The most inadequate parts of the Budget Estimates of Appropriations are the sections on the intelligence services, the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau. For example, the Government Communications Security Bureau budget goes up from $59 million to $70 million without any explanation whatsoever, without a breakdown into capital expenditure or projects, or anything. On Budget day, the Dominion Post asked me what the increase was for, and I hazarded the guess that it was for further processing for the US National Security Agency of the communications intercepted at the Government Communications Security Bureau’s station at Waihopai. I said the Government Communications Security Bureau was reputed to be hiring more speakers of Middle-Eastern languages for such tasks. A Government Communications Security Bureau spokesperson, Hugh Wolfenson, responded that “the vast majority” of the increase in this year’s Budget was tied to the building of the Government Communications Security Bureau’s new Wellington headquarters. So, as a diligent MP guarding the taxpayers’ purse, I thought I would find out if that was true, and what the figures actually were.
On 26 May I lodged a written parliamentary question to the Prime Minister, asking what this year’s Budget allocation was for the new building. The reply on 3 June was that he would not tell me. Mr Key tried to hide behind the Public Finance Act, which prescribes the minimum information the Government Communications Security Bureau needs to provide, which is basically the gross budget for the year. But, as we all know, the Public Finance Act provides only the minimum requirements for Government department reporting, not the maximum requirements. The whole process we are involved in, including in the select committee estimates examination, is to get more information on departmental spending beyond that provided in the official Budget documents, and beyond the minimums prescribed in the Public Finance Act. All Ministers comply with requests for extra expenditure detail, except the Minister responsible for the GCSB, the Prime Minister.
John Key says that “it is established practice” not to say how much money is being spent on anything, and that of course is not an adequate reason. Everyone recognises that the Government Communications Security Bureau, along with the SIS, has to be a little bit more secretive in these matters than other Government departments, but the bureau still has to have a good reason not to disclose particular information where there is absolutely no security concern. Clearly, the expenditure this year on the headquarters of the Government Communications Security Bureau is not in any way a matter of security concern and should be disclosed. As I act for the taxpayer I will continue to push for such disclosure.
As we have seen recently, including in the latest information on ministerial spending, transparency and openness is a good thing. Of course, the transparency in Government Communications Security Bureau spending will be less than for other departments, but zero transparency is not acceptable and is a recipe for inappropriate and excessive spending. Mistakes are made, even when there is a fair amount of transparency, as was the case a year or two back when the Defence Force purchased 105 light armoured vehicles at a cost of around $700 million, but they have not been used in Timor-Leste or in the Solomons, and they have not been used by our provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan, because they are not strictly useful for peacekeeping duties. They are too tank-like and closed in to appeal to the population among whom our troops are doing peacekeeping work.
The only light armoured vehicles that have been used are the three that have been sent to Kabul to help the SAS contingent, but of course this is an operation that is not supported by a majority of New Zealanders. Last month the Dominion Post reported that 70 percent of Kiwis favour either a full or partial withdrawal of our SAS forces from Afghanistan, and the British and Polish Governments—two of the main contributors of forces to Afghanistan, outside of the US forces—are making plans to get out, over the next year. The war that the SAS has been involved in is a pretty pointless war, which has unfortunately only strengthened the extremist Taliban, rather than weakened it. There has been some good capital spending in defence, on a multi-role vessel and on six new patrol boats, which already are providing useful work around the coast.