A $35 million boost to fight counter-terrorism is the bulk of new money in last week’s Budget responding to the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack.

The 2019 attack on two city mosques, which left 51 people dead, was one of the country’s darkest days, sparking a Royal Commission. Its report, made public in December 2020, made 44 recommendations, all accepted, in principle, by the Government.

In last week’s Budget, $67 million was apportioned to programmes related to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, including an extra $22.6 million for the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), and $12.6 million more for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

Scant detail is contained in Budget documents, which say only the money is for “counter-terrorism activities”, and was apportioned in response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques.

“With regards to the intelligence agencies, protecting national security means I cannot provide operational specifics beyond what is in the Budget documents,” says Andrew Little, the Minister Responsible for the NZSIS and GSB.

Little, Lead Coordination Minister for the response to the Royal Commission report, says in an emailed statement new funding demonstrates the Government’s ongoing commitment to responding to threats and keeping New Zealanders safe. “March 15 and the subsequent attack in New Lynn both show we are not immune from terrorist threats.”

All up, in last week’s Budget the GCSB got an extra $46 million; the SIS $26 million.

The Royal Commission report said the SIS, a human intelligence agency, was rebuilding in the years leading up to 2019, and its counter-terrorism effort was largely devoted to the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism.

The GCSB, meanwhile, uses signals intelligence. The Commission’s report said the agency had the potential to make a “key contribution” to counter-terrorism, “because it can collect information that no other public sector agency can collect”.

It was noted, however, the GCSB had “experienced delays” in developing new technical capabilities “required to respond to well-understood trends in communications and the threatscape”.

Since 2017/18, the combined budgets of the organisations have more than doubled to $343 million.

“We don’t know if this is money well spent,” says Aliya Danzeisen, of the Islamic Women’s Council. Photo: David Williams

The other $32 million in last week’s Budget tagged to responding to the Terror Attack Royal Commission’s recommendations is spread across several Government bodies – the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), the upgraded Ministry for Ethnic Communities, and the Ministry of Social Development.

Abdur Razzaq Khan, of the Federation of Islamic Associations (FIANZ), says the Government is making a significant investment in responding to the recommendations,

What’s important now is “the quality of the deliverables” by agencies, Razzaq says, and ensuring there’s adequate budget to fulfil all the Commission’s recommendations.

“With security agencies like GCSB and NZSIS getting the largest chunk of the budget, the community has high expectations. However, our single biggest concern is for the welfare of the victims, since we know that many of them are still suffering.”

Aliya Danzeisen, the Islamic Women’s Council’s national coordinator, says before the 2019 attack, the security and intelligence agencies didn’t listen to her group’s warnings of the threat from violent right-wing extremism.

Also, they assured they were focusing on many different threats – when in fact, they had a disproportionate focus on Islamist extremist terrorism, the Royal Commission confirmed.

Danzeisen points out the Government is yet to complete the Commission’s second recommendation, to establish a new national agency to coordinate strategic intelligence and security issues.

Where is the oversight of existing agencies getting millions of dollars extra in taxpayer funding, she asks.

“We don’t know if this is money well spent. But the evidence is showing that it hasn’t been in the past and so how do we have the assurances it is or will be now?”

Earlier this year, Little told Newsroom the new agency could be expected to happen earlier this year, adding a little cryptically: “The thing being considered is the ‘what’ as opposed to the ‘whether’.”

“Delivering these recommendations will help to ensure a safer and more inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand for everyone.” – Jacinda Ardern

The Royal Commission was told by one submitter the 2019 massacre was a “catastrophic failure” of the national security system.

“My assumption is that the system was not looking and never had a chance to prevent the attack – hence the systemic failure.”

Another submitter, from the Muslim community, summed it up thus: “They were watching us, not watching our back.”

Members of the Muslim community reference group told commissioners: “We warned them of dangers, and they didn’t listen.”

Danzeisen is disappointed by the slowness of the Government’s response.

It is already three years since the terror attack. Yet it will take three more years, and cost $5 million, to develop a “national strategic framework for preventing and countering violent extremism”. Another $5.8 million has been set aside for researching the same issue over the next four years.

“Why is it needed now and why hasn’t it been done?” Danzeisen asks.

Broader questions are being asked about the response to the March 15 attacks.

The massacre by a white supremacist in Buffalo, in the United States, was inspired by the Christchurch terrorist. Yesterday, RNZ reported: “It seems social media content that radicalises people in the first place is still spreading as wide and as easily as ever.”

In yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said police still aren’t doing enough to collect information on hate crimes.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says in a statement the Government’s work was always going to be phased, and significant progress is being made.

“Delivering these recommendations will help to ensure a safer and more inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand for everyone.”

The Government is establishing a $2 million grant fund “to support community-led initiatives to foster social cohesion”, but it’s a one-off.

“This is only one part of the Government’s plan for increasing social inclusion,” says Minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities Priyanca Radhakrishnan, who is also Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment.

“Details around the fund are still being confirmed and we expect to make further announcements later this year.”

$10.8m for ‘system response’

The Government is putting aside $10.8 million over the next two years for its “system response”, led by DPMC, “in advance of decisions on implementation of the Royal Commission’s ‘machinery of government’ recommendations”.

Over the next two years, $600,000 will be spent on He Whenua Taurikura (“a country at peace”), a hui on countering terrorism and violent extremism.

There’s also $3.3 million to help at-risk communities with security projects.

The Ministry for Ethnic Communities got almost $10 million extra in the Budget, for “additional engagement capability” and for its “policy and data capability”.

Radhakrishnan says the money will “support the Ministry to work with other government agencies to improve the wellbeing of ethnic communities and also monitor government progress in these areas”.

In line with Royal Commission recommendations, this “enables the Ministry to work with other government agencies to lift cultural competence in the public service”.

Fundamental questions remain which, to be fair, are hard to answer.

Are security and intelligence agencies doing a better job than they were in 2019? Is the country demonstrably safer?

“We know that some communities feel unsafe and are unable to access opportunities because of attitudes or behaviours that are discriminatory and make them feel excluded,” Radhakrishnan says.

“The Government has been working on a whole-of-government approach to strengthen social cohesion and is working collaboratively with other sectors to draft a strategic framework and monitoring regime.”

Razzaq, of FIANZ, comes back to a fundamental point.

He says the Muslim community is grateful for Government money being spent on implementing the Royal Commission recommendations, which will benefit all of society.

“But we can’t forget, what was the catalyst for this? And these were the 51 shuhada, the 40 bullet-injured victims, and all those witnesses. And their financial wellbeing has to also be accounted for.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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