Editorial: Shiver runs down our spyin'

20:55, Feb 20 2014

It was quite a feat of cack-handed bureaucracy that the Government Communications Security Bureau so inaccurately under-reported its activities to Parliament.

These guys should be experts at under-reporting by now. Not many annual reports to the House have less information in them than those proffered by our spies. They are answerable to the highest levels of our political strata and, every now and then, the courts. Garden variety MPs and the public, not so much.

Most of what they do is officially classified as none of our nevermind, so the annual report is hardly a page-turner. Essentially, we learn there were this many cases of never- you-mind and that many instances of couldn't-really-say.

Yet even on that sparse and unhelpful basis they got it seriously wrong.

The bureau was forced to scuttle back to Parliament with an amended report because the original counted the number of operations rather than the number of warrants, as it should have.

How fundamental was that? Knowing what it is you're meant to be tallying? It's not like there was a blizzard of data to negotiate. Interception warrants in force, 14 not seven. Access authorisations, 26 not 14. Counting on your fingers and toes would almost get you there.


What does it say of the state of our spydom that the public will probably have no great difficulty accepting that this was a matter of incompetence rather than any sinister attempt to deceive.

Labour leader David Cunliffe calls it "mindboggling", a phrase politicians should not use too freely because, of all the things voters are looking for in their leaders, a tendency for bewilderment isn't one of them.

The Greens say the spies' goof "cuts to the heart of their accountability".

No it doesn't. If anything, it really cuts to the heart of their unaccountability. Given how uninformative the data would appear to be anyway, it's easy to suspect that the whole business of putting together such an empty report was regarded as a tedious charade and approached in a half- hearted manner. Either that, or they're completely swamped and not coping with even the easiest tasks.

Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer's call for a royal commission of inquiry into the public sector looks like a better idea by the day. So far it has been squelched by the Government, which calls his shuddering description of departments and ministries lacking the capacity to be effective, mired in low morale and still failing to co-operate with one another, nothing more than a political smokescreen.

And sure enough, yesterday saw the latest update of the Government's own Better Public Services initiative begun in 2012. This paints an entirely different picture, citing increasing collaboration and adoption of innovative ideas to make significant gains in 10 identified "challenging areas", including reducing long-term welfare dependency, violent crime and reoffending, and increasing level 2 NCEA pass rates. And it has the figures to prove this. Quite possibly accurate ones.

We also note with interest that the Government has called for entries for the IPANZ public sector excellence awards. Not entirely sure whether GCSB head Ian Fletcher harboured any particular ambitions in that direction but, if so, his hopes must now have taken a knock.

The Southland Times