Laurie Stowell | New Zealand Herald | 27 December, 2018
Revelations that the Government used private investigators to spy on protesters opposing Trans-Tasman Resources’ (TTR) seabed mining application have provoked outrage.
And one the groups targeted, South Taranaki iwi Ngāti Ruanui, is calling for a review of New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, the government body that manages oil, gas and minerals and issues permits for exploration.
A bombshell report last week, following an inquiry by the State Services Commission, laid bare Government monitoring of groups seen as “security threats”, often through the use of private investigation firm Thompson & Clark.
The security company was given the profiles and newsletters of groups opposing oil and gas exploration and ironsand mining, such as that sought by TTR – and Ngāti Ruanui was one of the main opponents.
“The report says we were monitored and the only other word for that is spying,” Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui chief executive Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said.
The iwi is making an Official Information Act request for more information and may make a formal complaint, referring to the spying as “corrupt practices”.
Ngarewa-Packer said the iwi was “outraged but unsurprised” to discover the Government had used private investigators to spy on them.
The 150-page State Services Commission report shows “issue-motivated groups” such as the Ngāti Ruanui iwi were treated as security threats by several government departments.
It says the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which is responsible for NZ Petroleum and Minerals, breached its code of conduct by failing to maintain an appropriate level of objectivity and impartiality.
“MBIE’s management of its regulatory responsibilities in the petroleum and minerals area … showed evidence of poor regulatory practice.”
The inquiry uncovered system-wide failings across the public service, including a pattern of behaviour where public servants developed inappropriately close relationships with Thompson & Clark.
The monitoring started during Helen Clark’s Labour Government, with one instance in 2002, but Ngarewa-Packer said it ramped up during the last National-led Government when Simon Bridges was Energy and Resources Minister.
In 2015 he put up the “largest ever” block offer for oil and gas exploration. New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals was making “a huge effort” to bring business into the country.
Asking for opposing groups to be “monitored” called into question every decision it has made during that period, Ngarewa-Packer said.
“It makes the Crown Minerals process look corrupt.”
She said MBIE’s poor regulatory practice and bias toward iwi and stakeholders meant the ironsands exploration process “was undermined from the start”.
“What we suspected for years has sadly been confirmed – not only have we been fighting poor practising industry but we’ve also been fighting the officials charged with providing an impartial process. New Zealanders need to trust that those at the forefront of our democratic process will have a neutral view, instead of lobbying for private industry interests.”
The South Taranaki tribe was one of a number of groups opposing the ironsand mining application by TTR. During the mining proposal hearings, its people felt their concerns were ignored and officials were biased.
“We feel like we are up against not just TTR, but the officials as well.”
It seemed paranoid at the time, but Ngarewa-Packer now believes that treatment was part of a prevailing behaviour and culture.
She called for a full review of NZ Petroleum and Minerals and full disclosure. “Taxpayers and iwi need assurance the Government can be trusted.”
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said last week that new standards would strengthen transparency and consistency across government agencies.
“Any decision to use surveillance requires careful judgment,” Hughes said. “It must be lawful, it must be proportionate, and it must be ethical.
“It is never acceptable for an agency to undertake targeted surveillance of a person just because they are lawfully exercising their democratic rights – including their right to freedom of expression, association and right to protest.
“That is an affront to democracy.”