One of the interesting sidelights of the Stephen Wilce affair has been the glimpse it affords into the culture of the defence establishment.
It has often struck me over the years that Defence has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, stiffly hierarchical and attach exaggerated importance to ritual and tradition. They have their own sets of rules, often quite unrelated to the way things are done on the outside (an example was the double-dipping on accommodation allowances by senior Defence Force officers posted to the UN in New York – it was just the way things were done, and no one questioned it despite the obvious impropriety).
Both institutions are resistant to outside scrutiny and give the impression of being resentful when they are subjected to it. They appear slightly disconnected from the outside world and not very well equipped to cope when it intrudes. We saw this with the Catholic Church in its ham-fisted response to media attention over sex abuse, and we have seen it with Defence’s clumsy handling of the controversy over the sexed-up CV that apparently landed Wilce his sensitive job at the top of the Defence Technology Agency.
Still unexplained is the fact that concerns were apparently raised about Wilce as long ago as 2008, but not acted upon. In fact $250,000 of taxpayers’ money was subsequently spent sending him on an eight-month course at the Royal College of Defence Studies. And when a complaint was made about Wilce in July this year, Defence apparently didn’t even bother to take the elementary step of checking with Momentum, the consultancy that recruited him. This suggests a culture of complacency – perhaps even an attitude that Defence is above the procedures and protocols that apply to other agencies of the state. I hope I’m wrong.
TV3 political reporter Patrick Gower, in his blog, highlighted defence chief Jerry Mateparae’s unconvincing response to questions about the scandal. “Mateparae initially argued he couldn’t say anything in case ‘whistleblower’ legislation was enacted – but then the Lieutenant General admitted there was no whistleblower, but an anonymous letter,” Gower wrote. “He also said it was an ‘employment issue’ – even though Wilce has quit.” Clearly, Mateparae was either ill-prepared for the media’s questions or thought he could simply brush them off.
Almost as worrying to me was Mateparae’s resort to bland bureaucrat-speak. “He [Wilce] has represented us as the chief scientist in venues where he’s got to deliver against competencies that are quite rigorous and he’s been doing that quite well as far as I’m concerned,” Mateparae was quoted as saying. He went on to say that Wilce had been “delivering against the competency sets that I expect him to deliver.”
Does it make anyone else uneasy when the Chief of the Defence Force uses ghastly HR jargon (“competency sets”) to defend Wilce’s appointment – and in so doing, attempts to sidestep the real issue, which is how Wilce got the job in the first place? (Mateparae, it should be noted, wasn’t in charge when Wilce was appointed, so can’t be blamed for hiring him.)
Political columnist Gordon Campbell wonders whether the Defence Force and the intelligence community enjoy too close a relationship. It’s a fair question, especially since Mateparae is to be the next head of the Government Communications and Security Bureau. It all starts to look a little cosy, which might explain why the SIS didn’t bother to exert itself too strenuously checking Wilce’s credentials, even though he was up for a highly sensitive position.