Gordon Campbell on how the Treasury debacle reflects New Zealand’s wider security problemsFirst published on Werewolf
Desperate times result in desperate measures. Over the course of the final 72 hours before the Wellbeing Budget went
public, the over-riding goal appears to have been to prevent as much of its contents from being leaked prematurely as
possible, in a context where the authorities still seemed uncertain as to how much Budget information National had actually obtained. In what looks now like a bad cop/good cop routine, Treasury tried to
scare off the leakers by calling in the Police to investigate what Treasury boss Gabriel Mahklouf depicted as a
remorseless ‘hacking’ attack that had finally breached its defences, while – simultaneously – good cop Robertson wrote
nicely to National to urge them not to release more of this stuff before Budget day. You know, in the national interest.
Well… it's now evident that this scenario of Treasury being victimised by demon hackers was still being allowed to be
peddled in public, even after the Police and the spy agencies had told Treasury – and it transpires, Security Services
Minister Andrew Little – that no such hack had occurred. Finance Minister Grant Robertson would also have been told,
virtually simultaneously. This would be by mid-evening Tuesday, of Budget week.
At that point, it should have been obvious that if a mere “search” function on the Treasury website could have delivered the leaked material, then such content would have been limited solely to the pre-loaded content only,
and this – in turn – should have re-assured the government that National had played all of its cards, and no further
revelations were likely.
The fact that the Defence spending for instance, was solely for a one year allocation, and not the usual four year
amount, should have re-assured Treasury/Robertson along those lines. Moreover, early on the Wednesday, the sole focus of
National leader Simon Bridges on the “bungling” and incompetence” aspects (while not giving further revelations about
Budget content) should have galvanized Robertson to go on the front foot and (a) publically clarify the likely nature of
the leak (b) re-assure the public of its limited nature and thereby (c) begin to distance the government from Treasury’s
overcooked initial “explanation” as to what had happened. As we now know, Robertson did none of the above. As a result,
the government now remains ensnared with Treasury’s mishandling of its information.
To repeat: the fact that the information released by Bridges had been only the pre-announced stuff – which was why it
had been pre-loaded on the website, awaiting the full inputs on Budget Day itself – should have immediately told those
concerned what they were (almost certainly) dealing with. One can see why Ireland – which has just hired Mahklouf to run
its central bank – might be worried about how the Irish economy will now fare, amidst the wild winds of global commerce.
Cool heads are needed in making the decisions entrusted to central bankers. This time, Treasury evidently panicked.
Footnote One: Treasury is now facing two separate inquiries in the wake of those Budget leaks. One inquiry will be into its security
procedures, and the other into the public statements and advice given to Ministers. (It is unclear whether the adequacy
of the ministerial responses will be part of the brief, but at the very least the exact timetable of the communications
behind the public responses will be established.) To take just one example… the analogy that Mahklouf gave the public
(via the state broadcaster RNZ) of a metal bolt finally yielding to repeated attacks seems to have been particularly
wide of the mark.
To repeat: rather than assessing rationally how much the ‘hackers’ knew and how they could have known it, Treasury
appears to have done what ordinary folk at their wit’s end in the big city might do ie, it asked a police officer for
help. That’s not a good look, especially since the Police verdict (that no hack had occurred) was simply ignored and
kept under wraps.
Lest we forget, Treasury is the agency that holds other government departments and agencies entities to account, for
their efficiency and performance. Hopefully, those two SSC inquiries will keep that role in mind, and hold Treasury to a
Footnote Two: As the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Yet as Andrew Little explained to RNZ last week
, adopting counter-terrorism measures only after the fact is more the New Zealand style: “We like to think we have… the ability to respond to something. But we don't have a
strategy that anticipates and prevents or seeks prevention of a terrorist act happening."
According to research by former army officers Chris Rothery and Terry Johanson, both now academics at Massey University,
New Zealand's entire national security system is "reactionary", and does not focus on anticipating and preventing
terrorist activity. ….
The pair said New Zealand has no national security strategy, no counter-terrorism national strategy and - unlike in
Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom - no independent body to check threats are being prioritised properly.
That’s a pretty astonishing situation, given the hundreds of millions of dollars that taxpayers have poured into our spy
agencies in recent years. If Little and the two Massey researchers are right – ie if the spy agencies are mainly
re-active, and this country has no strategy for identifying and prioritising imminent threats to public safety – then
surely a solid argument exists for scrapping the SIS entirely, and handing over to the Police the job of detecting
terrorist conspiracies, and catching the criminals involved. Why pay for a defensive shield, if it is unable to function
Unfortunately, Little’s concession shouldn’t come as that big a surprise. Over the past decade, the SIS annual reports
reveal an agency fixated on the rear view mirror and on the threat allegedly posed by Islamic extremism, rather than on
the white nationalists responsible for the mosque attacks. In the wake of the Royal Commission findings on the
Christchurch attacks, Little has suggested, that situation will probably change.
If so, privacy safeguards will need to be built in, and observed. Arguably, the only thing worse than a spy agency
bereft of a pro-active plan would be the same agency brushing aside privacy concerns while it zealously pursues the
security threats suspected of hiding under every bed. For some unknown reason, the Goldilocks balance – neither too much
nor too little security – continues to systematically elude us.
Talking of ordinary folk, the US folk musician Jake Xerxes Fussell has just released his third album, which – among
other things – contains his version of the old Jean Ritchie square dance song “Swing and Turn Jubilee”. Despite all of
Fussell’s fine qualities, his stolid remake comes nowhere near Carolyn Hester’s manic version from the early 1960s,
which featured one of Bob Dylan’s first recorded appearances, and also had Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, on bass. Here’s
Carolyn Hester, operating at full throttle:
And here’s June Ritchie, at her Appalachian finest:
Finally, here’s Jake Xerxes Fussell himself with his beatifically optimistic “Raggy Levy” song. If only mornings could
always feel like this: