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Lapses in Security Have Election Implications

Lapses in Security Have Election Implications

By Paul G. Buchanan


There is a slow cloud building on the horizon of Labour’s re-election. It has loomed larger for the last three years, although it has it origins in previous National governments. That cloud is called insecurity.

There is a general unease in the air about security-related issues. Public apprehension is not so much about immediate security threats as it is about the government’s ability to plan for and deal with them. On that score, there is wide spread scepticism that transcends the normal boundaries of social uncertainty about the future.

Specific areas of concern are many. These range from the competence and professionalism of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), to the resourcing, staffing, training and professional deportment of the police, to the funding, equipment, training and recruitment of the New Zealand Defence Forces. They extend to brutality and corruption in the prison system, permissiveness in the courts, lapses in border controls and instances of passport fraud. Graffiti taggers, boy racers, home invaders, unsolved murders, gang violence, paedophilia, child abuse, terrorists, spies and other “undesirables” getting away with a variety of misdeeds—the list of dangers seems endless. As fear vulgarises the vernacular of social discourse survivalist mentalities and egotistic strategies take hold, with civility at risk. Public apprehension grows, manifested in growing lack of confidence in the government’s ability to remedy these concerns.

One concern that is illustrative involves revelations that former officials of the Saddam Hussein regime entered New Zealand on visitor’s visas, with one applying for refugee status after he was publicly named. None is wanted for any crimes by the new Iraqi government or international agencies. The most recent Iraqi arrivals came on UN passports with visitor visas issued in Bangkok (although some of those who arrived earlier came as UN-vetted political refugees under established quota systems). The visas of the former Ba’ath Party officials were revoked immediately upon public dissemination of the news, without hearing or redress, because they are “undesirable” due to their association with the Hussein regime.

The strictures on what constitutes “undesirable” are (deliberately) vague so as to give the government flexibility when making the last call on immigration decisions. Plus, a fluid international context requires flexibility in determining the specific nature of “undesirability.” For example, would working for the Reagan administration as an advisor to the Contras fighting the Sandinista regime in the 1980s be considered to be an undesirable background? Many would say yes, and others would say not. In a world where definitions of villains and heroes is a matter of perspective, tight definitions of “undesirable” are impossible short of outright (and proven) involvement in crimes against humanity. That makes the use of the term as an immigration criterion more problematic.

In light of the above, demands that the definition of “undesirable” be tightened will likely not prosper soon. Yet the precedent of immediate visa revocation due to retroactive designation of undesirability spells trouble ahead for the likes of Ahmed Zaoui precisely because the criteria is broad and the policy supersedes all other visa regulations (although the Zaoui case is far different. For one thing, he does not have a passport or visa to revoke, and he came here seeking asylum, not as a visitor. But as an “undesirable” he could still be deported).

It is worth noting that this one of the few times when the retroactive application of undesirability has been enforced. Former Soviet officials, supporters of the apartheid regime, agents of the People’s Republic of China—to say nothing of Chileans, Somalis, Ethiopians, Ugandans, Ukrainians, Iranians, Americans, French and Germans among a host of others with past ties to repressive regimes or who were involved in ugly activities abroad—have been admitted as visitors, permanent residents, refugees and businessmen without the retroactive application of the undesirability clause. Therein lies the dual problem, as current threat-vetting in the border control apparatus is vague and left to off-shore foreign employees to enforce in the first instance, and because political motivations rather than objective considerations may well impinge on the process (as in this last instance).

There was a bureaucratic blunder to start the latest complaint. The question is where. The Iraqi’s visas were issued in Thailand, where a fraud ring that included New Zealand passports in its inventory was broken up last year. To the Thai passport problems is added the Israeli spy passport fraud case, where it took an alert immigrations officer and the police, not the lead counter-intelligence agency (the SIS) to uncover the ruse carried out by supposed members of the Israeli spy agency Mossad (obtaining a passport by posing as a living disabled person). As it turns out, three of five identified suspects in that case escaped capture (in two cases because their identities were not known at the time of the successful arrests).

With that backdrop, visa applications from former Iraqi Ba’ath Party members should have raised flags. Consulate employees were either following established procedure and failed to see the potential public relations problems implicit in granting the visa request, or the visa applications were passed up the chain of command, vetted at higher levels and deemed to be acceptable according to a checklist of security risk criteria. This would have involved Foreign Affairs, the SIS and the Prime Minister’s cabinet as well as the Immigration Minister’s closest advisors. The government would prefer to pin the blame for the oversight on consulate underlings and vague phraseology in the definition of “undesirable” in Immigration regulations, but the question remains open as to where, exactly, the buck stopped in this case.

That returns us to the issue of security and confidence in the government’s ability to guarantee it.

With a checkered history to begin with, the SIS has taken a hammering to its reputation in the Zaoui affair, which moved beyond the particulars of his asylum application to issues of SIS competence, jurisdiction and organization. The police have a gaggle of recent scandals to pick from that undermine public confidence in them: the systemic problems with the 111 network, the Rotorua pack rape case, the South Auckland police brutality network, the email porn imbroglio—there are many. The Immigration Department has seen a raft of internal investigations into documents-for-money corruption, and the prison service faces numerous charges of prisoner abuse, fraternization, drug, sex and telephone smuggling. The Defence Ministry and armed services have been dogged by questions about weapons purchases and procurement, malfeasance cover-ups, partisan bias, sexual harassment and driver training standards. All of these agencies have employees who regularly violate standard privacy laws and the terms of their contracts by leaking information to politicians, lawyers, reporters and activists. That may be because institutional channels are politicised to the point of inertia, and in-house redress is impossible.

Crime statistics are a source of dispute but there is a growing belief that crime goes unanswered, much less punished. Prison sentences seem light in the face of the severity of the crime, courts seem to be driven by “politically correct” agendas and police are believed to prefer hiding behind speed cameras than actually chasing down criminals. It would appear that for the current government, security issues are distasteful and of lesser importance than social benefit provision conducted through interest group cooptation.

Whether corresponding to reality or not, these views pose trouble for Labour. The perception is that it is soft or incompetent when it comes to issues of security, both foreign and domestic. There is a perception that Labour prefers to throw money at selected interests according to political criteria and electoral timetables rather than confront the hard choices involved in addressing the myriad problems of the national security system. This type of avoidance tactic may be something that all political parties do, but as the Party in Government, Labour is saddled with the burden of responsibility for attending to the problems, rather than exacerbating them.

Fortunately for Labour, the Opposition is in little position to capitalize on the growing concerns about the perceived lack of security. When in government the National Party initiated almost all of the budget cuts in the national security system now reaching breaking point, and was party to a number of managerial disasters—the LAV purchase and the INCIS national police computer network being two salient examples—that Labour inherited in 1999. Minor opposition parties have no realistic chance to govern and so bark out impossible demands and improbable solutions, while on the majority side Labour’s coalition partners are even “softer” on security than are the so-called chardonnay socialists in Cabinet. It is not something that inspires voter confidence in the political class.

It is therefore Labour’s election to lose, and security is the area that could bring its defeat. By announcing increases in military funding ($NZ4.6 billion on personnel-related costs), the government has moved early to deflect criticism about its approach to national defence, and similar announcements undoubtedly will be made with regard to immigration services, police, prisons and pensions. The newly arrived Iraqi visitors have sparked a rapid government response with the cancellation of visa issuance in Bangkok and a general review of passport control procedures. The appearance of “tightening” has begun.

Even so, should more scandals ensue or another security-related tragedy occur, the growing clouds of insecurity may push voters to vote against Labour as a critique of its performance on that score. In a time of relative economic prosperity (albeit with warning signs of a slowing growth rate), public attention turns to matters other than economic. Security concerns could well move to the front of the electoral agenda regardless of the government’s attempts to ameliorate criticism, particularly, as has been seen, the political opposition can capitalise on it as a campaign issue without having to do anything about it. At the point the default electoral option becomes feasible, if nothing else in order to re-inject a dose of humility into the Labour Party hierarchy.

But at what price, security? Throwing money at problem areas after the fact is only a short-term solution and only serves to validate the point that the government has no security policy. The government would be wise to develop a coherent strategy that links the local to the global in a comprehensive package with specific objectives, priorities, performance standards and milestones identified and pursued in all of the inter-related areas that make up the national security system. Since security threats are increasingly amorphous, “glocalised” and “intermestic,” (overlapping in their local, domestic, international and global dimensions, as the recent hoof and mouth threat demonstrates), it is incumbent that the government develop a national security policy that confronts the full spectrum of concerns. This will require an unprecedented investment in security outside of wartime, tremendous political will and lots of organizational reform, but above all it requires long-term perspective and breadth of view.

What it needs, in a phrase, is a net assessment leading to a security policy overhaul. Net assessment requires that the government think “out of the box” when it comes to security-related themes, or at least think on broader terms. With the elections on the horizon, that is something that Labour may not be prepared to do. Nor, for that matter, is its opposition. But that assessment must be done if a coherent and systematic approach to the range of security concerns is to replace the current practice of reactive crisis management and political damage control. Only then can an integrated policy be outlined that offers a long-term solution to the problem of New Zealand’s insecurity.


Paul G. Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. He previously worked in the Pentagon and as a consultant to US security agencies.


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