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Estimations: Vote Defence

Estimations with Scoop's Kevin List

Vote Defence Hearing of Evidence 24 June 2004

The Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee had the opportunity to put Defence Minister Mark Burton on the spot over various Defence related issues at the Vote Defence Estimates hearing of evidence yesterday.

First up was National's Simon Power who wanted to know how many Defence Force personnel were in the United States. New Zealand always has some military attache's in the U.S., but what Mr Power was angling for was whether or not Air Force personnel had been exercising with United States personnel. Mr Burton was fairly certain that the Air Force personnel in question were at a base in Arkansas that specialised in personnel training themselves. At which point an official pointed out that the personnel were in fact back in New Zealand now. However, more than 500 personnel were still deployed overseas. These numbers ranged from one officer based in Kosovo, to 176 navy personnel in the Arabian sea.

It was a case of the Defence Minister going on the defence next when Mr Power began referring to the 'Lesson's Learnt Report June 2004'. This report stated that it wasn't clear what the mission was [prior to the insertion of NZ troops into Aghanistan] and that political decisions were made before all the options were explored.

The report contained a foreword by the Chief of the Defence Forces (CDF). Minister Burton claimed the report was not a completely official document. To which Mr Power countered that if it was then the Government would have been able to cleanse it.

When quizzed regarding the foreword by the CDF Minister Burton rather unconvincingly pointed out that it is not necessary to read a report before writing a foreword. Power then alluded to the Estimates documents bearing the Minister's name. In a desperate last ditch bid to deflect Mr Power's criticism the Minister pointed out he too had written forewords to documents he a hadn't read The Minister was however referring to a karate clubs booklet rather than a glossy defence brochure.

At least the confusion as to how the Dominion Post got hold of the report was clarified by the Minister. It was given to journalists at a recent press conference in Trentham. Still on Afghanistan, Green MP Keith Locke wished to know wether humanitarian and military aims were being confused by the provincial reconstruction teams. "Not really", replied the Minister.

New Zealand First MP, Ron Mark, who had earlier shown a distinct lack of manners by loudly chatting during his colleagues' questions to the Customs Minister in the previous hearing (for which he was told to shush by Committee Chairman Peter Dunne), took up the remaining fairly brief question time in the session.

Mr Mark fired a volley of questions at Minister Burton regarding the mothballed Skyhawks and Aermacchi trainers. He was anxious to discover if a buyer had been found for New Zealand's fighter planes. It turned out that negotiations are underway. Negotiations had in fact been underway for a number of years, and the negotiating team of Ernst and Young had pocketed $400,000 so far for their efforts. Meanwhile the cost of keeping the planes oiled and spruced was close to eight million dollars, and worst of all for Mr Mark, 'Warbirds over Wanaka', had not been given even one miserly plane.

Of further vexation for Mr Mark was the cancellation of an invitation to observe a defence exercise on the West Coast. Many civic leaders, businessmen and a certain MP had been invited to view a major territorial exercise, only to be told they couldn't go two days prior to the exercise. Despite the Minister's kind offer to investigate the matter, Mr Mark remained unmollified and dragged the issue out for most of the remaining question time.

There was one last barrage from Mr Power concerning various defence contracts and allegations of financial troubles afflicting a subsidiary of a major defence project (Navy related). The Minister assured the members that these financial difficulties (of a Tenix subsidiary) would not affect the completion of the shipbuilding project.

**** ENDS ****

Estimations will be an occasional news column by Scoop Chief Reporter Kevin List in which he relates events which occur during the annual round of Estimates Hearings in the NZ Parliament's Select Committees. Estimates Hearings are hearings of evidence from departmental and ministry officials relating to the annual estimates. The estimates form the greater part of the budget documentation, and outline what the various arms of Government plan to spend in the coming year.

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