Gordon Campbell on the Navy’s dealings with Fat Leonard, and Twin Peaks

At an official level, our “she’ll be right” attitude routinely spills over into a keen resentment of anyone who suggests the outcomes may be less than satisfactory. Oversight at any level of performance is not New Zealand’s strong suit – from our one-chamber Parliament on downwards.

The NZ Defence Force for instance, has all but insulated itself against criticism. A few weeks ago in the Hit and Run affair, it investigated itself and found its behaviour to have been splendid – while refusing to release the relevant information that might enable anyone else to conclude otherwise. Oh, and it also relied on an “independent” evaluation carried out by the coalition forces in Afghanistan to which our troops belonged. The coalition found itself to have performed pretty darn well, too.

The Navy has now gone one step beyond. It won’t even ask itself whether it did a good job.

Reportedly, our Navy did over $700,000 worth of business with a convicted and jailed US fraudster called “Fat” Leonard Glenn Francis, who bilked the taxpayers of several countries out of millions in overcharging for naval services his form provided in ports throughout Asia – apparently, by corrupting the naval officers concerned with prostitutes and lavish parties, and then gaining their grateful co-operation in filing inflated invoices.

In other countries, (eg in Australia) investigations have been launched to reassure the public about the propriety of their dealings with Fat Leonard, and the actions of two officers in Australia are under the spotlight.

Not here, though. Our Navy is refusing to even re-examine its dealings with Fat Leonard until and unless someone can produce evidence of fraud – which is a pretty hard ask, since only the Navy currently have access to the relevant documentation as to what services were provided, and whether these were invoiced at a reasonable cost. Essentially, the Navy is putting up the shutters on its dealings with Fat Leonard’s company Glenn Defence Marine Asia (GDMA):

The (NZ) Navy told the Guardian in previous correspondence that it had used a “range of services” in Singapore from bus hire to tug provision. Responding to a freedom of information request, it added it had “not conducted an investigation into its relationship with GDMA based on the results of the US corruption investigation, nor is there an intention to do so.”

The bunker mentality being displayed here all but ignores the obligation to re-assure the public that it can have full confidence in the procedures for spending their money. When a notorious fraudster is exposed with whom our officials have done business, you’d think it would be automatic to review said business, if only to address the perception that New Zealand might not have been exempt from a widely spread pattern of impropriety. Not the case here. The Army brazened it out over the Hit and Run allegations. The Navy seems intent on doing likewise.

This problem of accountability isn’t limited to our armed forces. The Ministry of Transport affair – which also involving a convicted and jailed fraudster, Joanne Harrison – has shown just how tightly our officials draw the wagons when one of their own is accused of impropriety. Those junior staff who tried to alert their superiors about Harrison were either ignored, or lost their jobs. Martin Matthews, the chief executive atop the ladder of responsibility has been promoted – to the post of Auditor-General, where he is tasked with ensuring honest and optimal performance from all of our government departments and agencies. Right now, there’s a perception problem right there.

The government has dived for cover. Issues at the MoT, says PM Bill English, are over to the State Services Commission. Issues to do with the Auditor-General are not his responsibility either, but belong with the wider Parliament that appointed him. Given that as NZ First leader Winston Peters has pointed out, Parliament was not made aware by the relevant Ministers of the true scale of the problems at MoT when it appointed the Auditor-General, it is now up to Speaker David Carter, to decide whether there are sufficient grounds for revisiting that appointment.

As for the whistle blowers who lost their jobs over the Harrison affair, some are already saying the terms of reference for the current investigation at MoT have been set too narrowly.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this – and similar sagas of fear and intimidation in government departments and agencies – is that the public service reforms of the late 1980s have been utterly disastrous for the independence and professionalism of the public service. A culture of intimidation and retribution is now commonplace, and woe betide anyone who questions the pecking order.

Twin Peaks revisited

Yesterday saw the premiere of the next round of television’s most audacious show, nearly three decades after its debut. According to the Guardian, “even hardcore fans” have responded with bafflement and irritation. Oh, really? Sounds good to me. Bafflement (with side servings of trepidation, horror and wonderment) is what you expect from David Lynch.

Twin Peaks was never reducible to its cherry pie/damn fine coffee affectations. Back in the day, the hostile Cannes reception for the Fire Walk With Me movie was the last howl of the disappointed that Lynch hadn’t chosen to deliver them a crime procedural wrapped up in a cheery bundle of quirk. In an excellent article, Matt Zoller Seitz has detailed the ways in which Twin Peaks was always more than its surface aesthetics:

I fear that a good number of viewers are going to watch the new Twin Peaks eagerly anticipating the charming, consumable, GIF-able, and meme-able elements: the comedy, the flirtations, the quizzical reaction shots, and dry banter; the ritual consumption of coffee, donuts, and pie; Agent Dale Cooper with his big grin and Audrey with her saddle shoes and skirts; the dancing dwarf, Angelo Badalamenti’s funky lounge music cues, and so on. That’s Twin Peaks, of course. But it’s not all that Twin Peaks was. And it’s not all that the new Twin Peaks will likely be.
Seitz proceeds to explain why Lynch and his show are not standard analytical fodder, amenable to instant parsing of its narrative trajectory. Too bad for some:

Quite by accident, Lynch, a filmmaker known for his cryptic, sometimes cranky deflections of “What does this mean?”–type questions, is about to embark on a trolling expedition through the most tediously literal-minded era of film and TV fandom — a period in which social-media users and media outlets (including this one) fall over themselves to parse the microscopic details of mythology-rich shows, and producers participate in “exit interviews” and electronic press-kit sit-downs, live tweets and liveblogs, Facebook videos, and Reddit AMAs.

We might see Lynch do a few of those as part of his contractual obligation to promote the show. But I’d be shocked if he treated them as anything other than inadvertent meta-commentary on the uselessness of treating a David Lynch project as if it were a season of Game of Thrones or House of Cards.

As one of those hardcore fans that the Guardian so readily sprang to console, I’m pretty much willing to trust Lynch wherever he goes. He’s earned it. The bigger disappointment would be if he had softened the edges. This review in the AV Club indicates that’s not the case. Good.

It also indicates that we’re all going to have to watch the last half of season two again, and have the White Lodge/Black Lodge stuff fully in hand. The bafflement may be only the buffer wave before engagement, but it never really goes away. That’s why people can return again and again to the likes of Mulholland Drive, because its meanings aren’t exhausted… at least not by the usual bout of binge-viewing over pizza. Nor is Lynch consciously screwing with the usual narrative conventions and expectations. As Seitz says, he just doesn’t seem to be very interested in them.

Time and again, the horrors lurking not far below the surface heighten the effect of say, this startlingly sentimental exchange between the Major Briggs and his son, Bobby. Given the fate of the Major at Listening Post Alpha, this is still one of the more affecting encounters in the original series: