What is it about our Defence people? Our troops on the ground, in trouble spots like Timor Leste, Afghanistan and the Solomons, invariably acquit themselves with great distinction. But Defence HQ seems terminally dysfunctional, with a particularly disturbing penchant for making ill-advised procurement decisions dating back to the purchase of the infamous HMNZS Charles Upham, a ship that rolled so heavily on its maiden voyage that the captain feared for its safety. (It was decommissioned after only three years.) More recent purchases, such as the frigate Canterbury, have been plagued by design and equipment faults, and heads are still being scratched over the bizarre decision in 2003 to spend $680 million buying 105 light armoured vehicles for purposes which remain a mystery. (Only three were deployed to Afghanistan, though it would seem the very sort of place where LAVs might come in handy. Perhaps the other 102 have been kept behind in case of the armed insurrection we were told the Tuhoe were planning in the Urewera.)
Now Defence has been hugely embarrassed by revelations on TV3’s 60 Minutes that Englishman Stephen Wilce, head of the Defence Technology Agency, creatively enhanced his CV with bogus claims about his past achievements. It seems even the most elementary checks weren’t made – an inexcusable failing in an era when Google makes it possible to establish very quickly whether Wilce was, for example, a former member of the British Olympic bobsleigh team, as he claimed.
Wilce (who has now resigned) was reportedly known in a former job as Walter Mitty, after the humorist James Thurber’s famous fictional fantasist, and you certainly have to wonder about the naivety of whoever employed him. In secret camera footage showing a flabby-looking, podgy Wilce incongruously talking to a 60 Minutes journalist about his supposed background in top-level sport and military combat, his body language screamed bullshit artist. He might as well have had the words emblazoned on a flashing neon sign attached to his forehead.
As in previous similar cases (the name Mary Anne Thompson springs to mind), it seems that a whistle-blower aroused suspicions about Wilce’s credentials well before the public got wind of the scandal – yet he was stood down only last week, when Defence must have known TV3 was onto the story. Funny, that.
Defence Force chief Jerry Mateparae assures us that Wilce did exceptional work for Defence, but that’s no excuse for appointing someone to a highly sensitive position without first checking that his CV was kosher. It hardly encourages confidence in the Defence establishment, or the spycatchers of the Security Intelligence Service (which has the job of vetting such applicants), that Wilce was able to slip so easily through the net. In fact it’s such a high-level farce that the best one can hope for is that a clever satirist will make a great play out of it.