Government too slow in deploying military to assist with Covid-19 response, former defence minister says

Wayne Mapp (Photo: via Wikimedia)

By Geoffrey Miller

A former Minister of Defence says the government was too slow to involve the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in New Zealand’s response to Covid-19.

But Wayne Mapp, a National MP from 1996-2011 who served as Minister of Defence for three years during John Key’s first term as Prime Minister, told the Democracy Project podcast that a New Zealand First plan to shift the entire managed isolation and quarantine programme into military facilities would be a step too far.

“I think that the government was way too slow in using the NZDF capability in Covid, and I still think they should be using Waiouru military camp. OK, not for everyone, but for at least some.

“The reality is the NZDF trains soldiers to have skills around discipline, command and commitment in a way that private security guards don’t. That’s why they were so valuable down in Christchurch [after the earthquakes] actually.

“I talked to the soldiers on a regular basis. They understood they had an important national job to do and it will be the same now, in a way that security guards don’t get. Security guards haven’t joined up for that sense of service in the way that soldiers would.”

Mapp says that the decision not to involve the defence force more in the response seems to have been a government decision, rather than stemming from any unwillingness on the part of the military to become involved in the domestic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“My understanding is that [Minister of Defence] Ron Mark and his team were pretty keen to offer the NZDF early on and there was a bit of reluctance by the Prime Minister and her team to accept that.”

But Wayne Mapp told the Democracy Project podcast that an election policy by New Zealand First to shift the managed isolation and quarantine programme into military facilities such as Waiouru would be a step too far.

“New Zealand First is always overly enthusiastic about using the military for all sorts of things.

“I don’t think you could go as far as that. To begin with, there are simply not enough beds. And secondly, they are not entirely configured for a quarantine kind of role anyway.

“But there are some things that they certainly could have been used for and they have been underutilised. It’s getting that artful balance between what exists in the civilian world – hotels and so forth – and what exists in the military.

“We’ve probably leaned a bit too much one way and not enough the other. We’ve haven’t really got the balance right there in my view.”

Burnham Inquiry 

Wayne Mapp told the Democracy Project podcast that he agreed with the recommendation by the Burnham Inquiry to establish an Independent Inspector-General of Defence to oversee the NZDF’s conduct.

“In my view, that should be along the Australian model, uniformed people, because they have a better understanding of military operations. But they need statutory independence, a bit like the Judge Advocate General’s role in Britain and the United States, which is independent and has statutory independence accordingly.”

The Burnham Inquiry was set up by the current Labour-NZ First coalition government in response to Operation Burnham, the name given to a controversial August 2010 raid in Afghanistan that involved the NZSAS as well as US troops. The incident was the subject of the 2017 book Hit and Run by journalists Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager.

Following the release of the Burnham Inquiry’s findings earlier this year, Wayne Mapp apologised for his role in the response to the incident, saying that he forgot a September 2011 briefing in which he was told of the possibility of civilian casualties and failed to inform others about what he had learned.

“Let’s just get the record straight on one particular point. I didn’t fail New Zealand by forgetting. By definition, if you forget, you forget. I failed New Zealand – in fact I specifically actually said the Defence Force and my fellow ministerial colleagues and therefore by extension New Zealand – by not talking to the CDF [Chief of Defence Force] immediately after I got that briefing.

“And by not talking to the Prime Minister’s office immediately after I got that briefing. I never gave anyone the opportunity to actually discuss what I had received. I sort of made a judgment myself that there was nothing that could actually be done here, that it was only a bare possibility. And that was a wrong judgment on my part. I should have immediately picked up the phone to Lieutenant General Rhys Jones.

“And I should have picked up the phone or gone up to the 9th floor [the Prime Minister’s office in the Beehive] and said ‘This is what I have received’. And we would have then had a discussion. I’m not entirely clear where that discussion would have ended, it might well have been ‘without any more, Wayne, we can’t do anything’ but at least we could have had that discussion.

“My failure by not contacting anyone was me letting people down, including wider New Zealand.

“I should have contacted people immediately when I got it. But then, the second thing is that I actually then forgot about it completely for ten years.

“I forgot about it pretty quickly because it wasn’t on my mind when I did the OIAs [Official Information Act requests] and things, and I think the reason I did forget about it was the death of Lance Corporal Leon Smith which occurred ten days later. That’s the only thing that I can think of that occurred – you can’t remember when you forget, no-one can possibly do that. But it was a failing on my part, yes.”

Science and innovation

Wayne Mapp told the Democracy Project podcast that his retirement from politics at the 2011 election, after just three years as a minster, was earlier than he had planned, but was unrelated to the Operation Burnham incident.

“I left parliament so my wife could become a judge. She and I were at an age where we felt it if that decision wasn’t made then, it would not be able to be made. But I was quite conscious for me personally I was really leaving about three years too early. I had a plan which was six years as a minister and of course I essentially fell short on that.”

Wayne Mapp, who also served as Minister of Research, Science and Technology, says that he regretted not having the opportunity to put the short-lived Ministry of Science and Innovation on a surer footing, which lasted for just one year before being folded into the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

“I didn’t really to get to bed down the Ministry of Science & Innovation properly. As a consequence it got folded into the big mega restructure of MBIE and Callaghan [Innovation] changed direction, becoming to a large extent a grant agency.

“I think those things were a mistake. It would have been much better for New Zealand to have kept a leaner approach around the ministerial support – leaner but more focused, not less money. I think we would have ended up getting more money specifically for science and innovation and really building out New Zealand’s capacity if we had had a standalone ministry with that as its sole focus.

“For an awful long time we just haven’t put enough focus on to science and innovation. Particularly compared to nations like Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Israel – all a similar size to us and they all do better than we do in that area. They do better because they spend more money on a per capita basis. Their universities are better, they have more experts and they have better connections between the universities and the business sector.”

Mapp says that he rejects criticism that grants to New Zealand technology start-ups by Callaghan Innovation amounted to “corporate welfare”.

“You’ve got to have some grants…the reality is, a bit like venture capital, some are going to fail. But some are going to succeed. Rocket Lab has been a real star. And that would not exist in the form it does today without what was, back in my day, Tech NZ, now the Callaghan foundation.

Peter Beck – it really was him as an individual and when I met him it was literally himself and one other in a tiny little lab in central Auckland. I went back – because I have an interest in aerospace generally – to Tech NZ and I said ‘you’ve got to fund this guy. He is going to succeed. You fund a lot of rubbish, why don’t you just fund him? It will work out, I just know that it will work out.’ My sense of that was correct. So yes you are going to have some fails, it’s inherent.”

Ron Mark’s performance and the Defence Capability Plan

Wayne Mapp says that he believes the current Minister of Defence, NZ First MP Ron Mark, has been effective in his role, particularly in getting support from across the political spectrum for the new Defence Capability Plan.

The new defence blueprint – announced in 2019 – involves spending some $20b over the next decade, mainly on new hardware such as the new C-130J ‘Super Hercules’ and four new Boeing P-8 Poseidon military patrol aircraft.

“I think Ron has done a good job. In large measure it’s the fulfilment of the plan that we put together in Defence Beyond 2000.

“One of the things I wanted to do back in 2010, and I worked hard on this, was to get buy-in as much as possible from across the parliament. I took my time to brief Labour, to brief the Greens in fact, mostly through the Select Committee process. I spent a bit of time doing that, because I wanted buy-in.

“I know you couldn’t get absolute buy-in, but I wanted to get more buy-in than had hitherto been the case. The way it was done with the Green Party this time around was actually pretty good. Whether it was Ron doing it, I don’t really know, but I think it was an important thing to do. Now defence is frankly almost an apolitical issue these days, and that didn’t use to be the case.”

Wayne Mapp says the Defence Capability Plan remains the right approach for New Zealand’s needs, despite the coronavirus pandemic highlighting how requirements of the military could change rapidly.

“The Poseidon is important because it’s the only maritime patrol aircraft – the only one in the world – that can go from New Zealand up to the Equator and back again, and go down to Antarctica and back again. We have the one of the largest EEZs [Exclusive Economic Zones] in the world, we have almost the largest search and rescue zones in the world and there’s only aircraft in the world that has got the capability to cover it all. It’s expensive – yes it’s got a lot of military capability and intelligence capability, but it’s also essential.”

Call for ‘Aotearoa Peace Research Institute’

In a discussion over New Zealand’s wider role in the world, Wayne Mapp told the Democracy Project podcast that New Zealand could be playing a greater role in diplomacy and peacemaking, in a similar way to Norway.

“I’m a member of the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, appointed in fact by Winston Peters, and I would like to see there be the establishment of a an Aotearoa Peace Research Institute, following the model of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway.

“I think public money needs to be spent. As a small nation, just like Norway is a relatively small nation, you get the opportunity to be a little more flexible than bigger nations. We have choices, for instance, that Australia doesn’t. I don’t believe we maximise those choices anywhere near enough.

“That’s not to say you have to become neutral or anything like that. Norway is a country in good standing with NATO, very good standing in fact, but they also have this other element to them. And that’s something we don’t have and should have as a nuclear-free country. We had the potential to do it some time ago and we’ve never really realised that potential.

Wayne Mapp believes that while Norway has been particularly active in Africa and the Middle East as part of this mediation role, New Zealand should make Asia its focus.

“I think if things are going to become more difficult in the Asia-Pacific, and in my view they will, then I think we need to step up a bit more with a bit more imagination around this.

“Norway does provide a good model. We’ve had glimmers of that in the past, Bougainville, East Timor and so forth, but we could do more. “

A new “Cold War” in the Pacific?

In the Asia-Pacific, Wayne Mapp believes that New Zealand’s relationship with China is becoming increasingly challenging.

“This will be the single-biggest challenge in my view for New Zealand policy-makers, and I don’t just mean the officials and MFAT [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade], I mean the ministers and Prime Ministers in the years ahead.

The former defence minister says that a new “Cold War” in the Pacific between the United States and China is on the cards. Mapp says this would be a complicating factor in the New Zealand-China relationship.

“I’m not going to forecast how that’s going to play out. But if you ask me this question: do I think a new Cold War is likely in the Pacific between China and the US, then my answer to that would be yes. I think it is more likely than not. I think all of the indicators point in that direction.”

Mapp says that New Zealand needs to “work out which issues are important” when considering issues such as the protests in Hong Kong or Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur population in China’s west.

“The Hong Kong one is quite an interesting one I find. I think the Chinese have got a reasonable level of justification around that, perhaps not how they did it, but at least their intention saying that Hong Kong is part of China and is actually subject to Chinese law, particularly around security. Although it has its special status, it’s not an independent country. New Zealand needed to be and indeed was quite careful about that one. The Uighurs, on the other hand – it just looked absolutely terrible and I felt that New Zealand didn’t actually say enough on that.”

“The one thing that China will learn, and indeed is learning, is that it can’t just treat its main trading partners like Australia, or New Zealand and indeed others, it can’t treat them as lackeys. We’re independent nations, we have our views.”

Wayne Mapp told the Democracy Project podcast that while New Zealand’s approach to China has been traditionally bipartisan, a more aggressive stance towards China by foreign minister Winston Peters over the past three years has challenged this.

Mapp notes that the New Zealand-China relationship could change again if New Zealand First does not make it back into Parliament following the upcoming election.

“It will be interesting to see to what extent Labour, assuming they are the government, is able to go back how they were originally vis-à-vis China. There was a very strong bipartisanship between National and Labour vis-à-vis China. That broke down a bit in the last term and the difficulties ahead would indicate that it’s going to be hard to sustain the way it was. It’s not going to be the easy relationship it was for the last 30 years.”

Listen to the full Democracy Project podcast with Wayne Mapp here

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

You may also like... - Understand the world through New Zealand