Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on Jonathan Coleman’s defence debacle

January 31st, 2013

Like one of those inept British generals in World War One, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman is more than willing to declare defeat as victory, ignore the carnage – that’s old news! – and move on to the next debacle. Evidently, Coleman has learned nothing from the damning list of errors identified by Auditor-General Lynn Provost in her report on the “civilianisation” process at Defence. To recap: this process was supposed to turn 1,400 logistics and administration military jobs into civilian ones and thereby allow significant resources within the armed forces to be re-deployed. The exercise had been packaged and sold as a win/win for all concerned:

This [process] was expected to save $20.5 million a year which would be redistributed to improve the proportion of front-line troops. The Auditor-General said that this target would not be met and revised the expected savings to $14.2 million a year.

Along the way, this contracting out military roles to the private sector has significantly damaged staff morale and harmed recruitment and retention:

Auditor-General Lyn Provost found that the NZDF cost-cutting … had been done in such a damaging way that staff morale had been dented, large numbers had left as a result, and the Force’s ability to do its job had been undermined.

Coleman learned this stuff at the feet of the master of course. Almost exactly the same exercise – with the same catastrophic results – was carried out by his senior Cabinet colleague Murray McCully at Foreign Affairs, and with similar results. There too, the warnings by experienced staff were ignored, the rosy estimates of savings never materialized, the targets had to be scaled back, and the exercise had to be eventually abandoned – but not before lasting damage had been inflicted on the organisation’s morale and effectiveness, and its future ability to recruit and retain talented staff. Undaunted, Coleman and McCully press on, relying on the talent and professional commitment of the surviving staff to bail them out. The lesson that should be being drawn from these debacles is fairly basic management wisdom. Government departments are social organisms where sudden changes affect the entire system. Rather than hack off limbs here and there, genuine leadership requires that the rationale for change needs to be explained and justified, with some acknowledgement that the potential repercussions are being foreseen, and factored into the calculations. But that’s not how we do it in New Zealand. Instead, the “change managers” make a fetish out of living in denial about what they’re doing. Even when the blood is all over the floor, they insist that nothing bad has actually happened, and that everything has been all for the best.

On that point…Coleman’s claim to RNZ’s Simon Mercep that the Iriquois helicopter crash had “nothing to do” with the cost cutting climate at Defence flies in the face of official investigations – more old news ! – into the Anzac Day incident that claimed the lives of three Defence Force personnel:

The [leaked internal] report apparently cites “the need to minimise accommodation costs incurred by 3 Squadron due to pressure on the accommodation budget was recognised and contributed to the ….decision [not to stay overnight in Wellington].” The Court of Inquiry also referred to accommodation costs. It stated three factors as being behind the decision not to fly to Wellington the night before. They were: noise abatement regulations at Wellington Airport which prevented aircraft movements before 6am, cost of overnight accommodation at Wellington, and the task could be conducted from Ohakea within crew duty limits.

Finally, it is interesting that one of Coleman’s main beefs with the Auditor-General’s report is that she didn’t include recommendations about how the government’s savings targets in Defence could be met. Talk about gall. As if Provost is supposed to internalise the government’s political goals on cost cutting, and proceed within those parameters. Why, one wonders, do we pay the ministerial salaries of Coleman and McCully – if they expect the public service to not only bail them out of their debacles, but to keep their failed premises in place, as the only permissible way of thinking. Mind you, when you have Education Minister Hekia Parata cracking karma jokes about the Novopay disaster, it’s becomes difficult to expect even basic competence from these clowns. If it is all about karma, what on earth did we do in a past life to deserve her?

Homeland as a metaphor for workplace politics

In case Hillary Clinton gets really sick and/or or is deemed unelectable in 2016, the US pollsters are already taking odds on other possible Democratic Party hopefuls. One alternative showing up early in the polls is the Maryland governor (and former Baltimore mayor) Martin O’Malley. Fans of The Wire TV series will recall he was the main inspiration for Tommy Carcetti, the fictional politician whose odyssey to win City Hall in Baltimore (and then the state governor’s office) was the main theme of season three, and a feature of the subsequent two seasons. O’Malley may have blown his prime time speaking slot at the Democratic Convention last year. But the exposure has boosted his presidential chances, regardless. As The Wire’s corrupt state senator Clay Davis would say: “Sheeeeee-it!”

In other pop culture/ political crossovers, the dust has now finally settled on the polarizing season two of Homeland – which in its focus on al Qaeda and its minions creepily became the dominant foreign policy thread in the Obama vs. Romney presidential debates, such that the two contenders seemed to be debating the worldview of Homeland far more than the bigger threats facing American trade and diplomacy. China, anyone?

For a tantalizing few minutes, Homeland season two looked as if it was actually going to stage a debate in prime time – between CIA operative Carrie Mathison and terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir – about the moral equivalence of jihadi barbarism (suicide bombers killing innocents) vs techno-inhumanity ( US drone strikes, also killing innocents.) Disappointingly though, the scriptwriters made sure that Mathison’s patriotic emotionalism was allowed to carry that particular argument. No real surprise there.

Just before Christmas though, Business Week magazine ran a far more interesting rationale for the popularity of Homeland in general, and for the Carrie Mathison character played by Claire Danes in particular. Homeland is not so much a TV show about terrorism, the US business magazine argued. The really dangerous state of terror in Homeland, it argued, is the one enforced from above, by the bureaucratic stupidity for which Carrie is presented as the antidote:

She’s arrogant, hotheaded, unmanageable, and utterly unencumbered by either office politics or geopolitical reality. Mathison lies about taking psychiatric meds, sleeps with an admitted terrorist, and withholds crucial information from her bosses because she’s sure they just won’t get it—or act fast enough. “You are really something, Carrie,” an FBI agent tells her. “There’s no bridge you won’t burn. No earth you won’t scorch.” That might be an understatement.

Two seasons in, it turns out that Homeland isn’t just a war-on-terror drama, it’s a workplace fantasy, a kind of wish-fulfillment playground for those of us who like to fancy ourselves outside-the-box thinkers and rogue geniuses. Mathison isn’t just an anti-terrorism hero working for The Company, she’s an anti-bureaucratic hero for anyone who’s ever worked for any company.

…Mathison acts while others deliberate. By-the-books superiors may stress rules and common sense, but Mathison trusts her gut and gumption. Toward the end of season two, every CIA operative is working on a plan, while Mathison is storming through that mysterious door into a pitch-black, empty warehouse to confront a terrorist mastermind, armed only with her bare hands.[And a crowbar. Don’t forget the crowbar.] In season one, she summed up her attitude toward middle management nicely when she asked her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin), “When did you become such a pussy?”

Obviously, Mathison’s career path—sex with a terrorist, absurd risk-taking on matters of national security—isn’t for everyone. But for many employees, being the rule-breaking superstar in a situation that isn’t life-or-death is a potent daydream.

In other words this is Office Space, with lots of terrorists. Given the current climate of induced fear that exists within the NZ public service, Homeland has probably found a pretty devoted audience here, too. Why, down at Foreign Affairs and Defence, I’ll bet there are entire platoons of Carrie Mathisons just yearning to kick the butts of Jonathan Coleman and Murray McCully, big time.


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    1. 6 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on Jonathan Coleman’s defence debacle”

    2. By Rush on Jan 31, 2013 | Reply

      Great article, Gordon.
      It would be good to see an equivalent piece on Tony Ryall’s MoH pogrom which has been very severe yet barely reported on.
      Something NZer’s might like to know is how Ryall has mucked around with Radiation Safety in NZ. The National Radiation Laboratory was tossed from the MoH into the arms of the profit-hungry ESR with many loose ends unaccounted for. An example of this is the nation’s radiation storage facility which presently resides in the heart of quake-ravaged Christchurch. It is my understanding that this facility is reaching capacity. During the due process period, the highly experienced NRL staff were very adamant that there was a need to ensure that a successor to this facility was established before changing the ownership of the laboratory. This request (along with other legitimate ones) was completely brushed aside by Ryall in his impatience to remove a handful more full-time-equivalents from the Ministry’s books.
      Perhaps someone with some experience with OIA requests can investigate this further?

    3. By Delia on Feb 1, 2013 | Reply

      It is the usual story. The govt ministers not taking any responsibility for the state of their ministries. Of course I do not doubt Mr Key has total faith in Mr Coleman as he has in all his incumbrant ministers.

    4. By peterlepaysan on Feb 1, 2013 | Reply

      I could not believe that Coleman actually fronted on RNZ. Kudos to him.

      The Shonkey ministers avoid RNZ as a rule.

      Mind you, I cannot recall any minister sounding as defensive as he did.

      Another National Party Shonkey muck up in the name of wall street values. Sigh!

    5. By Charles Drace on Feb 4, 2013 | Reply

      Gordon missed the point on National’s moves to privatise jobs in the public sector. In fact, McCully and Coleman and National are following Dick Cheney’s neo-conservative master plan of transferring taxpayer money to private enterprise to support big business at the expense of jobs, morale, institutional knowledge, efficiency, effectiveness, etc while leaving the government departments and especially the armed forces unable to perform their tasks in emergency situations because they no longer have the staff or skills or resources to maintain adequate performance levels.

    6. By Joe Blow on Feb 9, 2013 | Reply

      You should write something about Zero Dark Thirty Gordon?

    7. By C.S. Forrester on Feb 16, 2013 | Reply

      Both CDF and the Minister of Defence have stated that the Defence Force is meeting all its outputs. Well, at least some outputs seem to have been discreetly scaled back, given that three brand new ships have been sitting alongside Devonport Naval Base, presumably for want of sailors to operate them, for some months now.

      The Minister states in the interview that only backroom jobs were civilianised, not SAS or ship’s complement posts. However, a position or job is a line on a spreadsheet, and can’t be confused with the living, breathing human being who occupies it. Actual savings were meant to be made by reducing the number of people in uniform. This was done by reducing the number of people in rank and trade categories that are most definitely “front line”, including, in the Navy’s case, seaman combat specialists (in point of fact, all naval ranks and trades with the exception of the musicians and a small number of invaluable specialist officers are “front line”, as all go to sea). Having determined that a number of positions could be done by civilians as opposed to “expensive” servicemen and women, a complicated formula was applied to determine which rank and trade categories were supposedly overborne and by how many. The surplus was made redundant. Individuals to be retained were identified by merit, nonetheless, good people who wanted to stay in the services had to leave. Some of the rank and trade categories in which people were made redundant were soon so short of people that operational readiness was severely affected.

      The trouble with applying formulae to decision making about human beings is that the formulae are always dependent on the affected population behaving in a certain way once the decisions have been taken. However, anyone who has had anything whatever to do with servicemen and women could have predicted (and many did so) that the real outcome of civilianisation would be massive dissaffection and a very high rate of attrition amongst the very people the services could least afford to lose. The reason for this is actually quite straightforward. No-one stays in any of the three services for the pay and conditions. With the honourable exception of police officers and firefighters, for duration and extent the separations and hardships of service life have no equal in the civilian world. In the short term people might join or stay because of the opportunity to test themselves against extreme challenges or to do something they particularly want to do, like handle ships, fly aeroplanes or dive, or to acquire life and employment skills. In the long term, however, they stay because they either want or need to belong to something a bit bigger than themselves. People simply wouldn’t put up with the life otherwise, and in return for what they rightly see as their loyalty and sacrifice they expect something more from the service than the average civilian expects from an employer. This “something” is no less real for being intangible – it can be summed up as the feeling that the service cares about the men and women in it on a human level. “Civilianisation” and the way it was conducted was considered to have broken that compact. People saw that they were being viewed as units of cost, as opposed to men and women of value, and those who were not made redundant were left feeling as bitter and confused as those who were. They knew for an absolute fact what the outcome would be – attrition fewer people working harder for a service that no longer cared about them in they way that had been led to believe it should.

      What a whinge, I hear the reader say. However, it is the restoration of that compact that the NZDF leadership must address, and pay rises alone won’t be enough. Not by a long chalk, Mr Coleman.

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