Defence Minister Ron Mark faces some big decisions as he reviews the Defence Force’s strategic plans for the decades to come. Mark spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the debts owed by the Government to veterans and the military’s role in “the war on climate change”.
Ron Mark has earned a reputation – not unfairly – as somewhat of a hothead in Parliament’s debating chamber.
Previous highlights include pulling the finger at National MP Tau Henare in 2006, telling Government MPs to “shut the f*** up” in 2015, and calling an unidentified MP a “lying little s***” in 2016.
Yet in person, the New Zealand First MP has a far more soothing presence, his voice almost dropping to a whisper at points as he carefully considers each word.
In his second parliamentary stint, Mark has been given his dream role, tasked with overseeing the Defence Force and the ministries of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.
Mark has first-hand experience of what Kiwi service personnel experience.
He entered the Army’s Cadet School as a 16-year-old, following a childhood spent bouncing from foster home to foster home: “Not really fitting in anywhere, growing up with a view you probably weren’t as good as other people but wanting to demonstrate that you were.”
“In the military, there are people who see the potential as opposed to the problem, they look for the positives…if you screwed up, you knew there would be consequences, but once that was done, it was over.”
A number of his foster family members had military experience, while he has memories of reading books about World War II and seeing soldiers on exercise as a 12-year-old cycling across the Pahiatua bridge.
Mark says serving “kept me out of jail”, commanders providing him with the discipline he needed while still showing they cared.
“In the military, there are people who see the potential as opposed to the problem, they look for the positives…if you screwed up, you knew there would be consequences, but once that was done, it was over.
“That’s one of the things that saddens me about civvy street: people want to keep punishing and punishing and punishing people again and writing them off.”
After graduating as a soldier mechanic, he was accepted for officer cadet training – an experience he describes as “something that really tests your character and your humility” as he again worked his way up from the bottom.
Mark says he always tested himself during his 15 years in the Army and five years in the Sultan of Oman’s Defence Forces, including putting himself through the gruelling SAS selection course – only not to serve.
“Suffering the comments of certain people who just laughed and said, ‘You’ve got to be joking, you’re a logistics officer’, coming through, the disappointment of not being able to get myself released – that was the kicker at the end.”
Defence Force ‘in a good space’
He is the first Defence Minister to have served full-time in the military since Labour’s Frank O’Flynn in the 1980s – a fact he says may help him in his new role.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but what I’m hoping is the fact that I have served gives people confidence in my ability to understand what they do, the conditions in which they do it, the little they ask for in return, and what the unspoken expectations of their families are.”
Yet more important to many others, he says, is the fact he is the first Maori Defence Minister.
“There is a very strong affinity between Maori of all iwi and the military, make no bones about that. They are rightfully very very proud of the role they have played in defence of the realm over generations, many generations.”
While Mark says the new Government will bring a “freshness of mind” to defence issues, he acknowledges he has inherited a Defence Force “in a good space”.
“Organisationally, structure-wise, values-wise, they have a wealth of talented people.”
Extra funding provided from the last Government for the Ministry of Defence, specifically its capability and project management teams, is starting to bear fruit despite arriving slowly, he says.
However, a $148 million cost overrun for the Anzac frigate systems upgrade project revealed earlier this month was an unwelcome reminder of why Mark has been a strong critic of the approach to defence projects in the past.
“It’s given me the perfect opportunity to make it very clear to people what I expect and what I don’t want to see ever again.”
The coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand first includes a commitment to “re-examine the Defence procurement programme within the context of the 2016 Defence Capability Plan budget”, which set out the investments required to give the force the support and equipment it needs for the coming decades.
There has been speculation that the Defence budget could be squeezed as pressure comes on the Government in other areas, but Mark is clear that there is a firm commitment to retaining the $20 billion budget from the original plan.
While Mark is aware of “time pressures” on Defence spending, including an upcoming decision on replacing the P3 Orion fleet, he says the Government wants a “first principles” review of the plan, going back to the Defence White Paper which set out the military’s strategic priorities.
“We need to assure ourselves that the big picture is correct and that the plans we have in place are still relevant.”
He believes there a number of strategic gaps in the White Paper, including one highlighted by a recent visit to Antarctica.
“That’s the biggest deployment we have, frontend to backend: what Defence is doing in support of Antarctica New Zealand, and the research work and the science work that’s happening down there, it’s not small – it’s massive.”
The self-described “recycler from hell” says there is a chance to give much more thought to the Defence Force’s role in what he calls “the war on climate change”.
“With global warming and climate change, there are consequences to that, security risks that will arise from climate change…yes, war-fighting and a projection of military capability is fundamental, but there’s a far bigger picture out there right now of the threats we face as human beings, as a nation of people who care about others.”
With Niwa predicting increasingly violent weather patterns, Mark says the internal displacement of populations, increasing number of refugees and challenges to governance are all likely to be issues with which the Defence Force will need to assist as a result.
“If you start thinking forward and the consequences of climate change, rising sea levels, more violent weather disruptions – who would imagine that you would have seen a scenario where we had two or three cyclones play out in the United States zeroing in together, and the consequences of that?”
“I can’t blame people who might be critical or questioning of what we do if I haven’t taken them or made the time to give them the opportunity to see better than which I see, and that which our defence people are trying to do, how much better it could be if they had something else in the toolbox.”
Mark is also keen to open up the Defence Force, describing previous Governments as having been “too insular” when it comes to responding to its critics.
“I can’t blame people who might be critical or questioning of what we do if I haven’t taken them or made the time to give them the opportunity to see better than which I see, and that which our Defence people are trying to do, how much better it could be if they had something else in the toolbox.”
Mark says the Government is yet to make a decision on whether to hold an inquiry into allegations of war crimes in Nicky Hager’s book Hit and Run (“We have been very busy with the 100-day programme, there will be an opportunity when the Prime Minister’s diary is a little bit clearer to sit down and discuss it”), but it’s clear he personally feels no desire to start an investigation.
“I have absolute confidence in the men and women of the New Zealand Defence Force…they’re good people who live by the highest standards in terms of their ethics and morality, who are highly professional, highly capable, good people.”
Defence Force as a safety net
Mark is keen to provide more support to veterans, saying the joining of the defence and veterans’ affairs portfolios under him is important as the Government seeks to deal with a lack of engagement by contemporary veterans after their service.
“We want them to come straight into Veterans’ Affairs so they are connected and informed at that point in time as to what their rights are, what they’re entitled to, what their spouse are, even if they don’t want it, because as they get older they’ll damn well need it.”
Ex-soldiers have never been comfortable going to traditional Government agencies for help, he says, and the Government has a duty to ensure they get the support they need.
“If you consider recruiting has been the cradle in the development of a service person, and their funeral being the grave, we need to be providing that cradle to the grave support for Defence Force personnel while they’re serving, post their service, and for their families beyond their life within the parameters of what they’re entitled to.”
That belief in the value of the social welfare safety net extends to young Kiwis, who Mark says can benefit as he did from the Defence Force’s sense of discipline.
“For [the military], seeing a young person come in and mothers in tears saying thank you for what you’ve done for our daughter, thank you for what you’ve done for our son…that makes it easy for them to get out of bed.”
The coalition agreement also includes a commitment to provide another 800 places for the Defence Force’s Limited Service Volunteer (LSV) course, and Mark says there is a genuine desire within the ranks to do more.
“There was a time when if you asked an artillery officer if they should be training young people and helping them, he probably would have said it wasn’t the job of the military.
“Those days are long gone: everyone in the Defence Force loves what we want to do with the military programmes, loves what we want to do with the LSV, is bursting out of themselves to expand the programme and do more because they’re so proud of what they produce at the end of the course.
“For them, seeing a young person come in, with mothers in tears saying thank you for what you’ve done for our daughter, thank you for what you’ve done for our son…that makes it easy for them to get out of bed and receive the next intake of young people.”