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Potential for politicisation

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 consensus around the role of SAR on the mainland

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:

  • a rescue was severely mishandled, leading to severe injury or death of either the person(s) being rescued or rescuers;
  • SAR were not sufficiently prepared or able to assist people making distress calls in a major disaster such as earthquake and/or eruption.


[i] NZSAR. “Public Expectations and Perceptions Of Search and Rescue in New Zealand.” NZSAR, May 2016,

[ii] “New Headquarters Enhances Search and Rescue.” The Beehive, 14 June 2016,

[iii] Posted by David Cunliffe on September 13, 2015. “Investigation Needed for Search and Rescue Shortcuts.” New Zealand Labour Party,

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The authorising environment in the wider SAR region is complex

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. 

  • For example, as highlighted earlier, it takes careful coordination across multiple nations to effect successful search and rescue operations in Antarctica.  This is both because a range of different nations owns Antarctica, and limited available assets must often be shared in order to save lives. 
    • For example, the USA owns the world’s largest ice breaker – which the RCCNZ has sought to access in the past – to assist with search and rescue efforts. 
    • While there is a general understanding among nations in Antarctica of the need to share assets, this often takes careful
    • negotiation in practice for it to work for all concerned.


  •  Similarly, across the various Pacific Islands to the north of New Zealand, the RCCNZ must negotiate carefully with multiple nations to get the right people, right assets and right access to effect successful operations. 
    • For example, Kiribati technically operates outside of the NZ Search and Rescue region – it technically resides within Fiji’s region of responsibility.  However, sometimes the nation requests help from the RCCNZ if there is a need for search and rescue and New Zealand is best placed to help. 
    • In this context, the RCCNZ must negotiate effectively and rapidly with Fiji on agreed roles and responsibilities to get the best result possible. 


  • As a further example, the RCCNZ now has a Service Level Agreement with South Korea in order to enable rapid and effective responses if and when a South Korean fishing boats catch fire (which they often do).
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...and the devolved nature of the SAR sector could create problems

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, the sector mostly cooperates effectively

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.

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