Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Minister rejects talk of low morale in forces

Private Michael Ross died on Lake Moawhango, near Waiouru, last year while on army manoeuvres. Photo / Supplied
Private Michael Ross died on Lake Moawhango, near Waiouru, last year while on army manoeuvres. Photo / Supplied

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman rejected suggestions the non-combat deaths of defence force personnel were linked to low morale and the loss of experienced personnel, in an angry exchange with Labour's Phil Goff yesterday.

However, Dr Coleman confirmed that media reports of interim findings of "multiple safety failings" leading to the drowning of soldier Private Michael Ross on Lake Moawhango last year were correct.

In response to a question from Labour's defence spokesman, Mr Goff, Dr Coleman said he could not say whether "systemic health and safety issues throughout the defence force" were a cause of non-combat fatalities in recent years. But there was a programme of health and safety work under way and the final Court of Inquiry report into Private Ross' death was yet to be released.

Following questions about the death of Corporal Douglas Hughes Grant last year and the fatal Anzac Day Iroquois crash three years ago Mr Goff asked whether a defence force culture where operational orders were not being followed and basic mistakes were being made was partly a result of historically low morale and "a massive loss of skilled and experienced people".

He asked whether that was resulting in a mindset and lack of training among personnel "that allowed that catalogue of errors" which led to Private Ross' death.

Dr Coleman rejected that saying "it's pretty low that an absolute tragedy would be utilised by that member to try and make a political point".

Mr Goff reacted angrily saying Private Ross "happened to have been a family friend and I despise the minister for making that sort of accusation".

Asked again, Dr Coleman said Private Ross' death was "nothing to do with attrition and morale".

He said media reports of the inquiry's interim findings into Private Ross' death were correct.

"It looks like there were multiple safety failings in what is a very tragic case and my condolences go to the family because I think we would find there have been major errors which need to be corrected so this can never happen again."

He was awaiting the final report. Police had investigated the incident and a separate Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment investigation that could result in charges was also under way.

Fatal failures

• Labour's defence spokesman Phil Goff told Parliament the "catalogue of errors" that led to Private Ross's death included:

• The boat he was travelling in was not fully inflated, leading to him being thrown out of it.

• The boat's engine was not functioning correctly which meant it had difficulty returning to pick him up.

• The gas canister that would have inflated his life jacket was empty and hadn't been checked.

• The lifejacket he was wearing was a navy lifejacket and was unsuitable for use by army personnel.

• The safety boat was not accompanying the boat in which Private Ross was travelling.

• When the safety boat arrived it did not have the full complement of crew necessary to provide assistance.

- NZ Herald

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