Lieutenant-General Tim Keating’s four years as chief of the NZ Defence Force draw to a close this week. Keating spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the military’s response to allegations of war crimes, finding the funds to grow, and where the NZDF’s focus should be.

The white walls of Lieutenant-General Tim Keating’s ninth-floor office at Freyberg House are conspicuously bare, seemingly stripped of any personality.

Interior decor for the military mind? The truth is a little more boring.

“I’ve cleaned out my stuff – this is getting ready for the new guy.”

After four years atop the NZ Defence Force, Keating says he will return to civilian life at the end of this month happy with what has been accomplished.

“I think the term I’d use is a sense of pride: pride in the organisation I’ve been a part of it and what it delivers, where it is at the moment, the challenges it’s taking on to be a better organisation.”

The NZDF has dealt with some “confronting issues” during his tenure, he says, pointing to work to tackle sexual assault and discrimination through Operation Respect.

Intra-military funding scraps between the Army, Navy and Air Force “are now days past”, with the three services moving ahead as one – and that is being noticed on the world stage.

“The commentary I get from senior political leaders and military leaders – and they’re not ingratiating – they say, ‘You New Zealanders are really good, and we want your people to be part of these coalitions, UN missions around the world’.”

Fighting for funds

While Keating is happy with the quality of the people, their equipment may be another matter.

While the National government in 2016 announced a $20 billion proposal to upgrade defence equipment in 2016, there has been little in the way of concrete commitment from a new Labour-led government trying to balance the books.

Keating insists he’s unworried by the prospect of a funding freeze, saying new governments are quickly “confronted with reality” when it comes to the importance of defence beyond three-year election cycles.

“One of the things you find in democracies is war and conflict and those sorts of things always come as surprises: nobody saw East Timor coming, they saw a referendum and hopefully a peaceful transition.

“No-one saw 9/11 coming and the fact we’d have troops deployed into Afghanistan facing a terrorist force.”

“It comes down to almost home economics: if you’ve got to put food on the table and drive the car to work, you may not paint the house this year or replace the curtains, and that’s the story of our Defence Force.”

The same long-term view holds when it comes to the military’s barracks and other buildings, Keating says, much of which is in a run-down condition.

“It comes down to almost home economics: if you’ve got to put food on the table and drive the car to work, you may not paint the house this year or replace the curtains, and that’s the story of our Defence Force.”

If work isn’t done, they will become “unliveable” – a point he knows Defence Minister Ron Mark is well aware of.

“This minister has visited every base and camp, and we don’t take him to the nice places – [Mark] has made comments that when he’s walked into bases and facilities that when he joined the military in the late 1970s, those barrack rooms, offices, still exist, and what you’ll find is many of those were built as temporary facilities for World War II or even before.”

Part of the problem, says Keating, is making the case to the New Zealand public for the importance of the NZDF, even as issues like housing and healthcare seem more important.

“We’re part of a world community, always have been, and our prosperity and our security…comes from being a good citizen of the world.”

The battle over Burnham

But just how badly has that public image been damaged in recent years?

In April, the Government confirmed it would hold an inquiry into Operation Burnham, after Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s 2017 book Hit & Run alleged 21 civilians were killed or injured in a 2010 Afghanistan raid by the SAS.

The NZDF has copped flak for failing to address the allegations head-on, with its position seemingly changing over time.

Earlier this year, it confirmed photos in the book matched up with the location of Operation Burnham , despite initially stating the “central premise” of Hit & Run – the alleged location of the raid – was incorrect.

However, Keating insists he “hasn’t walked back…at all” from the NZDF’s initial response.

“One of the things I’ve always said, and I haven’t said what the authors were right or wrong on, and they have come up with a story – my line, my approach has been, this is what Operation Burnham did and didn’t do, and where it did it.”

Keating speaks to media about the NZDF response to Hit & Run in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

He concedes the military needs to be more transparent regarding how it handles accusations like those around Operation Burnham, but accuses critics of jumping the gun when it comes to the investigative process.

“I’m always surprised where people make an accusation and they’re expecting me to apologise, or you know the Salem witch-hunt type thing and suddenly all our people are guilty.”

There is a balance to be struck between greater transparency and necessary secrecy, Keating says, pointing to the furore over the publication of a photo in 2010 showing Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata on patrol with the SAS in Afghanistan.

“We know what we’re up against: people are trying to critically analyse those vulnerabilities…what radio was he wearing, what ammunition was he carrying, what weapon was he carrying – that’s where we’re really secret.”

The NZDF has to do “everything possible to blind the enemy to our people” given the stakes, he says.

“Let me get melodramatic – when you sit in the living room of a wife and a mother of someone who’s just been killed in Afghanistan, I have the sense of duty and responsibility, I’ll do everything possible to protect them.”

Climate change, Antarctica areas of concern

So as Keating moves on, where should the New Zealand military move next?

He backs the Government’s focus on climate change and the Pacific, saying: “There are many more threats to a nation’s security than just man.”

“In the Pacific, in a direct sense, the threat faced by a number of nations, environmental issues, they might say peak water in some parts of the world, is the trigger that starts many of the conflicts, so although they’re environmental today they have ramifications beyond that.”

The Antarctic looms large in that picture, with climate change – and pressure from other countries – threatening some of the richest protein resources in the world.

“Antarctica has been maintained by a handshake agreement called the Antarctic Treaty since the 1950s. Is that going to be sustainable that it’s a no-man’s-land other than for scientific research? Is the competition for resources going to be so much that it’s going to put pressure on the systems in Antarctica?”

“We are doing good in Afghanistan and we’re doing good in Iraq, and the results of what we’re doing is showing progress, but won’t solve the situation.”

Of the Government’s looming decisions on deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Keating says we should be in no doubt about the progress that has been made so far, but warns that healing deep cultural conflicts won’t be “solved by Christmas”.

“We are doing good in Afghanistan and we’re doing good in Iraq, and the results of what we’re doing is showing progress, but won’t solve the situation.”

As for his own plans, Keating intends to “take a breather for a while and rethink”, although it’s likely his contribution to public life will continue in some form.

“I have a passion about New Zealand and I have a passion about social justice, funny old thing.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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