Gordon Campbell on what the Ardern government could have done better

little-christchurch-imageAcross New Zealand and the wide world beyond, PM Jacinda Ardern has justifiably won a ton of praise for how she has responded to the Christchurch attacks. She has comforted those immediately affected, acted decisively on the need for gun law changes, speedily promised an inquiry into the attacks, and communicated a message of tolerance (here at home and to the global community) that has done New Zealand proud.

Great. Arguably though, and alongside those significant achievements, there have been a few areas where the performance of the coalition government and its agencies have been less than stellar. For example:

The government has already turned the inquiry into a virtual sham. With admirable speed, Ardern announced an official inquiry into factors such as – presumably – the adequacy of the Police responses on the day, whether the shooter’s ready access to deadly weapons was acceptable in the light of his prior postings on social media, and whether any operational failures or misplaced policy emphases had affected the ability of the SIS, the GCSB, the Police, Customs or Immigration to pre-empt the attacks. Surely, the public need and deserve re-assurance on such matters via an open, wide-ranging and independent review process. That is not what they seem likely to get.

Incredibly, SIS Minister Andrew Little has already publicly absolved the SIS even before the inquiry’s terms of reference have been announced:

Speaking to Q&A on Monday night, Little welcomed the news of the inquiry and said it would show the intelligence agencies did their jobs. “….These agencies have done the correct things and done nothing other than fulfil their mandate in terms of security and intelligence.”

To boot, Little has already dismissed any suggestions that the SIS had put too much emphasis on the potential threats from Islamic fundamentalism, and paid too little attention to the threat posed by right wing extremism:

[Little] rejected any comments there was too much attention given to surveying potential Islamic extremism over other kinds of extremism. “What I know is that over the past nine months, given the rise of right-wing extremism and white supremacism in other parts of the world, that has been a discrete focus of our agencies in reviewing their activity.” Little signs off all warrants the NZSIS issue and he said he was satisfied all forms of extremism were being looked at.

Nice that he’s so sure everything is hunky dory. Yet the government to which Little belongs is poised to launch an open-minded and independent review of that very agency to which he’s just given a clean bill of health, and for which he holds a ministerial warrant. As this column pointed out on Sunday and as RNZ repeated yesterday… the SIS annual reports over the past decade contain no mention whatsoever of the threat posed by right wing extremism and white nationalism, and exhibit an exclusive focus instead on Islamic radicalism and the recruitment efforts of Islamic State. It should be left to an independent inquiry to determine if this reflects a structural fault, and an SIS/GCSB mindset that’s been colonised by the needs and perceptions of our 5 Eyes Security partners.

As Sunday’s Werewolf column noted, the only public reference to white nationalism from the SIS over the past 10 years came in a one-line aside comment made by SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge to Parliament in mid February: “Internationally the slow, but concerning rise of right wing extremism also continues.” That was it. It was slow, it was rising, it was of concern, but it was happening “internationally” and not here. If that is the sum total of the nine months assiduous work which Little claims the SIS has undertaken, then either the security services have a work rate that’s equally “slow” and “concerning” – or Kitteridge is doing a truly terrible job of keeping Parliament and the public informed about what her agency is doing.

Since we’ve had to learn the hard way that domestic right wing extremism can be deadly, what we now need is a genuine, independent inquiry into right wing extremism and its use of social media for recruitment purposes – basically, in order to find out how the SIS and Police should now go about (a) monitoring it and (b) neutralising it, and without laying waste to our existing civil liberties in the process. For now, it is obvious to everyone that the SIS has allowed an epic fail to occur on their watch, and no amount of bluster by Little should serve to conceal that fact.

The Police have also got in front of the inquiry. No doubt, the first responders acted bravely and the shooter was arrested relatively quickly by two brave officers with hand-guns. Yet instead of allowing the inquiry to evaluate their performance on the day, the Police have been very forthcoming about well they did, and have enjoyed uncritical media support in doing so. On television last night, the presenters marvelled that Police took only 5 minutes and 39 seconds to reach the Al mosque, the Armed Offenders arrived after ten minutes and the arrest was made within 21 minutes.

It might be worth looking at the timeline here. Originally the Police were saying that the arrest came 36 minutes after the first notification at 1.41pm when presumably the shootings were still in process. Are the Police now claiming the arrest was made 21 minutes later, at 2.02 pm? That seems tight. Interestingly, if you add the new figures together – 5 minutes 39, ten minutes and 21 minutes, you get the original 36 minutes. If that was a mistake based on an accidental accumulation of the figures then the 2.02pm figure – rather than the original 2. 21pm arrest time – is impressive, given that it has to incorporate the time it took the shooter to finish his attack at Deans Avenue, drive to Linwood, carry out his attack there, drive away to be intercepted, and arrested. Moreover, room for debate also remains about what elapsed between the key events.

Meaning: that 5 minutes 39 initial response bears closer examination. By the time the officers arrived – presumably at 1.47 – the shooter had gone. So… what alert did the Police then give to other potential targets, and at what time did they alert the Linwood mosque that a shooter was on the loose and possibly heading their way?

We also need to know if these response times on March 15 were the product of normal Police operational systems, or were a lucky by-product of reportedly having some officers in training mode in the city at the time the first call came in. (At least one of the arresting officers was from out of town.) Even if those responses were the product of normal Police operational procedures, how do they compare to response times in other jurisdictions? This tabulation of response times in major US cities may shed some useful light on that.

San Francisco (population 884,000 in 2017) is more than double the size of Christchurch (estimated 2019 population 396,882). Yet from that response table above, the average response time by Police in San Francisco for a high priority emergency callout is 5 minutes 46 seconds, or only seven seconds slower than in Christchurch on March 15.

I’m not trying to bag the Police, or claim to have definitive comparative information on the adequacy of their response times. Yet plainly, there are issues to be sifted and weighed here. Arguably, the Police should not have leapt into the public arena with details that deliberately or otherwise, pre-empt the inquiry’s work.

We’ve bagged the Australians. In the wake of inflammatory comments and screening of the video carnage by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, NZ Foreign Minister Winston Peters has been at pains to communicate New Zealand’s total opposition to the anti-Muslim sentiments behind the attacks. Potentially, the safety of New Zealanders travelling in the region have been jeopardised by Erdogan’s comments and actions. Commendably, Peters has travelled to Indonesia and Turkey and conveyed our messages in person.

Yet Peters initial comments – which stressed that the shooter was an Australian, not a Kiwi – had the effect of dumping Australia right in it.

[Peters] said he intends to put the record straight that New Zealand is an innocent party to the act of a foreigner – something he said Erdogan “knows”

He said he intends to “put New Zealand’s record as an innocent party to an act of a foreigner in our country”.

He knows the separation of us and Australia – some countries don’t think we’re different but we are,” he said, referring to the Australian nationality of the alleged 28-year-old gunman….

That ham-fisted schoolyard response – it wasn’t me Miss, it was him – will have done nothing to endear us to our ANZAC pals across the Tasman. That’s unfortunate because, in future, both countries need to agree on a co-ordinated response. In the run-up to the G20 summit Osaka in June for instance, Australian PM Scott Morrison has been seeking to rally support for a global crackdown on hate speech on social media.

Given the extremism of Australian white nationalism and the ease with which travellers move to and fro across the Tasman, a co-ordinated plan of action by the security agencies and immigration services of both countries will be necessary. As yet though, the Ardern government has not conveyed anything about what it thinks a trans-Tasman joint response to white nationalism might entail.

Here’s a suggestion: as this column has previously pointed out, our anti-terrorism legislation includes a UN-originated list of banned organisations that are subject to sanctions on travel and funding. Unfortunately, that ban list is comprised almost entirely of Islamic (and criminal) organisations and individuals. In unison with the Australians, we now need to identify and add local (and foreign) white nationalist organisations and individuals to that list, and impose the same restrictions on them. Why should recruitment for the cause of jihad be treated any differently to recruitment for the cause of white supremacy?

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, wide ranging recommendations of that sort are the kind of thing we’d get only from a Royal Commission of Inquiry – and not from the in-house ministerial spot-check of current working practices that the Ardern government appears to have in mind.

So far, Facebook and Google have been treated with kid gloves. In public, Ardern has cited with apparent approval Facebook’s spin about the 1.5 million videos of the attack that it claims to have taken down. Facebook spin has gone on to claim that the original livestreaming was watched by relatively few people. Good, but irrelevant. Facebook appears impervious to the fact that its platforms not only serve to incentivise such attacks, but virtually guarantee the proliferation of the content that’s related to then.

For some reason, the coalition government appears reluctant to criticise the uploading/livestreaming services offered by Facebook that gave the shooter every reason to think his attacks would reach a global audience. By comparison, Ardern’s gesture in not naming the shooter, in order to deny him the notoriety he seeks, looks like a pretty shallow gimmick. That horse has well and truly bolted.

It’s not as if Facebook doesn’t know the problem exists. Since the inception of Facebook Live in 2015 and its rollout a year later, a series of murderers (including Islamic State) have used it to livestream their vile actions, in the knowledge that even after takedown a sufficient number of copies will have been made and will be being circulated. Facebook needs to commit to scrapping its livestreaming. It would help the campaign to make them do so if our government chose to get visibly onside with the criticism being levelled at both Facebook and Google for their readiness to put clicks above conscience, and to chase ad revenues by any means possible.

On this point, several local broadband providers deserve to be commended for taking immediate action off their own bat:

The CEOs of New Zealand’s three largest broadband service providers — Simon Moutter (Spark), Jason Paris (Vodafone) and Stewart Sherriff (2degrees) — have penned an open letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google calling on them to work urgently with the industry and government to find ways of preventing the proliferation of content like the live coverage of the Christchurch massacre proliferating across the Internet. In the wake of the event all three telcos took the unprecedented step of jointly identifying and suspending access to websites hosting the footage.

In similar vein, it’s time for the Ardern government to take off the gloves and confront the digital multinationals that – judging by their behaviour to date – seem to be impervious to anything short of punitive regulation and fines. To achieve critical mass therefore, we need to look at co-ordinating with the Australians a meaningful response to Facebook/Youtube content that promotes racism and ideological misogyny.

We have yet to see the detail of the gun law changes that the government has in mind. For now, everything that has happened in the past week – from the seriousness of the attacks to the necessity for all of its contributory factors to be considered – makes a Royal Commission of Inquiry an imperative. After all…if Pike River merited a Royal Commission, surely this event does, too.

So far, the reluctance of the SIS to admit blame and the readiness of SIS Minister Andrew Little to exonerate it wholesale, mean that nothing less than a full and truly independent inquiry will suffice. To repeat: on current signs though, that is not what the Ardern government has in mind.