Bowen House, Beehive and Parliament

New Zealand’s Inaugural National Security Advisor

17 October 2014

On 16 October 2014, New Zealand was appointed to one of the non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Two weeks earlier, the Prime Minister announced that his new cabinet will include a new portfolio of National Security and Intelligence and that he will hold this warrant. Responsibility for operational intelligence – SIS and GCSB – will be held by the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson. Since 2009, there have been behind the scenes changes going on round the whole of government in regard to intelligence and security. This was a necessary and welcome step when you start to itemise how many departments and ministries actually have an intelligence or security function of some sort – there were too many ‘stovepipes’ and the lack of coordination was a waste of money. There is also considerable public discussion and media scrutiny of law changes and other activities in the surveillance and privacy space.

Consequently, it seems inevitable that the Prime Minister will emulate other jurisdictions and, sooner rather than later, appoint a National Security Advisor. This will be considered, within the National Party, to be a demonstration of how seriously national security is taken. It will also carry the added benefit of keeping the Prime Minister at a longer arms reach on some matters and remove the fraught involvement of his Chief of Staff in such matters – in name at least.

In May 2011, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) published an explanatory document on the NZ National Security System. It included this statement:

National Security Advisor

The logic of this framework suggests that there needs to be a senior official responsible for delivering advice on national security to Government, and providing leadership to and coordination of whole-of-government efforts. While this need has been met in a number of jurisdictions through the establishment of a National Security Advisor, in New Zealand, this role sits with the Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, in the well-established capacity as Chair of ODESC. Two new senior positions have been established in DPMC following the review of the intelligence agencies in 2009 – the Director of Security and Risk and the Director of Intelligence Coordination. As a consequence, the Chief Executive of DPMC is better supported than previously to lead the national security agenda.

Much has changed in the ensuing three years and the complexity of the role extends well beyond Andrew Kibblewhite’s chairmanship of ODESC.

International Examples

It is also important to consider how National Security Advisors are appointed and employed around the world. In the United States, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (APNSA) is appointed by the President without confirmation by the United States Senate. Commonly referred to as the National Security Advisor, this is a staff position in the Executive Office of the President and does not have line authority over other departments. Currently Dr Susan Rice, the APNSA role is able to offer advice to the President independently of the vested interests of the large bureaucracies and clientele of those departments, unlike the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense who are both Senate-confirmed officials with line authority over their departments (adapted from Wikipedia).

In the United Kingdom, a National Security Council, operating at a political level much like NZ’s DESC, was established in May 2010. The Council’s structures are formulated by the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser, Sir Nigel Kim Darroch. The National Security Adviser is a Civil Service position based in the Cabinet Office and heads up a team called the National Security Secretariat. This operates much like NZ’s ODESC (ibid).

Australia established the post of National Security Advisor within their DPMC in March 2008 but the appointment was vacant for 6 months when the incumbent left to be Secretary of Defence. Dr Margot McCarthy was appointed in February 2013. However, the current Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has effectively disestablished the role by stealth. The title has been changed to Associate Secretary and some key staff re-deployed. This highlights the need to keep the NSA role safe from political interference.

The important point to draw from these and other examples is that there is clearly a community of specialist National Security Advisors around the world. They discuss and coordinate their efforts. New Zealand has a civil servant ‘double-hatting’ in the role. This makes us appear less serious about the task. Furthermore, there is virtually no substantial research on national security being conducted in New Zealand and it is not a situation where we can simply use that done by other countries either. To be clear, national security includes all the activities undertaken by the government in order to protect the people. This includes policing, civil defence, fisheries patrolling and anti-piracy duties to mention just a few. It’s about coordinating all aspects of protection against threats to individuals, communities, the country and internationally. It requires a continual re-evaluation of the correct balance between personal privacy and liberty versus the means necessary to protect our citizens.

Appointment by the current administration leaves open the possibility that favourites, rather than the best person for the job, will be chosen. To be truly effective, New Zealand’s NSA should have the support of the Parliament, rather than face the risk of being replaced at every election or on a political whim such as what has occurred in Australia. Honest, objective advice to politicians is often not welcome and that is precisely why I believe that the role should not be within the DPMC or any other existing structure.

To be truly independent and in order to maintain national security policy momentum across electoral cycles, the NZ NSA should operate under separate legislation with a degree of independence similar to the Chief Justice or the Auditor-General. The appointment would require, at the very least, the approval of the Leaders of the Opposition parties and preferably the support of 75% of the Parliament.

What Sort of Person?

What sort of person makes an ideal NSA? First and foremost, they have to have the trust and respect of the Prime Minister and a majority of the Cabinet, no matter what the party in power. The skills and experience needed are more like a bag of liquorice all-sorts with a bit of this and a bit of that. For instance, some military or other uniformed service is useful to give a sympathetic view of the challenges faced by service personnel but they shouldn’t be career officers. They should have had some higher education in order to be able to separate good research from bad but not be career academics either. Diplomatic or civil service experience is helpful but, once again, a career civil servant is not going to provide the brutal objectivity necessary. Some business experience is also a plus as is a good working knowledge of how politicians and parties work. Finally, to have the grounding to understand what the life of ordinary kiwis is like, they should be sociable rather than inclined toward locking themselves away behind a wall of imaginary secrecy. Superman or woman you may be thinking but it’s too important a task to say “close enough is good enough”.

There is an incredible amount of work to do across the riskscape. As an example, there is another Defence Assessment due for 2015 but the legislative changes relating to the 2010 White Paper are still languishing on the Order Paper while piecemeal bills relating to surveillance are passed under urgency. The Government is signalling that the next wave of urgent national security legislation will be passed by the end of the year and I won’t be surprised if the new role of New Zealand National Security Advisor is announced at the same time.