Vetter-in-Chief: Rebecca Kitteridge has a legitimate role in identifying potentially dangerous vulnerabilities, such as drug and alcohol addiction, in candidates for senior roles in the civil service. Where the SIS veers away from legitimate "vetting", however, is in its role as the state's ideological gatekeeper. When it comes to senior civil service positions, it is still very much a case of "anti-capitalists need not apply".
THAT THE SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) has failed to protect the privacy of the people it has “vetted” is no surprise. Information is power, and what is the SIS if not the official gatherer of the information needed to keep the core institutions of the state secure? It will take more than criticism from the Inspector-General of Intelligence to persuade the SIS to give up its role of keeping potential security threats as far away from the Government’s doors as possible.
Ideally, the whole notion of security vetting would be insupportable in a nation whose laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of political belief. The persistence of the practice offers proof that Capitalism is still ready, willing and able to defend itself.
If you’re one of those who find it difficult to accept that our civil service is dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist status quo, then try this thought experiment.
A left-wing coalition government is elected on a platform of enacting root-and-branch reform of New Zealand’s economic system. The new government’s overall goal is the eradication of social inequality through radical changes to the prevailing fiscal and workplace regimes. The government announces that a major purge of the civil service will be necessary for its reforms to succeed. Accordingly, all present and prospective members of the senior echelons of the civil service are required to submit themselves to a comprehensive vetting process.
Senior bureaucrats found to have strong neoliberal sympathies are dismissed from their positions immediately. Neoliberals seeking employment in the reformed civil service are weeded out as real, or potential, threats to New Zealand’s national security. By the end of the purge, scores of civil servants have been advised that, having failed the SIS’s vetting procedure, their services are no longer required.
Now imagine the outrage that such an exercise would precipitate. Newspaper editors would thunder their disapproval. Leading law firms would announce their intention of challenging the purge in court. Civil rights advocates would prepare to stage protest demonstrations against the Government’s “Blue Scare” tactics. All of the defence mechanisms of capitalist society would be mobilised to ensure that the system’s ideological guardians remained in place.
Clearly, it would be next to impossible to purge a capitalist society like ours of its official defenders without being accused of abandoning democracy itself. And yet, we tell ourselves that democracy remains unimpaired in a country which actively discriminates against those who threaten to bring anti-capitalist ideas into the upper-echelons of the state bureaucracy. Why do so many of us simply accept that the SIS, having subjected such individuals to the most rigorous vetting, is justified in recommending they not be appointed to senior civil service posts?
That question was much easier to answer during the Cold War. (1946-1991) Back then it was entirely possible that state servants harbouring strong sympathies for the cause of International Communism and/or the Soviet Union might feel moved to pass on sensitive political and economic information to their ideological soul-mates. The national security implications of appointing such persons to sensitive positions could not (and were not) ignored.
National security concerns were also raised in regard to civil servants’ sexual orientation. While homosexuality remained legally, morally and socially unacceptable, gay civil servants were acutely vulnerable to blackmail.
In the twenty-first century, addictions to prohibited substances and/or alcohol can make state employees similarly biddable. It is, therefore, difficult to argue against some effort being made to uncover such vulnerabilities prior to appointing someone to a position where nationally important and highly confidential information is regularly circulated and discussed.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the decriminalisation of homosexuality has, however, removed the most obvious justifications for SIS vetting. The background checks undertaken by today’s security personnel should, accordingly, be restricted to identifying drug and alcohol abuse. Discrimination based upon a civil service job candidate’s political beliefs is, surely, be a thing of the past?
Don’t you believe it.
Today’s civil service, and most of our society generally, functions in an environment of aggressively enforced ideological orthodoxy. Neoliberalism is, without doubt, the most pervasive and effectively defended ideology in human history. Not to be a neoliberal in the early twenty-first century, especially in the upper echelons of the dominant public and private bureaucracies, is to risk career death. To openly espouse ideas hostile to neoliberalism is to make that career death certain.
The SIS stands as the last line of defence against the occasional incompetence of those specialist recruiting agencies entrusted with delivering short-lists of acceptable candidates for senior positions in the civil service. Personality tests, CV checks and exhaustive interviews with referees can usually be relied upon to filter out all the ideologically inappropriate applicants. Should the commercial gate-keepers prove derelict in their duties, however, Rebecca Kitteridge and her team of “vets” stand ready to protect the key institutions of the capitalist state from the deadly virus of dissent.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 9 April 2016.