Defence Minister Pyne - General Angus Campbell Leaving Media Standup 2019 (Video Screenshot)

Be Like Angus

Kiwis have become accustomed to the regular COVID media stand-ups. While once the platform of choice for the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health, we have become more familiar, lately, with the sight of the Minister responsible for COVID quarantine, Hon Megan Woods and the Defence Force officer operationally in control, Air Commodore Darryn Webb on the podium. Is this a problem? Certainly not for the politicians involved but I think it is time, with an election campaign now underway and parliament rising on 6 August and being dissolved on 12 August, for the NZDF to politely ‘leave the stage.’

Politicians love the credibility that being seen with well-known or trusted other parties brings. The NZDF has jumped from 10th in Colmar Brunton’s Public Sector Reputation Index last year to 2nd this year (only behind Fire and Emergency NZ). But reputations are slippery things. One only has to look at the variable treatment of the DG Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, to see how hero status can be quickly eroded by a few problems. Former Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, was unceremoniously replaced with Air Commodore Webb in order to reassure the public the borders were in safe hands.

You have to tip your lemon-squeezer hat to Australian Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell who very publicly refuses to allow the Australian Defence Force to be used as political window dressing. In March 2019, during a change of command announcement for several senior ADF officers, media started asking Defence Minister Christopher Pyne questions about federal politics. General Campbell stepped up to the podium, tapped the minister on the shoulder and politely requested that the officers standing behind him be excused. Later, a senior ADF official said “the incident was a ‘timely reminder’ for politicians not to attempt to use ADF personnel as props in an election year.”

Fast forward to March 2020 and this year’s Aussie bush fires. Under intense criticism about his handling of the fires, Aussie PM Scott Morrison, posted a promotional video on social media praising the Liberal Party’s response to the crisis. It included significant footage and ‘puffery’ about the ADF element in the response. Labor criticised it. At a Senate estimates hearing, General Campbell stated that he was ‘discomforted by it’ and had rung the PM after he saw it to express that sentiment.

By all accounts, the NZDF personnel assisting in the running of managed isolation and quarantine facilities are doing a good job. I’m not suggesting that they should stop just because there is an election but neither can they be expected to continue in the role until the pandemic crisis is over. It’s simply not why we raise, train and sustain service personnel. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they should do it in perpetuity. While I don’t disagree with imminent user-pays charges; expectations of those being isolated will rise and the NZDF’s honeymoon will be over.

It is the government’s responsibility to find an agency or model better suited to running these facilities. In the meantime, Defence must actively avoid becoming anything other than staunchly apolitical – including simply the perception. It’s something that General Angus Campbell understands all too well.

So, it now really falls to New Zealand’s CDF, Air Marshal Kevin Short, to ‘Be like Angus’. Tap the PM on the shoulder and politely request that the uniformed members leave the stage now that campaigning has begun.

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A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle
A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle