slips, a primary school in the valley that requires some parents to drive kids in between and around the slips, people who have medical and other important or time-sensitive appointments that cannot be delayed, and people who need to work but cannot work from home so must try to commute as if things were normal.

They are not.

AT does not appear to understand any of this and one gets the sense that the bosses safely ensconced in their Auckland offices have decided that we are low priority or the remedies too hard to be dealt with urgently. We get placating words on video conference calls but no practicable follow up. More broadly, employers and the public in Auckland do not appear to fully comprehend what is going out here. People are being told to come back to work soon or suffer the consequences. Day-trippers and tourists drive out blissfully unaware that the entire region is closed to non-residents because the roads simply cannot cope with the weight of traffic.

When it comes to AT and the contractors and other authorities it is using to “assess” our roads, one hand does not appear to know what the other is doing. AT says that the upper road is “hard” closed because of the underslips beneath the remaining road surfaces, but local civil defence authorities say that is because of boulders perched precariously over the road above some of the slips. Meanwhile people sneak in an out across the slip zones because there is no enforcement of the “hard” closure.

It gets worse. A few days back I followed local civil defence instructions and attempted to exit the valley on the hour as instructed, with people presumably manning stop/go signs on both ends of the most dangerous stretch (and sole one lane exit). When I got to that stretch I saw no signs of any sort but was committed to the task because at that point there was no way to turn around. Two thirds of the way up this infamous stretch of road (known as “The Cutting” because of its steep incline and sheer drops (where people have died in the past)), I came around a corner hugging the uphill bank only to find a dump truck and a digger blocking my way. I had no room to turn around and no visibility behind me. Workers milled around while the digger scraped dirt from the bank and dumped it in the truck.

After a while and getting zero response from said workers, who seemed to think that our appearance in the middle of their work zone was part of the scenery, my wife walked over and spoke with them, eventually finding a supervisor. Not only did that fellow not know about the “exit on the hour” rule but he did not know about the local primary school or the school bus runs that happened twice a day as parents try to get to drop-off and pick-up points on the arterial road. He was under the assumption that the road was closed, which it probably should be but it is the only one that is viable (in the loosest sense of the word) given that the other road has been completely closed due to the danger posed by overhanging boulders and undercuts beneath the roadway–dangers that AT has no plan to fix at this point because the feasibility studies have not been completed. Mind you, much of the damage caused by slides was the direct result of AT neglecting to clear culverts and drains throughout the catchment for twenty years in spite of many requests logged to send crews out to do this basic maintenance.

It is not just AT that has once again failed in its obligations. Some politicians are part of the problem as well. Although local council members appear happy to entertain the idea, our local MP dismissed the suggestion that we ask the NZDF if military engineers can come out and have a look at the road damage in order to make repair recommendations and/or install a Bailey Bridge (which is a modular construction that can support the weight of tanks) over the worst slip on the upper road that has less of an incline than the Cutting. That is a pity because the request has to come from the central government, not local councils. Apparently without consulting the NZDF or the Minister of Defence, the MP said that the Army is too busy in the Hawks Bay to help us even though the NZDF does disaster relief/humanitarian assistance and lots of military engineering as a matter of course, and has not exhausted those resources with its efforts on the other side of the North Island. It would have been nice gesture to her constituents if she had at least paid lip service to the request or passed it on to a Minister who could do so in her stead.

Meanwhile, Auckland Council has ordered the closure of the Waitakere ranges and West Coast beaches to non-residents, setting up roadblocks on the main arterial road connecting our communities with the western suburbs. We have to show proof of residence in order to get through the cordons, day in and day out. Even relatives cannot come to visit. Yet at the same time temporary accomodation providers are attempting to circumvent the process, with tourists showing up with no knowledge that they are entering a disaster zone with treacherous roads. Some of these temporary accomodation providers have declined to open their rentals to neighbours who lost their homes or were otherwise displaced by the storm. As the saying goes, crises bring out the best and worst in people.

On top of all this, AT is hinting at permanent road closures and AEM is gently suggesting that residents consider the possibility of having to relocate outside the valley. Needless to say, the idea of selling out and buying elsewhere (even if a sale were possible and a similar property was available) or trying to find rental accomodation in Auckland’s housing market, taking kids out their local schools and placing them elsewhere, paying ongoing bills for the abandoned properties while paying rent and bills on temporary accomodation is not a happy prospect to have to deal with.

As a result, anxiety, stress and in some cases despair have taken root in the community. For every resilient person and the local heroes who work to clear the roads, staff the emergency community hub and unload the choppers, there are others who are suffering a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tempers are frayed and quarrels have emerged between those who ignore the road closures and risk the travel in and out, those who obey the rules but cannot return to a normal routine, and those who are part of the essential/emergency services network (such as members of the fire party and first response) who use the privilege of their association to do as they please even when not on call-outs. That creates a “have, have not” situation that breeds resentment between factions. Anarchy is slowly raising its head in the stillness of the post-storm bush. The bottom line is that the social fabric of my isolated community is starting to fray and worse yet, I fear that someone is going to get killed on the roads while AT dithers about its response.

Here is the irony. Kiwis make a big deal about being part of the “First World” and regularly deride “Third World” banana republics. Perhaps in our politics, diplomacy and material life most of NZ is indeed an advanced liberal democracy. But when it comes to infrastructure maintenance (preventative, regular and events-reactive) and local emergency crisis response, we are very far from that. We are in a form of official response limbo but here is the rub: in Third World countries people just get to the task of rebuilding. They do not bother with bureaucratic red tape, feasibility studies, securing resource consents and pulling proper permits from officials wearing hard hats, lanyards and high viz vests while they study clipboards. In the Third World people just get on with the job of restoring normalcy.

In greater Auckland we get third world infrastructure overseen (and overlooked) by a first world bureaucracy that is big on code compliance but slow on delivering rapid solutions to desperate situations. Which means that for me and others in my community, when it comes to post-Gabrielle disaster response, we have the worst of both worlds.

When it rains it pours…and pours.

I know, that is a pretty corny title but given the circumstances here in the Auckland region, I just had to say it. The more oblique reference embedded in the phrase is that beyond the rain and wind, there is the matter of the leadership failures exhibited by Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and his senior management team when confronted by the crisis brought by the cyclonic water bomb that dropped on the upper North Island. Their response to the natural disaster has been a cluster f**k of epic proportions, particularly on the communications side of things where his high profile and highly paid National-linked advisors disappeared as soon as the excrement hit the fan once it became apparent that for the first 12 hours or so after the rain began the mayor was AWOL (and in fact is reported to have been playing tennis on a dry court while water levels rose precipitously in South and West Auckland and slips and flash-flooding were already closing roads throughout the region).

To be clear, Wayne Brown was elected to cut rates and prioritize public services and amenities to the salubrious Eastern and Northern suburbs where the well-heeled and light-skinned live securely and in comfort (even if, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, they are living lives of quiet desperation as well). He was installed to serve the interests of a specific demographic rather than the city and its surroundings as a whole, and is therefore not interested in helping (mostly) brown-skinned opposition voters living in flood plains and gullies. For him, the once-in-a-lifetime storm has been more of a nuisance that interferes with his social schedule than a moment to rise above his own ego and partisan biases in service of the commonweal.

I should note that for all the commentary about “leadership” and why business types like Brown and National Party Leader Chris Luxon may not be good fits for public office leadership, relatively little is made of the fact that political leadership in liberal democracies has many more external as well as internal horizontal checks, balances and veto points imposed on decision-making when compared to the hierarchical ordering and competitive environment of business firms. Competence in businesses is measured in the first instance by profitability and return on investment under given market conditions, whereas competence in liberal democratic politics is about managing public sector responsiveness and delivery of services to the polity under given political conditions. In the case of Mr. Brown, his business acumen appears to have been exaggerated for electoral purposes and his understanding of the responsibilities of public office holders in a democracy appears to be negligible.

I will leave it for others to dissect the remaining political entrails of this corpse of a mayor but suffice it to say that a politician who cannot even fake empathy and compassion for those in his electorate who have been negatively impacted by the storm (including many who have lost everything, and in four cases, their lives), and who victim-blames those worst affected and finger-points at his subordinates when it comes to assigning responsibility for response delays and “mistakes” while arguing with media in front of cameras during press stand-ups, is not fit to be a parking warden much less mayor of NZ’s largest city.

I went on the infamous social media platform to briefly summarize my take on things. Here are my comments:

“Times of crisis render transparent leadership qualities and flaws. Covid did this on a world scale, with Trump and Johnson baring their ineptness (and ignorance) for all to see while Ardern, Hipkins and Bloomfield (demonstrated) what a competent leadership team looks like. Now Auckland is confronted by an unprecedented natural disaster and the Peter Principle is being demonstrated at the highest local government level. Shame because this could have been prevented had voters understood what their votes were really getting in terms of “leadership.” OTOH, the doddering mayor’s media stand-ups have been unwitting comedic gold. Perhaps this is why what should have been dealt with as a First World problem becomes a Third World reality.

Put shortly: The crucible of crisis is the pressure test of leadership. Under it some hold, some crack. The Auckland weather bomb is such a crucible. The test results are clear.”

Missing the forest for the trees.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has announced with considerable fanfare that members at eight NZ universities have voted overwhelmingly (a claimed average of 80 percent in favour) to strike in pursuit of an eight percent wage increase in the current negotiating round. I used to be a member of the TEU and wrote and co-wrote two books about comparative labour relations in seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay). As part of my field research I observed collective bargaining sessions between Argentine and Uruguayan central labor federations and employers associations. I was a participant in and focus of negotiations between my former university employer and the TEU over my unlawful dismissal, something that resulted in an Employment Court victory but no reinstatement (which is what I wanted but which the TEU argued was a step too far for them to continue to litigate). In other words, I have a fair sense of what collective bargaining entails (including between Marxist and non-Marxist unions, employers and Labor Ministry officials) and I have seen the TEU negotiate with my own eyes.

I mention this because at the same time the TEU is crowing about its high strike support rate across the sector, the Auckland University of Technology has announced plans to eliminate 230 jobs and disestablish entire programs as a cost-cutting measure. This, in spite of generating record surpluses in the past two years (12 percent in 2021; the annual report can be found here). The university managers argue that inflation and the loss of international students due to travel restrictions imposed by Covid mitigation efforts has negatively impacted on their bottom line. That is nonsense. The truth is that the surpluses exceeded expectations in spite of the pandemic impacts. Moreover, most of the programs destined for the chopping block, like the BA in Social Sciences, cater to domestic students. In fact, the majority of students in that particular undergraduate program, which has 300 fees paying students currently enrolled in a year one course on NZ politics, are of Pasifika and Maori heritage and many are the first members of their families to undertake university studies. For many of these students the BA Social Science program is an avenue of upward mobility into a variety of careers, including Law and Policy Studies. That avenue is now being shut down despite AUT management assurances that students “will find some other place to go.”

It is ironic that those directly responsible for disestablishing this program (the AUT Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Arts and Humanities) are Samoan and Maori respectfully.

Yet, even with the imminent displacement of dozens of TEU members from this one university, the TEU is patting itself on the back about the overall membership support for the wage increase strike call (which involves two-to-five-hour workday walkouts on seven campuses so as to not have staff docked pay under current employment law regulations. AUT is the exception, with a 3 week ban on submitting course marks UPDATE: Under threat of a two week suspension without pay for any member who withholds marks from the central office, the AUT TEU branch has caved and will engage in a 4 hour walkout along with the other universities). In spite of the strong support for the strike, I believe this is a short-sighted perspective that ultimately betrays member interests in favour of preserving the influence of what is essentially an employer-cooperative (if not coopted) union that abides by the employer’s logic and rules.

As it is, the 8 percent wage increase is an aspirational, not an achievable goal. The TEU will likely wind up settling for around 5 percent across the board, but then has to deal with each university’s counter-offers based on their different circumstances (wage bargaining for NZ universities occurs in decentralised fashion, with each university TEU branch negotiating with its respective university management based on overall guidelines from the TEU central office). For example, the cost of living in Auckland is higher than in Hamilton, Palmerston. North, Christchurch and Dunedin, so the “one size fits all” TEU approach to wages is clearly unrealistic as a practical tactic. Add to that different enrolment numbers, research grant endowments and other influences on university budgets, and the notion that an eight percent across the board wage increase for all TEU branch members is feasible becomes nothing more than a pipe dream.

The issue is more than a matter of unrealistic wage demands. It is a question of strategic myopia and self-serving organizational preservation. When unions focus solely on short term tactical goals (wage increases) rather than longer term strategic goals (job security, working conditions, individual and collective labor rights), or trade off the latter for the former, they (con)cede the broader contest to the employer. This happened at my former university employer and sadly, looks to be the trade-off that is about to occur at AUT, where “redundancies” may be exchanged for pay rises to the staff that are left (including the (non-union) middle- and upper-layer management layers that free-ride off of collective bargaining outcomes by tying their salary increases to what is negotiated). But those union members at AUT who may benefit now may be the target of future cuts down the road given that the branch union is no longer consulted about employment matters before decisions about them are made. In other words, under the current TEU approach short term gain is traded for long term pain.

Even the focus on wage increases is fraught in a sector such as higher education. Much of the public view academics as overpaid do-nothing navel-gazers with too much free time and very little responsibilities other than to blow hot air at impressionable youth. Saddled with their own economic concerns and in the majority non-unionised, they are therefore unsympathetic to union claims that university wages have not matched inflation and that morale is low. The reality of academic work is very different than this, but it is the context in which the TEU has to operate. It does not appear to be cognisant of this fact.

What is most sad is that the staff designated for redundancy at AUT and eventually elsewhere would likely trade any wage increase for job security, and many of their colleagues not designated for dismissal would agree to less (or even no) wage increases in order to see respected peers retain their jobs. Coupled with voluntary redundancy and retirement schemes for older or unproductive staff after review and consultation, this could achieve both cost and employment savings, thereby bolstering morale for what is now a very anxious and resentful academic cadre. After all, after spending years pursuing advanced degrees in academic disciplines and focusing on undergraduate and graduate-level teaching and research, it is difficult for many university staff to move laterally into other career fields (especially where suspicion of holders of advanced degrees is present), particularly if older than 50 where and when employment ageism is at play. From the perspective of those on the AUT management hit list, that means that they wasted years of time, resources and energy dedicated to pursuing a specialised craft, only to receive a very poor reward for years of service to the institution.

As things stand, this is a classic collective action problem. Myopic focus on wage increases allows union bosses to claim that they are delivering the goods to their members. But ceding involvement in workplace administration decisions leaves the field open for, in this instance, academic management Taylorists to erode both the individual and collective rights of all staff. Decisions on things like research leave, enrolment numbers, course pass rates, ratio of full-time to part-time lecturers, even (in some instances) course content and evaluation requirements are relinquished to non-academic managers with no familiarity, much less degrees in the subjects they are administering and whose main purpose is to engage in “make work” exercises that justify their existences (and salaries) rather than the delivery of a quality intellectual and education product to the research and student communities.

The TEU long ago gave away its participation in the longer-term strategic goal setting in exchange for its iterative resumption of tactical wage bargaining. That is the mandate for its branch unions and that is why NZ universities have been able to erode working conditions for academic staff and downsize permanent staff numbers in favor of part-time, less qualified personnel in pursuit of cost-cutting measures such as those being used as a justification for the AUT jobs massacre. Exceptions to the rule duly noted, the overall impact is a lowering of standards and deterioration of academic quality in NZ universities.

For people like me with a background in academia this is disappointing but not surprising. That is because the TEU is behaving exactly as the sociologist Robert Michels said it will in his seminal 1911 book, Political Parties (I am usually loathed to use Wikipedia as a citation but in the context of a blog post it will suffice. Also see this). Explaining why complex organizations (such as parties, firms and unions) behave as oligarchies in democratic societies, he noted that the first duty of the organization is to itself. That is, preservation of the organization comes before full satisfaction of membership interests. The dynamics of interest group competition and need for ongoing representation leads to a bureaucratic syndrome where leadership (agent) interest in maintaining the organization as a collective representative outweigh the broader interests of the principals (members). This is a dilemma because if unresolved it runs the risk of alienating principals from agents, leading to abandonment of the organization by members and the diminution of the organization’s power over time.

The more that happens within labor organizations, the more unions enter into decline, lose their collective weight when attempting to bargain and consequently are increasingly ignored by employers and the State when reactively defending the interests of their members, much less when making proactive demands. That is especially true when governments adopt market-driven reforms that in their approach to worker’s rights and representation are deliberately designed to weaken union power.

This is exactly what happened in NZ, the US, UK and elsewhere with the rise of so-called “neoliberalism” as the dominant intellectual and policy paradigm. Market-driven approaches to labor relations are designed to atomize individuals in the workplace and subject them to the greater power of corporate or profit-driven entities whose managerial logics are dominated by the quest to generate surpluses, not improving the material and emotional welfare of employees. That logic is now at play at AUT and other NZ universities.

One way of reconciling this agent-principal problem is for union leaders to focus on immediate gains via wage bargaining while sacrificing longer term objectives tied to workplace autonomy and employee job security. In a sense this is a type of false consciousness where, by gaining incremental wage concessions from employers, both the union leadership and many members convince themselves of the value of the short-term tactical approach to collective bargaining even as they are gradually stripped of control over non-wage aspects of the employment relationship.

That is exactly the approach taken by the TEU. But it is just a short-term solution in a much longer-term, extensive form game dominated by market-oriented managerial logics rather than genuine belief in the role of the academe as “critic and conscience” of society. Seen by that measure and notwithstanding the apparent sincerity and commitment of some of its officials, the TEU is acting more as an employer vassal rather than as the committed agent of its members.

A word on post-neoliberalism.

I recently read a critique of the market-oriented economic theory known as “neoliberalism” and decided to add some of my thoughts about it in a series of short messages on a social media platform dedicated to providing an outlet for short messaging. I have decided to expand upon those messages and provide a slightly more fleshed out appraisal here.

“Neoliberalism” has gone from being a monetarist theory first mentioned in academic circles about the primacy of finance capital in the pyramid of global capitalism to a school of economic thought based on that theory, to a type of economic policy (via the Washington consensus) promoted by international financial institutions to national governments, to a broad public policy framework grounded in privatisation, low taxation and reduction of public services, to a social philosophy based on reified individualism and decontextualised notions of freedom of choice. Instilled in two generations over the last 35-40 years, it has redefined notions of citizenship, collective and individual rights and responsibilities (and the relationship between them) in liberal democracies, either long-standing or those that emerged from authoritarian rule in the period 1980-2000.

That was Milton Friedman’s ultimate goal: to replace societies of rent-seekers under public sector macro-managing welfare states with a society of self-interested maximizers of opportunities in an environment marked by a greatly reduced state presence and unfettered competition in all social (economic, cultural, political) markets. It may not have been full Ayn Rand in ideological genesis but the social philosophy behind neoliberalism owes a considerable debt to it.

What emerged instead was societies increasingly marked by survivalist alienation rooted in feral capitalism tied to authoritarian-minded (or simply authoritarian) neo-populist politics that pay lip service to but do not provide for the common good–and which do not adhere to the original neoliberal concept in theory or in practice. Survivalist alienation is (however inadvertently) encouraged and compounded by a number of pre- and post-modern identifications and beliefs, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia and social media enabled conspiracy theories regarding the nature of governance and the proper (“traditional” versus non-traditional) social order. This produces what might be called social atomisation, a pathology whereby individuals retreat from horizontal solidarity networks and organisations (like unions and volunteer service and community agencies) in order to improve their material, political and/or cultural lot at the expense of the collective interest. As two sides of neoliberal society, survivalist alienation and social atomisation go hand-in-hand because one is the product of the other.

That is the reality that right-wingers refuse to acknowledge and which the Left must address if it wants to serve the public good. The social malaise that infects NZ and many other formally cohesive democratic societies is more ideological than anything else. It therefore must be treated as such (as the root cause) rather than as a product of the symptoms that it displays (such as gun violence and other anti-social behaviours tied to pathologies of income inequality such as child poverty and homelessness).

As is now clear to most, neoliberalism is dead in any of the permutations mentioned above. And yet NZ is one of the few remaining democratic countries where it is still given any credence. Whether it be out of wilful blindness or cynical opportunism, business elites and their political marionettes continue to blather about the efficiencies of the market even after the Covid pandemic has cruelly exposed the deficiencies and inequalities of global capitalism constructed on such things as “just in time production” and “debt leveraged financing” (when it comes to business practices) and “race to the bottom” when it comes wages (from a labour market perspective).

I shall end this brief by starting at the beginning by way of an anecdote. As I was trying to explain “trickle down” economic theory to an undergraduate class in political economy, a student shouted from the back seats of the lecture hall “from where I sit, it sure sounds more like the “piss on us” theory.

I could not argue with that view then and I can’t argue with it now. Except today things are much worse because the purine taint is not limited to an economic theory that has run its course, but is pervasive in the fabric of post-neoliberal societies. Time for a deep clean.

PS: For those with the inclination, here is something I wrote two decades ago on roughly the same theme but with a different angle. Unfortunately it is paywalled but the first page is open and will allow readers a sense of where I was going with it.

Random Retweets: Pandemic mitigation.

Introduction.

I have recently seen a trend whereby people turn their twitter ruminations into op eds and even semi-scholarly essays such as those featured on Spinoff, Patreon or The Conversation. It makes sense to develop ideas from threads and maximise publication opportunities in the process, especially for academics operating in a clickbait environment that has now crept into scholarly journals. I am not immune from the thread-to-essay temptation, although I have tended to do that on my work page and stick to subjects more pertinent to my work because the twitter account I use is a business rather than personal one.

With that in mind and because I have not posted here for a while, I thought it opportune to edit and repurpose some twitter thoughts that I have shared on the subject of what might be called the security politics of Covid mitigation in New Zealand. Below I have selected, cut and pasted some salient edited tweets along that analytic line.

Security aspects of pandemic politics.

There are traditional national security threats like armed physical attack by external/internal enemies. There are non-traditional national security threats like rising sea levels and disasters. Anti-vaxxers are a non-traditional national security threat that must be confronted.

Social media is where state and non-state actors (criminal organisations, extremist groups) link with local agitators in order to combine resources for common purpose. Viral dis-/misinformation and influence campaigns designed to socially destabilise and politically undermine public faith in and support for liberal democracies like NZ are an example of such hand-in-glove collaboration. If left unchecked it can lead to mass public disorder even when seemingly disorganised (e.g. by using “leaderless resistance” tactics). This growing “intermestic” or “glocal” threat needs to be prioritised by the NZ intel community because otherwise social cohesion is at risk. On-line seditious saboteurs must be identified, uncovered and confronted ASAP. That includes “outing” the foreign-local nexus, to include state and non-state actor connections.

If people are going to complain about Chinese influence operations in NZ, then they would do good to complain about US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations in NZ as well. Especially when the latter is manifested in the streets as anti-vac/anti-mask protests. The difference between them? PRC influence operations attempt to alter the NZ political system from within. US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations seek to subvert it from without. Both are authoritarian threats to NZ’s liberal democracy.

In the war against a mutating virus initially of foreign origin NZ has a 5th column: anti-vax/maskers, religious charlatans, Deep State and other conspiracy theorists, economic maximisers, venal/opportunistic politicians, disinformation peddlers and various selfish/stupid jerks. Their subversion of a remarkably effective pandemic mitigation effort should be repudiated and sanctioned as strongly as the law permits. Zero tolerance of what are basically traitors to the community is now a practical necessity (along with a 90% vaccination rate). Plus, as a US-NZ dual citizen who had his NZ citizenship application opposed by some hater, I would like to know who let in the rightwing Yank nutters now fomenting unrest over masks/vaxes/lockdowns/mandates etc. They clearly do not meet the good character test.

A counter-terrorism axiom is that the more remote the chances of achieving an ideological goal, the more heinous will be the terrorist act. Anti-vax and conspiracy theorists using Nazi/holocaust analogies to subvert democratic pandemic mitigation strategies are akin to that.

Long-term community well-being requires commitment to collective responsibility and acceptance of individual inconvenience in the face of a serious public health threat. It is part of the democratic social contract and should not be usurped for partisan or personal gain. Elephant in the room: when cultural mores contradict and undermine public health scientific advice but for political reasons cannot be identified as such. If true, partisan-focused approaches to Covid is not just an Opposition sin. The virus does not see culture or tradition. Anti-vax/mask views are no excuse to violate public health orders. Likewise economic interest, leisure pursuits, religious or secular beliefs no matter how deeply held. Ergo, cultural practice cannot override the public good. Collective responsibility is a democratic obligation.

Those that set the terms of debate tend to win the debate. In politics, those that frame the narrative on a subject, tend to win the debates about it. By announcing a “Freedom Day” the govt has conceded the debate about pandemic mitigation. The issue is not about human freedom. It is about managing public health risk in pursuit of the common good. Using “freedom” rhetoric injects ideology into what should be an objective debate about prudent lockdown levels given uneven vaccination rates, compliance concerns, mental health and economic issues. Bad move.

When the blind lead the blind.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has been released and the verdict is mixed. Some are pleased that systemic failures were identified and acknowledged while others are disappointed that no single person or agency was held to account for those failures. The Muslim community, although given a prominent place in the RCI investigations and Report and offered direct apologies by the Prime Minister and heads of Police and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), remains unsatisfied with the outcome even if it accepts the recommendations that derive from the Report (as does the government).

Under its terms of reference, the RCI investigation was very broad and very shallow. Because of its scope it eventually had to be extended a year beyond its original six month mandate and have its budget doubled. It was broad in the sense that it had to address the terrorist and his activities, the impact his actions had on the targeted community, the actions and inaction of State security agencies (not just those involved in counter-terrorism (CT) efforts) that contributed to the event and a host of extraneous factors considered relevant to the investigation (for example, European and US experiences with rightwing terrorism).

It was shallow in the sense that, even though it could have availed itself of powers of compulsion under oath under the Inquiries Act, it chose not to. Instead, the RCI engaged in a self-limiting investigatory approach where it was dependent on the voluntary cooperation of State entities and officials when it came to evidence provision and testimony. Because of concerns about national security, no government officials (other than agency heads) identified during the course of the investigation were publicly named and their testimony is to remain sealed for thirty years. Although available to security authorities, the terrorist’s evidence is permanently suppressed in order to avoid copy-cat behaviour. 

One view is that this was done to encourage honesty and candor on the part of witnesses with potential liability exposure, but it also meant that in terms of transparency and public accountability, the RCI was hamstrung from the start. A more cynical view has it that this covers up culpability and whitewashes the truth while absolving the guilty.

Others have written about the before and after-effects of the attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community as well as the history of local white supremacists and rightwing extremists. The work of the RCI has been amply scrutinised. The Report itself has been dissected at length. Given that, here the focus is on the institutional deficiencies within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) that were uncovered by the RCI.

If one phrase sums up the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it is “systemic failure.” The failure was institutional and individual, within and across New Zealand’s borders and involved errors of commission and omission.

The most salient finding is that there was a pervasive obsession with Islamic extremists within the NZ Counter-Terrorism community dating to 9/11. This myopic focus was shared by collection (operational) agencies, analytic agencies, oversight and coordination agencies, foreign partners, the governments and most politicians of the day. The media and the public, while largely unconcerned about the possibility of domestic terrorism, accepted the official line that after 9/11 and given events in the Middle East, Islamic extremism was the most likely threat to the Kiwi way of life.

The problem with this perspective is its lack of grounding in fact. Before and after 9/11, no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of any act of ideologically-motivated violence in Aotearoa. A couple of people have been arrested and imprisoned for possessing jihadist materials, a few have been detained for objectionable social media posts, some have been sent into de-radicalisation diversion programs and some have had their passports cancelled based upon fears that they would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or al-Qaeda. Two have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East and one is languishing in a Syrian opposition jail. Back at home, at any given time, 30-35 people are monitored by the intelligence services because of their perceived jihadist sympathies. They may be inclined towards violence but as of yet none have decisively acted on their impulses. When it comes to contemplating acts of terrorist violence on NZ soil, would-be jihadists have been relatively few and far between, and all talk and no lethal action.

During the same timeframe, right-wing extremism world-wide grew bolder in terms of violent acts and larger in terms of numbers, starting with the mass murders perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo in 2011 and accelerating after 2015 with murderous attacks in places like the US, UK and Germany as Daesh was defeated in Iraq and Syria and refugee flows increased from the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe. On-line white supremacist forums proliferated, as did the number of self-radicalised “lone wolves” who populated discussion groups focused on who, when and how to commit violence against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, Arabs, Africans, and other perceived undesirables.

Groups like Atomwaffen Division, English Defense League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. NZ was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defense League, New Order, Right Wing Resistance, and more recent off-shoots like Western Guard and European Students Association waxing and waning before becoming more visible and vitriolic over the last ten years (other violently-inclined groups have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism (CT) threat assessments should have incorporated the rising global trend of irregular right-wing violence. Yet in the period 2010-2019 right-wing extremism was mentioned only a handful of times in CT reports, most in reference to terrorist attacks overseas. When and where the possibility of a right-wing terrorist attack in NZ was mentioned, such as in a 2011 Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report that the Oslo attack was a model for copycats and that New Zealand’s firearms regimes allowed for the legal purchase of military-style weapons with that intent, it was ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZIC and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamicist terrorist threats difficult. Collection agencies like the NZSIS and NZ Police operate on a “lead-based” and “customer” focused business model, in which the agencies react to tips about suspicious behaviour and frame their operations and analyses according to the perceived needs of their sponsors and patrons—primarily the government and foreign partners. The decentralised and siloed nature of the NZIC is another contributing factor to the failure to detect terrorist plots, whereby the alphabet soup of intelligence shops in areas like Customs, Immigration, MBIE and coordinating and analytic agencies like CTAG, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), Security and Intelligence Board (SIB), Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (CTCC) and a number of others compartamentalise and narrowly share classified information on a “need to know” basis.

There are no strong hierarchies in the chains of command linking the functionally-differentiated agencies within the NZIC, with various intelligence units answering to different ministers and seldom to each other. This led to duplication of functions and tunnel vision within the community. Although the NAB ostensibly serves as the lead agency in the decentralised NZIC organizational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between NZIC members was and is limited.

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organizational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the NZ security community in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks. Only 20 mentions of domestic terrorism were made during that period. The bulk of those referred to home-grown and returning jihadists.

The dysfunctional organizational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon,” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the NZIC’s component parts. Under extant funding models and given the security orientation of political masters and foreign partners, there was little incentive for intelligence shops to expend resources on discerning distant threats via strategic analysis or convincing political funders that the CT focus needed to be expanded in light of an emerging global right-wing extremist movement that uses the internet as a recruiting, radicalisation and irregular warfare tutorial platform.

This was obviously short-sighted and (still) leads to institutional lag when confronting the threat environment (whereby agencies play steep learning curve catch-up because their focus is on the last and not the next major threat). It also violates the basic professional requirement that threat landscapes be divided according to an objectively-determined differentiation between possible, probable, proximate, immediate and imminent threats upon which preventive measures can be predicated.

The Report repeatedly references Police and SIS complaints that they were under-resourced during the decade prior to the attacks, something that contributed to their inability to monitor right-wing extremism. The SIS reported that it had 225 personnel in 2013-14, of which 35-50 percent were engaged in security vetting and the rest in domestic and foreign espionage and counter-espionage functions, with only 4.5 full time equivalent staff dedicated to terrorism investigations. By 2019 the total staff had increased to 328 full time equivalents but the functional distribution remained the same. During the same period the SIS budget increased 245 percent, from $33,751,000 in 2007-08 to $82,843,000 in 2018-19. This does not include at least one dedicated cash injection of over $175 million provided by the National government in 2016-17 to the NZIC and excludes any “black budget” expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books “black budgets” for particularly sensitive operations).

The nearly $50 million operational budget increase and 100 staff added during the half decade leading to the attacks was not reflected in SIS CT operations, so the question begs as to whether it was not so much the lack of resources that impeded improvement in that operational area but a maldistribution of resources within it that contributed to the SIS failure to detect the threat emerging from the extremist Right. After all, it dedicated between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy five-ten percent of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including CT), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a front-line intelligence agency. The political priority given to counter-terrorism efforts by governments during the years after 9/11 and emergence of ISIS in Europe make it hard to fathom that only 4.5 equivalent full time staff were dedicated to CT efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50 percent increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also claim to have struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and CT work in particular. Citing shortfalls, the Police stopped investigating right-wing extremism in 2014 and no reports on the subject were issued until 2019 (after the attacks). The intelligence wings of the Police were said to be lightly staffed and spread over a number of issue areas that went well beyond CT concerns. Both the National Security Group (NSG)  and Security and Intelligence Group (SITG) claimed to not have enough resources to engage in the type of strategic intelligence assessments that would have made early detection of right-wing extremists easier. In 2010 the National Intelligence Centre employed 53 staff out of a total complement of 11,890, then 63 in 2012 and 52 in 2013 with similar total numbers, while in 2018 “International and National Security” functions employed 357 out of 12,467 staff (organizational changes made for different staffing statistic categories in Annual Reports after 2017). 

Even with the changes in statistics measurements that incorporated other liaison and analysis duties, it is clear that staffing of Police intelligence operations remained fairly constant and even rose slightly towards the end of the period covered by the RCI Report. It was therefore not a major impediment to CT operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than CT, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional CT staff at the national level was approved in 2018, but the problem remained that, to quote the Report, the “New Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threat” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 30).

There is no mention in the Report of whether Police intelligence received information about violent right-wing extremists during the course of undercover operations targeting criminal gang activities such as drugs or weapons dealing (so-called “street crimes”). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, “(w)e (the RCI) were also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 36). In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were pursued, but nothing more is known about them (at least as far as the public record is concerned).

The “lack of interest” problem regarding right-wing extremism was compounded by the fact that tactical intelligence leads are mostly developed by each Police District, and during the time period in which the killer was planning and preparing apparently no leads on violent right-wing extremists were developed by the intelligence shops based in Dunedin and Christchurch, much less elsewhere. Instead, at both the district and national levels, in terms of strategic as well as tactical assessments, the NZ Police focused CT efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamicists (and had some success with that).

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamicist groups. During the period covered by the Review, which came in the wake of the infamous Urewera Raids, the Police followed intelligence leads and conducted operations against environmental, animal rights and anti-1080 activists along with the ‘normal” business of providing intelligence for non-ideologically motivated criminal investigations. This is worth noting because terrorism involving lethal mass attacks is most likely to be ideologically rather than criminally motivated (following the logic that criminal activity is a form of commercial rather than advocacy enterprise and public violence is generally bad for business). Amongst ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other Leftist groups are less prone to supporting terrorism to advance their goals than either aspiring jihadists or right-wing extremists (including so-called “eco-fascists” involved in anti-1080 campaigns). And yet they received more attention from the intelligence services than neo-Nazis did, and CT efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to CT efforts within the Police, SIS and other agencies that impeded the detection of right-wing terrorist threats. Instead, it was the lack of priority given to them that contributed to the systemic intelligence failure. Intelligence work done by the Police and the SIS involve at their core human intelligence collection. That essentially means boots on and ears to the ground, which in turn is an issue of trained staff dedicated to the task on the one hand, and objective threat recognition on the other. In spite of the evolving threat landscape in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks, CT staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamicist threats. When they were, the objects of scrutiny were not from the extremist Right.

The GCSB was exonerated of any culpability in enabling the attacks. That is because, according to the Report, it basically serves as a foreign signals intelligence agency and only engages in domestic espionage when tasked to do so under warrant by a NZ partner agency. In the decade before March 15 it was never tasked by the SIS, Police or other security agencies to monitor right-wing extremists.

Although it exposes the disorganization and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to CT prior to March 15, the Report claims that these systemic failures did not contribute to the attacks because the killer’s operational security made discovering him a matter of “chance.” That, in spite of reports about his peculiar behaviour at a gun club, his social media rants and use of IP addresses associated with extremist views and weapons purchases, his drone surveillance of the al-Noor mosque and his stockpiling of military-style weapons and ammunition (which are attributed to deficiencies of the firearms licensing regime and failures by vetting authorities to discharge their duties properly). The dots were there to be connected but, according to the RCI, only by chance could they have been.

That has the makings of a Tui ad.

What is clear is that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat. In spite of some brief warnings and occasional mentions, the NZ Police and SIS did not see violent right-wing extremism as posing an imminent danger to society and other frontline agencies did not screen for it in their threat assessments. Instead, the security community prioritized the domestic aspects of  the so-called “War on Terror” (sic). Local politicians supported and funded that approach, which was generally given low priority because domestic terrorism was, in spite of the anti-jihadist fear-mongering of the Key government, a secondary concern in the NZIC collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasized within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the NZIC was not just looking the wrong way—it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the CT focus could and would not see terrorist threats beyond those rooted in Islam. Even though the domestic terrorist threat landscape changed in the years after 9/11, the NZIC was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why the it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme Right.

More than “chance,” it was these institutional deficiencies, both in outlook and organization, that wound up costing people’s lives.

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Spinoff, December 15, 2020.

The military is no quarantine panacea.

A word of caution: the military is not a quarantine panacea.

At least 60 NZDF personnel have been on quarantine patrol duties since April 1, and yet breaches of the restrictions on physical contact occurred. What is more, the NZDF presumably has its own testing regime in place (for its personnel, primarily–there were at least 7 NZDF cases reported by April–but also as part of the overall quarantine testing regime) and yet no NZDF tests were administered at quarantine sites as far as I can tell. In addition, the NZDF record on transparency is poor. It has a record of coverups and whitewashes (e.g Operation Burnham). So yes, it has the legal authority (under the Epidemic Notice and National Transition Period legislation, which invoke assistance clauses in the Defense Act and/or Section 66 of the Civil Defense Emergency Management Act ) and logistical capacity to improve quarantine restriction enforcement, but it is an open question as to whether it will perform better or report honestly on its mission given its track record. It is folly to simply punt the task of enforcing the quarantine to the NZDF and expect things to automatically get better.

There also seems to be more to the move than meets the eye. In retrospect, it now seems plausible that the Navy crowd control exercise undertaken last week was oriented towards more than overseas deployments (as should be expected and as I had suggested earlier) and raises the possibility that the government knew that things were amiss in the quarantine regime well before the breaches were made public, and yet suppressed that information. There is much to unpack here.

Let’s leave aside what the Health Ministry may or may not have known about quarantine breaches, where in the chain of command did the failures to effectively enforce the quarantine restrictions occur, who made compassionate exemptions without testing, and why anyone in a position of authority would cover up the possibility that a lethal disease had escaped isolation. Instead, given that the quarantine regime is now under military control, questions should be asked as to why that step was needed. For example, why are the police not being used to enforce these quarantine restrictions on freedom of movement of NZ citizens, residents and visitors? Are they understaffed?

This is what the government says that the new quarantine boss, Assistant Defense Force Chief Air Commodore Darren “Digby” Webb, will undertake and what his powers include. First, a”start-to-finish audit” of the existing systems and written protocols at the border. To do so he will have access to the country’s military logistics and operational expertise. Then, if required, he can bring in military personnel to help run the facilities, and make any changes to further strengthen border defences. That is quite a broad mandate.

It also raises more questions. First, Air Commodore Webb replaced former Police Commissioner Mike Bush a few weeks ago as quarantine czar and was in charge when two women who later tested positive for CV-19 were granted leave from quarantine without being tested. Will granting him more authority improve his decision-making or was he hamstrung from the start by MoH officialdom and/or protocols? Second, if 60 NZDF personnel could not stop breaches of the quarantine regime, how many more will be needed to do so? Third, what is Air Commodore Webb’s relationship vis a vis the Health Minister and Director General of Health in light of the above? Can he pull rank on them or is he, and his handling of the health cordon, bound by civilian Human Resources regulations and other non-military protocols when it comes to non-military personnel under his control and supervision? Fourth, even with emergency legislation enabling the deputisation of the military in this instance, is the military bound by the Human Rights Act and other provisions protecting the rights of those detained, or are those quarantined to fall under military law or a mix of military and civilian law under the emergency powers conferred to it?

Normally, when the military is assigned a mission, it develops in advance of deployment an operational plan that includes specific targets and objectives, then marshals resources, prepares logistics, musters personnel, and stages in wait of the order to proceed. In this instance none of that appears to have happened other than the Navy crowd control exercise (if indeed that had a quarantine-related aspect). Instead, Air Commodore Webb will undertake a “comprehensive” audit of quarantine protocols and procedures. Given that he has been on the job for a while, it is surprising that that review did not begin immediately after he replaced former Commissioner Bush. It also means that any military response is still in the making unless planning and preparations have been done unannounced and unnoticed.

There may be simple answers to these questions that clarify the chain of command and rules of engagement in the revamped quarantine regime, and I welcome any clarifications to that effect.

I shall ignore the sideline whinging and bleating coming from the opposition and rightwing commentators. This was the crowd that after initially welcoming the “go early, go hard” approach to the pandemic, started to yelp about lifting the lockdown and re-opening the economy by the end of April. The fools includes university charlatans like the Auckland University VC, who initially claimed that prohibitions on returning students from China were due to “racism,” and more recently cried economic dependence on foreign tuition as an excuse to let them back in, only to have China now enveloped in a second wave of infections–including in the capital city. This, from a guy who is supposedly the leader of a university from which many of the epidemiologists who advise the government come from! Perhaps he should take his golden parachute, fade back into the vapour and leave authoritative talking to others.

Having said that, we cannot dismiss the fact that the two ladies who were allowed out of quarantine on compassionate grounds may be the tip of an infectious iceberg. Something went wrong and it is possible that several people were involved and errors were made throughout the Health Ministry hierarchy that contributed to it. That needs addressing and remedying. Responsibility must be assumed, and if merited disciplinary action must be taken. One easy step would be to offer the resignation of the hapless Health Minister as a sop to the braying Opposition donkeys while moving someone competent into the role (admitting that David Parker may be still in his job because he is instrumental in the DHB re-structuring project).

Whatever the case, it is not entirely clear that a knee jerk move to “bring in the military” is going to rectify whatever went wrong. It might, but the specific ways in which having uniforms lead and run the quarantine regime are a matter of observable action, not blind faith.