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With the news, revealed on TVNZ's Breakfast, that Australia’s largest and most successful class action law firm is to fund a legal case against Southern Response that could cost the Government as much as $300 million, John Campbell takes a re-look at what we may have learnt about Southern Response, its culture and behaviour, from the State Services Commission’s Inquiry into the Use of External Security Consultants by Government Agencies, published at the end of last year.

On the 14th of January 2014, Nick Thompson, founding director of Thompson and Clark Investigations Limited (TCIL), “New Zealand’s leading security, corporate intelligence and protection agency”, as they proudly describe themselves on their website, met with Peter Rose, the CEO of the Government owned insurer Southern Response, and members of his “team”.

The next day, Mr Thompson emailed Mr Rose saying:

Just over an hour after he received that email, Peter Rose forwarded it to the “Ross” it had referred to: Ross Butler, Chairman of the Southern Response Board. “The security proposal with a couple of annotations from me”, Peter Rose wrote, in a short covering note. “Seems reasonable to me”, he concluded, with no full stop. 

Uncomfortable

Although it was all new, or seemed to be, there was something strangely received and accepted about the transaction. The meeting on the 14th, the email on the 15th, “the”, singular, “security proposal” – so swiftly prepared and attached. Peter Rose’s informal affirmation. If this was a tender or consideration process, it felt almost casual.

Still, what had seemed “reasonable” to CEO Rose, appears to have seemed less so to Chairman Butler. “I find some of the language a bit over the top”, he replied. And then Ross Butler told Peter Rose: “I am very uncomfortable that we get into any serious surveillance of people”.

We now know surveillance occurred. The “uncomfortable” happened. “These actions were wrong, plain and simple”, Megan Woods would say, almost five years later, in a Ministerial statement on the night Ross Butler offered his resignation and had it immediately accepted. “They are unacceptable to me and unacceptable to this government.”

Ross Butler resigned on the 18th of December, last year. This was a very big story, unprecedented in some respects, but it came a week before Christmas, with Parliament over for 2018, and New Zealanders who may (or may not) have had strong opinions on behaviour the State Services Commissioner himself described as “not consistent with how we should view democratic freedom”, gridlocked in shopping-mall car parks. 

Earlier that day, the State Services Commission had released its Inquiry into the Use of External Consultants by Government Agencies, including details of the surveillance Ross Butler had warned against but not prevented. And in their Report, written by “Mr Doug Martin and Mr Simon Mount QC”, we saw a little of how organisations in positions of power might work, in secret, to discredit the less powerful by defining their behaviour as hostile, threatening, or a risk to law and order, even when it’s not. 

Surveillance

The SSC Inquiry found “evidence that nine agencies have engaged external security consultants to carry out surveillance to varying degrees since 2004”, and that “Southern Response, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Crown Law and the Ministry of Social Development breached the Code of Conduct.”

That Crown Law, who clearly should know better, and the Ministry of Social Development, who deal with some of our most powerless and vulnerable citizens in the country, were breaching “Code" ought to be rigorously addressed.  

But it’s Southern Response’s use of “external consultants” that I wish to speak to here, because I realise that now my colleagues and I were there when much of this was happening, and I know many of the people involved.

To begin with, it’s helpful to quote from the SSC Report:

"The Inquiry found that over more than two years from 2014 to 2016, Southern Response engaged Thompson and Clark to attend five meetings of disaffected claimants. The initial motivation for this was to monitor and assess risks and threats to staff in the context of the highly charged post-earthquake environment in Christchurch. Southern Response mitigated those risks over time, for example through physical security measures and staff training in de-escalation strategies. Despite the reduced risk, the company continued using Thompson and Clark to monitor and in some cases record meetings. In this latter period, the primary benefit to Southern Response lay in monitoring its corporate reputation, rather than managing security risks."

The phrase “monitor and… record” is an accurate but muted description. Thompson and Clark were spying. The word “spy” is never used by the SSC, but it’s clear there were occasions on which that’s what TCIL were doing.

 The beginning of the two-year period specified in the Report coincided with a period of sustained coverage of post-earthquake Christchurch on (what was then) the TV current affairs programme, Campbell Live. And some of the people under “surveillance” (a word used on 288 occasions in the Report) were people whose Southern Response insurance stories we were telling.

Here we need to understand the rationalisation for Southern Response using Thompson and Clark. And again, I quote from the Report:

"From early 2014 until the Inquiry began in early 2018, there were… specific threats of harm and harassing behaviour towards individual employees and board members, including at least five direct death threats (which were reported to the Police), seven further serious threats of harm, and 22 cases of harassment or abuse, including the targeting of staff in the community outside working hours."

In short, the SSC found there were periods in which staff at Southern Response had received threats an employer should take seriously. And in those circumstances, the SSC says, Southern Response should indeed have gone to the Police, as they did.

But that wasn’t all they did: 

 "While Southern Response was genuinely concerned about health and safety risks, the Inquiry does not consider that health and safety obligations require or justify surveillance of individuals or groups by external security consultants in circumstances such as these. The company’s other actions to mitigate the risks were appropriate, including physical security measures, and staff training in de-escalation strategies. For more serious concerns, the proper response was to seek assistance from the Police."

And the Report tells us: 

“Southern Response did contact the Police on a number of occasions during the relevant period, and in the Inquiry’s view this was a sufficient response”.

 That’s a crucial phrase: “this was a sufficient response”. 

As we now know, Southern Response went further. Whether by accident, design, or perhaps the former becoming the latter, what the SSC calls “concern about health and safety risks”, appears to have become a kind of Trojan Horse. Having been brought in by Southern Response, TCIL began to do surveillance work so at odds with what’s acceptable for a Government department that, in his response to the Inquiry, the State Services Commissioner said: “I have laid a complaint with the New Zealand Police regarding the potentially unlawful recording of these meetings.”  

There was, after the fact, an attempt to reinforce TCIL’s work as a legitimate reaction to Southern Response’s concerns about the safety of its staff. So, also on the very busy day that was the 18th of December last year, Southern Response issued a media statement saying it “accepts the findings of the State Services Commission Inquiry and sincerely apologises to its customers for the inappropriate actions it identified”, whilst also reminding us that, as “an employer, Southern Response has a duty of care to provide a safe working environment, and to protect the health and safety of our staff.”

Yes. It does.

But the timeframe around “specific threats of harm and harassing behaviour towards individual employees” has been murky, and in that murk the rationalisation for TCIL’s work has arguably been stretched. 

In September 2016, in response to a written question from Labour’s Megan Woods asking if Southern Response had “hired any private investigators in the past three years; if so, why, at what cost and for what reason?”, the Minister, Gerry Brownlee, replied: 

“As of 15 September 2016, Southern Response has paid $177,349.56 for security services. I am not prepared to outline the full reasons for this expenditure beyond saying post the Ashburton MSD shooting incident, threats to staff were taken very seriously.”

And that was a persuasive rationalization, except for the timeline. The “Ashburton MSD shooting incident” happened on 1 September 2014, and, as we have already seen, Thompson and Clark submitted its “security proposal” to Southern Response eight months earlier, with surveillance beginning almost immediately.

So, Ashburton could not possibly have been a justification for TCIL being hired by Southern Response in the first instance, even if it added rationalisation later. But this is conflation, surely? The way things looked back on from a distance can concertina into a tighter bundle?  

To fairly assess what Southern Response was doing, why, and the extent to which it was operating transparently and in good faith, it’s useful to remove the distance, and the politics, and look directly at what was being done as it was being done – from the inside and in their own words. 

‘Invocing‘

Whatever Thompson and Clark were doing for Southern Response, they were being paid for it (with public money). And on February 18th, 2014, a month after their “security proposal” was sent to Peter Rose and forwarded to Ross Butler, TCIL sent in its first invoice.

The email from Nick Thompson to Southern Response had the subject heading “Invocing”. It was a spelling mistake that remained in the subject line in a series of emails, even when the word was spelt correctly in the body of the correspondence.

“Hi”, Nick Thompson wrote, “we will be flicking our first invoice through at the end of the month and wondering if we need a purchase order?”

And then, without further explanation, as we can see below, Nick Thompson added: "It's our plan to keep the info short."

Why? If Southern Response had genuine concerns about threats, and if hiring TCIL was a good faith means of addressing them, the process of invoicing would reflect the legitimacy of that work, surely? Why would TCIL tell Southern Response it would keep “the info short” on its invoices?

More on that shortly. But, first and quickly, let’s return to the “Invocing”, because, also in that February 18th email, planning “to keep the info short”, Nick Thompson asked: “if we need a purchase order?”

“Make it out to me. No order number necessary”, came the nine-word reply.

So, “info” being kept “short” and “no order number necessary”: whatever the relationship between TCIL and Southern Response, aspects of the paper work are unusually casual.  And also, as we will see, very slight.  

'How do we know what was said?'

On March 14th, 2014, still six months before the Ashburton homicides that were later cited as justification for Thompson and Clark’s surveillance, TCIL emailed Southern Response about some heated words said at a public meeting, including the suggestion that frustrated claimants visit SR Board members at home. The comments, some by lawyer Grant Cameron (who now says they were clearly tongue-in-cheek), had been recorded. This appears to be the first identified instance of such electronic recording for, by, or on behalf of TCIL. In short, although there is no suggestion of illegality here, it seems to be the beginning of what became the “uncomfortable”.

As TCIL and Southern Response emailed back and forth about how they might respond to potentially incendiary comments at the meeting, the idea of going to the Police is raised. This is what the State Services Commission later agreed Southern Response ought to have done. 

At 1:11pm on the 14th, in an email with the subject line “Police Complaint”, TCIL say: 

"I believe best course of action is: Lay a complaint with Police at ChCh Central."

But then came a question. And the answer it received would appear central to a determination of whether Southern Response and TCIL unknowingly stumbled into the surveillance that the SSC and the Minister would find so problematic, or whether some of those involved had a greater sense that they were straying towards the uncomfortable.

Remember, Southern Response and TCIL knew what was said, and therefore what they were complaining about, because the meeting was recorded. The question was, do they tell the Police that?

TCIL advises Southern Response not to. 

Four days later, on the 18th, in an email still with the subject line “Police Complaint”, Peter Rose emailed back to TCIL, saying “I did lay a complaint on Friday”, and asking: 

So, Peter Rose appears to have not told Police they have a recording, but rather to have stated they had “sources”, or “people who advise us”, who were at the public meeting and heard what was said. 

On March 19th, the very next day, Thompson and Clark responded to Peter Rose. The email was sent to CEO Rose and two other people at Southern Response, and said: 

In other words, from the first known instance of surveillance recording, TCIL and Southern Response appear to have determined to keep it secret, even from the Police, so as not to expose TCIL’s “role”. 

Collections

All of that took place in March 2014.

In December 2018, Southern Response, in its “Proactive Release” of the documents it had provided to the SSC, included a “Timeline of key events compiled for the Inquiry”.

The Timeline revisits the March 2014 public meeting, which we now know had been recorded, the fact of which was withheld from Police. The Timeline states: 

A public meeting to promote the class action was held in Christchurch on the evening of Thursday 13 March 2014, the meeting was attended and reported on by the media.

And it continues:

We understand this meeting was intended to gauge the support in the community for GCA to create a class action against Southern Response.

The Timeline then describes what Southern Response knew about the meeting:

From what was reported in media and social media, we understand that the meeting was emotionally charged.

The phrase “we understand” infers a kind of second-hand inexactitude. Hearsay. The bumbling recollections of other people. And yet this is the meeting that was recorded, and which was discussed, in detail, in the emails we have seen from March 2014, between Southern Response and TCIL.

And as for TCIL and the recording of the meeting? 

We are not aware whether TCIL attended the class action meeting in person, or how this information was obtained by them, but we acknowledge a reference in their email to a recording made of the meeting. We have not identified such a recording (or any transcript) from this meeting in Southern Response’s records. 

So, “a reference”, single, the use of the description “their email”, single when there are three emails explicitly referencing the recording (“I would not like to see the recording published”, “Should I say that we recorded the meeting or otherwise”, and “There should be no mention of the recording”), and all three of them are to or from Peter Rose, Southern Response’s CEO.

This is perplexing.

Money is helpful. We have seen before that TCIL were invoicing Southern Response for their work, and doing so in terms that weren’t forensically detailed.

So, what, exactly, did Southern Response pay Thompson and Clark for, in the middle of March 2014?

Invoice Date – 31 March 2014. Invoice number – INV-1397.

On the 13th of March, the day of that meeting was recorded, TCIL accrued costs for an airfare from Auckland to Christchurch, car hire in Christchurch, accommodation in Christchurch, per diems, airport car-parking back in Auckland, and a return flight from Christchurch the next day.

Who was that person and what did Southern Response pay them to do on the 13th of March, the night that meeting in Christchurch was “recorded”? Well, as always, the invoice from Thompson and Clark is brief:

"Collections attend Christchurch 13/14 March"

None of this come to light, at first. Not even in its striking brevity. And not even, as we have seen, to the police. But as details gradually started to emerge, and as more and more Official Information Act requests were filed asking what, exactly, TCIL had been doing for Southern Response, a series of emails were exchanged between Southern Response and Thompson and Clark about what would be made public.

In October 2017, three and a half years after Southern Response had paid TCIL for “Collections (to) attend Christchurch”, an SR staffer wrote to TCIL Director, Gavin Clark, informing him: 

We have received a request under the OIA to “provide a copy of all Thompson and Clark invoices tendered to Southern Response Earthquake Services Limited…”

Perhaps surprisingly, given this was public money, Southern Response told Gavin Clark: 

Just one hour after he received the email, Gavin Clark replied:  

So, even with hardly any flesh showing to begin with, the redactions weren’t chaste enough. In the end, even the wilfully (“It’s our plan to keep the info short”) paltry description of the work TCIL did for Southern Response in March 2014 (Collections attend Christchurch), was considered too much. 

Gain regular intelligence

As Southern Response and TCIL were doing their discreet work (“To get around disclosure, privacy and OIA issues, we normally set up a discreet email address for you – in Gmail or similar”, a TCIL staffer wrote to Peter Rose at the end of March, 2014), a bigger picture was taking shape, and an increasingly key strategy within it was to characterise Southern Response complainants as politicised and therefore not reliable, or as a threat to the agency’s staff.

If we return to January 15, 2014, and to the email we began with (from Nick Thompson to Peter Rose, and then forwarded on to Ross Butler), we find the “Security Risk Management Proposal” TCIL prepared for Southern Response.  

In it, TCIL inform SR:

Remember, this was the first formal engagement between Southern Response and Thompson and Clark.  They had only met the previous day.

The external rational for contracting TCIL’s services was, and has remained, threats to Southern Response staff, but language in internal documents often also spoke to a reputational risk.  

We can see this in the Southern Response “Communications Plan” for the 2014/2015 year, dated the 14th of April 2014.

Its twelve pages contain a “Communication Tactical Programme” for the year, including, as one of its “Communications Objectives”:

Mitigate risks to the Crown, Southern Response, Arrow International and other partners.

These weren’t only security risks, this was a “Communications Plan” - and the risks were to reputation, not just Southern Response’s, but also the Government’s.

Remember the document from January 15 2014, which included a description of 21 claimants as “known political activists”, and which was part of TCIL’s business winning pitch to the Crown Entity? That went even further than the Communication Tactical Programme. There, Southern Response, as Thompson and Clark’s Nick Thompson wrote in his proposal for them:

…understands that a vocal minority of issue motivated individuals have the ability to impact on the organisation’s reputation.

And how does Thompson and Clark suggest mitigating this? Well, in the original proposal document sent to Peter Rose and forwarded to Ross Butler with the comment “seems reasonable to me” (the document that therefore established the nature of the relationship between TCIL and Southern Response), there is a “TCIL RATES SHEET” attached. And amongst the “services” available: 

Covert surveillance. It’s there, in the proposal document, in January 2014. And, as the State Services Commission would tell us almost five years later, that’s exactly what Thompson and Clark did.

And here’s the extraordinary thing. Southern Response hired TCIL despite that rates sheet, despite Ross Butler’s own misgivings (“I am very uncomfortable that we get into any serious surveillance of people”) and, and surely this is salient in our assessment of the degree to which Southern Response might have been expected to be aware of such aspects of the T&C modus operandi, TCIL had done such surveillance work before, for Solid Energy. And the State Services Commission had spoken out against it, a fact referred to in the SSC’s Report in December of last year: 

Thompson and Clark’s activities were last considered by the State Services Commissioner in 2008. The company had used paid informants to infiltrate one or more groups on behalf of Solid Energy, drawing criticism from the government and the opposition. Following this, the State Services Commissioner warned departmental Chief Executives in February 2008 that purchasing covertly obtained information beyond what is required for statutory functions risks bringing the State Services into disrepute.

This was on the record. It had been reported on by Nicky Hager and Deidre Mussen in the Sunday Star Times, it had been raised in Parliament (by Green MP Keith Locke, in June 2007, who used the word “spy” and named “Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd”), it had provoked a “warning” from the SSC, and in May 2007, Trevor Mallard, the Minister for State Owned Enterprises, had said:

…the use of paid informants was not acceptable, and a step too far for a State-Owned Enterprise.

Despite all of that, TCIL and Southern Response also stepped too far. And the thing is, alongside responding to “concerns for the safety of its staff and contractors”, the acceptance of the Security Risk Management Proposal prepared for Southern Response in January 2014, suggests there was almost an inevitability about them doing so.

Some of that proposal is almost brazen. Nick Thompson includes a description of the kind of work TCIL can do: 

This sounds not unlike like the paid informant model, used by TCIL in its work with Solid Energy. And sure enough, when Nick Thompson lists some of TCIL’s previous clients, there, as if it had gone without controversy or hitch, is Solid Energy itself. 

So, a company with a known record of doing covert surveillance work, who referenced the client they’d done that covert surveillance work for, who included the cost of covert surveillance work in the Rates Sheet they attached to their security proposal, and who advised their Crown client to withhold from Police that they were receiving “recorded” information, did indeed do covert surveillance work. There may have been someone who was genuinely surprised by that, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have been anyone who had seen the Security Risk Management Proposal, seen the Rates Sheet, and knew something of TCIL’s history. 

One step ahead of the activists

It is a remarkable document, Thompson and Clark’s Security Risk Management Proposal.

Remember, Southern Response were a Crown owned insurance company, and the people in Christchurch vexed by it were policy holders exasperated by protracted and disputed insurance settlements. They were not, prior to the earthquakes, people that existed as a group at all.  

But TCIL implicitly characterises them with a broader and more pejorative brush.  “Pro-Animal Rights, Anti-GE, Environmental, Anti-War and other activist groups”, are referred to by Nick Thompson. All of whom are groups formed by people bound by belief or ideology. The Southern Response claimants who began holding meetings and staging protests almost three years after the February 2011 earthquake, weren’t bound by “activism” but a form of common litigation. Often, they were discussing a class action.

TCIL offered Southern Response their “Risk Management Package (RMP)”, which “allows organisations such as yours to maintain situational awareness and to stay one step ahead of the activists.”

And Thompson and Clark’s Security Risk Management Proposal continues: 

With our RMP service, Southern Response will enter into a programme which is contributed to by other organisations within Christchurch and New Zealand who are affected by issue motivated individuals / groups.

But again, this wasn’t an issue motivated group, it was a group of insurance company clients.

By taking this approach it allows Thompson & Clark to maintain an overview of the current situation and offer you the most up to date and relevant information in the most cost-effective way. We have found over the years that this approach has provided the best rewards for our clients and allowed them to keep a ‘rod in the water’.

Looked back on now, after the fog clearing done by the SSC, after all the departures, and the way years sift out obfuscation, examined through the words of those who were there, and who did, and did not, put their intentions in writing, the most striking thing about Southern Response’s recruitment and utilisation of Thompson and Clark is that what was being offered was so obviously what Southern Response went on to receive.

But it was also what they went on to be strikingly murky about disclosing, as if people knew, and knew not to say.

“Ad hoc security services as and when required”, was the “detail” of what TCIL did, given in Southern Response’s 2016/2017 Q4 Quarterly Report. It was cute. Like an in-joke. TCIL had been suggested (by who?) and interviewed, had immediately and quickly tabled a formal security proposal, and had been hired, paid and retained over more than two years. There was nothing “ad hoc” about the relationship, only its public description lacked singularity. And therefore, so too, did transparency about their role and intent.

On the 29th of July 2015, Cam Preston, perhaps the most vocal of Southern Response’s clients, a claimant whose insurance dispute had driven him to daily emailing of Southern Response and to once yelling very loudly at Peter Rose during a protest gathering, was visited at home by Police.

The transcript of that visit makes for extraordinary reading.

Police Sergeant: Hey ah any reason why we might be here. Just really I'm um, um, Southern Response probably are not a wee bit happy, a wee bit happy, with some of your responses to them, or um, they feel like they're being a bit intimidated from you.

Cameron Preston: Ah no, I honestly, in all my correspondence with them, I've only ever been

nothing but professional.

Police Sergeant: You haven't overstepped mark or anything like that I don't believe

And no charges were ever laid. But the Police were there, at his home, cold calling, no letter or phone message to say they were on their way, no invitation for him to pop in to the station and quietly see them for a bit of a calming chat, and somehow the media found out about it and Cam Preston, whose exasperation had taken the form of a
tenacious and singular campaign, and who had appeared on Campbell Live numerous times, and was well known to me, our reporters and our producers, all of whom knew the strength of his feeling and none of whom regarded him as anything approaching a threat, was effectively being held up as a salutary message.

This is what happens if you speak out too much. Indeed, the Stuff article about the visit even ended: Police did not answer questions on the case but confirmed they had visited Preston's house "in relation to concerns raised by Southern Response".

The visit to Cam Preston, at home, was on the 29th of July 2015. At 4:54 on the 28th, a senior Southern Response staff member sent an email to 13 recipients, telling them:

The Police have advised that they intend to visit (name redacted) tomorrow morning.

The email continues:

The Minister’s office has been briefed and they were complementary (sic) of our stance.

Complimentary? The Minister’s Office? Why?

A week before Police visited Cam Preston at home, the Sergeant seemingly bewildered by his own presence there, TCIL held a training session in Addington for what they called “First Responders”.

Emails between Gavin Clark and Southern Response in the days before it occurred, talked of “role play scenarios”, a “bug sweep” (“our bug man arrives in town late afternoon”, Gavin Clark wrote, as if he was travelling with Ruud Kleinpaste), a “security review”, “panic buttons”, and two “residential reviews” of what look likely to have been the homes of Southern Response staff.

The training session contained a PowerPoint presentation, and in it there’s that famous photo of Cam Preston shouting at Peter Rose at a protest. CEO Rose is standing there, his hands behind his back, listening in the fashion of somehow who has no choice but to listen and who wishes he was anywhere but there. Steve Gurney is standing to one side, his hands in his pockets, mildly reflective. Ali Jones is looking into the crowd, her hand resting gently on Cam Preston’s shoulder. Everyone looks tired.

Somehow, it’s the abiding image of Southern Response’s sense that the world outside could not be trusted. The PowerPoint shot. The them and us moment. Hey everybody, this is what we’re up against.

But Fairfax published another photo, less side on. And when the distance is not compressed by the right angle view, you see Cam Preston is still shouting, loudly, yes, but beyond Rose, towards the crowd, as if demanding the CEO look out at something.

As I was writing this, an email about the PowerPoint emerged, somehow, very belatedly, from the depths of the cyber-tunnels that once went so busily back and forth between TCIL and  Southern Response. Those heady days.

It was from Gavin Clark, responding to OIA request from Cam Preston for the release of material including the PowerPoint. And, once again, the determination was to provide as little as possible. Gavin Clark was explicit about this:

“….if it were publicly known that T&C discussed actions by specific individuals in a training package to Southern Response then this could quite possibly open a can of worms and cause our business major disruption…”

The “specific individuals”, Cam Preston’s is the only photo that hasn’t been blacked-out, but there appear to be three others, were presumably, like Cam Preston himself, policy holders exhausted to the point of high volume and (probably) irksome frustration by the protracted nature of their insurance non-settlement. But somehow, in the swirling plug-hole water that became the TCIL – Southern Response narrative about themselves, they became “disaffected individuals”, “extreme”, and “vexatious”, and in the end, being described like that became the end that justified the means. 

“I do not believe that the release of this slide would be in the public interest” wrote Gavin Clark in that February 2016 email. But by then it seems uncertain how many people involved in this increasingly fraught toing and froing had any firm handle on what the public interest actually was.

Ashburton does remind us, vividly, brutally, how important it is to not to be casual about this. That safety is safety, full stop. That everyone has the right to go to work and be safe there.

But looked back on, something more than safety was behind the relationship between TCIL and Southern Response. Something that seems less than healthy. A circling of the wagons. A tribal secrecy. A reputational concern, as well as a safety one.  The blurring of lines, until the lines had gone. 

To return to the State Services Commission Inquiry, released in December:

…the Inquiry does not consider that health and safety obligations require or justify surveillance of individuals or groups by external security consultants in circumstances such as these.

“I want to be clear,” said Peter Hughes, when the SSC Inquiry was released, “As Head of State Services, I take responsibility for what has happened here. And I will fix it.

“I apologise unreservedly to those individuals whose privacy has been intruded on by state servants or their contractors.”

When the SSC released its Inquiry in December of last year, I flew to Christchurch for 1 News and sat in Cameron Preston’s back yard with him and two other Southern Response clients, who had found themselves under that umbrella surveillance.

One of them was a life-long National Party voter, not given to so-called activism of any form, despite TCIL’s inference that the complaints and disputes and protests of people unhappy with their insurance settlements, or lack of them, was a form of political activism.

The third person was a neighbour of Cam Preston’s. A man who seemed to have lived with some gently held and unremarkable assumptions about his life in the New Zealand democracy. As it dawned on him, what the SSC were saying Southern Response and TCIL had done, he began to cry. Not sobs, not anything so dramatic, but the tears of a man who’d truly believed in something and found it wasn’t so.

Did Southern Response know what was happening? As the SSC Inquiry stated:

 …the unusual nature of the engagement should have put Southern Response on notice of the need for further care.

There was care, yes, but much of it seems to have been focused on something less than transparency and disclosure. The care was reputational. The care was self-interest. The care was a very soft-focus form of truth.

Let’s end where we began, with that very early email, from January 2014, in which Ross Butler told Peter Rose, “I am very uncomfortable that we get into any serious surveillance of people”. 

Ross Butler was responding to Peter Rose, who had forwarded Nick Thompson’s email containing Thompson and Clark’s initial security proposal.

At this stage, there was no bad faith, no surveillance, nothing to hide. At this stage, the SSC would have said they were blameless. The narrative was entirely reasonable. Thompson and Clark were being hired to keep Southern Response staff safe. End of story.

But even there was a sense of this not quite being whole. Of something unspoken going on.

Start with the first email, from Nick Thompson to Peter Rose. “T&C Proposal”, its subject heading reads, which is exactly what it was. Rose forwards it to Butler. “T&C Proposal”. Yes. It was, and that’s what it contained.

And then, so early in their relationship, in that email in which he uses the word “uncomfortable” to describe possible “surveillance”, Ross Butler says: 

An OIA? On what? And, so very early on, why would that be of concern? 

Already the curtains appear to be closing.

Security? Concealment? Both?

Accident? Design? Both?

Four days later, the exchange resumed. An email from a Southern Response comms team member to Peter Rose. It contained more from Nick Thompson. And sure enough, to return to the word TCIL would use when they suggested creating a Gmail account to “get around disclosure, privacy and OIA issues”, they were “discreet”. This time the email’s subject header contains no mention of “T&C” at all. Instead, just as suggested, it has the heading: “visitors and board security”.

Even then, when surely there was nothing to hide, before the covert surveillance had even begun, the uncomfortable was not only taking shape, it was disappearing from public view.