Island Life by David Slack

Risky Business

So much for the old saw that you shouldn't blame the messenger. The old Kiwi tradition of doing a favour for a mate may be losing a little of its shine as the story of the hapless Mike Ryan makes the rounds.

His brief as a messenger in the PM's office was to take the Cabinet paper to the shredder, with no side trips. The notion that his old mate who worked at Telecom might appreciate a copy in a plain brown manila folder was thoughtful to say the least, but wasn't ever very likely to turn out well.

The State Services Commission report reassures us of the robust recruitment processes to which the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet cleaves, and very reassuring it is to hear it. In the case of the recruitment of Mr Ryan, we read, this entailed no fewer than four reference checks, and we're told that the referees were specifically asked about Mr Ryan's personal integrity in relation to confidential information "and this had been noted as a strong point". And just to be sure, there was a criminal record check, an assessment by a registered psychologist and in addition

...the necessary form to obtain a Secret clearance had been provided to the Security Intelligence Service and confirmation that the vetting was in train was provided by the NZSIS on 26 January 2006. The SIS vetting process for Mr Ryan had not been completed at the date of writing this report.

Well that takes me back. One morning in the Prime Minister's Office in the dying months of the fourth Labour government, I sat down to a cup of coffee with my colleagues Mr Chris Eichbaum and Mr John Robson. After the obligatory three choruses of The Peoples Flag and the ritual spitting upon the map of the continental United States, we got down to chatting about sundry matters of pressing political importance and then John mentioned that he had finally had his security clearance approved by the SIS. He was a veteran of the Springbok tour with a number of court appearances to his name, and the spooks had been a bit leery, he said.

What SIS approval would that be?, I asked, in all innocence.

You haven't been interviewed? they said.

No, I said, I was still using the pass they'd given me when I started working as the speech writer for the Minister of Justice. No reference check, no psychologist, no visit from the SIS.

If I was vetted, it all happened without my knowledge. But then I was just writing speeches using cabinet papers as source material. I wasn't carrying them to the shredder or anything like that.

I do know the security guards took some earnest pride in their work, though, and kept me under at least occasional surveillance. I arrived in my office one morning to find a note declaring there had been a security breach in my office. Shit, I thought, what bastard's been at my things? Then as I read the note, it became clear that the offender was me. My sin was to have left some paper marked "confidential" with its face up in open view. Who knows who might have come sauntering past in the middle of the night in the Prime Minister's office and taken a look? I should be more careful in future etc etc.

The other incident had less to do with the security of the nation and more to do with keeping your name out of the newspaper or books written by gallery journalists at their "ascerbic entertaining best" to quote the back cover of Jane Cliftons' entertaining little outing last year.

I mention this because one’s other close encounter with security staff is alluded to on page 83. The book ponders whether the incident was, as rumour very quickly had it, captured on film. I can attest that, if there was a camera, we were never invited to procure a romantic souvenir copy, nor were we asked by the State Services Commission to give an account of our movements that night. The bemused look on the guard's face as he stood in the doorway wondering whether he should pretend to be invisible was certainly worth a photo, though.

By the next day, we were being alerted by our colleagues that this was the talk of the security staff at Parliament. When we arrived in the early afternoon at the Labour Party conference, the hugely amused expression on the Prime Minister's face confirmed to us that he had been briefed and entertained by this indisputably benign security intelligence. We have still not been invited by the State Services Commission to volunteer our recollections of the incident in question and at this late remove, I think I can say with quiet confidence that we're in the clear.

The fact that I can make light of this while poor Mr Ryan is probably not sleeping at all well has a good deal to do with what the very entertaining Harry Hutton had to observe last week, in his blog, about John Prescott.

If I were his lawyer, I would point out that using a government office for having sex with his secretary was far less ruinous for Britain than how he might otherwise have been using it.