The Defence Force needs a Democracy Reset

TOP’s policy #4 ‘Democracy Reset’ proposes, among other things, the return of an Upper House. This is a response to the concentration of political power in Cabinet and its ability to wield that power without due recourse to Parliament, let alone to the New Zealand public.

There’s a lot of jargon around the function of an Upper House, but the crux of it is simple – it creates time for an issue to be discussed, and it highlights potentially dubious decisions to the public before they occur. It means that if government tries to ram something through that raises ethical or constitutional conflicts, there is a body with authority to wade in and say “whoa now, just a minute, let’s have a korero on this”. It facilitates openness and transparency as well as lively and constructive debate.

Overall, we end up with a public that is better informed and more aware. An Upper House would also act as a bulwark against political expediency – which is basically where you make the wrong decision for New Zealand but the right one for your career or your party. Sound familiar?

As luck would have it, we don’t have to search far for an example. The Prime Minister’s post-cabinet press conference on Monday on the allegations raised by Hager and Stephenson is a stark reminder that this kind of reform is critical and long overdue. Mr. English is content to claim that an inquiry into the SAS raid is not justified because the Defense Force – the very institution implicated in the allegations – has told him it’s not. He’s provided little in the way of detail as to how he reached that conclusion. The clear message was that he had ‘faith’ in the Defense Force and that, as far as he is concerned, the matter is closed.

Except it’s not closed, and it won’t be any time soon. Such wounds fester on. Anyone with a few neurons to rub together can see that there is something awry. For the Prime Minister to accept assurances of no misconduct from the very same body being investigated for misconduct strains credulity and good humour. How stupid does he think Kiwis are?

If we care about our institutions and their integrity, then a full and independent inquiry is the only rational response to these allegations. Unfortunately, due to political expediency and other reasons yet unknown, it appears we cannot expect that rationality from the government of the day. Journalists, human rights lawyers and average, concerned citizens will continue to advocate for an inquiry and will be hopeful their voices make a difference. There is a real risk they will not.

But if there were an advocate on ‘the inside’, enshrined in law and compelled to ring the alarm bells on this issue, it would be a different story altogether. This “fiasco” – the words of former Defense Minister at the time of the raid Wayne Mapp - and the lack of political courage in dealing with it makes an Upper House, lacking in sovereignty but charged with the moral and ethical duty to act in our nation’s best interest, all the more vital. An Upper House would raise the obvious point that an independent inquiry must be truly independent - not just an assurance from the military that everything was done ‘by the book’. We owe a fair inquiry to the victims, their families, our soldiers and to every taxpayer in this country. We all deserve the truth.