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Gordon Campbell: National’s neglect of the armed forces

Gordon Campbell on National’s perennial neglect of the armed forces

Only a National government could get away with the changes in the New Zealand Defence Force now taking place – ie in the wake of the so called “civilianisation” drive – without a hue and cry about how these outbreaks of rampant ideology and short-sighted cost savings are undermining morale among the people entrusted with defending the nation’s security. In fact, the process of replacing uniformed staff with cheaper civilians on lesser contracts will save only $23 million overall – which is chicken feed in the context of the government’s general business, and considerably less than recent governments have allocated to the America’s Cup, or are budgeting to lose on the Rugby World Cup.

The current round of Defence Force cost cutting will see
81 officers and 227 other ranks lose their jobs, with 71 of 2119 from the Navy, 155 of 4920 from the Army and 82 of 2579 from the Air Force. When these 308 job cuts are added to the effects of natural attrition as people are not replaced, NZDF is forecasting to lose approximately 500 military personnel by year’s end..More cuts have been foreshadowed for next year. The impact on the already shaky morale in the armed forces will be highly negative. Recently, Defence Force Chief Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones conceded to a Parliamentary select committee that forces morale had dipped over the past six months.

Much the same process of course, is occurring elsewhere across the public service. In this case, the impact on overall morale and wider performance is easier to observe. New Zealand is currently captive to a school of management that looks only at the bottom line of labour costs, and cares nothing for the impact on morale, efficiency and quality of service delivery that the resulting waves of penny wise, pound foolish internal disruption will bring in their wake. The current government however, seems indifferent to arguments based on the quality of public services – maybe because it is ideologically opposed to the notion of public services per se. in anything but the most rudimentary form.

With our defence forces, the recruitment message has been that joining the Army/Navy/Air Force offers a career path to those in uniform, and one not solely consisting of being on dropped onto a battle-ground. If the government now wants to shrink the career diversity and job security on which it is basing its armed forces recruitment advertising, then perhaps it should say so, upfront, to its new recruits. As Green Party MP Keith Locke has pointed out, those who join the armed forces forego certain rights – eg to collective bargaining – in return for a measure of job security and preference in selection for the jobs available.

Does the government have any idea – or concern – about what the overall efficiency outcome will be the administrative split that it is now zealously promoting – whereby only strictly military roles (ie warfighting, peacekeeping) are being reserved for those in uniform and everything else that can be farmed out will be contracted out at the cheapest rate that the free market can deliver? Is that “ two culture” scenario likely to attract the best and the brightest into a career in uniform – or will the armed forces become a residual re-training ground for the failures of our education system? Probably the latter, if one can judge by the recent Defence White Paper, which as Scoop pointed out last year includes this dimension:

In a poignant paragraph, the armed forces are advised to ‘manage’ the recruitment of good prospects who are failing the literacy and numeracy tests that are currently required. Elsewhere, the possible impact of employing civilians on military career structures and retention is barely addressed. It is simply taken on faith that military personnel will want to move in and out of military service over the course of their career. Contracting out, it concedes in an aside (6.49) will increase the possibility of price gouging by contractors. Not to worry about that, though.

Time will tell ( come the Defence Review in 2015) if this privatization process has saved as much money as the White Paper proposes. Certainly, some of its recommendations will increase the paperwork – the demands for supportive documentation for every single major purchase for instance, and the addition of a specific manager to manage the interface between the Ministry and the NZDF on each purchase, do not look consistent with the drive to prune back bureaucracy.

As it sheds those in uniform, is NZDF adding or subtracting the number of managers and form-fillers to quantify and document the “savings’ it is allegedly making? As mentioned, the centre right may talk tough on Defence, but it is habitually terrible at looking after its fighting needs, Those Vietnam era M113 APCS for instance, that kept breaking down in the mid 1990s and being hauled back to base in Bosnia by our British allies were emblematic of the way the last National government looked after the welfare of those in uniform. Nothing seems to have changed in that respect.

[Some of course, will point out that it was the incoming Labour government in 2000 that scrapped the ageing Skyhawks air strike wing and also refused to buy the bargain bin US replacements that were on offer at the time. Those steps however, were merely the prelude to the Clark government embarking on a massively expensive refocusing of Defence spending onto providing a combat trained, well-equipped land force supported by the Air Force and the Navy. The price of staying out of the Iraq war and cleaving to the UN rather to our traditional allies proved to be a major uptick in the long-neglected era of Defence spending and re-equipment. True to form, a National government is now resting complacently on that foundation.]

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