Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cloistered institutions both

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.


James said...

Karl, I commented on your last post on this matter. As a former army officer, I am of course biased towards defence in any matters. I am happy to admit that.

I would, though, like to raise the following points:

1. Defence always has been, and always will be, poorly equipped to deal with PR. It is simply not NZDF's business to present a spin campaign to the public. It is their sole job to implement what politicians tell them to do. Undoubtedly this saga has been a PR disaster for NZDF. I would argue that that is a good thing, as NZDF are clearly focussing on other things. Such as combat generation, numerous deployments, and zero money.

2. Lt Gen Mateparae has given exceptional service to NZ and does not deserve this sort of bagging. As you point out, he did not hire Wilce. The conditions that NZDF has operated in the last few decades have been especially trying (ANZUS, NZ First vetoing the third navy frigate, politicians choosing the cheaper HMNZS Charles Upham, politicians denying tracked armoured vehicles, politicians axing air combat capability, for brevity sake I will stop here). Therefore to try and hold Lt Gen Mateparae as a scapegoat for this isolated incident is a disservice to anyone in uniform, he has only ever done the best anyone could do.

3. If Lt Gen Mateparae has an employee who has passed civilian recruitment, passed NZSIS vetting, and then generally performs as expected, why fire him? The blowout on the P-3 Orion was no surprise, I doubt anyone could have prevented that. When he received the anonymous letter, by law he must be careful not to do anything rash or unjustified. It is telling that TV3 had the resources to properly investigate, but not NZDF. NZDF puts its extremely limited resources where it can.

I freely admit I am biased towards NZDF. But I do think that you are being unreasonable towards our servicemen and women in bagging the NZDF like this. I can assure you that you are wrong, defence does not believe itself to be above any procedures or protocol.

I especially take exception to the comparison to the catholic church. NZDF is always conducting various courts of inquiry into numerous matters. The result of any of these is never to ship the problem to another camp (diocese). It is always to address the issue, and make sure it never happens again. If necessary, charges are brought under the Armed Forces Discipline Act. That is a polar opposite to the Catholic Church.

Our men and women in uniform are anything but mindless bureaucrats. They are frequently bagged out by ill informed civilians who always think they can do better. But, that has been happening since the days of Thucydides.

No doubt I am biased towards NZDF. But please, consider all the issues, don't just generally bag out NZDF, or the Chief of Defence Force. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between our positions.

Karl du Fresne said...

I appreciate your thoughtful and polite comments. A few points in response:
1. Any comments made about Lt Gen Mateparae were related only to the Wilce affair. I don't feel competent to judge his overall performance as Chief of the Defence Force other than to say that he has impressed me in the past.
2. I agree that the Defence Force is at the mercy of political whim, and that abrupt and sometimes irrational changes of policy - often on a three-year cycle - must make life acutely difficult, especially when you consider the massive capital outlays and long-term planning involved.
3. I don't think I gave the impression I was "bagging" the Defence Force overall, but in case I did, let me repeat that I have the greatest respect for the record of the armed forces, who do an exemplary job and are a source of genuine pride to New Zealand. However I also believe there have been times - and this is one of them - when they have been poorly served by embarrassing cockups at the top levels.
My main point remains that there is a danger that inward-looking institutions such as Defence can become disconnected from the world they are supposed to serve.
You raise one tantalising thought. Perhaps Defence could have borrowed the so-called "geographical solution" from the Catholic Church and posted Wilce to Afghanistan.

The probligo said...

Karl, just love that last sentence.

Truth is that - like any and all of the other examples being trotted out - Defence HQ seems guilty of using consultants as cover for specific inadequacies. I hesitate to use the word "incompetencies" in case others think I am applying the criticism far more generally.

The very big concern in my mind is the wider picture - how much of current (or recent) government policy and action is being conducted by civil service officers who are relying upon the services of consultants who to be quite frankly may not be the brightest of torches.

James said...

Haha, good idea Karl. We could send him for back to back Summer and Winter rotations.

In the Summer he can use some of those elite commando marines and special forces skills he has. He can add a bar or two to his MC, capture Bin Laden and end the war for good.

Then in the Winter, he can do some civil aid - he can coach the first ever Afghan Olympic Bobsled team. He could call in some favours from his old mates in Jamaica!!

Karl du Fresne said...

Heh heh.