Friday, September 10, 2010

What is it about Defence?

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.


James said...

This joker was not hired by the NZDF. Like many state departments, a recruitment company Momentum was used. It was their job to recruit, vet his background and previous employment, and recommend the best candidate. NZDF would never have had the time, people or expertise to recruit for a high level position like this.

NZDF also has nothing to do with NZSIS or their vetting for security purposes.

Bagging out the NZDF like this is cheap and ill-informed. You should be naming and shaming the recruitment company who did such an appalling job, you should also check what other government departments use this firm (at a guess, maybe immigration? Maybe Maori TV???)

Quite right to criticise the NZSIS for their lack of performance. Maybe ask if they too are underfunded, understaffed and undervalued for the services they provide to this country's security.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm quite happy to name the recruitment firm. According to the New Zealand Herald it was Momentum. Certainly Wilce's appointment reflects no credit on the firm - but can a sensitive department such as Defence renounce responsibility for senior appointments on the basis that it was all taken care of by an outside consultant? I don't think so (and I'm not sure that Defence is even trying to run that argument).

The Herald also reports that no one from Defence has contacted Momentum, despite NZDF having supposedly begun inquiries in July. This hardly indicates a determination to get to the bottom of the fiasco.

It's probably not relevant (but what the heck - it's interesting) that former National Party president Michelle Boag is an executive of Momentum, according to the Herald, and former prime minister Jenny Shipley is on the board.

James said...

Ok, some good points raised there. Yes, this is a fiasco. NZDF are not running the line that I raised (that it is not NZDF's responsibility but Momentum's), and yes, also interesting that prominent National members are directors of that firm.

However, I do believe that linking the HMNZS Charles Upham, the over-order of sole purpose LAV's, and this case of recruiting this clown is a bit stretched. The ministry of defence is in a weaker position than other government departments in terms of PR. It is always a victim to its political masters, and must always run a fine line between not spending anything and delivering a modern capable product. In fact, the current HMNZS Canterbury is a pretty good success story, where NZ how has a capability it never had before, for not bad time frames or budgets. Yes, failures have occurred, but who is paying for that?? - the manufacturer.

Successive governments have wanted their cake and to eat it to. They do not want to spend a dime, but they want a modern, capable, combat ready defence force able to deploy at a moment's notice to various hotspots such as Afghanistan and Timor Leste.

NZDF (especially the HQ) have done a good job in producing a capable, combat ready force with such limited resources. Expenditure has hardly increased, but the crap they have to deal with such as politicians axing the combat air force, politicians limiting navy combat ships to just two frigates, politicians refusing tracked armoured vehicles, politicians joining the territorials and deciding that is enough to be associate minister.... the list goes on.

NZDF, in fact all defence forces (look at Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia) are always good targets for poor PR. Their job is not PR, it is to do what their political masters tell them. By the nature of democracy, it is always changing, always beyond their means, always cheap targets. Please be careful when pointing out failures within defence, they are always facing challenges that no other government department are facing.

The probligo said...

James, you need to get the blinkers off.

All that KdF has said is right to the mark. Well, there are a couple of things I take issue with but they are small and carping I have to admit.

1. Wilce was employed by NZDF - the DTA is nothing more than a "subsidiary company to the group".

2. To try and argue that the SIS has no part in the engagement of Wilce is just ridiculous. For ANY position involving security their input is primary. I know, I was turned down for a job with the Navy (civilian not serving) when I first started work (more than 30 years back) because the Headmaster of my last school was a card carryng member of the Communist Party. The guy who interviewed me was quite apologetic about it in fact.

3. I can recall the Labour government having much to say about the purchase of the LAV's. To the extent of trying to find some (legal) way of cancelling the contract. (Karl, I totally agree with your comment and connection to the Urewera Seven)

4 The Navy's recent purchases have all left much to be desired in operational terms.

Nah James, I don't understand your misplaced loyalty to the NZDF. Its management needs very close examination. There is something quite disfunctional there which needs cleaning out.

The probligo said...

Oh, and the Defence Force's top management primary role includes being advisor to the government. Yes, they work under "rules". But their place in all of this is as (supposedly) skilled and knowledgeable managers and advisers.