Around the beginning of 2017, Greenpeace received leaked information indicating that oil companies we’d opposed had contracted spies to watch staff and volunteers on almost a daily basis, and that it had been going on for years.
We’d been followed home, tailed in our personal time, and had our privacy breached in many ways. It was strange and unsettling. Not altogether unsurprising given the nature of our work, but it felt like a violation of our democratic rights. And it was plain creepy.
As the months went by, the web of spies continued to grow.
Our investigations unit launched a reverse sting to confirm the accuracy of the leaked information.
We caught the spies spying – literally sneaking around corners and taking photos – just like you see in the movies.
We discovered that they were an outfit called Thompson and Clark (TCIL), known in the industry for their questionable – bordering on unlawful – techniques, which included planting informants in grassroots groups, sometimes for years at a time.
And then we realised that not only did TCIL have connections to oil companies like Anadarko and Equinor (formally Statoil), but that the trail also led right back to our very own Government.
Multitudes of documents we received under the Official Information Act revealed that the Ministry for Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) had a close relationship with TCIL for more than four years under the previous Government, and had worked with them to protect the oil industry and counteract the advocacy work of environmental groups – or what they called “Issue Motivated Groups” – abbreviated to IMGs.
The documents showed a clear trail of teamwork between TCIL, MBIE, and oil and mining companies, and included references to their drinking sessions and other social personal activities.
What also became clear was that MBIE had been assisting TCIL to obtain commercial contracts by passing on contact details for mining companies that were arriving in New Zealand so that the spy agency could pitch their services to them. TCIL then seemed to act as a go between for the oil companies.
What had started out as not-completely-surprising-but-definitely-completely-creepy; had quickly turned into something far more sinister.
The Southern Response story hit the headlines at the beginning of 2018. New Zealand learnt that the same spy agency had been hired by state insurer Southern Response to target Christchurch earthquake victims and surreptitiously take unlawful recordings at their democratic community meetings.
TCIL positioned these victims of a terrible tragedy as a security threat, labelling them too as an IMG.
As a country, we were outraged. A State Services Commission (SSC) investigation headed was launched.
And then the rot really started seeping out of the woodwork. More and more victims of spying by TCIL came forward.
The SSC investigation was quickly expanded to include all government agencies, and so began one of the most important examinations into the inner workings of the state that I think we’ve seen in New Zealand.
On Tuesday, the final report from this investigation was released. It should be a Watergate moment.
The report revealed seven government departments have engaged with a spy agency that acted unlawfully, leaving us with one stark truth: That the state had been assisting in systematic and oppressive Stasi-like surveillance for years.
State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, who headed up the investigation, called the revelations “an affront to democracy”.
Other victims of covert spy operations supported or commissioned by government departments included state abuse survivors, iwi, animal rights activists, and even opposition MPs and political parties.
So far, the report has led to a Serious Fraud Office investigation, a police complaint, and a Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority complaint. Yesterday, Southern Response boss, Ross Butler, announced his resignation.
The SSC’s head Peter Hughes said his greatest concern is that TCIL treated these so-called Issue Motivated Groups as a security threat – basically, like terrorists – and that this then went unchallenged by Government officials. In other words, the Government allowed its agenda to be led by a controversial and discredited spy agency called Thompson and Clark.
My key takeaway is that under the previous Government, no one was safe from being spied on if they disagreed with Government policy.
Opposition leader Simon Bridges was at the helm of two of the departments – NZTA and MBIE – that were involved in unlawful spying on civil society, and he now has questions to answer about whether he purposely use the state to attack democratic civil society groups and MPs, or just failed to exercise proper oversight over these agencies.
The result of this widespread web of spies is comparable to cancer on democracy. The chilling effect of being under constant and intrusive surveillance for simply campaigning on important social issues fundamentally corrodes what it means to live in a free and democratic society.
This report shows that it doesn’t matter if you are a state abuse survivor, an earthquake victim, or a climate activist. No-one has been safe from unlawful spying in New Zealand over the past decade, and it’s all been supported by the state.
If we value our freedom, we must never allow something like this to happen again.