Part 3 of a multi-part series on New Zealand’s Defence Reserve Force. In Part 1, I discussed the disturbingly low Reserve Force numbers confronting the country. Part 2 outlined my concerns with employment protection legislation for reservists. This article continues the examination of employment from the perspective of the Defence Employer Support Council which was established in 2006 as a result of the Defence Amendment Act 2004.
This legislative requirement couldn’t be clearer. The original council functioned well enough with a Chair, Deputy Chair and regional members that were roughly representative of the six Territorial battalion regions. The Director-General of Reserves (at the time Brigadier Tim Brewer) sat as an observer and advisor at Council meetings. Some excellent initiatives were implemented such as the Employer of the Year Award and Exercise BossLift. The latter enabled employers to observe their staff in action on either exercises or operations such as in the Solomon Islands.
However, with a few changes of key personnel, the TFESC started growing with regional liaison officers and committees as well as many new roles on the National Council. It became involved in all sorts of other matters, such as cadets and youth development programmes, following new Terms of Reference issued by Wayne Mapp in 2011. Effectively, the TFESC had been subsumed into the NZDF by 2012. Combined with a succession of Defence Ministers (Coleman and Brownlee) who only saw the portfolio as a stepping stone to somewhere else and too little time for Mark Mitchell to subsequently make substantial change across Defence, the TFESC by 2015 was well on the path to becoming dysfunctional. No independent advice on reservists was being asked for or provided to the Minister even though a serious manning and resource crisis was unfolding within the Reserves. The previous government even forgot to process the renewal of council appointments and they all lapsed on 15 April 2016 .
Despite the appointments being voided, the DESC (Brownlee approved the name change after pondering it for 8 months – Letter from MINDEF to CHAIR approving name change TFESC to DESC) still met twice in 2016 (Presentation_DESC_Pack_Redacted Meeting of 24 May 2016). The previous chair was unavailable for the May 2017 meeting and it was cancelled. The DESC fell into abeyance. A new chair, Vanessa Stoddart, was appointed on 25 July 2017 and a planning meeting was held on 17 November 2017 (Minutes DESC Planning Mtg 17 Nov 17) . The content and notes from these events, obtained under the Official Information Act, show an organisation that was searching for a purpose.
The Chair met with the Defence Minister in February 2018 (DESC Notes from meeting with Minister 1 Feb 2018) seeking to clarify what he wanted of the DESC and followed up on 26 March (Stoddart Letter to Mark 26 Mar 2018 DESC Future options) with a letter setting out five options:
- Disestablishment of the DESC
- Dormant DESC
- Current DESC – Strategic to Community Reach
- The DESC is an Independent Strategic Advisory Board to the Minister
- The DESC is an Independent Strategic Advisory Board and works collegially with the NZDF
The Minister chose Option 5 and signed new Terms of Reference on 13 August 2018 (Ron Mark Answer to SEJ OIA Request on DESC Restructure 9 Nov 2018) . With the exception of the Chair, all other Council members have been ‘released’ by letter from Ron Mark and invited to reapply if they wish for a role on the seven-seat council (which includes the Chair and NZDF rep, MajGen John Boswell). The roles will be advertised publicly.
As can be seen in the documents (received via fyi.org.nz) the new DESC will have no regional reach. The NZDF will take over the role of employer support and relationships. If this brings on a spooky sense of deja vu you’re not alone. The reason that the TFESC had to be established in the first place was because the NZDF wasn’t up to the task of employer support or even very interested for that matter.
By way of example as to how unsuited Defence is for the task of supporting the function, look no further than the DESC social media profile which, I understand, is the responsibility of the Directorate of Reserves, Youth and Sport. It has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube as well as a website. The YouTube channel is empty except for one playlist of other material. FaceBook has had four posts in 2018. Twitter was used 11 times in 2018. Ten were retweets and the last was on 11 April. Their LinkedIn page has 9 followers (including me) and one update which is a link to their Facebook page. The DESC Google+ page has no content. The website is out of date with the landing page devoted solely to links to their non-functional social media accounts. It’s not nearly as bad, though, as the Reserves website which hasn’t had an update, for instance, to the Employer of the Year Award for five years!
The DESC has existed for 12 years. It shouldn’t need to be looking around for ideas. There is a perfectly good working model across the Tasman and, in times gone by, there was plenty of high-level political engagement with the Australians, British, US and Canadian equivalents. Former Associate Minister of Defence, Hon Heather Roy, made it a priority to meet with the Australian Defence Reserves Support Council and Parliamentary Under Secretary for Reserves, Hon Mike Kelly, on her first ministerial trip there in 2009. She also spoke to the Australian Defence Reserves Support Council in her post-political career.
The DESC has one job. It doesn’t include cadets, limited service volunteers, youth life skills programmes, service academies or anything else. It exists to promote the value of reservists amongst the employer community and, in doing that, to provide free, frank and sometimes unsolicited advice to the Minister. By the very nature of the role, some of that advice will be critical of the way the NZDF manages the Reserve Force. There is nothing collegial about it and, in order to do its function as a Statutory Board it needs to be completely separate to Defence, not supported and especially not funded by it. The fact that the current Minister wants to re-start the DESC in this way demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the Reserves actually need – resources, relevance and resilience.
The DESC could have been a strong voice for positive change but it is lost – missing in action and probably captured by Defence – for years. A strong, membership-based Reserve Forces Association is the logical step for decent advocacy.
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