Gordon Campbell on Jonathan Coleman's defence debacle

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.