The Prime Minister has in recent times been prepared to shift some moral ground for political ease. Now he faces the greatest moral test of his short time in power in the face of calls for an inquiry into the O'Donnel raid

I can't help wondering if Bill English is going to church on Sunday. While reports today say the Prime Minister is meeting with Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and New Zealand Defence Force heads about the claims in the Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson book Hit & Run, the more crucial meeting that day may be between English and his God.

The book outlines a raid, allegedly led by New Zealand's SAS; a raid then-Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has since called a "fiasco". It's a word that carries some weight in this context. It's the title of one of the definitive books on America's misadventures in Iraq at the same time as the war in Afghanistan.

Hager and Stephenson's book, Hit & Run, looks at New Zealand's own misadventure. Not a whole invasion, but a single raid on a single village, Khak Khuday Dad, in August 2012. It was a search for insurgents responsible for the death of Lt. Tim O'Donnell, a Kiwi soldier killed 19 days earlier. It seems, however, on the authors' evidence, that the raid went wrong. The insurgents weren't there, six villagers were killed and 15 injured.

This version of events was backed up Friday, by David Fisher in the Herald, quoting an SAS source confirming that civilians were killed. The source says, specifically, that New Zealand marksmen killed two of the victims.

At the time a report by the international coalition commanders in Afghanistan, ISAF, and the Afghan govenrment said no civilians were killed. Further reporting has suggested otherwise and Mapp seems to accept now that innocents died, although he believes the soldiers thought they were under attack and merely opened fire because they thought themselves at danger.

Of course that raises questions as to why the troops should have been there at all; can you really claim any form of self defence or that the deaths were "an accident" if you are attacking a village?

It's just one of the questions that make calls for an inquiry impossible to dismiss. Another is why the Defence Force (and in lock step, the government) insists on standing by its 2011 statement that no civilians were killed in the attack – by New Zealanders or others – in the face of Mapp's acceptance and such detailed reportage by the authors.

Earlier in the week, I described the interview with Wayne Mapp that first revealed this raid took place. On Friday I watched the Q+A panel that aired afterwards. It was remarkably prescient. Political scientist, Dr Jon Johansson said "logic" demanded that this attack, so soon after O'Donnell's death, was a "reprisal attack" and therefore was a stain on New Zealand's proud military tradition.

Johansson went onto quote John Key from January 2010, saying "New Zealanders deserve to know what our forces are doing overseas.”

Host Guyon Espiner went on to ask what has become another key question. What involvement did the New Zealand government have in this and did the raid have then-Prime Minister John Key's approval. Hager and Stephenson say he directly gave the go ahead. So precisely how much did he know and what did he expect of that raid?

These were questions being asked the very day that first interview aired, and surely now, six years on, answers are required. If Key – and this government – were serious about that 2010 promise of greater transparency around the SAS.

It is now down to English to make what the Australian's describe as "a captain's call".

While English is known to most New Zealanders as the fiscal rock on which the fifth National government has been built, in many way he's also its moral compass. It was he who has looked for new solutions to welfare dependence and who took the stand that increased spending on prisons was a moral failure. It was he who show discomfort at John Key's hair-pulling. He has taken moral stands, guided by his faith, on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

My question this weekend is whether he can look at an innocent man hanging on a cross, suffering for the sins of others, and not think about three year-old Fatima, who died in the raid on Khak Khuday Dad through no fault of her own. Whether he, like Pope Francis, can say “faith and violence are incompatible".

As Finance Minister he had some freedom to follow his conscience. As Prime Minister we've already seen him back away from his previous position on gay marriage, seemingly for political gain. He's gone from calling prison spending a moral failure, to record prison numbers and budget increases.

So this is now a critical moral conundrum for a man who has for so long let his faith guide him on matters of conscience.

How does he approach this decision? What now? Many are saying he has the political space to demand an inquiry, because he wasn't in charge then. But it's not that simple. As deputy Prime Minister, we can expect him to have been briefed to some degree on these matters. What did he know at the time and what has he held back all these years? When did he know about the alleged civilian deaths and what did he do with that information, if he did know?

But more to the point, English will be under immense pressure from the stonewalling NZDF. Standing beside Key when he promised more SAS transparency was Lt-Gen Jerry Mateparae. He's now Sir Jerry and Governor-General.

Can English open up an inquiry that could impugn the country's Governor-General, perhaps even raise the question of war crimes around him? For the book claims Mateparae was there on the ground with Mapp, when approval was sought from Key, and he watched the raid play out.

Has he been honest with his political master and the New Zealand public? These are obvious questions raised by this book, but there is huge political pressure on English not to ask them.

English is in a very uncomfortable place with this decision; reputations of important people hang in the balance. This is a true test of his moral fibre, of his courage under (political) fire. And in a very real way, of his faith, and its central tenets of concern for every child made in God's image, truth and justice.

And ew Zealanders will be wondering: Do we get to know what our forces are up to overseas, or not?


Comments (10)

by Andrew Geddis on March 25, 2017
Andrew Geddis

He's now Sir Jerry and Governor-General.

He's now Sir Jerry and former Governor-General, current NZ High Commissioner in the UK.

by Ian MacKay on March 25, 2017
Ian MacKay

Graeme Edgeler argues that since War Crimes may be at stake, then a Police Investigation should happen rather than an Inquiry.

"And this is the problem with all the calls for an inquiry to date. Lots of people are saying that there appear to be war crimes. No-one appears to have appreciated what that means. It means we need an investigation into war crimes. In New Zealand, this is a job for the Police."

by MJ on March 25, 2017

Didn't Bill English also sound positively hawkish prior to the election of the National government and say "someone has to pull the trigger".


by Tim Watkin on March 25, 2017
Tim Watkin

Good grief, I need to get out more. Thanks for that correction Andrew. 

by Chuck Bird on March 25, 2017
Chuck Bird

Tim, I do not see what Bill English's religion has to do with how he does his job.  If he was trying to restrict abortion and said, "My position has nothing to with my religion but life begins at conception and abortion is murder" then commenting on his religion would be quite in order.  Perhaps you can expain how his religion is relivant in this case.

by Katharine Moody on March 25, 2017
Katharine Moody

Was brought up a Catholic myself - much the same age as BE, so imagine the form and content of our indoctrination was very similar. Its teachings are largely in the vein of a deontological ethical approach (as are all Judeo-Christian religions) - rightness or wrongnness is determined by examining your acts/action - rather than the consequences of those actions - and religious instruction gives you a set of duties and rules to follow in guiding those acts/actions you take. But the thing that made me question Catholocism as I grew older was this notion that as long as you confessed your sins (the acts/action you took that breached God's laws and the churches rules) and repented, you would/could be absolved of them. Catholocism also implies a sort of moral universalism - in other words, what is taught as morally right to Catholics is morally right for all. Hence, we can look at BE's approach to abortion law as expressed on The Nation a week or so ago. He saw no need for change as the Crimes Act specifies that abortion is a crime (the rule), one which the State has the power to excuse based on a specific, narrow set of rules/criteria.  

The fact that many women have to lie in order to get that abortion must not worry Bill (which seems a contradiction based on the rule/commandment: thou shalt not bear false witness...), I can only assume he is morally comfortable with this because he feels they (these women) can confess and repent their act/action, and all will be well for them. The reality, in ethics/moral terms, is that this form of rationalisation is more of a teleological (consequentialist) approach - the end (for the woman and the State) justifies the means (the need to lie to fit the criteria).

My point is that I don't think the PM's religious upbringing translates to a single, ethical approach to decision-making - and the alternate philosophical approach to moral decision-making, virtue ethics (an Aristotelian approach) is likely something the PM is unfamiliar with - it requires that one looks at one's intentions (as opposed to acts/actions or the consequences of an action) in order to determine what action is morally right.





by Chuck Bird on March 25, 2017
Chuck Bird

Tim, I am not surprised you are a lapsed Catholic.  The world would be a lot safer place if there were a few more lapsed Muslims. 

You criticize English for taking the same position I am as a pragmatic agnostic and also Wayne Mapp who I have no idea what his religion is.  Wayne states.

However trying to reopen this debate will cause a completely unnecessary culture war.

The committee members advocating this move shows that being brainy and having commonsense are not necessarily found in the same head.

I am a pragmatist and follow the KISS principle.  If it works don’t fix it. 

What do you think English should have said?  Should he have said abortion is murder or I think it is totally a woman’s choice?

Please tell us with as few big words as possible your view on what the law on abortion should be.  Should it be a woman’s choice up to 39 weeks if some doctor will perform the abortion? 

by Tim Watkin on March 28, 2017
Tim Watkin

Chuck, I really don't appreciate your tone or the approach you're taking to this conversation. You might feel more comfortable on other sites if you want to troll. Or, if you're not trolling, perhaps try re-reading the post.

I haven't criticised English one iota for his stance on abortion; the only mention I made was a single sentence noting that he took a moral stand on it.

I am not a Catholic, lapsed or otherwise. Nor am I Muslim, lapsed or otherwise. But this site is not the place to criticise people's religous beliefs. I'd be grateful if you could keep that prejudice to yourself.

As for your earlier comment, again, I'm not sure if you're just trolling or what. But I know very few people of faith who don't say that their beliefs are at the core of who they are and influence everything they do. Obviously someone of English's convictions – and I have not made any criticism of him voting according to his convictions – would bring those into his job, decision-making and voting record. 

No-one shuts off their faith – or their atheism – when they go to work.

But rather than abortion, my post was about war. I was saying that a man who has a proud record of sticking to his beliefs faces a real conundrum when it comes to a story that on one hand suggests the death of innocents, yet on the other puts the reputations of the powerful at risk. If you know the gospels, it's a very Christian-esque story and raises questions about the tensions between being both a man of faith and a politician with others' reputations in his hands; I thought that was an interesting observation.

by Tim Watkin on March 28, 2017
Tim Watkin

Katharine, you ignore the theology of grace in Christianity and indeed the repeated calls to look to your heart etc in the faith. So for me your hard and fast definition of what Christianity is (results/actions) and not intentions, is off the mark.

Certainly it's not recognisable in the form of Christianity I know.

by Katharine Moody on April 05, 2017
Katharine Moody

So, the end (no inquiry), justifies the means (shoot the messenger).

"There's not any real contest over the facts other than the book...which has got them looks to be in some cases a wildly inaccurate piece of journalism."

- Bill English, 3 April 2017. 

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