Editorial: Damage to Defence

Last updated 05:00 06/02/2013

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OPINION: There are few occupations in New Zealand in which risking one's life, if necessary, is considered a condition of employment. Service in the army, navy and air force is among them.

Service personnel cannot negotiate a contract and cannot go on strike.

They must swear an oath of allegiance, obey all lawful orders and give an unqualified commitment to serve. In return, their commanders acknowledge a "moral contract" to look after the interests of the rank and file.

The New Zealand Defence Force broke that moral contract when it botched a cost-saving exercise involving the "civilianisation" of jobs in the armed services away from the front line. Under pressure from the Cabinet to save money, the exercise went ahead too quickly, did not achieve its objectives, and saved less than it intended. As a consequence, good service people were told they weren't up to the mark, trust in the top brass was undermined, morale dropped and the NZDF was faced with the worrying prospect of losing more than a fifth of its regular force personnel in one year. A measurable effect of all this is that navy ships were operational for only three-quarters of their scheduled sea days during 2011-12.

Unsurprisingly, the civilianisation project began with a Cabinet directive in 2010 to cut costs - in Defence's case $350 million to $400m a year from a budget of $2.5 billion. Controller and Auditor-General Lyn Provost found in a critical review that the NZDF told the Government that it would convert 1400 military roles into civilian positions, without knowing how many people in uniform it would need from 2015. The NZDF planned to save $20.5 million a year through civilianisation but Provost's staff estimates savings of only $14.2 million a year by 2014-15. The civilianisation project has been abandoned part-way through.

The damage will take time to fix. This is shown by Provost's findings that NZDF is now trying to rebuild morale and restore the troops' trust, in part by increasing pay and paying more visible attention to staff welfare.

Defence has been under constant pressure for years to provide more bang for the taxpayers' buck, and has generally been able to maintain a high level of operational effectiveness. This has been largely down to the professionalism of the men or women in uniform - the very people on the receiving end in this debacle.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman has now added insult to injury. Unlike the NZDF, which acknowledged its shortcomings and took steps to remedy them, Coleman dismissed the matter last week as "old news" in an all-too-glib attempt to shut down political and public discussion about it. It is not "old news". He says Defence has moved on, but it hasn't. Not yet. Provost's report states very obviously that the NZDF is still trying to clear up the mess.

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Almost incredibly, Coleman has been quoted as saying that overall he "wouldn't agree that this process has been a failure", which almost begs the question, has he actually read Provost's report? The minister needs to show he takes the issue seriously. There have been too many high-profile public service failures of late, and too few ministers demonstrating that they can bring things back under control. We don't need Defence added to the list.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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