IF THE OFFICIALS’ Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination (ODESC) hasn’t already met, then it should be meeting – right now! New Zealand’s Prime Minister is in danger.
Try to imagine what would have happened had a known white supremacist got within a few metres of the President of the United States and started firing ... questions. Further imagine that, upon investigation, it turned out that none of the accredited journalists present had been checked-off by the President’s Secret Service detail before getting close enough to make themselves heard.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine America’s leader being allowed to place himself in such a vulnerable situation. No unauthorised person gets close to the US President – not if the Secret Service can help it.
Yes, but, New Zealand is not the United States. One of the most endearing qualities of the New Zealand political scene is its easy-going intimacy. It is only relatively recently that our Prime Ministers were assigned a couple of bodyguards from the Diplomatic Protection Squad (DPS). Prior to then it wasn’t considered necessary. The long-serving National Prime Minister, Sir Keith Holyoake, regularly chatted with his fellow citizens over his street-facing garden fence. His number was printed in the phonebook. Prime Ministerial security simply wasn’t an issue.
Sadly, those days have gone for good.
Equally sadly, the thinking of those responsible for our national security has failed to keep pace with the social and political disintegration characterising the last 50 years of New Zealand history. The homogeneous New Zealand society of the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century has been replaced by a multi-ethnic society in which cultural and ideological unity has to a large extent been lost. Though the political class has done all it can to paint New Zealand’s growing diversity as an unqualified good, it has left a great many citizens feeling uneasy and unmoored. The resulting social dissonance is fraught with potential dangers. That the national security apparatus struggles to fully appreciate the full extent of those dangers is deeply troubling.
Part of the explanation for this dulling of institutional acuity lies in the Cold War origins of New Zealand’s national security apparatus. Threats were generally understood to be externally, not internally, generated. Such domestic threats as did exist were held to be connected umbilically to foreign actors.
Accordingly, New Zealand’s tiny communist parties, perceived as brainless puppets with strings attached to faraway puppet-masters in Moscow and Beijing, were closely watched. As were the seemingly ineradicable Trotskyite groups, whose orders were assumed (quite correctly) to come from revolutionary intellectuals based in the UK and the USA.
With the collapse of actually existing socialism in the late-1980s and early-1990s, the attention of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Police Intelligence shifted, quite uncharacteristically, towards domestic political actors without obvious connections to foreign powers. Māori Nationalists, radical environmentalists, opponents of free trade, animal rights activists: all came under close surveillance – often from “private” intelligence gatherers with whom the nation’s spy agencies could plausibly deny any “official” contact.
The terror attacks of 2001 once again focused the attention of New Zealand’s national security mandarins on external threats. Like the Soviets before them, the various offshore Islamic terrorist organisations were deemed to be the primary threat. Such domestic terrorist activity as did exist was assumed to be concerned primarily with recruitment and fundraising for the holy warriors overseas, rather than with the planning and execution of local terrorist attacks.
That the SIS and its sister agencies did not see the perpetrator of the Christchurch Mosque Massacres, Brenton Tarrant, coming was indicative of its wider blindness to the social toxins flooding into the national bloodstream as the failing Neoliberal economic and social order began to rot.
Don Brash’s near miss in 2005 was ignored: even though New Zealand came within 50,000 votes of being tipped into a racially-charged civil war. The rising levels of extremism exhibited by the opponents of 1080 poison were similarly disregarded. Even when Brexit and the election of Donald Trump served notice that all was not well in the profoundly unequal societies of the West, the obvious conclusions were not drawn. Those charged with protecting our national security still did not appear to grasp that if New Zealand society was subjected to new and excessive stresses, then the political centre could not – and would not – hold.
And the stresses of the Covid-19 Pandemic were nothing if not new and excessive. That the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was able to hold as much of the centre ground for as long as she did was a hugely impressive achievement. A national security apparatus worthy of the name, however, would have noted the evidence of disaffection and distemper bubbling-up in response to the measures required to manage New Zealand’s public health emergency. How the SIS could possibly have missed the evidence on display every minute of every day across all social media platforms is, frankly, unfathomable.
A functioning network of agents, lodged deep in the most volatile sectors of New Zealand society, would have seen and reported the enormous potential for a disastrous breakdown in social cohesion. The offshore evidence is overwhelming: with the inevitable arrival of the Delta variant of Covid-19, the situation can turn very nasty, very quickly.
Jacinda Ardern, who personifies both the success and the failure of the Government’s fight against Covid-19, has become the lightning-rod for a nation emotionally-charged beyond anything experienced since the 1981 Springbok Tour. Indeed, the seething animosities now plainly visible across New Zealand society far exceed the passions of 40 years ago. It will not take much for the raw hatred out there to tip over into murderous violence.
This is not the New Zealand of 60 years ago, or 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago. We are in new, unfamiliar and potentially tragic territory. The Prime Minister is not safe – as the events yesterday (2/11/21) in Northland, and today in Whanganui, have made amply clear. As the Editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, so rightly stated earlier today:
“News that the Wellington mandarins will send Jacinda to Auckland when tensions are this high is as irresponsible as sending Kennedy to Dallas.”
ODESC needs to intervene, now. The Prime Minister must not be sent to Auckland. Or, at least, she must not be sent there without the same measure of protection provided to every American President since JFK.
For God’s sake, don’t send Jacinda to Dallas!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 November 2021.