Friday, May 01, 2020

The pandemic and national security priorities

There's an opinion piece in Stuff today arguing that viruses are a national security issue, and we need a budget to fight them. Its completely correct, and under the "always fighting the last war" principle, it'll probably happen. But our lack of such a budget highlights the serious mismatch between our national security priorities and our budget.

New Zealand supposedly takes an "all hazards, all risks" approach to national security. What this means is that instead of just looking at things like war and terrorism, our national security infrastructure is also supposed to worry about things like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, and pandemics. A list of topics of ODESC meetings in 2017 showed that they met on things like Myrtle rust (a kiwifruit disease), the contamination of Havelock North's water supply (an infrastructure failure), severe weather, and the Kaikoura earthquake, as well as "traditional" national security threats. And in reality, natural hazards make up the vast majority of threats which actually impact us and affect our lives.

But that balance of risk is not reflected in government funding. Last year, we spent roughly $5 billion on defence, $170 million on the GCSB, and $100 million on the SIS - all of which is about traditional threats AKA supporting other people's wars and hegemonic dick-waving power-games. By contrast, we spend a paltry $18 million on civil defence - basicly everything else. Obviously, we get a huge civil defence value from NZDF - those soldiers are useful for laying sandbags and rescuing people and shipping in emergency supplies after all sorts of natural disasters - but its still a huge funding imbalance. And if you take a risk management approach, looking at likelihoods and consequences, its exactly arse-backwards.

So I hope that when all of this is over and we have the inevitable rethink, we'll refocus our funding to match our actual threats. That should mean more money for disease surveillance and planning, because as we've just seen, the impacts are enormous. But it should also mean a general refocus on the things that actually threaten us, and away from the things that don't. Because while the people in uniforms want to think about wars all the time, and the spooks worry about imaginary terrorists (while completely ignoring the real ones because they're white), those aren't the things which actually threaten us. And their enormous budgets are therefore mostly waste.