As New Zealand grapples with the enormities of the Christchurch terrorist attack and their implications for the country’s diverse social fabric, security and law and order, some issues are paramount.
High on the list is the importance to NZ of the Five-Eyes intelligence network, no matter what some the government’s coalition partners might think. Five-Eyes has been forwarding significantly important information in recent months. Without it, NZ would be bereft.
For example, the presence of a noxious NZ Islamist in Iraq has been monitored carefully over several months, extending to the presence there of other New Zealanders, not extremists, working in various nursing and assistance roles in precarious situations.
None of this important information could be provided to the prime minister without Five-Eyes.
Did the agencies pick up the Christchurch event? No, because the lone-wolf is near impossible to detect.
Intelligence agencies have been focusing on what might happen, monitoring both ends of extremism – but no one could forecast the timing and there was insufficient material to indicate whether a lone wolf was involved or a wider conspiracy.
NZ has been anticipating a major terrorist event for some time. The risk remains high, according to our correspondents, and public confidence in our intelligence network is unfairly corroded by commentators who suggest the agencies were looking the wrong way, at extremist Islamic elements rather than white supremacists.
NZ’s agencies were already scoping prospects following alerts from France and Germany on who was following which extremist websites.
The PM affirmed this – in effect – when she said:
“I want to be very clear though, that our intelligence community and police are focused on extremism of every kind. Given global indicators around far-right extremism, our intelligence community has been stepping up their investigations in this area.”
Commentators have been more in tune with realities in praising the rapid response by NZ police.
This response has been praised and admired, too, by overseas forces from the US to Britain and Australia.
More critically, Jacinda Adern’s masterly handling of the Christchurch massacre has received world-wide praise. Till now, at least on the international stage, she was noted more for her soft-hearted feel-good policies. Now another PM has emerged, steely, determined, emotions under careful control and carrying the community with her.
Her forthright stance in the hours after the shootings showed her in a new light.
At last, according to one of her Cabinet colleagues, she can cast off Helen Clark’s ever-present shadow.
This reflects to some extent on the capability of Dr Brook Barrington, her new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Working closely with NZ posts in Australia, the US and the UK, he has led the NZ team with direct linkages with key officials in Canberra, Washington and London.
The Government has been astonished and gratified by the international response. This has reinforced NZ’s vital role in the five-eyes intelligence community.
She had a call from President Donald Trump. Vice President Mike Pense rang Deputy PM Winston Peters and offered any support NZ required.
Pense also gets on well with Adern after their dinner together in Singapore.
Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has been in on the calls.
From London, PM Theresa May has phoned and the lines have been open with Canberra.
Intelligence and security agencies from the US, the UK, France and Australia have all pitched in. Rarely has NZ been so well-connected, officials tell us.
Cabinet’s next challenge will be to cast new gun controls. Labour is better placed politically than National to pursue a hard line and will have the fortitude to fight back against the game, hunting, shooting and fishing lobbies.
If there is anything more to learn from this ghastly event, it is that the age on innocence has passed and NZ, as with any other western society based on democratic principles, is now at risk. The test will be how to measure the response.