11 July 2021
Until this week no-one outside the NZ Defence Force had ever heard of the Chief of Army’s writing competition. Not so now, but for all the wrong reasons as the competition has become infamous not just in New Zealand but internationally. It has become a thriller in its own right with a central character and underdog, a Private in the NZ Army and amateur author. There’s a competition sponsor (Chief of Army) who awards a prize then strangely deletes all trace of the winning writing. The story evolves to reveal a mysterious group opposing the winning essay and a media expose of the disaffected group; leading to political interference by a Minister of Defence who declares abhorrence for the thrust of the winning entry despite not having read it! No, this is not a piece of fiction but a case of truth being stranger than an essay competition. At best the story that has emerged is a blight on the free thinking the competition was supposed to engender and at worst a blatant attack on freedom of speech.
A Private in the Army wrote an essay for the competition. He reflects at the beginning that he’s only been made aware of it on the closing date. What isn’t clear is if the entry was submitted at his or someone else’s instigation. That is immaterial now but the essay reflected his views on diversity and inclusion in the organisation he belongs to and he argued his case – intelligently, coherently and raising issues worthy of debate. That’s what you’re supposed to do when writing an essay. The submission guidelines for the essay competition were clear:
“Authors alone are responsible for the content of their respective papers.”
“The opinions and conclusions expressed in articles written by K.E.A. (Knowledge Enabled Army) staff do not necessarily represent the views of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF).”
“K.E.A is open to all submissions and interested in articles that to enhance professional intellect, interpersonal adaptability, and situational awareness.”
Nowhere did it say the only view to be expressed was the current thinking of the Defence Force. Nowhere did it say the Minister of Defence would need to be assured he approved of the essay content.
Whether you agree with the content of the essay or not it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the author. He is entitled to his views in a democracy and was encouraged to submit them in a forum where he was supposed to be judged for his strength of argument. Where were the essay entries from the Facebook group participants who managed to articulately vent their spleens about the winning entry in an online forum?
Most disturbing however is the political interference by Defence Minister Peeni Henare. At a governance level he is guilty of over-reach, reaching down into the operational running of an essay competition. ACT MP James McDowall makes the very good point that he has also probably acted illegally by interfering:
“Section 25(2) of the Defence Act 1990 says “The Minister shall give to the Chief of Defence Force written terms of reference (not being inconsistent with any of the provisions of this Act) setting out the terms and conditions of appointment as Chief of Defence Force, the duties and obligations of that appointment, and the manner in which the Government expects those duties and obligations to be carried out; and it shall be the duty of the Chief of Defence Force to perform the functions and to exercise the powers of the Chief of Defence Force in accordance with those terms of reference”.
“Did the Minister adhere to the law by issuing written terms of reference to the Army? Or does he just phone up the Chief of Defence when he feels like it, banana republic style.”
Sadly, this disengaged Minister of Defence has chosen to make a stand on an essay competition while he neglects the very real issues of force capability on his doorstep. I’d have felt encouraged had he chosen to question issues such as why our soldiers are completely tied up as security guards at MIQ facilities instead of doing their real jobs, or presenting a plan for the role of the Defence Force in our region out to 2050.
I’ve been a soldier and I’ve been a politician. I’m very aware that when the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) is summoned to the Defence Minister’s office for a ‘please explain’ or a ‘we’re better than this’ the message is clear. It’s “go back to the office and fix this, now”. Minister Henare’s very cute “you know my view but of course it’s up to the Army to decide” is not a choice but an order. We should be in no doubt this is a Command and Control government and I haven’t discounted the possibility of involvement of the Prime Minister’s office in this sorry saga. I hope media and opposition politicians intend probing any higher involvement in this matter.
I’m now a professional director and discussions about diversity and inclusion are prevalent around the board table as well as in politics and the Defence Force. They are important issues and organisations ignore them at their peril if they are serious about performing well. There were four categories in the Chief of Army’s writing competition and an unfortunate side effect of the Essay Competition fiasco is it has devalued the winning entries of all four categories. To my mind each of the entries were excellent in their own way – thoughtful and thought provoking, intelligent, well presented and furthering the diversity and inclusion debate. Out of fairness I have provided links to each:
The winning entry of the Private Category has been replaced with an apology. Fortunately, there is still some support for free speech in New Zealand and the Free Speech Union has posted the winning entry under the headline “The essay that defeated New Zealand’s Army”. I’ve deliberately made no comment about the essay content because in this case I believe it is for the reader to decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree with the author. That’s what we do in a democracy – allow access to material and then decide for ourselves.
So where to from here? A confident organization would re-advertise the Private Category of the essay competition and welcome the debate. Perhaps the online dissenters would submit their own entry? But I’m 99.9 percent certain that neither will happen. In order to keep the government happy it is more likely the Army will quietly abandon the writing competition altogether and that would be a shame. Private Dell clearly exhibits the courage of his commitments and is brave enough to express his views (the 3CI values the army talks of) and I’d promote him.
As for this Command and Control government, don’t hold your breath for an apology. If this is the way they react to an essay don’t expect any balanced debate on hate speech laws.