Monday, 29 September 2014

Hong Kong protests show China's strength and weakness

Riot police used tear gas and pepper spray September 28 to disperse tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered in central Hong Kong in a remarkable display of authoritarian force.

Student protest leaders associated with the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement last night announced the launch of a mass civil disobedience campaign outside the city’s government headquarters. The campaign calls for an extended blockade of Hong Kong’s financial centre.

According to protest leaders, the demonstrations are in response to alleged Chinese interference and have begun three days ahead of schedule. The demonstrations were planned for October 1 to coincide with a national holiday, but growing protest momentum required a quick change of plans.

Then in a surprising turn, the Chinese government launched armed police onto the streets who began fighting with protesters. Many of the riot police now carry firearms which - although likely carrying rubber bullets - indicate that Beijing takes the protests seriously and wants the space cleared.

The arrival of riot police significantly changed the dynamics of the peaceful protests. Demonstrations are a common occurrence in Hong Kong. However, the demographics of these protests include growing numbers of middle-aged and middle-class Hong Kong residents. No longer is it simply a student-led protest.

The residents of Hong Kong to a large extent see themselves as superior to their brethren on the mainland and somewhat beyond the Beijing’s authoritarian control.

While no single aspect can be blamed for the current unrest, there is a growing desire in the city for independence from China and anger at broken promises.

During the transition from British rule in 1997, an assurance from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promised Hong Kong citizens a democratically elected leader independently chosen in 2017. And yet Beijing has emitted disturbing signs all year that it may renege on this assurance.

In late August the Chinese government announced its intention to control the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The election is not set to run until 2017, but a senior official in China’s National People’s Congress said that the CCP will “vet” a handful of potential candidates.

The CCP later released a statement saying their decision represents “rapid progress in Hong Kong’s democratic development”. Both statements stirred a growing feeling of claustrophobia in Hong Kong and catalysed a mostly student-led movement slowly gaining traction through September.

Beijing’s harsh crackdown is part of an effort to stop the spread of unacceptable democratic tendencies around China. Should the police fail to quell the protests early, the demonstrations could rise in intensity. In addition, unexpected violence from either side could devolve the protests into a riot which neither Beijing nor Hong Kong desires.

For China, the question of how much democracy to give Hong Kong will never be solely about this city-state.

According to the World Bank, Hong Kong generated more than 18% of China’s GDP in 1997 when it was handed to Beijing from British control. Now the city contributes only 3% of the total.

In other words, plenty of other Chinese cities are as large as or larger than the former colony. It is no longer the goose that lays the golden egg. This affords Beijing some room to move when it comes to the question of democracy and freedom.

The World Bank figures suggest that not only do Beijing’s heavy actions reflect a concern with the spread of democracy, they indicate the CCP might be willing to act harsher against demonstrators in Hong Kong than it has in the past.

If China’s success doesn’t rely on autonomy of Hong Kong any more, then the stability of Hong Kong doesn’t mean as much to Beijing as it used to - hence the heavy crackdown.

The Chinese Communist Party detests the idea that “virtues of democracy” could spread from Hong Kong to much more important economic hubs in Shanghai, Guangzhou or others. Democracy as a concept is relatively embraced in China, but anything the CCP cannot control is considered threatening.

A possibility for political compromise is still possible at this early stage, but it will fade if the protests exacerbate. Hong Kong residents were already sceptical of gaining democratic freedom but Beijing’s desire to control the upcoming elections did nothing to assuage their concern.

The heavy-handed crackdown on protesters indicates Beijing may not allocate fundamental freedoms for Hong Kong after all. How the various protest groups will respond is largely unknown.

However, not all of the protest groups want the same thing while a number of Hong Kong citizens attach greater affiliation with the mainland and CCP authority than they do with democracy. Many in this group are older, middle-class citizens. In this sense the demographics of the protests will be important to monitor.

Beijing has already made it abundantly clear it will not tolerate a chief executive of Hong Kong who is resistant to mainland authority. The line it will need to tread carefully is the one separating more democratic freedom from the desire for outright independence from China.

As long as Hong Kong stays officially “Chinese”, anything less could be considered tolerable for Beijing. But the proceeding political manoeuvres will determine if that is still the case.

From the international perspective, Hong Kong has been competitive for much longer compared to mainland China. Should the city-state begin to function more like China’s other cities, it could lose its uniquely competitive edge.

Further violence and sustained protests could also scare investors away from Hong Kong which has been regarded as a relatively safe place to do business for decades.

More broadly in the immediate region is China’s relationship with Taiwan.

The “one country, two systems” concept functioning now with Hong Kong previously suggested China could tolerate democracy or at least an alternative to communism. By extension, Taipei hoped this could lead to improved relations with Taiwan in the future.

Taiwan is now looking at the situation in Hong Kong with deep suspicion. China has turned a conciliatory face towards Taiwan over the question of future administration, but what is happening in Hong Kong reveals China’s truly pragmatic goals for its historic territories. Goals that Taiwan won’t like the look of.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

In New Zealand, terror attacks could manifest - says ex-SIS officer


Australian police shot dead a terrorist suspect after he stabbed two police officers at police station in southeast Melbourne on Tuesday, authorities said.

The attack occurred in the parking lot of a police station in the town of Endeavour Hills when the man, identified as Abdul Naman Haider, slashed at officers with a knife.

The two officers, who work with the city’s counterterrorism task force, were hospitalised.

The shooting of the 18 year old has raised alarm of a growing terrorist threat in Australia and introduced fresh questions over whether New Zealand faces similar threats.

The Australian man had been identified three months prior with police subsequently learning of his new behaviour which were “causing them concern”.

Speaking from Hawaii on route to a UN meeting regarding the situation in Syria and Iraq, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the latest attack “indicates that there are people in our community who are capable of very extreme acts.”

A Massey University academic told the NBR ONLINE that while concern exists about terrorist attacks in New Zealand, security agencies are tracking threats from individuals with affiliations to militant groups.

Professor Rhys Ball of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies says a number of New Zealanders have indicated interest in travelling for fighting purposes to conflict zones including Syria and Iraq.

“If the then Director of Security Dr Warren Tucker was saying publicly in December 2013 that a “small number of New Zealanders are interested in travelling for the purposes of fighting, in trouble spots such as Somalia, Yemen and, more worryingly, Syria” and that this situation presents “new and very real risks” if they return home, then I suspect that such risks may have in fact manifested themselves in this country by now,” Dr Ball says.

“But we also need to remember that a security disruption operation, and a successful security disruption operation at that, could be as minimal as a ‘visit’ by the police or the removal of a New Zealand passport.”

Dr Ball, a ten-year veteran of New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (SIS), says New Zealand’s security services will be working closely with other ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence partners to identify and share intelligence on potential threats returning from Middle East wars.

“Despite being one quarter the size of Australia, I don’t necessarily think that the potential security problem in New Zealand is one-fourth the size.

“But I would expect that if elements within the domestic community here are in contact with known extremists overseas or espousing similarly worrying views and language akin to what has transpired overseas recently, then the New Zealand agencies will be monitoring and disrupting plans or intentions as they present themselves,” he says.

A day before the latest attack in Australia, a senior member of the IS militant group released an audio message urging international followers to murder US allies including Australians.

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him,” Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who is the official spokesman for IS, said on Monday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the threat from Mr al-Adnani was  “genuine”.

The militant's message follows the disruption of an alleged Sydney beheading plot in the nation's largest ever terror raids last Thursday.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) now say on their website that “At present, the potential for a terrorist attack in Australia is feasible and could well occur.”

The ASIO have placed the National Terrorism Public Alert System at the second highest of four notches at “high”.

Dr Ball indicates that the threat to New Zealand may be diminished in comparison to Australia.

“I think that the unique New Zealand approach to ‘community’ has real benefit in identifying what is happening overseas, acknowledging that it is happening, but also engaging with all elements of the New Zealand community, by way of relationships and partnerships, to ensure that what we see overseas doesn’t manifest itself here in any form – words or deeds.

“Let’s not create a problem that wasn’t there before, but by the same token we can still think about potential problems, and what they might look like and how we continue to prevent them from taking place here. 

“Our security and intelligence services have a part to play in this – absolutely - but more importantly, community engagement will be a far more effective and all-embracing strategy to counter possible acts of extreme violence,” Dr Ball says.

Green light for GCSB as the internet becomes a weapon


According to a recent poll, Kiwi CEOs say cyber attacks are their second highest international concern behind the Australian economy. This is a remarkable display of prescience from the private sector with two recent events encapsulating the accuracy of our business leader’s fears.

As is becoming clearer each day, the internet is a domain in which every country sits directly in the centre. Last week’s political games attempted to expose pieces of New Zealand’s internet spying efforts. Spying is potentially scandalous but public reaction was minimal. Voters chose instead to support the programs by reaffirming the incumbent political party.
GCSB satellite up/downlink radomes in Waihopai

For those of us striving to maintain a healthy debate on this issue, it was an extremely interesting social experiment. A supportive public implies that despite shrill rhetoric of Orwellian state surveillance there prevails a widespread contentment with where the GCSB has set the bar balancing our security and liberty.

The second of last week’s events was the climax of an investigation into Australians plotting terror attacks. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Australian nationals are being tracked by Australia’s equivalent of the GCSB as they participate in foreign conflicts. Canberra worries these folk will return home with new terror skills bent on destruction.

New Zealand might too face a similar militant threat in the future. Last week shows how translucent the curtain has become as the secret workings of government spill into private life and security threats begin to look increasingly as innocuous as the face in the mirror.

The internet is the pattern forming the edge pieces of the puzzle. The tool is not simply changing the way humans talk, it is more like the reinvention of language itself. Travelling along its tiny glass wires zooms everybody’s communication where it is virtually impossible to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.

Unfortunately for the GCSB slinking back into the shadows, the two events are part of an unstoppable trend. Yet the mood of argument is evolving. Citizens are realising their great internet is no longer only a medium for personal benefit, it is growing into an entirely new form of weapon. A distinct reddish colour of warned pre-dawn conflict oozes onto the horizon and it is not yet clear what this new day will bring.

Heightened state spying is one aspect. If your government is not spying on adversaries then you are in for a world of pain. However, there’s a line – albeit grey and unwritten – when a government moves dangerously from using digital strictly spying tools, to becoming an inflictor of real-world pain. That blurred line has already been crossed. The internet is now being used as both bullhorn and bullet by the secret agencies of the free world.

Aside from this election’s implicit green light for ongoing spying, and the concurrent fears voiced by CEOs, the public probably won’t condone digital warfare. The internet is too new a concept to have been fully thought out. No one really knows exactly what it promises for humanity as a one of the greatest tools ever devised.

That was the same argument about the Manhattan Project. The bomb’s technology began as a weapon but ended up contributing to communications. Now in an inversion, the internet started as communications before evolving inexorably into a weapon. And it pretty much blindsided us.

The problem is that anyone can use the internet. Essentially there are three operator tiers: the nation state, organised criminals and basement-dwelling hackers or militants. The digital tools available to each level rise exponentially in destructive potential. In a trickle-down effect, over time, the capabilities of the lowest tier rise to the spot previously occupied by the highest. Such is nature, and such is the internet.

Growing computer capabilities are great news for everyone, or are they? Consider what would have happened in Australia had the arrested boys chosen digital destruction of infrastructure computers instead of knives. It still boggles the intelligence world as to why terror groups don’t leverage computers to inflict more damage than blades ever could. Yet the tiered structure above indicates it might only be a matter of time.

Nation states are already using the internet as a weapon. The internet domain is now populated with digital military as a weapon of war. Earlier this year, for instance, Russia unleashed a torrent of digital attacks on Ukrainian government networks prior to their annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Iran's nuclear reactor facility at Natanz in central Iran

Yet one example in particular stands out as different from the others. That is the story of the Stuxnet worm in 2010.

In short, Stuxnet is a computer virus of tremendous complexity built to infect a specific Siemens computer system in a nuclear facility. Speculation is rife as to which nation state was responsible for creation of the virus, but only a few possess sufficient resources to accomplish something like that.

By means still unknown, the virus infected computers at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran where it commanded centrifuge cascades to spin at self-destructive speeds while displaying to human operators that the system was working perfectly. Hundreds of centrifuges were subsequently destroyed and the facility went offline for months halting the nuclear experimentation of the Iranian regime.

Now, most people might file this event safely away in a ‘very good news’ archive, which can’t be too full these days. And yet taking a step back, the full ramifications of the destroyed Iranian facility show us what the internet is becoming.

To understand, let me repeat the Stuxnet story in a slightly different tone: A computer virus created on the internet almost surely by a nation state infected and destroyed - in peacetime - what could only have been called another nation state’s critical infrastructure.

Read that as many times as you need, the dire implications for international safety are the same.

A digital tool, which until 2010 was used strictly as a means of communication, has evolved into the extension of politics by other means. Four years later we are not sure how to deal with this new weapon nor even how to speak about it.

Without anywhere near as much political fanfare as in August 1945, an entirely new weapon changed human history forever and we are only beginning to understand the consequences. If what happened in Natanz is not called an act of war by historians, the concept of war has lost its meaning absolutely.

The internet was once strictly a zone of communications but is increasingly a zone of conflict too. This time the zone is not somewhere else. It is in your city’s electrical system, its traffic light network, hydro-dams, a building’s central security - it’s even in your pocket. Blessedly the capability for destruction is presently limited to the nation state level, it will not always be that way.

If the history of the internet is any guide, replicating Natanz will surely percolate down to the second tier (organised criminals), taking only a bit longer to get to the third tier (malicious hackers and militants).

It’s that third tier now keeping GCSB officials up at night, especially since Australia. What happens when a Natanz-esque capability falls into the hands of a terrorist or angry skilled teenager? It will be very difficult to track either down for justice.

Protecting New Zealand is going to get increasingly difficult for the GCSB. So public and corporate support for their tough work must be incredibly encouraging for the agency. GCSB officers will operate within the legal box they’ve been given, but they’ll play right to the edges to protect us. We should be thankful for their self-control and talents.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

US strikes IS forces in Syria, will continue

The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) launches
Tomahawk cruise missiles on September 23, 2014 in the Red Sea.
Anonymous US officials said Sept. 23 that the United States will continue its airstrike campaign in Syria...On Sept. 22, the United States led an Arab air force coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria...The operation reportedly killed at least 70 Islamic State militants...Syrian President Bashar al Assad said Sept. 23 his regime supports any efforts against "terrorism"...Assad's remarks were made at a meeting with the Iraqi national security advisor in Damascus...Syria's main Kurdish political group, the Democratic Union Party, also released a statement welcoming the airstrikes...The party also called for the United States to coordinate with them to combat the militant group...Turkey will authorise its army to conduct cross-border operations into Syria, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said...The authorisation will allow the army to begin operations if it feels they are necessary...US airstrikes on IS militants occur as more than 2000 US advisers and special forces continue to operate in eastern Syria and northern Iraq...Mr Obama has stated no US "ground troops" will be deployed to Iraq, however the number of US forces in the country could reach 5000 by the end of the year...Airstrikes against IS will not defeat the group either kinetically or ideologically, but airpower is the the form of warfare most suited to the US military...IS have a huge vulnerability - far different from al Qaeda - as they admit almost anyone to join their forces...Because of this, Western intelligence are already showing promising signs of deep penetration of IS with multiple foiled terror attacks and severe disruption of command and control networks...IS forces are expected to be depleted substantially but not defeated...US airstrikes will also allow Iraqi troops to reconsolidate northern Iraq to defend against possible IS counterstrikes.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Issues of 21st century spying go much deeper than NZ election


The spying revelations revealed on Monday night by Kim Dotcom, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald go much deeper than the New Zealand elections.

This is no longer about spying and where we want to set the balance of privacy and security. It’s fast becoming a question about how we want the very foundations of representative government to look in the future.

Whether John Key’s government survives Saturday’s decision may or may not hinge on whether the voting public feel sufficiently aggrieved at the exposures. Edward Snowden’s track record of accurate intelligence leaks suggests his accusations have substance, but as yet, he has not provided sufficient hard proof to back up those claims.

One of his claims Monday night was that the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) was collecting every scrap of electronic data emitted by New Zealand citizens as part of a US National Security Agency (NSA) programme called “SPEARGUN”.

Mr Snowden reported to have evidence that the programme used covert means to break into the fibre optic cable connecting New Zealand with the world’s Internet. Prime Minister John Key did later admit a “test probe” was created for a similar purpose but the programme was abandoned for technical and storage reasons in 2012 or 2013.

Both claims appear to focus on the centrality of New Zealand’s only Internet cable, which, in a world where almost every piece of communications data flows across such trunk lines, is significant.

Members of Monday night’s panel have in the past already exposed an effort by the NSA to “collect everything”, according to NSA documents referring to Internet data. New Zealand’s section of the network appears to be just as important in this effort.

However, NBR ONLINE reported in August that any claims of secret tapping of the undersea Southern Cross Cable linking New Zealand’ Internet with the United States and Australia are unfounded.

The cable itself is highly unlikely to have been spliced or “bent” without the system operator knowing and causing a serious outage. And according to Southern Cross Cable’s chief executive Anthony Briscoe no such invasion has been undertaken to his knowledge.

But there is a larger context in regards to the Southern Cross Cable which needs to be fleshed out a bit more. Mike McGrath, a technician responsible for the operation of the cables’ landing site in Auckland’s Takapuna suburb, explained to the NBR that the cable doesn’t solely serve New Zealand’s Internet needs.

Since New Zealand is too small an economy to fund its own cable from the United States, the original venture relied on Australian funding to begin. Mr McGrath described how the cable’s traffic includes content originating in East and South East Asia.

That traffic never passes through servers or routers based on the United States mainland. Instead, very roughly, it begins and ends in a closed loop limited to Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands.

In effect, a collection site in Auckland or Australia would give the NSA and GCSB an efficient source to gather the balance of East and South East Asian traffic which doesn’t pass through the US. Neither the technician nor Southern Cross Cable’s CEO knew of such a system – hardware or software – operating inside their network.

Although, Mr McGrath hypothesised that such a collection site, if the NSA did want to spy on New Zealanders, would be better placed on one of the domestic telecom networks such as Spark or Vodafone. In other words, the NSA has better options than using the cable if New Zealand was its target.

But putting a collection apparatus on the landing site would make perfect sense from a foreign intelligence–gathering perspective because the vast majority of Internet traffic passing through our cable does not arrive in New Zealand, instead it passes straight through to Australia and Asia destinations.

How does this fit into the context of the larger geopolitical reality? South East Asia especially has experienced a great deal of militant activity over the past decade since the 219 program (the metadata collection activity mentioned by Edward Snowden on Monday) was implemented. Australia directly, but not alone, has been the target of terror attacks from this region during this time.

This does not include the multitude of threats posed by state actors in the region (as opposed to non-state actors), criminals, drug smugglers, extortionists, pirates, capable hackers and low-level hackers. The security environment in East and South East Asia is fluid, so to speak.

Possessing a collection site in New Zealand – assuming such a site exists – fits into the wider security strategy of the Five Eyes intelligence network (of which New Zealand is a signatory along with Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States) and its allies.

The realities of the real world

A key point to remember about such a collection processes is the very nature of the Internet and how simply gigantic it is. No longer can a state’s signals intelligence agency (intelligence defined as electronic communications) focus on known enemy channels and bypass friendly or neutral traffic. It’s not that simple anymore.

No one complained, for instance, when, during the 1960s and 70s, the NSA turned its ears towards the Soviet Union where modern-day Russia stored its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile fields in the frozen permafrost beyond the Ural Mountains.

Many similar methods used on the Internet by the NSA today with their metadata systems were employed looking for keywords in Soviet radio traffic, searching for commands like “launch” or “test”. Knowing which command one was which was crucial for world peace.

The issues now is not that the NSA and GCSB use such methods to gather and analyse intelligence in the 21st Century, but that they use the same methods when the threats are no longer as simple to define and pinpoint as fixed ICBM fields.

For instance, militants operating in the jungles of the southern Philippines or Indonesia do not enjoy the resources of state systems. They communicate their intentions and plans with each other using Gmail and Yahoo! email accounts while operating perfectly innocuous Facebook and Twitter accounts to spread their messages.

Competent militants or terrorists deploy these processes secretly, hiding their communications among the traffic of everyday communications. Sometimes, as is the nature of the Internet, their traffic commingles with a discussion between a businessperson in New Zealand and their counterpart in Finland, for example.

It all depends on the most efficient travel route for that Internet traffic. It gets mixed up as plain photons and simple 1’s and 0’s along with everything else. That’s the new world our intelligence agencies have to deal with.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to create the perfect intelligence-gathering device yet. One in which only bad people’s data is vacuumed up. Instead, the NSA and GCSB were forced to bend their collection answers discovered last century over into the new century to answer the new questions. The result is very messy and very controversial, but there’s no way around it yet.

The conundrum the NSA and GCSB face is that in order to find that crucial needle of bad plans, they need to create a haystack. What emerges from this collection process is the inescapable result of gathering all Internet data at once. Ultimately, to provide sufficient security, our signals intelligence agencies must gather as much data as possible.

Sometimes that process includes your communications with friends and loved ones, in other words, private communications that we don’t want touched by anyone else.

But how far does the GCSB or NSA actually go?

The NSA and GCSB know this reality. After all, citizens with private lives just like anyone else staff those agencies. So they put in place self-limiting measures to ensure that people’s privacy wasn’t invaded unnecessarily in the course of their work.

For instance, using only Edward Snowden’s words and documentary proof, the NSA gathers metadata records (call duration, phone numbers, IP addresses, email addresses and other framework material), not the content of people’s calls or emails. The data is stored and can be queried by a programme called XKEYSCORE, again, all revealed by Mr Snowden.

When would an analyst need to query this metadata? Consider a scenario in which a militant’s cell phone or laptop is confiscated in one of the hundreds of law enforcement or Special Forces raids occurring across the world each year.

The phone or email records stored on those devices can be entered into the XKEYSCORE system to ask the program whom this phone or email address has talked to in the past day, week, month or year.

From there, if the analyst finds a connection in their stored metadata records, the analyst is able to ask again for more connections related to the new point of contact. This query loop can only occur around two to three times before the information becomes both irrelevant (think of “degrees of separation” dilemma) and illegal.

Other commentators have pointed out how metadata can be used in a puzzle method to put together a surprising amount of information about an individual, even if the content of the calls or emails cannot be read directly by an analyst. That is indeed true, but the context is important here.

The intelligence agencies of the Five Eyes partners are the most powerful state apparatus’ the world has ever seen. They clearly have the ability to gather every message uttered electronically by anybody on earth in whatever form – forever. And yet, according to Edward Snowden himself, they do not do this. They stick with the metadata.

Another key point to remember in this debate is where the governments of the Five Eyes partners have decided to put the bar of what they are willing to do. It can be assured that this bar can be lowered and the collection powers of the NSA and GCSB remarkably improved until they catch and analyse every relevant piece of bad communication. The capability exists.

Yet the restraints imposed by the representative governments of those countries, and the directors of those agencies self-limit the degree to which their collection efforts can extend. The key phrase here is ‘self-limit’.

What Edward Snowden and the other three important panellists Monday night don’t tell you is that every other nation outside the Five Eyes partners does not self-limit in this way. They don’t even come close. Someone needs to ask France how its supposedly “free” country deals with its own Internet traffic. It’s not pretty.

The panellists are talking about the most powerful and yet the most constrained intelligence agencies in the world. That’s not a cheap fact, it’s the objective reality, again, based off the revelations exposed by Edward Snowden himself.

And he did not simply leak a few drops or a bucket, Mr Snowden revealed the very plumbing of the NSA. There is probably very little left inside that agency that won’t be revealed about what they’re up to.

Finally, it has to be remembered why those programmes were created in the first place.

The all-important context

Today there are high school children who do not remember the events of September 11, 2001. That might be hard for adults to understand, but we are moving inexorably further away from those horrible events every day and it’s showing.

I recall that day like it was last week. Being awoken by a phone call from the United States at 4am in the morning and told something was happening and we’d better turn on the television was scary. Everything about that day will stick in my mind for the rest of my life. If you say you weren’t worried on that day, even in New Zealand, you aren’t remembering clearly.

After all, if it could happen in the United States, why not in New Zealand? The western world’s reaction in the immediate future following those events was to turn to its intelligence agencies and ask both why they didn’t see it coming and whether there was anything they could do to prevent a repeat of the attacks.

Our agencies have been hauled over the coals, and God help the GCSB if a similar attack happens in New Zealand. Yet the issue of what other methods and processes they could implement to protect us has been an ongoing question.

In the wake of the confusion and fear of 9/11, the 219 program (metadata) and others were established and implemented. Since then, they have evolved and refined and become extraordinarily effective considering the constraints and realities imposed on them by the modern communications system as outlined above.

That no large-scale attack has occurred in the United States is in a large part testament to the success and efficiencies of those programs. Attacks on the scale of 9/11 – and many were planned by terrorists over the last 13 years – are now the least likely terrorist attack on the spectrum. You can thank your nearest intelligence officer for that.

The problem with all of this, and what we saw Monday night is one result, is that as time moves on, the balancing act of privacy with security begins to tip in the favour of privacy more and more. When the memory of fear fades into the background, citizens demand that soldiers be recalled from the parapets for more profitable work.

This is the reality of living in an evolving world. Intelligence officers are at the mercy of their citizenry in organising what they can and cannot do, and what they will and will not do. If they get the word that their collection methods are no longer justifiable in the present climate, then they will switch off those processes or lift that bar back to a more privacy-friendly notch.

And yet, what the four panellists Monday night do not seem to understand about this process is what this debate truly means for the future. If they succeed in convincing enough people to demand the government switch off those programs, they must understand the trade-off of such a decision.

Consider what would happen in this new, privacy-friendly utopia if a terrorist attack were to occur in Auckland.

Instead of ignoring the attacks, people would be protesting outside the Beehive demanding greater government protection. Most people would sideline their preconceptions about privacy and rush to help the prime minister sign new legislation allowing the GCSB to lower that bar again to provide better security.

Our intelligence officials, professional as always, would calmly comply. But deep down they would explain to those who would listen that the privacy/security trade-off decision made by the country in 2014 made it easier for the attacks to occur. Their hands were constitutionally and legally tied.

The core of the debate

The trick for this question is not to let the bar slip effortlessly higher or lower on a whim of the crowd. Citizens have the right to be worried and scared both for their privacy and security, but they have the responsibility to encourage the construction of checks and balances in their governments which allow for rational and cool thought in the event of either great fear or great peace. That is a true balance.

This stuff is really hard. Remember that the 219 program (metadata) as constructed by the NSA was approved in the United States by all three branches of government (legislative, judicial and executive) on multiple occasions and by two presidents who could not be more different in character and politics.

All of those institutions were operating on the assumption that they possessed the full compliance and support of their constituencies. They were part of a representational government, in a similar structure to the government of New Zealand. What they were doing to protect their country was considered in the interest of its citizens.

Yet when the revelations of Mr Snowden emerged, the public in both New Zealand and the United States dismissed the explanations and reasoning of their elected officials almost categorically.

They said, “it’s all very well that our representative governments made these decisions. And it’s all very well that the NSA and GCSB secretly briefed our leaders in closed rooms to protect their sources and methods.

“But they didn’t tell ME!”

Fair enough. If the new world of communications and government can no longer operate on foundational assumptions, then so be it. But this is where the debate becomes not just about our present situation, but more strictly about our future.

If we say that we no longer trust our representative leaders to make security decisions on our behalf, then we’re going to have to invent not just a new balance for security and privacy, but potentially a whole new way of conducting the government of free peoples.

Again, the events of Monday night are no longer about some messy general election in the smallest partner of the world’s more powerful intelligence alliance. It’s quickly becoming the beginning of a realisation that the old ways of doing things – the old answers – no longer apply to the new questions.

It’s going to take more than a few intelligence revelations and demagogic Germans to figure out how to fix this.

If you really want to be truly involved in this country’s politics, consider this election your first real excuse to think deeply about what sort of governmental structure you want your kids living in. This goes beyond what party or personality you want at the head.

In counter-terrorism and Iraq, no strategy is a strategy - but not for long


Try as it likes, the United States will attempt to pacify world hotspots after a particularly rambunctious summer but it will probably fall short. The truth is, adhering to the old, useful strategy of balancing powers can no longer bring the beneficial results of the past.

Balancing power is the strategy of keeping emerging rivals weak and distracted by playing them off against each other. At the bare minimum, rivals should cancel each other out. Controlling those rivals directly with force should in turn be rare, low risk and with a very small military footprint.

Like it or not, the United States is at the head of an unintended empire. Given the American mindset and geography, its grand strategy was probably never explicitly about controlling the world. Yet its tactics of protecting trade routes crept to the farthest reaches of the world until an empire naturally emerged.

The US balancing strategy had its moments both of triumph and weakness. Sometimes it intervened directly, as in Kuwait against Iraq. But often its rebalancing effort pushed too far too quickly, unbalancing a region even more. But the key for America remains to not let any other nation gather enough strength to challenge its empire.

But the policy questions it now faces are new and being met with old answers. Balance has worked in the past, at least enough to allow the continuation of the status quo. The strategy was like a master key, clumsily opening or closing any mysterious lock an empire found blocking its way.

The world still includes many regions where the balance of power strategy is being used. Countries in which state power is strong respond to the pressures of moving masses of men and metal (hard power) around the game board very well.

Yet the emergence of non-state entities such as Russian separatists or the Islamic State (IS) - while not historically unheard of - is asking new questions of the world’s only superpower. No longer is it possible for the US to answer these new questions with the old answers.

To whit, how can conventional air strikes intimidate groups which don’t operate conventional military machines? How can the arrival of a Marine Expeditionary Force alter the tactics of separatists in Ukraine who are ready to don civilian clothes rather than engage in combat? And how can a diplomatic corps summon the representative of an Islamic group for talks when no representative exists?

It’s really no wonder that US president Barack Obama struggles to forge a strategy for the situations in Iraq/Syria and Ukraine. Of course, having no strategy is a strategy, but it’s unwise to let everyone know that a leader actually has no strategy.

Separatism and militancy will be part of the world for the rest of our lives. It might become manageable, but no one knows how yet. Developing strategies for non-state actors has proven enormously difficult, especially when it comes to Islamic terror.

Two examples help frame the enormity of the task ahead and the dilemma of bending answers for old questions over to today’s new questions. 

Pakistan is the first. It is a relatively new concept carved out of the Indian subcontinent. The country has been the haven of some of the worst elements of Islamic terrorism. At the same time, the Pakistani government has been wondrously successful in crushing that threat. And yet, Islamic terrorism persists in Pakistan.

The US has tried to get the Pakistani government to both turn against Islamic terrorists and reconcile its personal differences with neighbour India. But there are two things that define a Pakistani: one is Islam, and the other is being ‘not Indian’. Unfortunately, Western strategy ends up looking to Pakistanis like we want it to dissolve the only things that make it a distinct nation. There is no answer for this.

Further west is Saudi Arabia, the home of Sunni Islamic terrorism. Everyone now knows how many Saudi terrorists were involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Kingdom sponsors terrorism from North Africa to Southeast Asia with its oil money, and will continue to do so indefinitely as part of its own national strategy.

In a perfect world the West would condemn Saudi Arabia for its actions, but the world is not perfect. The Saudis have created one of the best deprogramming courses for jihadists in the world. The programme is based on faith and family.

Faith, in terms of Imams instructing jihadist prisoners on the correct tenants of Islam, and family, by bringing him back into a social setting different to the one he enjoyed while on jihad. There is no coherent answer for this either.

Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia might be chastised for what they allow to happen on their watch. Yet the individual new answers that both Islamic countries have found for the new questions are incongruous with the West’s own answers for those questions.

Any new evolution of the old balancing strategy will require subtlety and trade-offs and will often look like the US is doing nothing or sleeping with the enemy.

As very smart people think deeply about the new questions, groups of Islamic terrorists and Russian separatists will continue to give them sleepless nights. Their first step will be to recognise that the world is a complex system which we cannot understand or control.

In saying that he has no strategy for Iraq or Ukraine, Mr Obama is describing what’s happening to the very fabric of a balancing strategy as it tears – not just around the edges – but directly through the middle.

He is not the only leader struggling to come to terms with a new world in which the power to inflict serious instability no longer rests strictly in the hands of nation states. This stuff is really hard, and there are few robust answers for so many questions.

A journalist goes to sea with the Royal New Zealand Navy


My cousin used to fly the old A-4 Skyhawk jets. And one day he dismally explained that, in the event of an attack, our strike wing could be wiped out in 40 minutes. We were weak. At the time I was only about 11 or 12 years of age but stories like that colour a kid’s perceptions.

Looking back now, he was showing me around Ohakea Airbase just before his beloved Skyhawk jets were mothballed. He wasn’t happy about the decision. I don’t suppose any fighter pilot likes to see their job literally grounded.

My cousin eventually joined the Australian air force to fly real fighter jets but his face that day was of resignation and frustration. That sentiment coloured my understanding of the NZ Defence Force for years.

Then I met Admiral Jack Steer. He and I were invited to observe a new training module built for the New Zealand Navy by the contractor Lockheed Martin Global. Essentially, the module was a 1:1 scale working replica of a navy patrol vessel. There’d been a deadly accident on a ship a few years before and the NZ Defence Force was doing all it could to stop future tragedies.

The admiral wasn’t an overly tall man, and he had already rolled up his sleeves by the time I arrived but he was enthusiastic about the navy. That’s what really stood out. He was beaming wonder as he walked through, over and under the training module, constantly turning to his staff to smile, ask questions and heap praises on almost every new corner and rivet he spotted.

When I talked to him later I floated (sorry) the idea that the NZDF seemed small and insufficient for the country’s needs. Did he think the structure of the navy, for instance, was enough to protect New Zealand? Admiral Steer’s answer was fast and unequivocal. He had full confidence in the capability and professionalism of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

In fact, he said, “We should get you out on a ship so you can see it all for yourself.” Nice idea, but there was something about his posture which made me think he was kidding.

So that’s how I found myself peering at the hazy islands of the Hauraki Gulf in the early Spring sunshine through the wraparound windows on the bridge of the HMNZS Wellington. It’s not that I was overly sceptical of this country’s navy but Admiral Steer sounded so sure of its capabilities.

And I’m not going to gloss over the fact that at heart I’m a boy with deep appreciation for all things military and exploding. I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to observe a naval exercise from inside one of the participating ships. My journalist hat was firmly on, because, after all, I had to sell the story idea to the editor. But I could feel my inner childish curiosity trying to crack a smile.

On exercise with the Japanese


Joining the crew of the HMNZS Wellington was extra special because three frigates from the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) were in Auckland on a 15-stop tour around the Pacific. They planned to exercise with the Royal New Zealand Navy to give their relatively green crew of officers solid experience working closely with Japan’s allies.

Although the commander of the Wellington assured me the Royal New Zealand Navy had quite a bit more firepower than the three Japanese frigates, as he started to describe the advanced missiles mounted threateningly on their ships I was having trouble believing him. New Zealand’s ships looked decidedly puny by comparison. All I could see on the Wellington was a solitary machine gun mounted to the bow. Where were our missiles? I was disappointed already.

And those Japanese frigates are big beasts. I understand the physics of displacement and metallurgy. In concept, there’s nothing magical about how heavy craft float on water. It makes perfect theoretical sense. But seeing them steam over waves and through wind and rain storms was impressive. Humans are clever animals, don’t let anyone tell you different. We’ve figured out how to make metal float on water and it’s pretty amazing.

There was so much chatter as we embarked from the naval base that I wondered what the whole point of computers actually was. If these guys all just used binoculars looking for Saturday morning fishermen and kayaks, why flick the radar on at all? If the catamaran on the starboard side heard what the officers were saying about his every move he’d be a bit nervous about taking his boat shoes off too suddenly.

Lieutenant Commander Graham MacLean called me over to the port side of his ship (yes, that’s the left side, I paid attention!) while we loitered in the gulf waiting for all the Japanese craft to join us. We were about to begin some exercises with one of the best navies in the world but it was early in the morning on a weekend. I didn’t spot any yawns as I came aboard but one of the officers definitely had bed-head.

The commander knew his crew was drowsy. I didn’t notice anything but he knows them better than I do. To knock the cobwebs out he gave me a sly smile before sneakily beckoning me over to the window. We were about to do a man-overboard drill to wake everyone up. It’s a good way, he explained, to both burn time until the Japanese ships arrive and warm up the crew. I suspect he was sadistically chuffed about sending his crew into panic mode too.

I didn’t hear the splash but pretty soon an orange fluorescent object about the size of the average skinny swimsuit model was peeling away from the back of the ship bobbing pathetically in the water. It took about 20 seconds before a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing calmly with just a hint of adrenalin that a man was indeed overboard. Everyone stood or sat up straight and immediately executed a response.

One of the boys on the bridge ran outside and pointed towards the orange dot, which was fast becoming lost in the sun haze and ship’s wake. He’d stay pointing at that figure until it was back aboard the ship. That was his special job, one cog in the machine now quickly grinding into gear.

This was my introduction to the agility and power of the Offshore Patrol Vessel. The HMNZS Wellington swung around violently leaving a trail of white foam in a tight J shape. When I say ‘tight’, I mean the wake looked like the curve you’d write on a blackboard if your English teacher was looking over your shoulder while you stood in front of a room full of English teachers with binoculars. It was very tight.

The ship tilted on a who-knows-what angle as the engines whined in the distance. I’m just glad I was on the port side otherwise the orange mannequin might have had surprise company.

We raced to the object, now only about two hundred metres away yet almost invisible despite nearly perfect sailing conditions. The idea, said he commander, was to position the ship between the prevailing wind direction and the orange speck. The boat would then come to “zero” (not “stop”, it never “stopped”) while the wind gently pushed the hulking grey behemoth toward the bobbing survivor. A swimmer splashed his way to the “rescue” before being hauled back aboard by a long rope.

The whole drill lasted 10 minutes. Once he’d saved the doll, the rescue swimmer was all smiles and didn’t really want to come back aboard at all. He earned his stripes in the Italian navy. To everyone’s relief, the mannequin was healthy but scared stiff and a little wet. The ship’s medical officer reported to the commander, without a hint of irony, that the orange-clad plastic humanoid had been stabilised in the medical bay, and, if a little clumsy, should be OK. And that was that. First drill over, everyone was awake.

A ship full of youth


By now, the Japanese ships were straining at the leash to start the exercises. But for me, the Wellington had already displayed an impressive manoeuvrability and competence in a way I simply wasn’t expecting. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be for the young officer pointing rigidly at the bobbing orange object in the pitch black of night. Maybe it’s different at night but we never did another man-overboard drill so I can’t tell you really.

That’s the other thing – it seemed like the entire crew was in their 20s. Many of them wouldn’t qualify for adult rates on car insurance, yet they were able to drive millions of taxpayer dollars’ worth of ship in tight circles around the Hauraki Gulf. Those officers should get a special discount for car insurance. Everything they did was professional and exact. There was no room for error, and they knew it.

I talked to many of them during the exercises and at the meals, which, by the way, consisted of some seriously good food. Join the navy, they say. See the world, they said. Eat like kings – they left out the best part!

The officers oozed excitement about training with the Japanese. The exercises were probably more important for the JMSDF officers-in-training. But the New Zealand ship communicated, watched, noted, critiqued, smiled, pointed, adjusted, studied and acted as if each second of the exercises was invaluable for them too.

The navigator noted how extraordinarily efficient and fast the Japanese were. He was a young man of 26 from a small town wanting to see the world. Already, he said, he’d visited every Pacific island, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Chile, America and dozens of other ports. His observations of the Japanese exercise were of deep respect as the trials were running. Then at one moment his demeanour of awe fell aside briefly during an anti-submarine exercise.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a 137 metre, 4000 ton frigate break unexpectedly out of formation. All four ships were in position abreast of each other equidistant of about 500 meters or so; I didn’t catch the official distance. The idea for the exercise is to both protect each other from suspected submarines and efficiently hunt for them. If they sail in single file or haphazardly, the submarine could pick them off and countermeasures might damage the other ships instead of the enemy sub. The tactic draws on sharp lessons from World War II.

It was all going smoothly before a young officer noticed the second Japanese frigate very quickly dropping out of formation far too early. His immediate comment was exasperation about how rigid the Japanese can be. He assumed the frigate misinterpreted a signal and was moving to the next phase of the exercise prematurely. The Japanese, he said, did not like unexpected changes in an exercise.

Suddenly another officer, peering through his binoculars ahead of the four galloping ships, noticed a triangular white splotch in front of the retreating JMSDF ship. The break in formation turned out to be some cowering ketch about a kilometre ahead of the exercise.

The poor fishermen must have run through every catch they’d made over the past 12 hours, mentally measuring the sizes of the fish in their chilly bin for any irregularities. Looking up to see three, fully-armed warships bearing down on them probably wasn’t the kind of company they expected. The coastguard can be annoying but this is ridiculous!

Little did they know, their tiny craft had forced hundreds of millions of dollars of metal and men to break up a multi-national exercise to skirt skilfully around the tiny white boat trying not to capsize it on the way past. The Wellington commander pointed out just how difficult it is to take evasive action like that without startling the rest of the exercise. The Japanese were good, he said, very good.

They're good but so are we


Four lucky New Zealand sailors were swapped with four Japanese sailors early in the exercise. Two Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats (RIBs) were launched from the Wellington, one with the sailors, the other with a cameraman and myself. The little boats were really quick, and the pilot kept calling me sir. I was told later that a US aircraft carrier moves faster than an RIB. Having raced across the water at top speed, I can confirm that if a ship thousands of times larger can move quicker that’s very impressive indeed.

The RIBs skimmed along the sea surface together before sidling alongside one of the Japanese craft. The Japanese admiral was handed a commemorative coin from the Kiwi sailors before the Japanese sailors climbed aboard the RIBs and we raced back to the Wellington. One of the RIBs stayed out for another hour or so but arrived back early.

Word reached the commander that the photographer had lost his balance slightly smashing his front teeth on a metal guardrail as the RIB launched over a wave. He had just finished thousands of dollars’ worth of orthodontic work earlier that year too and had lost a bit of blood from the wound. The commander visited the sailor in the medical bay but this writer chose to stay exactly where he was, thank you very much.

Aside from missing teeth and errant pleasure craft, the exercises were successful. The commander talked me through most of them but, to me, they looked like a bunch of ships floating on the ocean – which they were – but my point is I didn’t really know what I was looking at. The Japanese were slick, smooth and cut through the water like they’d been doing this for hundreds of years.

The New Zealand ship was keeping right up with them and proving to be just as competent helping to wash away any misconceptions about the force. I watched a young and determined navy performing on parity with a far larger Pacific peer.

So I asked the commander when it was a bit quieter what all this meant and where New Zealand’s Navy fits into the big scheme.

Lieutenant Commander Graham MacLean was born in Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), which, if you can see a map from where you’re sitting, looks suspiciously land-locked. I don’t know much about naval history but I’m pretty sure the Rhodesians don’t have much.

It made more sense when Cdr MacLean clarified that he’d spent eight years in the legendary British Navy participating in the opening coalition salvos of the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. Cdr MacLean has fired a shot in anger, which makes him more than capable of commanding a New Zealand Navy ship.

New Zealand's best asset


Cdr MacLean is a perfect example of New Zealand best naval asset: it’s adaptability and flexibility. That dynamism, he thinks, is cultural and in contrast with the larger navy paradigm. Perhaps that’s what the officer was referring to when he watched the Japanese frigate operate unexpectedly – he expected inflexibility from the Japanese.

Again, I don’t know too much about naval history but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t hear a Southern African accent with a commander’s lapel in the United States Navy. New Zealand appears comfortable prioritising an officer’s proven track record over familial history. Aside from the aforementioned Italian expatriate, there was also a Chilean sailor and a whole gaggle of Australians.

Cdr MacLean says the differences between a larger navy and a smaller fighting force are few in reality. To get everyone working together in exercises with the Japanese for instance, English tends to be the common form of communication. British Navy procedures are very similar to New Zealand’s.

“A lot of the parent doctrines are the same. And that works out well because larger navies operate on those doctrines as well, including Australia. So when it comes to interoperability there’s a common language,” he says.

“There’s also a communications doctrine for most navies. So language barriers don’t often matter. The Japanese planning teams speak English fluently. Initially there was some concern because we were making contact through their defence attaché. But now that we’ve interacted with them it’s been fine.”

The range of nationalities aboard HMNZS Wellington reflects how the navy has evolved over time. It’s now considered another profession, albeit one in which you get to fire guns. Choosing to sail away your days is just as good, if not better, as bashing the keyboard on the 15th floor in a CBD tower. And, because the whole crew wasn’t born in New Zealand, the pieces of the puzzle they bring expand the abilities of the entire operation.

Spending limited money wisely


The NZ Defence Force spends just north of $2 billion each year across the services. That’s miniscule compared with the US Navy, which spends double that figure on fuel. The Littoral combat ship programme cost $1.8 billion. The Arleigh Burke-class Aegis Destroyer programme set the US Navy back another $3 billion. And a new Virginia-class submarine will eventually soak another $5.4 billion.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two forces but the disparity between New Zealand’s responsibility and its capabilities could leave it behind as the rest of the Pacific ramps up defence spending.

“I know from a naval perspective, when we talk about keeping up with the contemporary technology space and military hardware, some of the upgrades will put our ships right up with the technologies of the other Western and Asian nations,” Cdr MacLean says.

“We’ll be partaking in multinational exercises with hardware and training that keeps us in the game at a high level.

“And slightly to the side of that is all the solid work New Zealand does, which is where we have a niche. The Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and search and rescue, mixed with the traditional warfare platforms of the frigates, gives us a spectrum of operations that’s very smart in terms of the budget we have.

“Where traditional militaries stick to their track with a clear divide between other government agencies (customs, fisheries, coast guard, etc), we’re leading in the multi-agency work. If we were hanging on to strictly our military functionality, I don’t think we’d be adding as much value for money to the taxpayer. There’s a whole lot more to the RNZN than meets the eye.”

He thinks New Zealand will have the best small nation navy in the world. The fighting force is an incubator of dynamic thinking and experimentation. The officers on deck each have personal stories of thinking about a better way to do their jobs and approaching a superior officer to get the fix implemented. Senior officers might be stuck in their ways but the young crew are at once more confident with their ideas and comprehending of new technology.

“As you’ve seen on board, there are 65 of us, it’s a very small crew on a very capable platform with an enthusiastic approach to the things we do. Wherever we can, we try to add value and sell the point that we’re out there doing the business,” Cdr MacLean says.

“Mixing government agencies together on compliance, fisheries, Customs and other missions increases the efficiency of New Zealand’s limited resources. And certainly, when we operate down with the fishing fleets, many of the Kiwi commercial ships say it’s great to see the navy out at the coalface enforcing the rules of New Zealand’s waters. We’re using our limited assets smartly,” he says.

Can we vote away poverty?


It's funny. When it comes down to it, I mostly agree with the core ethics and desires of most people’s politics. Take only the latest social justice crusade as an example: child and adult poverty.

I totally support making sure everyone in New Zealand gets a fair start with the same opportunities. Where we differ is how to fix those problems. It's a tough one and it will require a lot more thinking. But I'm sure there's a way to be a prosperous nation with everyone involved and healthy.

The trick is finding a way to do it that doesn't hurt people in the meantime. The only way to find that out is to take into account compromises and trade-offs inherent in a country and political system. Governing a country is difficult and leaders need to make a lot of compromises every day. I’m not telling you anything new but it bears repeating.

One of those compromises is how to deal with the poor and needy. If I'm to take my theory of government to its logical conclusions, I discover there's a certain amount of everything that societies can tolerate before those aspects reach a breaking point.

For instance, taking the one thing that truly cripples a viable nation – death of humans – a society can only withstand a certain amount of murders before that society fails. We'll do everything we can to stop the killing of any humans but, strictly speaking, there's always going to be a number when, if it's reached, there are suddenly too many murders.

That's a very realist, very stale and painfully scientific way of looking at things but it's accurate nonetheless. In a similar way, there is always an "acceptable" amount of poor people that every society can withstand. By acceptable, I mean an amount of people below a certain income level that doesn’t negatively impact the advancement of an economy.

This too is an imperative for nations. They can attempt to artificially bring the poor into wealth until every person is earning an income at above the poverty level (which, when you think about it, is impossible because the poverty level is really just a percentage of the average income, but I digress).

My point is that it's almost surely within the government's power to make everybody equally wealthy. So, assuming the government could make this happen, would it want to? I submit that, just like other imperatives, there are constraints on a government's ability to eliminate poverty.

For example, governments have a limited amount of funds in its budget and an unlimited amount of ways in which to spend those funds. This means there's an inherent trade-off in everything governments do.

The first thing they think about is the national imperatives and then they reject any spending on goals outside their particular country's constraints. What they're left with is a series of options with diminishing and cascading importance.

Taking just poverty as our example – and here I need to simplify things down to a cartoonish tier for brevity's sake – the government could decide to spend all of its remaining budget on bringing every citizen into middle-income standards of living.

Again, that's totally within the spectrum of "things governments can do." But it doesn't fall into the narrower bandwidth of "things governments need to do." And it's far outside the even tinier bandwidth called "things governments must do." These aren't trivial categories I'm inventing; in a very real way they reflect a government's day-to-day thinking process.

What I see is a government with a limited budget and a whole smorgasbord of competing social and economic interests, all with their hands out for a slice of that budget pie. Not all of them are going to get a slice, and some will only get a fraction of what they asked for.

And all of them will complain that either they did not get enough funds or some money went towards causes and efforts unworthy of attention. That's just human nature and the banal realities of living in a constitutional democracy.

Couple this with the imperative that New Zealand needs to actually exist as an concept until its next budget cycle, the government has to prioritise the funding of ventures or efforts which will create jobs, increase exports and generate more taxes.

After all, the only way to let more money be redistributed to the poor, thereby lifting them out of poverty, is for the government to feed economic efforts geared to increase wealth for the country.

In other words, if the government were to unilaterally choose to funnel an unbalanced amount of its budget into increasing the standard of living for all citizens equally to an arbitrary level (let's assume the "ideal" income level is $70,000 a year), efforts for generating taxes and jobs would inevitably miss out.

In the finance world, giving too much money to the poor by using some subjective ethical standard would be the same as creating hundreds of thousands of non-performing loans.

Increasing inequality as measured by Gini coefficients 
of income inequality, 1985 and 2008
Remember that economists are ethical people like you and me. It can be guaranteed they're trying to siphon as much of the public funds for the poor as they can. But they know if they unbalance the trade-offs too much, then everyone suffers. The poor would probably suffer more in an unbalanced budget than they do now.

Then again, maybe you’re happy with changing your eating habits if it means enough money will be left over to buy poor kids some shoes. But I have to ask, why aren't you doing this anyway? It's within your capability to change the ingredients of your lunch from ham to tuna sandwiches and donate the saved money to kids in need. You could do this tomorrow. It could happen almost right away.

I believe most people would do this, and many of you probably already give to charities. My issue is with the suggestion that we use public funds to achieve something ethical which you haven't already committed to doing yourself.

In other words, we’re suggesting the government uses everybody else's money – without their consent – to achieve a goal we each deem important. Now, I know that's the nature of taxes; the government spends money all the time technically outside of our consent. But they use metrics to measure the trade-offs and constraints of these actions because they know if they spend too much in one sector then the system spins out of alignment.

As with many social issues, poverty – and this gets a little too far away from my original argument (but it's still an excellent example) – the best remedy is combined social effort, not leveraged government effort. If you see poverty, do something about it yourself. Don't wait for the government to step in; you'll be waiting forever.

That kid over there doesn't have shoes? Buy a pair for her. That man doesn't have a job? Ask him to mow your lawn or clean your house. That boy has to walk 10 kilometres home? Give him some money for a bus.

The answer is always in our hands and there are few reasons to ever ask for government help. Not only do governments have enough things to worry about, it pays to ask where you think they get their money from in the first place. This won’t be news to you but all government funds come from taxes. That means everyone around you has much more money to help fellow citizens than the government could ever have.