First Thoughts on NZ’s Second National Security Conference 2018

I’m just back from the Second National Security Conference hosted by Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the Auckland Campus. While there’s plenty to digest and delve further into, I thought it useful to summarise first thoughts while they are fresh.

Whenever I attend a conference, I usually ask myself “was that worth attending?” and “would I go attend again?” I’ll answer those two questions at the end.

Between 150 and 200 people from a range of backgrounds attended the conference, including public and private sector, diplomats, academics and NGOs. Of note was the absence of any main stream media – who were invited – and the only coverage (apart from this blog piece) being from a Chinese language media outlet. There were 11 sponsors which were all government agencies. This virtually guaranteed that no consensus statement could be issued from the conference which was a significant lost opportunity. As soon as I suggested such a statement, all the government personnel in my group covered their faces and said they would need approval from above which couldn’t be got in time. Government funding always has hooks attached and this is an ongoing dilemma for the team organising this sort of event.

In October last year, I wrote a piece on this blog called “National Security is More Than Guns” which called for a broader, multi-agency view of the subject clustered around a national security strategy (currently we don’t have one). The invitation list for this conference certainly met that call but the unintended consequence was an apparent lack of any direct defence or police input in the programme, and only two uniformed attendees in evidence. To achieve the sort of breadth and balance required, the conference probably needs to be longer or the second day of workshops re-thought. The range and quality of speakers was excellent.

I thought I would provide a brief hitchhiker’s guide to the conference content, which was smoothly chaired by the CDSS Director, the very affable Professor Rouben Azizian, and ably coordinated by lecturer, Chris Rothery. Hon Andrew Little, Minister for two of the security agencies represented as well as the overarching Justice portfolio, gave the welcome address which, predictably, said very little in the way of new information. One quote, however, highlighted the challenge we face in achieving coherent national security strategy. “I’d like to finish by touching on the national security threatscape, focusing particularly on counter-terrorism and cyber threats. I raise these examples partly to highlight the work the NZSIS and GCSB do, but also as these are two threats that for me are front of mind”. This is concerning when taken alongside the Prime Minister’s election campaign statement “Climate change is this generation’s nuclear-free moment” – a security statement – and the facts:

  • a pandemic is the most dangerous scenario for NZ (health officials were invited but didn’t speak at this conference)
  • biosecurity breaches would have the greatest economic impact and are a threat every day

I asked Minister Little if there was any discussion about establishing a Vote: National Security. The short answer is no – silo funding will remain. His full speech is here:

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, in his keynote address, provided a fascinating insight into New Zealand’s demographic and immigration trends and the implications for national security. I always find these “unexpected” components of a conference the most useful and he provided plenty of take home points ranging from the changing composition of our population to the unique power of permanent residents in this country, hate crimes and the impact that non-english speaking media is having on main stream media.

The afternoon was taken up with three 90-minute panels comprising four speakers and a moderator per panel. I have to admit that I struggle with this presentation trend, whether speaking or listening. I realise that it allows conference organisers to get more speakers and topics on the programme but the topics were all interesting in their own right and it was difficult to get much in the way of questioning done. Here’s a list that shows the breadth of coverage:

Panel 1- Global and Regional Security: US and regional security (James Clad), China and regional geopolitics (Marc Lanteigne), Nuclear proliferation and North Korea (Reuben Steff), Security implications of climate change (Scott Hauger). Perhaps one of the most interesting points was made by Dr Hauger – 17 million people in Bangladesh are at risk of having their homelands underwater due to climate change and rising sea levels. This puts my comments in other articles about the security implications of internally displaced people as a ‘must do’.

Some are worried about China increasing defence spending to $175B USD but that needs to be seen in the context of the USA’s $700B. The increasing presence of Chinese blue and white hull fleet (coastguard and fishing boats) will require changing tactics. Overseas Chinese naval bases e.g. Djibouti will increase and some are speculating in the media today about Vanuatu being another one soon.

I had quite a few questions for this panel but, as you know from other conferences, most audiences are happy to sit quietly but not happy if someone hogs the microphone. So, here’s a few I noted down:

  1. What will happen in China regarding workforce numbers and the agrarian versus developed internal regions? Does China potentially have its own internal security problems?
  2. Should extended deterrence consider previously unacceptable solutions such as a Pacific Area Treaty Organisation – perhaps based on APEC – which could have competing economic powers in the same security tent?
  3. What will NZ, as a trading nation, do if there are nuclear-propelled cargo ships in a post-peak oil world? (I enjoyed Dr Clad’s Texas saying that described the US reaction to NZ going nuclear free – “Sometimes you have to kill the chicken to keep the cow in line”)

Panel 2 – Economic and Trade Security: Private sector security (David Morgan), The role of cyber security in national security (Bryson Payne), Biosecurity (Roger Smith), Trade and security (Vangelis Vitalis). A really entertaining group of speakers who talked of the need for greater public/private integration and breaking down of silos in security issues. Air NZ, for instance, has had recent involvement with CLAG (Combined Law Agency Group). There has been changes within DPMC in terms of the advisory groups they set up and the Strategic Risk and Response Group has finally been given its marching orders although it will be replaced with something else. Roger Smith from MPI gave a fascinating account of the sheer scale of MPI’s biosecurity challenge. This function will step out on its own soon as Biosecurity NZ. Dr Vitalis spoke strongly in favour of the rules-based order as desirable for NZ to be a part of. I asked him how he thought we could bridge the vast gap between our many trade agreements and our few security alliances. It was probably an unfair question given that he is a trade negotiator but still one that this country has to grapple with.

Panel 3 – Human Security Challenges: Humanitarian challenges (Josie Pagani), Drug trafficking (Chris Wilkins), Counter-terrorism (John Battersby), Suspect communities (Aliya Danzeisen). It was great to see NGOs represented in this panel. Defence and security agencies must do better in their dialogue with these groups but also weed out those who might detract from overall achievement of goals. The stand-out speaker was Ms Danzeisen, a Muslim, American-born woman now resident in Waikato. I really liked her “suspect in tennis shoes” analogy – in one country she had been in, anyone wearing tennis shoes was potentially a bag snatcher! She recommended viewing a YouTube clip of Salma Salat speaking on what it is like to be a Muslim girl in NZ. Questions I had but didn’t ask included:

  1. How to balance personal freedom with evolution of anti-terrorist legislation
  2. If NZ Police only have criminal codes to categorise and report on events, how does SIS categorise its known terror groups, events and people?

Former Defence Minister and Opposition Spokesman, Hon Mark Mitchell, gave the keynote address at the reception and, although indicating dissent over the new Government’s early statements about Manus Island detainees, described how the parties generally tried to achieve agreement on national security matters.

The second day which was by invitation only saw a group of about 30 people gather in the business faculty. It started with some individual question polling that showed not too much change to the results of the same exercise in 2016. The group was then split into 3 to consider:

  1. Group 1 – Developing private sector and NGO relationships with the NZ security sector (my group)
  2. Group 2 – Enhancing NZ’s national security capabilities and framework
  3. Group 3 – Advancing NZ’s international and regional security cooperation and profile.

Discussions were followed by a brief back to a senior executive panel comprising Grant Smith (Mayor of Palmerston North) and Howard Broad (DPMC). I didn’t get a lot of value from this exercise. The government officials in my group (and I heard this was reflected in others) were very defensive toward any suggestion that their way wasn’t the best way to coordinate national security. It would be interesting to set up a red team group without any government involvement to start with.

In terms of generalities:

  • I’m looking forward to see if Nick Dynon from Defsec Media gets his group of interested parties established to continue the dialogue online.
  • I remain convinced that one of the greatest threats to national security is the politicians’ and officials’ belief that “they’ve got it covered”. There is clearly an unsupported belief by some that current Civil Defence and Emergency Management legislation is sufficient to cover any unforeseen security events.
  • In politics, what you don’t fund, you don’t get. It is all very well for Jacinda Ardern to carry the warrant of Minister for National Security but without a Vote: National Security this is just a talking point.
  • The area is perceived as politicised because DPMC controls the discourse. A National Security Advisor as an Officer of Parliament who has a statutorily independent agency is a better, more robust and transparent model.
  • Involving private sector, NGOs and others is not an option. It’s a must do.
  • We need more plain-english publications in this area – not just academic journal articles.

So back to my starting questions “was that worth attending?” and “would I go attend again?” Yes, it was worth attending and I thank Prof Azizian for inviting me and my business partner, Hon Heather Roy. I met some interesting people, was introduced to some new concepts and it has stimulated my thoughts in those areas while reaffirming my views in others. Would I go again? – that is a qualified yes. The first day – almost certainly – but I would like to see a change of format for the Day 2 workshops to get more value from them. Perhaps an intermediate workshop in the off-years or one clipped to the main conference could be industry-led and involve more experiential sessions such as national security simulations to tease out the points.

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