The list of state agencies using these private investigators to spy on lawful protesters continues to grow, and it is an assault on democracy, writes Frances Mountier.
I was distressed to learn last month that a government owned company, Southern Response, had been using private investigators Thompson & Clark to spy on victims of the Christchurch earthquake. They have form. Just over a decade ago, a paid infiltrator from the same “corporate intelligence” company, working for Solid Energy, was sent into our anti-mining group Save Happy Valley, where he monitored our movements. They placed tracking devices on some people’s cars, and installed a private surveillance camera on public LINZ land. When it all came out, prime minister Helen Clark said it was “unacceptable behaviour from a state-owned enterprise” and that it must stop.
In the wake of reporting this week that yet another government agency – this time the Department of Conservation – hired Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd to keep tabs on anti-1080 activists, the questions arise: who isn’t Thompson & Clark working for, and why are activists being categorised as “threats” by the agencies that are supposed to be working for the New Zealand people?
The list just keeps growing. News broke in March that the private investigators had been employed by Southern Response, a state insurer, to spy on victims of the Christchurch quake. Next it was revealed that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has maintained a working relationship with Thompson & Clark. As part of a give-and-take relationship Thompson and Clark was monitoring climate activists including Oil Free Wellington, Greenpeace and Climate Justice Taranaki and briefing MBIE on their findings. This prompted the State Services Commission to expand its inquiry into the use of private investigators by state agencies, launched following the Southern Response revelations, to include MBIE.
It doesn’t stop there. It has also been reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was using private spies to keep watch on anti-TPPA protesters in the lead up the February 2016 signing in Auckland. The hundreds of police rostered on for the day weren’t enough for MFAT: they paid Thompson & Clark $12,000 for two days work.
Thompson and Clark labels groups of ordinary New Zealanders who come together to oppose various government and private industry schemes as “issue motivated groups” or their acronym “IMGs”. Thompson & Clark package up and sell IMGs as dangerous extremists to government agencies and companies. They do their best to hype the potential security threat, and often use community events planned by local activists to alert potential clients that they are “at risk”. They even had a newsletter called National Extremism that largely included recycled content from Aotearoa Indymedia or media releases and which was sold to government departments for thousands of dollars.
The danger of Thompson & Clark is that its whole business model is working to stop democracy, to curtail citizens’ rights to have meaningful input in the political sphere. Fundamentally they aim to delegitimise, stigmatise and criminalise people who are exercising their freedom of speech.
In Taranaki, they set up “TOGS” – the Taranaki Oil and Gas Security working group – a cross-agency government oil-and-gas security working group involving oil industry reps, the police, and MBIE, with, of course, Thompson & Clark as chair. The whole point of this group was seemingly to work to undermine political protest, to disrupt community organising, to dampen the effectiveness of democratic change, to control the media narrative and to make people who are using their freedom of speech speechless. All of which helps Thompson & Clark return a profit.
Prime Minister Ardern has rightly expressed outraged about the company’s activities, saying it was “totally inappropriate” and that government departments should not be using them. But as Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell noted, Thompson & Clark remains on the government’s list of preferred providers, and as importantly, we have all been promised an end to this kind of behaviour before.
But it seems nothing ever really changed: someone didn’t get the memo. Today, I am part of Oil Free Wellington, a climate justice group surveilled in this most recent spying episode for our work in trying to halt offshore oil drilling in the Pegasus Basin. Thompson & Clark’s spying operations have been to the detriment of campaigns on social justice, war, the climate, the environment and animal rights. It has gone on essentially uninterrupted for more than a decade, and it needs to stop today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.