Jul 4, 2008

UNgate: McCully's View

We are sure Murray McCully would not mind us repeating his latest post on this important matter:

04 July 2008 (#336)
Heads on the Block at Defence HQ
The UN Housing Allowances rort exposed this week will have some of New Zealand’s most senior military officers feeling distinctly nervous about their jobs. Prime Ministerial and ministerial anger has been focused on the damage to relationships at the United Nations, at which organization they see their future personal careers. But more serious implications flow from the attempt by Defence HQ to feed one of their own officers to the wolves in order to cover up for a seven-year plan to rip off the United Nations.
In 2001, the United Nations changed the rules for personnel seconded to its ranks. Those who opted to receive a UN housing allowance were required to sign a declaration to the effect that they were not receiving any top-up payments from their own governments. The instruction to New Zealand military personnel seconded to the UN was to take the UN allowance, and to also accept a top-up payment from NZDF. They were then instructed to complete the declaration stating that they were receiving no such top-up payment. In other words, our military chiefs instructed their subordinates to lie to their UN bosses.
At least five very senior New Zealand officers have now, apparently, wrongly accepted the UN housing allowance, and even more wrongly completed the declaration to the effect that no top-up from New Zealand was being received. All of the above came to a head when NZDF brought home one of its colonels to face court-martial charges relating to the receipt of the housing allowance and the wrongful declaration.
In the days leading up to the court-martial, the housing allowance charges were dropped. NZDF, it appears, were forced to eventually face up to the fact that the practice was theirs, and officially sanctioned, rather than an attempt by one individual to enrich himself. Other, minor matters were pursued against that officer, which are not germane to this story, but which look entirely trivial in the wash-up.
In the course of the nine months of investigation and preparation for a court-martial over the UN housing allowance issue, NZDF chiefs became aware, presumably very early in the piece, that this was a problem of their creation. This was their housing allowance rort, not one initiated by the officer concerned. Five of their officers, at least, had, under orders, followed the same practice. Yet they allowed the court-martial process to move forward.
On 28 May NZDF received a wad of questions from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in relation to the Defence Estimates (following the Budget a few days earlier). They included a series of very specific, very pointed questions about NZDF seconded personnel and the rules around receipt of UN housing allowances. The point could not have been clearer.
Yet over a month later, on 29 June to be precise, Defence Minister Phil Goff told TV3 that he knew nothing about the UN housing allowance dispute. Over a month after National Party questions made it clear that the systematic rorting of the allowances was known to the Minister’s political opponents, the Minister says NZDF still hadn’t briefed him. But it gets worse.
On 18th of June, prior to his appearance in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee the next day, Goff’s office approved the NZDF responses to questions and forwarded them to the Committee. Those responses made it clear: there was indeed a problem with the NZDF practice in relation to the housing allowances, lawyers were on the case, and the practice had been suspended as a result.
Because it was still not clear whether the housing allowances would feature at a court-martial the following week, the National Party did not pursue the matter with Goff in the select committee. But it is extraordinary to think that his officials allowed him to walk into the Committee, having signed off on the answers, without Defence chiefs briefing him on the background.
Goff has told Parliament that he was not briefed. We accept him at his word. He has also said that he did not understand what lay behind the answers he approved for the select committee. That is more difficult to accept but let’s again take the Minister at his word. All of which would have made him fully reliant on his NZDF chiefs being full and frank with him about the issue. Which clearly they weren’t. At best this was incompetence. More likely, this was a serious breach of duty. But there is still worse to come.
The investigation into the housing allowance issue started in August 2007. Since that time it has been blindingly obvious to dozens of staff at NZDF that rorting the UN allowances is official Defence policy. Yet preparations have continued to prosecute a senior officer for following that policy. What sort of culture does that create at our Defence HQ?
Last week Major General Rhys Jones, Commander, Joint Forces was ordered to front the TV3 cameras to defend the indefensible. It would be fair to observe that the bumbling interview was not exactly the pinnacle of his military career. But it is strongly rumoured that it was the very same Major General Jones who fronted General Mataparae back in February to tell him that this was Defence’s problem, that they should take responsibility and repay to the UN what was due. Now it appears the guy who had the integrity to deal with the issue is being sent out to cop the bullets for the decision that was actually made by his superiors against his advice. All very untidy.
Now NZDF have established a Board of Enquiry. The initial signs are not encouraging, suggesting another of the cover-ups for which the Clark Government has become notorious. But readers may rest assured, any shortcomings will be exposed in the Select Committee and Parliamentary scrutiny that will follow.
This is a serious matter. Any organisation that sends its staff into situations involving personal danger needs to operate on the basis that, when things get tough, their superiors will back them to the hilt, not stab them in the back.
The whole UN saga has laid bare a seriously troubling state of affairs. First because, if the Minister is to be believed, he has not been briefed on matters on which NZDF had an absolute duty to brief him. And second, because a picture has emerged of a culture within our military that is very far removed from that which we would expect amongst those charged with the defence of the realm. So watch this space as the facts emerge. A few ruffled feathers over at the UN may be the least of the concerns now confronting General Mataparae and his colleagues.