Page updated: 29 December 2020
Overall, SAR is not a highly politicised area, but changes in legislation and policy could have impacts in future.
There is broad agreement among New Zealanders that search and rescue is a valuable and critical public service and New Zealanders get great value for money from the service (which is confirmed by NZSAR’s research, suggesting a benefit-cost ratio for the service of 30-1). The political consensus reflects this view on the mainland also.
The main concerns brought into the political arena have been around whether search and rescue agencies receive adequate funding to fulfil their roles and, in particular, to train staff and volunteers properly. In a survey of SAR’s operations, respondents said they expect all SAR agency staff to be well trained – something that comes with a cost.[i] Both the government[ii] and the opposition[iii] have explored whether training and facilities for SAR are adequate over the last few years. It is possible that political parties take different perspectives in future on the correct funding model for SAR services (see ‘funding’ below).
Apart from the funding, other reasons that the SAR sector (on the NZ mainland) could be politicised in future would include, for example, evidence coming to light that:
[i] NZSAR. “Public Expectations and Perceptions Of Search and Rescue in New Zealand.” NZSAR, May 2016, nzsar.govt.nz/Portals/4/Publications/Research/SAR%20Expectations%20Research%20Report.pdf.
[ii] “New Headquarters Enhances Search and Rescue.” The Beehive, 14 June 2016, www.beehive.govt.nz/release/new-headquarters-enhances-search-and-rescue.
[iii] Posted by David Cunliffe on September 13, 2015. “Investigation Needed for Search and Rescue Shortcuts.” New Zealand Labour Party, www.labour.org.nz/investigation_needed_for_search_and_rescue_shortcuts.
It is important to note that the politics with respect to the operation of search and rescue on the New Zealand mainland are very different to those operating across the wider search and rescue region.
When undertaking search and rescue in the broader region, the SAR sector must operate very carefully to get a good result.
The devolved nature of the sector does pose certain risks and challenges for cooperation to deliver SAR services. In particular, if leaders or staff of different organisations in the SAR sector, have strong personality conflicts or differences of view about how the overall system should operate, this could translate through to dysfunction at the operational level, potentially even compromising operations.
However, in practice high quality memoranda of understanding and conflict resolution protocols are usually sufficient to resolve any such problems if and when they arise (rather than something more costly and dramatic, like a merger as occurred recently in the fire services).
Further strengthening the case for cooperation and resource sharing is the fact that most of the organisations participating in the SAR sector only undertake SAR activity a small proportion of their time.
It is important that in the future the effective operation of the SAR sector be systematised from the national, all the way to local level, rather than leaving it to informal personal connections.
There are indications that the sector is moving in this direction already. As an example of the possible way forward, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management has been reviewing its operations in this regard and may identify some lessons that could prove valuable for the SAR sector as well.