No need to post a reader comment when you're on your feet in Parliament.

"I just have to make a comment about the headline that is currently running on the Fairfax website," harrumphed Gerry Brownlee, midway through his contribution to Wednesday's debate on plans to beef up domestic terrorism laws and New Zealand's role in the campaign against Isis. "It says that we are at war. I think that is an extremely irresponsible headline ..."

The Defence Minister said "this is not a war in a conventional sense at all".

It amounted, he said, to "taking some steps to protect New Zealanders here in our own country" and "military personnel looking at what we might do in regard to capacity-building in Iraq".


While the headline may have been overcooked, Brownlee failed to substantiate his "extremely irresponsible" complaint. And the bluster offers a clue to the bob-each-way response that John Key outlined in his much-trailed speech earlier in the day.

We "cannot, and should not, fight Iraqis' battles for them", he said.

"Putting the SAS in on the ground as some sort of killing machine would not work as a long-term solution," he later added. Quite right. And yet we stand foursquare behind the military machines of America and others that are -- how to put it? -- fighting Iraqis' battles for them.

Are we going to war, then? By proposing a role, albeit essentially symbolic, training Iraqi soldiers, we're going to war enough to stay sweet with allies such as the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, and yet we're not going to war enough, it is calculated, to mollify the doves and sceptics suspicious of a foreign policy subservient to Uncle Sam.

With memories of mission creep in Afghanistan still fresh, Key and Brownlee have stressed that there is no possibility that "capacity building" might morph into a combat role. Any contribution, said the PM, would be strictly "behind the wire". In practical terms, that will be harder to guarantee - to be absolutely certain, training might be better conducted from Waiouru over Skype.

It is just as unclear whether there will be a time limit placed on any commitment. Even Willie Apiata might be daunted, meanwhile, at the task of tutoring the Iraqi military. The Americans spent $25 billion over eight years equipping and training security forces, only to see vast numbers of soldiers fold or flee in the face of Isis.

The Pentagon has now sent 1400 "advisers" to have another go. Lieutenant-General James M. Dubik, who ran Iraqi training in 2007 and 2008, told the Los Angeles Times this week that a combination of so-called advisers and air strikes wouldn't cut it.

"Without competent ground forces", the approach would have "minimal effect, because they cannot teach the moral component to fight and die for a common cause".


The domestic dimension of the response to Isis, which according to Key is a "game-changer for New Zealand", contained confusions of its own. If, as claimed, there are New Zealand residents supporting and fundraising for Isis, why have they not been charged under existing criminal laws?

Is the passport-suspension provision really to be extended from one to three years simply because that makes it more administratively straightforward? And if the pressing concern is risks of attacks around next year's Cricket World Cup, is it really the best idea to disable the passports of the most dangerous individuals, ensuring they are in New Zealand when it takes place?

But the most troubling proposal is to introduce a provision for 48 hours of warrantless surveillance by the SIS. Why was such a thing needed? Well, just imagine, said the Attorney-General and newly appointed Minister for the SIS, Chris Finlayson, if he were "unavailable because I am in another part of the country. I am not back in Wellington for, say 20 hours".

A few minutes later, Key said that wasn't the reason at all; it was about the time the commissioner of security warrants takes to examine the application.

Whether or not the 48-hour thing survives select committee interrogation, the pattern over recent years is plain: the state security imperative is steadily nibbling away at civil liberties.

Part of the price for Peter Dunne's support of the GCSB bill last year was an "independent review" of spy agencies every five to seven years. The first will be held next year. It is crucial it is not some procedural rubber-stamping routine, but a full-scale, first-principles assessment of the trade-off between liberty and security.

Unthinkable task

The country's most exclusive salon, we learn this week, is called "The Free Thinkers". Convened by the PM and including GCSB head Ian Fletcher, chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman and World Cup Cricket chief executive Therese Walsh, the group's challenge is to "imagine the unimaginable dangers faced by New Zealand", reports the Herald's David Fisher. Their Rumsfeldian task is to close their eyes, hum a little, and make known the unknown knowns.

Presumably John Key begins the session by saying something like, "Guys, in this room there are no wrong answers", before turning his necktie into a headband and demonstrating through the medium of dance a terrifying monster that might emerge from the Karori Tunnel.

Someone will raise the prospect that Lorde might indeed be an agent of the Illuminati, another will ask whether Gareth Morgan's appetite for killing will stop at cats. Awkwardly, the guy from Fisher and Paykel might raise the question of the Prime Minister and his many hats. Does he after all have a capacity as a shapeshifting reptilian alien?

If the Free Thinkers do manage to thwart some malevolent force through the powers of imagination that would be splendid, but if nothing else they'll probably come up with some fantastic film ideas.