Speech to the Australian Defence Reserves Support Council Dinner
18 October 2014, Adelaide, Australia.
Invited as a Member of the New Zealand Territorial Force Employer Support Council
Ladies and Gentlemen,
While reflecting on what I should and shouldn’t say tonight I was reminded of the fraught and trichotomous nature of life as a Reservist. As a member of the New Zealand Territorial Force Employer Support Council (TFESC), I am appointed under an Act of Parliament to provide free and frank advice to the Minister of Defence about Reserve Forces.
However, as a Reserve Force Captain in the Royal New Zealand Engineers, I am subject to military law at all times – laws which prevent me from criticising politicians or my superiors. Life was different when I was a Sapper – then, I was only subject to military law when called up for training. Perhaps there was method in their madness in the Defence Force granting me a commission last year but I sometimes wonder whether these two roles are, in fact, reconcilable.
Then again, how might what I say be interpreted if reported in the media and what impact might there be on my role as a professional director and business consultant?
I’m not alone in my Trichotomy self-diagnosis. All Reservists must constantly manage this three-way tug of war between their personal lives, reserve service and employment. It is not easy and I believe that one of our main tasks is to make it less stressful for them.
I joined the Army in 2006 at the age of 42 when the youngest of my five children was about 10 years old and the oldest 18. I was an ‘elderly’ recruit and this was brought home to me when one of the other recruits introduced himself to me as having been in my son’s class at primary school! I was an opposition Member of Parliament in a small political party with two MPs. In order to be able to balance political life with a husband and five kids requires you to be very organised. To add soldiering to that list requires you to be very, very, very organised – that’s 3 verys and 1 organised. Luckily, my husband is a psychiatrist so even when he doesn’t approve of things I do, he always understands why I do them.
I’m not the first person to join the forces later in life. The only real difference between me and thousands of other Reservists was that I was a Member of Parliament – which got media attention, for better and for worse. Some (including from within my own party) thought it was great and others thought it was just attention-seeking or a waste of time and taxpayer money. I can assure you that there are much easier ways to get media attention than doing seven weeks of basic training in Waiouru in the middle of winter!
Television New Zealand decided to make a documentary about my experience and so the Army had the additional burden of a film crew following my intake around from time to time. It was recruitment advertising that money couldn’t buy – I was inundated with letters from mainly young women who wanted me to tell them if I thought they could do the same thing – but the Defence Force struggled to come to grips with how to use it. I suppose some thought it was a secret plot to manipulate them for political gain. Sadly an opportunity was lost. Perhaps you can find a politician here in Australia who doesn’t mind being tired, dirty, cold and hungry to replicate it for the greater good!
I had originally joined the Army as a medic due to my background as a physiotherapist combined with a distinct lack of mechanical aptitude for the recruitment tests. However, by the end of basic training, I had been convinced that bridges, boating and blowing stuff up was much more my kind of soldiering. Shortly afterwards I became my party’s Defence spokesman while continuing my training as a field engineer.
In the lead up to the 2008 election, I co-wrote our party’s national security and international relations policy. This was the first time any NZ political party had developed a policy around a whole of government approach to national security. It incorporated social policy integration concepts such as Voluntary National Service linked to student loans and a range of reserve employer initiatives under a total defence workforce approach. I still believe that this is where New Zealand needs to proceed.
As part of entering Government in 2008, I was appointed, amongst other warrants, to the role of Associate Minister of Defence and had delegated responsibility for Reserves and most non-operational elements of the NZDF. The downside of this was that Sapper The Honourable Heather Roy was a member of the Executive and therefore not able to be in the forces. This was solved by my transfer to the inactive reserve.
During my time as Minister, the TFESC reported to me. The legislation covering this council is unambiguous – it is an independent source of ministerial information in addition to the officials from the Ministry of Defence and the NZ Defence Force. I expected their advice to be brutally honest and objective without the filter of uniformed personnel or officials and they provided this. To have it any other way would mean they were irrelevant. There were some who saw the Council as unnecessary expenditure in the context of a global financial crisis and against whom I had to argue for its survival.
During that time, my office did a lot of work around developing the Reserve Forces for the future. The three ‘R’s of the Reserve Forces that we worked on then are unchanged – resources, relevance and resilience. Around the world, the same challenges are being wrestled with. In June this year, the US Army magazine carried an article on the 5 major challenges facing the army. Balancing Regular and Reserve Forces was one of them. In August, the UK Government committed 1.35 million pounds to 4 universities for each to study different aspects of the way forward for Reservists.
Some of the work I did was much more subtle and I want to include a couple of examples here to demonstrate how some things in politics work. My staff and I frequently discussed subtle discrimination within the force such as the use of the term ‘Non-Regular Force’ or ‘NRF’ to describe Reservists. Most manuals, forms and computer systems used the NRF code. At a routine weekly Defence officials meeting, I asked the group, out of frustration, whether I should be described as a ‘non-brunette’. “Oh no, definitely not Minister” they all said sheepishly. I replied “So we are going to drop the practice of defining soldiers by what they are not then?” “Yes, Minister,” they said nodding. And it was done. It meant nothing to the system but a huge amount to Reservists.
Another example is our Reservist of the Year competition. In 2009, a staff member was preparing my speech for that night’s Reservist Employer of the Year Awards in Parliament. He walked into my office around 1pm and said, “If the employers can have an award, why not the Reservists? I think we should have a Reservist of the Year competition and award. You could announce it tonight he said – in fact; I’ve already included it in your speech draft!” I thought it was a great idea and rang the Chief of the Defence Force to let him know. I have no doubt there was much gnashing of teeth within Defence HQ that afternoon but the show did go on and it is now a very successful and growing feature of the Reservist calendar.
Both of these examples demonstrate that if you establish a close working relationship with Ministers, you, as members of the Support Council, can make changes in an informal but effective way without writing lengthy reports.
As you may know, I was a casualty of ‘friendly fire’ within my own party in late 2010 and was removed from my Ministerial warrants and Deputy Leadership. I was disappointed not to be able to see through so many initiatives around Reserves that were to be included in the Defence White paper. On the glass half full side, as I was no longer a member of the Executive, I was able to reactivate my service and go back to training with my Army unit. You can’t underestimate the satisfaction of making and detonating your own shaped charge!
Now, to return briefly to the three ‘Rs’:
Resources are always going to be constrained within Government and particularly within Defence. It is my belief that the only way to avoid Reserves always being on the hind teat is for Governments to segregate their appropriation, so that Vote: Defence Reserve Forces is a separate line item in the budget. New Zealand should, I believe, follow the lead of Australia and other allies in having a separate Minister, Associate or Under-Secretary for Reserve Forces.
Relevance means having real operational roles. That does not mean giving the Reserves all the jobs that the Regulars don’t want.
And finally – Resilience. If you want to see how national resilience works in reverse, observe the national mood whenever the Wallabies beat the All Blacks. Part of the key to resilience is a strong civil-military bond in society. This is weakening and it is not uncommon now to find people who don’t know anyone in the Forces. We also need to acknowledge that the workforce is changing – it is well on the way to being made up of equal numbers of permanent employees, contractors and casuals. The need for imaginative solutions for the employer/reservist relationship is urgent.
I use the knowledge and skills I have learned in the Army every day. They were very useful when I was in Parliament and still are around the board tables of the two organisations I now Chair. But this is especially so through my consulting company, Torquepoint, which uses proven military planning and testing techniques such as war gaming to enable organisations to test strategy. My other company, which is called Black Swans, is a member-based organisation that provides the opponents – i.e. competitors, customers, regulators, media etc – for business war games and other simulations. I continue to be surprised at the appetite for and fascination with all things military in the corporate world and public service. Surely, if it is possible to run a profitable commercial business based on military tools, it is possible to convince employers of the value of nurturing Reservists within their workforce.
That means role-modelling at all levels. My younger daughter is now a junior officer in the Army Reserve. She has had no other influence on her to enlist than seeing her mother coming and going from and to training and knowing a few of my friends who have served. The power of Reservists having a ‘uniform day’ at work cannot be underestimated. Neither can we ignore the power of every employer of a Reservist telling their ‘story’ to others. It has long been known that the best recruiter is a serving soldier, sailor or airman. Likewise, the best ‘recruiter’ of a new Reservist-friendly employer is an existing one. The final part of the triangle is the stories of the families of Reservists and the benefits that accrue despite the hardship of separation. There is still much work to be done on the latter.
I gave this speech the title “Living with Trichotomy – A Patients Story” referring of course to myself. Sometimes the juggle of several lives is frustrating but Reservists really do have the best of all worlds. Mostly, we should celebrate the fun, the comradeship and the experience that is impossible to gain in any other way than belonging to the Defence Force.
I have been very fortunate to have seen Defence from many angles. I have observed, participated in and been responsible for Defence in NZ at various times. Nothing beats, however, donning one’s uniform and having the opportunity to do what we’ve been trained to such as joining Exercise Executive Stretch this morning where a group of South Australian employers were being put through their paces by the local Navy Reserve Dive Team. It’s been a while since I’ve been the motor man on a Zodiac and it was great to take my turn!
Thank you all for your contribution to activities such as this and for your support, advocacy and passion for Reserves. It mightn’t always be obvious, but it is very much appreciated.