26 Jul 2013

Minister 'appalled' at Defence failings

10:27 pm on 26 July 2013

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman says he is appalled at the list of failings that contributed to the death of a soldier during a training exercise and has pledged to act on an inquiry's findings.

The Defence Force on Thursday pleaded guilty at the Auckland District Court to a charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of Private Michael Ross.

Private Michael Ross.

Private Michael Ross. Photo: DEFENCE FORCE

It has also released the findings of its own inquiry, which identified multiple systemic and individual failings in the lead-up to Private Ross's death.

The 29-year-old drowned when he fell from an inflatable boat into Lake Moawhango, a small lake located with the Army's Waiouru Military Camp, in September 2012.

Private Ross was loaded down with gear but had on an inadequate lifejacket. Navy divers found his body a week later following an extensive search.

Dr Coleman told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Friday the results of a wider inquiry into safety in the Defence Force will be released in a few weeks and it will be a priority to get any recommendation completed.

"What has to happen from here is to take all possible measures to make sure we can't have a repeat of this type of tragedy. It was a needless waste of life."

He said safety concerns in the Defence Force first came to light following a fatal Air Force helicopter crash on Anzac Day in 2010, and attitude in the Defence Force that mission completion takes priority over health and safety must change.

The chief of the army, Major General Dave Gawn, said on Thursday he was completely embarrassed and felt ashamed when he read the court of inquiry's findings.

"I felt shame and sorrow for the needless loss of Michael. We have failed in our duty of care to our soldiers. We have failed every parent of New Zealand who has entrusted their son or daughter to us and most of all we have failed Michael."

Concern there will be more deaths

Former Air Force squadron leader Rob Stockley says there are haunting parallels between the latest Defence findings and the 2010 Anzac Day crash that killed three men.

A court of inquiry into that tragedy found there was also a culture of rule-breaking in the Air Force.

Mr Stockley said on Friday the way the Army has behaved, including accepting responsibility early on and apologising to Private Ross's family, is in contrast to the way the Air Force responded to the 2010 crash.

He said he is concerned there will be further deaths which could have been prevented as eventually both incidents would fade from people's minds.

"That's when some of these issues will potentially result in another accident. I haven't seen evidence of the culture changing - but that's not to say that it hasn't. I just worry that this could happen again."

The Labour Party's defence spokesperson said on Friday that low morale and high attrition are contributing to a lack of safety within the Defence Force.

Phil Goff said some core things have not changed since the time Private Ross died.

"Those things contribute to people taking short cuts - not having the right training, not having the right equipment, not checking things out in the way that they should have. All of those things together point to a Defence Force that was not functional."

Mr Goff said he is pleased Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman has ordered a wider review of safety in the Defence Force - but it should have happened much sooner.