'Keystone Kops': Effort to spy on Dunedin protest detailed

Police andclimate action demonstrators in the thick of protest action at the Dunedin Town Hall...
Police andclimate action demonstrators in the thick of protest action at the Dunedin Town Hall. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
Protesters are accusing a security firm of sending an undercover worker in to spy on them ahead of the Minerals Forum in Dunedin last month.

The forum on 28 May at the Dunedin Centre and Town Hall was intended to hold discussions over several mining projects, but it had about 10 different environmental activist groups protesting outside under the 'Stop the Minerals Forum Coalition' group.

Two weeks earlier, at Knox Church on 14 May, the group was doing some training on non-violent protesting.

"Right before the training, someone showed up. One of our people recognised this person as someone that they thought worked for Red Badge security," said Sam Murphy, who was at the training.

"They said, 'hi, what are you doing here?' The person was a bit taken aback ... they said 'I'm paid to be here'."

RNZ has spoken to the person who confronted the Red Badge worker and confirmed the worker started out with a cover story, but quickly admitted he was on the clock.

The person said the worker was told they could come in but the group would be told he was working for Red Badge. The worker - who is about 20 years old - declined and left shortly after.

Mr Murphy said it was obvious the worker was not committed to his assignment.

"They weren't really on board with why they were getting asked to do it and maybe felt a bit bad or didn't care that much, so didn't take it that seriously."

He said a couple of days before the forum two of the organisers arrived home - where they had held a number of informal meetings - to find a person down the driveway looking around the house.

"We hadn't organised any public meetings or any of our formal meetings there but small groups of us have gathered there from time to time and had been using it to get together some of our props for the day."

"We don't have any proof, obviously, that this person was employed by Red Badge or anything else but it was just the nature of how they were acting and that it was at an activist's house so close to the day."

After multiple calls and emails to Red Badge that went unanswered, RNZ received a response from its general manager Ben Wooding simply stating that it would not be making any comment at this time.

Dunedin Venues, who contracted Red Badge and hosted the forum, said it did not request the activity described.

Dunedin City Council said although Dunedin Venues was council owned, it operated independently and the council had no role in its day-to-day management including the appointment of contractors.

A large anti-mining banner was unfurled down the front of the Municipal Chambers. Photo: Gerrard...
A large anti-mining banner was unfurled down the front of the Municipal Chambers. Photo: Gerrard O'Brien
Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Trevor Bradley said the undercover attempt - while amateur - was still concerning.

"It's a laughable kind of comical Keystone Kops type attempt ... it's a bungling attempt and it's relatively minor in the wider scheme of things but still, we don't expect security companies and private security to be acting in such an underhanded manner."

He said given the recent scrutiny on security firms like Thompson & Clark, this kind of activity should not be happening.

"They're licensed for crowd control, property guarding - they're certainly not a private investigation company as far as I'm aware and even if they were, that would still be unacceptable behaviour.

"You don't go in pretending to be somebody else in order to gather information on a perfectly legitimate group."

Mr Bradley said there needed to be much more scrutiny on security firms - particularly those who held large contracts with government departments.

Red Badge's website says as of November 2018 they were awarded a contract to supply security personnel to a 'large autonomous Crown entity'.

Nowhere on the website does it say covert surveillance is a service the company offers.

There are two government organisations which oversee the conduct of security companies - the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority under the Ministry of Justice; and the Complaints, Investigation and Prosecution Unit under the Department of Internal Affairs.

Stop the Minerals Forum Coalition spokesperson Abby Spilg-Harris said Red Badge's actions were disappointing.

"There is a history of environmental defenders being treated as threats in Aotearoa. Protest is an essential part of democracy and many of the rights we now enjoy are a result of protest."

"The event we were running was designed to enable people to safely and non-violently participate in the protest action ... Red Badge clearly did not instruct their staff to have the same level of discipline."


Untrained, not attune to politics,.Security firms develop a grandiosity of purpose. They may have thrown this in as an 'extra', for the intrigue of it. The State agencies are safe, because they are overseen by Cheryl Gwyn, who has experienced life on both sides of a once agitated Wellington.

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter