Last year the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques presented its report to the Governor-General.
A key rationale behind establishing the commission was to help restore the public's confidence in New Zealand's security and intelligence agencies. That is why the Royal Commission's report was prepared for public release and that is why there is no secret version of the report.
At 800 pages in length, however, few New Zealanders beyond those employed in the security sector — or interested researchers and academics — will ever read the report in its entirety.
Should the public be satisfied with this report and its recommendations? The commissioners have taken up their task with alacrity. Their power to compel evidence from government agencies means their report is impressive and rich in detail. Sections of their report are very strong, especially its description of the circumstances surrounding Tarrant's background and his actual attack, and its description of New Zealand's current security arrangements. The report's treatment of some witness testimony is both critical and expert, unsurprisingly, since the chairman of the commission is also a Supreme Court judge.
However, the commission had obvious blind spots too, most of which were predictable given the commissioners' professional backgrounds in law and diplomacy. Their lack of expertise in security matters showed.
The commissioners lacked the necessary expertise to challenge received wisdom and conventional thinking in the intelligence community. For instance, the all-encompassing definition of national security promulgated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was merely cited without critical evaluation.
The report's use of existing knowledge on security matters contained in the specialist academic literature was particularly weak too. One master's thesis was referenced, and published research cited did not come from top academic journals in the field of security studies.
In addition, the commissioners demonstrated their lack of independence from the politicians who established their inquiry. Their report names the terrorist as Brenton Tarrant only once. For the remainder of the report, he is referred to as "the terrorist" or "the individual". This produced a Kafkaesque effect, which would have certainly pleased the Prime Minister, who openly vowed to never again mention Tarrant's name in public.
A more telling weakness, however, lies in the report's frequent use of the concept of social licence, which it defines as the ability of a business, organisation or government to do its work because it has the ongoing approval or acceptance from society to do so.
While the concept was first developed to explain how extractive industries obtain the consent of local communities as they deplete that communities' natural resources and degrade their environment, the intelligence agencies have used the term in public for some time now. This suggests the Royal Commission may have been unwittingly captured by public service rhetoric and their public relations efforts.
Nevertheless, the report acknowledges the need for greater public involvement in intelligence and security matters and recommends the creation of an advisory committee on counter-terrorism comprising representatives of communities, civil society, local government and the private sector.
The report also recognises the value of independent research into intelligence and security matters.
The commission considered the creation of a new research entity but preferred instead a programme to fund independent New Zealand-specific research on violent extremism and terrorism.
Rather than establish a new, costly and expensive research institute, the commissioners favoured contestable grants for academics and researchers with existing interests in counter-terrorism.
That is a good idea because the intellectual independence of academics employed by New Zealand universities is protected by the academic freedom enshrined in the Education Act. That research will be done in the public interest, and will not necessarily serve the more narrow interests of Wellington's bureaucrats.
These recommendations are a good start, but much more is needed.
The Government should also consider establishing a parliamentary commissioner on security. Appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the House of Representatives, this commissioner would assume the role as Parliament's national security adviser. This commissioner would provide robust independent advice on New Zealand's security challenges — including the Government's ability to meet these challenges — to the House of Representatives. The parliamentary commissioner would produce reports on these matters for the public too.
The office obviously needs to be kept separate from the machinery of government and rendered capable of critically examining the relationship between Cabinet and the public service agencies responsible for managing New Zealand's security. It would need its own operating budget, a small staff of researchers and analysts, and a secretariat detached from the security sector.
While this might constitute a step change of sorts for intelligence professionals, the wider public service is no stranger to similar initiatives, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. While the reach of their recommendations is limited, the Royal Commission has provided foundations for democratic security practice to take hold in Aotearoa New Zealand.
• Dr Damien Rogers is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Massey University's Albany Campus in Auckland.