19 Dec 2018

Environmental groups call for change after security firm revelations

8:55 am on 19 December 2018

Environmental groups say there needs to be a complete overhaul of the way government departments treat activists after a scathing report by the States Services Commission on spying.

Inquiry head Doug Martin (centre), Simon Mount QC (left) and State Service Commissioner Peter Hughes.

Inquiry head Doug Martin (centre), Simon Mount QC (left), and State Service Commissioner Peter Hughes. Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

Thompson and Clark has been at the centre of a major inquiry conducted by the State Services Commissioner over its potential illegal recording of Christchurch earthquake claimants.

The private security firm was hired by government insurance agency Southern Response and attended and recorded several closed meetings of insurance claimants. Southern Response chairman Ross Butler,resigned following the report's release.

The report also found activists, environmentalists and lobby groups were listed as "issues motivated groups" and created an "us versus them" mentality for state staff.

Oil Free Wellington said it was angry that there was still spying by security firms even though concerns about Thompson and Clark in particular were raised over a decade ago.

Frances Mountier said a paid infiltrator from the company, working for Solid Energy, was sent into her anti-mining group Save Happy Valley to track their movements back in 2007.

"It was all over the papers and Helen Clark was making comment on it," she said.

"Government ministers at the time were making comment on it saying it wasn't acceptable and it needs to stop - clearly it did not."

Oil Free Wellington member Frances Mountier.

Frances Mountier Photo: Supplied

Ms Mountier said instead it got worse.

"It's gotten so much broader that DOC [Department of Conservation] are using these guys.

"And that even people who have just lived through the earthquakes are finding themselves spied on by Thompson and Clark."

Ms Mountier said there had to be change.

It was not enough just for a few of the top bosses at agencies to resign, she said.

"It's a sign of a really systemic problem and it needs a big overhaul," said Ms Mountier.

She said government departments should never use Thompson and Clark again or any similar companies.

There also needed to be a culture change from public service staff to not view activists as threats, she said.

"I'm encouraging state services to go back to [learning] how to operate as a state service... and your obligations to the public and not just to the government of the day," she said.

Kevin Hague is the Chief Executive of Forest and Bird.

Kevin Hague Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Kevin Hague from Forest and Bird said it was hard for New Zealanders to now have confidence in government agencies.

"The public service has to a significant degree lost its way and has misunderstood its core function and its core duty, which is to act for the public," Mr Hague said.

He said the New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals agency needed to be scrapped and there needed to be an overhaul at the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

Greenpeace exeutive director Russel Norman agreed that things needed to change.

"We need to see some prosecutions of those who are involved," he said.

"We also need to break up some of the government agencies that have proven to be a part of them, in particular [MBIE]," he said.

"Peaceful non-violent civil disobedience has a proud tradition in our country and that's why the public service code of conduct says the public service should respect the role of civil society groups and not treat them as the enemy."

"I think it should be unlawful to pay informants to infiltrate groups like [earthquake victims' groups]. You should only be able to do it under control of a judge with a warrant."

Security consultant Dr Paul Buchanan from 36th Parallel Assessments said it was a "serious rot" in the public service.

"Government agencies use state security agencies to do investigations and conduct surveillance for reasons of national security and to fight crime.

"Private firms use private investigators under industry codes of conduct and within the law in order to do reputation management, and could legally use them to monitor activist groups planning direct action, for example against oil or gas companies.

"It's the overlap between state functions and private interests where things get murky, and it's a gross conflict of interest."

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