The justification of keeping the country safe through Covid-19 appears to have emboldened the Government to fund ever more overreaching communications efforts.
Much of this effort sits, at least notionally, in plain sight, like the $21 million in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) coffers this year to spend on Covid-19 public information and engagement.
But tracking the work that this, and many other such pockets of money, have bought is another matter.
Often, upon scrutiny, the funds appear to have purchased advice or research, the details of which are so closely guarded it is impossible to know what was achieved.
At other times, such money has produced enough communications spin to blur in its vortex the line between public service and partisan ends.
It's not that communications plans and strategies are unnecessary in government work.
Done well, they are objective and explanatory; they can help to engender both public trust and a willingness by the population to follow new and even extraordinary rules.
But just as the risk of overreach in drafting and extending extraordinary rules is great and ever-present, so too is the risk of over-building the communications apparatus that goes with them.
Take, for example, the Government's interest in New Zealanders' compliance with new rules.
Through the pandemic, the public has been watched closely. The Government has paid advertisers and influencers to persuade us (including on NZME platforms). Mobility data has been scrutinised, and police enforcement tallied. Polls have been commissioned and research into our views and propensities commissioned.
The work has happened across many departments (DPMC, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) which makes overreach hard to see.
But sometimes it is glimpsed, for example, through documents released under the Official Information Act.
That's how something called "social conversation analysis" came to light last year.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has answered a handful of questions about these "regular social media listening reports" which appear to constitute a kind of mass surveillance through social media.
DPMC spent $133,894.50 on 52 of them in the past financial year.
The work, still ongoing, is done by a New York-headquartered company, with no New Zealand office.
We don't know what sites this company is scraping information from, or, indeed, what mechanism it is using for data collection and analysis.
Without more details, New Zealanders are simply paying to eavesdrop on themselves.
Hipkins says the topics canvassed are all Covid-19 related, but we've had to take his word for it.
I asked DPMC to release the reports under the OIA in early December last year.
In January, the department extended the timeframe for responding, and then missed its own deadline two weeks ago.
Last week, Hipkins said I should expect a response "shortly". There's been no word since then.
The phrase "strikes the right balance" is a favourite of Government ministers seeking to justify one course of action or another. But New Zealanders need to consider the possibility that surveillance in the name of safety has gone too far.
Last year, I spent considerable time unravelling the $134,000 in public relations spend the Cabinet approved in 2020 to shape and control the information that the public was fed about Covid-19 vaccine purchasing.
That steep price bought the full-time work of one public relations specialist over some four months (Karl Ferguson).
His work involved plenty of unremarkable public relations effort. But it also produced vaccine announcements and key messages that were carefully timed and choreographed to flatter Government ministers, including in the midst of the 2020 election campaign.
Weekly reports to ministers, including the Prime Minister (released under the OIA), catalogue considerable efforts to gain positive media coverage. And unsurprisingly absent in any of the contributing work were thorny details like the belated Cabinet funding for vaccine purchasing that delayed a first meeting with Pfizer for more than six weeks.
In this context, 21 "Covid commentators" were selected for repeated advance briefings, arranged by Ferguson, ahead of the public announcements of vaccine purchase agreements.
Most were academics, selected by officials because of the likelihood they would be sought out for comment by the media.
The Prime Minister's office says the briefings were an effort to promote good science and parry falsehood. But keeping us safe from "misinformation" can serve a remarkably flexible array of ends.
It is hard to know if any of these commentators were nudged by the briefings to speak more favourably of the vaccine procurement work than they otherwise would have. But it seems clear from Government documents that it formed part of the purpose.
It is at the very least unwise for a government to draw the independent voices of civil society so close to the mechanism of its own politicised spin.
Public safety has served as a useful excuse for partisan communications well beyond the Covid response too. Perhaps the most flagrant example has been the Government's campaign to sell local councils and the public on water reform.
In 2020, the Department of Internal Affairs hired old Saatchi & Saatchi NZ adman Kim Wicksteed to draw up a report on the task of communicating the Three Waters Programme and provide a marketing and communications strategy.
The DIA won't say what it spent on Wicksteed's advice (I put the question to the department's media team; the department, without consultation, thanked me for my OIA request, and, on follow-up, refused to provide answers to the original questions in an ordinary course timeframe because an OIA process was underway).
But the cost is likely additional to the $4m for the Three Waters "public information and education campaign" the Cabinet approved in December, 2020.
"Unlike the public service campaigns that require an information first approach, we need to frame the challenge and get the country supporting these reforms ... this will require inspirational, emotive marketing..." Wicksteed recommended.
We know this marketing as propaganda and, true to the strategy, the advertising component of the campaign warned of "nasties" in the water, and presented among its cartoon images a slime-covered child swimming, a sick duck and other dirty, unhappy creatures, handily sidestepping any connection between the Government's professed cause of "safe and reliable water services" and its plan to remove water assets (control is an important test of ownership) from local councils and ratepayers.
The ads were knocked back by the Public Service Commission, which warned they risked advocating Government policy rather than explaining it. But it is wholly unsurprising Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta stoutly defended them in the name of safety.
Public safety is a powerful motivating force for government and a rationale for its great reach and control. It is unsurprising, perhaps, after two years of pandemic, but it needs to be rolled back, and the PR machine that gave it such currency must go with it.
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