Geoffrey Miller: Covid-19 border problems show why new national security agency needed, former minister says

Geoffrey Miller: Covid-19 border problems show why new national security agency needed, former minister says

By Geoffrey Miller

A former MP and Associate Minister of Defence says that New Zealand’s Covid-19 border and quarantine issues illustrate why a new dedicated national security agency is needed.

Heather Roy, a former deputy leader of the Act Party who held the associate defence portfolio from 2008-10, told the Democracy Project podcast that a new national security agency would assume a key co-ordination role across existing departments – a function that she believed the recent border problems and New Zealand’s overall response to the coronavirus pandemic had demonstrated was severely lacking.

“I think that the problem initially for New Zealand with Covid was the border and the problem now is the border.

“We’ve had a very reactionary response to Covid, rather than a planned response that could have happened if we had a properly developed national security strategy with a National Security Advisor as an officer of Parliament.

“Australia and the United States do have a separate agency, which acts as an umbrella – you still have defence, you still have police, you have your health system, you have biosecurity dealing with all sorts of border control issues, customs…but the National Security Agency acts as a co-ordinator and brings all of those functions together when you need it.

“If you had an umbrella agency covering all of those areas and drawing the expertise in, but responsible for the planning before any event, you’ve got a much stronger and more robust response to any threat to the border.

“A lot of people might be surprised to know that we do have a Minister for National Security – that’s the Prime Minister – but she has no Vote, no funding, and she has no agency. DPMC, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is expected to fulfil the role, but in fact all it’s able to do with what it has is convene a committee with a handbook of guidelines.”

Military experience

Heather Roy is also a former commissioned officer in the New Zealand Army Reserve, beginning her training while she was an Act MP in 2006. She ended up serving in the defence force for a decade, eventually rising to the rank of Captain.

Roy told the Democracy Project podcast that she found her military experience beneficial for her political role, but direct experience from a portfolio area could also be an obstacle to being a competent minister.

“For me it was a definite advantage having had that personal experience and having the knowledge did really help me make better decisions as a minister. For some in politics having had specific experience works really well, and for others not so much.”

“There is sometimes a downside to politicians knowing too much about their portfolio and that’s the temptation to get too operational…rather than maintaining the governance perspective. Whether one ends up being remembered as a knowledgeable and engaged minister or an annoying armchair general is for history to determine…I hope that I’ll be considered in the former camp.”

Heather Roy is largely reserving her judgment on the current defence minister, NZ First’s Ron Mark, who is himself a former soldier, although notes that “he does have some critics who say that he has been too operational in his focus.”

New Zealand’s new defence strategy

With New Zealand’s deployment of troops to Camp Taji in Iraq having ended during the Covid-19 level 4 lockdown in March and only a handful of NZ personnel remaining in Afghanistan, Heather Roy says that New Zealand is entering a new, yet also familiar era.

“We’re entering a phase that New Zealand’s been in before, where there are very few opportunities for our service personnel to serve overseas… we went through the period where we were quite significant in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, and we’re just coming out of that phase now.”

But Heather Roy told the Democracy Project podcast that the government’s Defence Capability Plan – announced in 2019 and involving some $20b of spending over the next decade – is not as radical as it might first appear.

“The spending commitments that have been announced are mostly not new. The replacement aircraft and the ships that we’re talking about now were in the Defence White Paper that I was involved with in 2009 and 2010. Some of that spending was put on hold following the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake happening in quick succession…the then National-led government decided to kick for touch on any really big defence spending.

“Those platforms were mostly re-announced in the subsequent Defence White Paper, the 2016 paper which was authored by the previous National government…when the current Labour-led government came to power in 2017 there really was no longer any timeline left to wriggle along. Not only were the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft having serious availability issues due to their age, the manufacturer of one of the replacement options, Boeing, was going to close off the P-8 Poseidon production. So really for the government that was a use-it or lose-it choice.”

But Roy believes that New Zealand’s new defence strategy still has a distinctly Labour – and perhaps surprisingly Green – flavour.

“Much of what’s been done are things that Labour has been happy with. You have got to convince Cabinet to follow a certain course of action and I think that the Greens being part of the government has had some influence. When Ron Mark announced the capability plan, virtually the first thing he commented about was that many of the initiatives put forward are as a result of a response to climate change and the change we expect to see in the Pacific.

“I think that’s something that this government is very comfortable with, they don’t like the thought of the defence force being a ‘war-ry one’, but they’re very comfortable with having the role of search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

China tensions

Heather Roy says that New Zealand’s relationship with China – New Zealand’s biggest trading partner – remains a tightrope, with tensions highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic and New Zealand’s foreign policy pivot to focusing on its immediate region, or the “Pacific Reset”.

“Our relationship with China is hard to describe in many ways, but I think it’s fraught but evolving…we all love that there is a free trade agreement, exporters love having that relationship because it allows them markets that they mightn’t have had previously.  We certainly like having that component to our economy, but there are significant challenges that we do need to worry about.

“The Belt and Road is contentious and it looks like the government is progressing without a lot of public exposure to it. Taiwan – the one-China policy for China is a significant thing and they don’t like countries having close working relationships with Taiwan. So we’ve got some decisions to make there, and who knows what might happen in the South China Sea.”

Act Party and the election

A decade on from leaving Parliament, Heather Roy says she is optimistic about Act’s prospects at the 2020 election. Recent polls have shown Act as a high as 3.5%, a result that if maintained would represent a significant improvement on its past three election results.

“It’s really pleasing to see that level of polling and if anybody deserves that, David Seymour does. He’s done a spectacular job, particularly in very recent times and several people have commented to me that he is the Opposition at the moment. I think he deserves to be back, it’s very hard on your own, and he deserves to be back with more Act MPs.

“I talked about that contest of ideas that politics offers – the smaller parties do have a huge amount to offer in our NZ political spectrum and system and I would be very sad to see them go.”

But Heather Roy admits that some of Act’s success may be due to the comparative instability in the National Party, which is still finding its feet under new leader Todd Muller.

“Act does do well when the National Party is not doing so well. For this election, what I’d like to see is National and Act jointly showing that they’re a government in waiting and that’s the best possible option for change in my view.

“Most people seem to think that the election is a foregone conclusion but I think that it’s too early to tell yet…this time last election Jacinda Ardern wasn’t even leader of the Labour Party, that happened very close in…I don’t think that you can predict yet how the election is going to fall.”

For more, listen to the full interview with Heather Roy on the Democracy Project podcast: Heather Roy: Why New Zealand needs a new National Security Agency