Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Brownlee has Defence Force in his sights

It was essential for Defence and Brownlee to recover from the rough start and by all accounts they have. Photo / Jason Oxenham
It was essential for Defence and Brownlee to recover from the rough start and by all accounts they have. Photo / Jason Oxenham

As a former Defence Minister, Phil Goff is usually well informed and worth listening to when he is talking on military matters.

But this week in the foreign affairs and defence select committee he suggested Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was in a job he didn't like and never wanted and that was why Brownlee had given the New Zealand Defence Force a low 50 per cent performance rating on the quality of its advice to him.

The score was correct. No one but Goff had managed to make it to page 83 of the NZDF Annual Report on which the barely adequate rating had been disclosed.

It must have been a bitter blow to the Defence Force, which revealed it had aimed for a 90 per cent rating.

What Goff perhaps didn't realise, because he has already enjoyed the privilege, is that every bloke in Parliament who's ever had a toy gun wants to be Minister of Defence, and half the women too.

Gerry Brownlee wanted it in 2011 but he was too overburdened with his earthquake recovery workload and Jonathan Coleman, a longtime John Key favourite, got it instead.

Brownlee asked for it again in 2014 and such is his standing for his work in Christchurch that he got his wish.

For a new minister, finding his or her way around the culture and peculiarities of a new department is a testing experience at any time.

Brownlee is not easily fobbed off with an incomplete briefing or half the picture. He is not the thick woodwork teacher Labour invented. He may look like a blunt instrument but he is acutely sharp. He wants detail. He wants thorough briefings to stay on top of his portfolio, which concerns the life and death of soldiers.

Defence provides unique challenges for any minister.

The military see themselves as an arm of the state, not an arm of the Government. The top brass didn't bow and scrape to get where they are today only to have to bow and scrape to mere civilians.

Its "independence" perhaps reached its most absurd heights last term when the NZDF invited the United States to military exercises in New Zealand for the first time in more than 20 years without consulting the Government.

It was essential for Defence and Brownlee to recover from the rough start and by all accounts they have.

From the outset, they were thrown into intense and important work on the fight against Isis.

Soon after Brownlee got Defence, Key signalled that New Zealand was preparing for a non-combat training role with Australia to help to defeat Isis in Iraq. That was finalised as a two-year mission at Camp Taji outside Baghdad.

Brownlee and the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, have been at Nato HQ in Brussels in the past few days with coalition counterparts, including the US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, focusing on the military response to Isis.

The meeting was buoyed by stats suggesting recruitment by Isis is dropping and that 40 per cent of the territory it gained in Iraq and Syria has been recaptured.

Saudi Arabia and a sub-coalition of Muslim countries were there too, talking up the possibility of putting troops on the ground in Syria.

But Russia's intervention in Syria since October last year has changed everything on both the military and political fronts.

Every bloke in Parliament who's ever had a toy gun wants to be Minister of Defence, and half the women too.

If its aim was to insert itself into one of the most complex conflicts the international community is dealing with, it has worked.

If its aim was to make the US look less in control, it has also worked.

No solution could be considered now without Russia's consent.

An awful lot was unknown a year ago, when the New Zealand mission was finalised, especially how well Iraq was going to receive the training mission.

For that reason a review was instigated virtually from the outset and that is due in the Cabinet next month.

America's Carter created a news flurry at the end of last year when he sent a form letter to all countries involved in the fight against Isis asking for greater contributions.

The Australians almost summarily dismissed it last month ahead of Malcolm Turnbull's first White House visit as Prime Minister.

Canada's profile in Iraq under the Stephen Harper Government was similar to Australia's in that it was assisting the US in airstrikes against Isis in Syria and Iraq.

But Justin Trudeau this week changed that. Fulfilling an election promise, he withdrew Canada's six fighter jets from the coalition.

But at the same time he boosted the number of troops in an advise and assist role, from about 70 to 200.

Key said consideration of Carter's request to beef up contributions would occur at the same time as ministers looked at the review.

But all the signals suggest New Zealand's response will be the same as Australia's, ie, we're doing more than our share.

The much bigger issue will be whether New Zealand remains in Camp Taji beyond the two-year deployment. That is not even up for discussion at the moment but is likely to be addressed when Key makes an official visit to Australia next week.

International focus has shifted to Syria for now and possible solutions.

Russia's current bombing of Aleppo has resulted in the surge of tens of thousands of Syrians to the Turkish border.

It claims to be targeting Isis but rebels opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad say they have been targets. The bombing campaign forced a suspension last week of UN-led peace talks in Geneva.

That heightened the importance of yesterday's meeting between the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Munich.

Russia's offer of a ceasefire - to take effect in a week - is a major development. It is yet to be seen what conditions will be attached or what bombing plans it is preserving for the next week.

Exasperation with Russia was dripping from the comments on Thursday by New Zealand's ambassador on the UN Security Council, Gerard van Bohemen.

War on the ground was having a direct impact on the political talks and therefore on the humanitarian situation, he said. Russia was the direct cause of the crisis around Aleppo. He also suggested countries with influence over Syria, Russia plainly, use their influence to persuade Syria to let go of all the aid it is stopping.

It is hard to predict where the next twist in the fight against Isis will occur but it's clear why New Zealand is taking such a cautious approach to its commitments as one small element of a hideously complex situation.

Brownlee will be back for Monday's Cabinet meeting and will no doubt brief his colleagues on the Brussels meeting.

If Goff wants to be well-informed, maybe he should ask Brownlee for a briefing too.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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