Peter Dunne questions whether the Prime Minister is 'playing a long game' with the assertion that Russian spies are not active in New Zealand

By Peter Dunne*

Are we seeing a subtle act of international defiance from the New Zealand Government, or just another example of its naiveté?

According to the Prime Minister, there are no Russian spies operating in New Zealand at present, so therefore there is no need for us to do like other countries and expel Russian intelligence operatives, in the wake of the poisoning of Russian dissidents in Britain.

At face value, the Prime Minister’s statement is reassuring.

No-one likes the notion of other countries’ spies lurking around in our backyards. She seems to be implying that New Zealand is now so insignificant on the world stage that it does not arouse the attention of the Russian intelligence services. So we can all sleep safe in our beds.

But face value is not a reliable measure here. Given New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, it beggars belief that British and United States intelligence agents are not active in this country, and conversely that New Zealand intelligence agents are not similarly active in other countries. And, in return, it equally beggars belief that agents of countries the Five Eyes partners are likely to be interested in, notably Russia and China, are not active in New Zealand.

So, is there something more to what the Prime Minister has been saying?

There have long been suspicions about the depth of Labour’s commitment to New Zealand’s participation in international intelligence sharing arrangements.

In the case of the Greens, however, there is no such doubt – they are implacably opposed to New Zealand’s involvement in such agreements.

So, is the Prime Minister playing a long game here? In the short term, her blanket denial that Russian intelligence agents are active in New Zealand means there is no need for New Zealand to follow suit with other countries and expel such personnel. But, in the longer sense, could our complete reluctance to even consider such a possibility actually be a calculated snub to our intelligence partners and an early signal that New Zealand is not going to be as co-operative a member of arrangements like the Five Eyes, as it has been? In such a context, last week’s initial reluctance to appear too critical of Russia takes on a more significant light. Is New Zealand using the current tension over Russia as a way to flex its small international muscles, and signify that from now it is going to be a little more independent member of the international club, although still paying its subscriptions?

Helen Clark’s 2003 decision that New Zealand would not join the “Coalition of the Willing” to invade Iraq was not only correct, but was nonetheless a gentle shot across the bows of Britain and the United States, that although New Zealand was basically sympathetic to the Western cause, it was also an independent nation that would make its own decisions, and would not just be dragged automatically into conflicts like this. Maybe the present Prime Minister is using the Russian intelligence argument to make afresh the same point to the United States and Britain today.

Of course, it may just be that the Prime Minister is absolutely correct and merely stating the obvious when she says there are no Russian intelligence agents operating here. Nevertheless, such a blunt public commentary on another country’s diplomatic arrangements is a little unusual. On that basis, though, presumably we can now look forward to the Prime Minister’s similar frank public assessments in the weeks to come about the level and numbers of intelligence agents deployed here by the likes of the United States, Britain, and China, and perhaps even how many of,  and where, our SIS and GCSB agents are operating overseas.

Of course, all of this is quite unlikely, no matter any urgings by the Greens, which leaves the question still begging – why was the Prime Minister so specific? Deliberate planning, or just more of the loose lips her Government is becoming so well known for? You be the judge.


*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.