Security matters: Key's ups and downs

John Key is both increasing and decreasing security. Which security matters more?

The security Key is increasing — or aiming to — is about beheadings and bombings and a clash of civilisations and religions. The security Key is decreasing is about work.

In part Key’s pushes reflect ideology. In part they reflect a rapidly changing world from which our tiny society can’t hide.

Key’s instinct is to get closer to the United States and the United States wants action to contain extreme Islamists in Syria and Iraq.

There are reasons to contribute something from our resource-starved military, squeezed in the government’s first term and now being partially remediated.

One reason is that it is important for a small, vulnerable state to do its bit. Being known for that was a key to the remarkably high vote for the Security Council seat. New Zealand needs a rules-based world, so must show it upholds, and helps police, the rules.

Doing our bit includes action against humanitarian disasters.

A second reason is that extreme Islamists want to destroy all that is not pure, as judged by their specific versions of what is pure.

To them New Zealand is impure. So there might be an extremist or two who wants to do violence here. That would be far less than the road toll but would scare a lot of people and a Prime Minister is mandated to limit scarification, as Key has argued.

A third reason some advance, but others dispute, is that Islamists might get bolder if not challenged.

Will taking action keep us safe?

One line of action is domestic: surveillance of and intervention against home-grown extremists and returning “foreign fighters” who have been additionally radicalised by fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Security agencies have foiled plots in the northern hemisphere –five in Europe alone in the past two years, according to Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro in a searching article in the November-December issue of the United States Foreign Affairs periodical — and in Australia.

But it costs good people some liberty. And very few extremist recruits complete the journey from home to fighting abroad to terror acts back home, Byman and Shapiro say. They say the threat is “exaggerated”.

The second line of action is international: specifically, right now, to join Barack Obama’s coalition in Syria and Iraq. Another Foreign Affairs article draws cautionary lessons from the failure of United States entanglements from 1990s Vietnam to 2000s Iraq.

Abdennour Bidar, a Muslim believer and author of three books, argued in a French periodical, Marianne, on October 3 that Islamic extremism has been born of Islam itself and that the remedy lies only within Islam.

Islam was once known for tolerating other religions. Now it is wracked by sectarian violence, Muslim against Muslim. For that only Muslims have the solution. (Europeans did not stop fighting each other until the 1990s.) At best Obama’s coalition might counter the worst inhumanities.

Other analyses point to fractures and tensions in Arab societies as a globally connected young generation chafes at sclerotic authoritarianism and economic insecurity.

Fixing that requires change within those societies. That will take time.

Meantime the extremists spread insecurity globally by video and occasional violence, as Canada experienced this month.

Another global spread of insecurity is in the nature of work in rich societies.

Rapidly evolving technologies have been stripping out well-paid processing manufacturing and services jobs. Takeovers by private equity firms and changes in the way work is organised — outsourcing, contracting, employment and management firms, franchises — have made jobs and earnings insecure and work often unsafe.

Robert Kuttner documents this in the New York Review of Books October 23 issue in a review of two new books, one called “The Fissured Workplace”.

New Zealand workplace policy has travelled that route in policy and practice across a quarter-century. The focus has been on flexibility to enhance or preserve profitability in a fiercely competitive global economy.

Key sells this as “jobs”. And New Zealand has a high workforce participation rate and low unemployment by rich world standards.

This week Key will drive through Parliament another flexibility instalment, focused among other things on rest and meal breaks and collective bargaining. To National wages are a cost.

The price of flexibility to most workers is lower pay and job insecurity. Exploitation of migrant workers has blackened the dairy sector.

To workers — and Labour — wages are sustenance. Labour’s leadership candidates are pushing more security in work and wages.

How far they could realistically rebuild that security in today’s highly globalised economy is unclear. But insecurity is a recipe for social and political instability and then potentially for socially and economically counterproductive populist responses.

That would do more damage to more people than a “foreign fighter” or two.