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Hit and Run
The prospect of a new Nicky Hager book made for a tense week in New Zealand politics. Many speculated that we would see a follow up to 2014’s Dirty Politics, or perhaps new revelations about John Key’s surprise resignation.
When the book was finally delivered, it became clear that while it wasn’t the Key-era tell-all that many hoped, its allegations were no less serious.
Hit and Run is co-authored by Hager and fellow investigative journalist Jon Stephenson, and describes a series of raids on two villages in Afghanistan in 2010.
The allegations in the book are wide-ranging and nuanced, but essentially cover raids ostensibly to find those behind the death of Lt. Tim O’Donnell, the first New Zealander to be killed in service in Afghanistan. The book alleges that the raids were designed and led by our SAS, in tandem with United States special forces, and led to the deaths of at least six Afghan civilians.
The book also alleges that New Zealand forces handed over a man captured in those raids to Afghan security forces, knowing that torture would be used.
The events of 2010 have been the subject of speculation for some time, but Hager and Stephenson’s book goes further, citing evidence from SAS personnel and Afghan witnesses to the raids.
Making matters even more complex, the response from the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has been inconsistent at best. Initially, it was claimed that no New Zealanders were involved in the operations and that those killed were combatants. Later, under an Official Information Act request, it was revealed that there was at least one “suspected civilian casualty” in the raid.
At the time of writing, the NZDF’s position is that Hager and Stephenson’s book is inaccurate because it has confuses two different events.
Lieutenant-General Tim Keating stated that while there was a raid at that time, involving New Zealand forces, that may have inadvertently led to the death of a civilian, it is not related to the events described by Hit and Run. Those raids, Keating says, did not involve New Zealand at all.
Hager and Stephenson’s response was that this is simply another part of the NZDF’s attempts at a cover up. Hager said in a recent interview that it simply wasn’t possible for there to have been two separate operations, of the same name, operating on the same night, just two kilometres apart.
Though the book is new, the questions around the raids, dubbed Operation Burnham, are not. The NZDF has made several prior statements on the events and John Key has given repeated reassurances that there were no civilian deaths, and that those killed were combatants.
Last week, Prime Minister Bill English doubled down on those statements, saying he had 100 per cent confidence in the SAS and NZDF. However he did concede that an inquiry might be necessary, though he firmly rejected any allegations of war crimes.
Despite repeated government and NZDF denials, Hager and Stephenson have had substantial support in their claims.
The Labour, Green, New Zealand First, Māori, and United Future parties have all called for a government inquiry. Even the Returned Servicemen Association has come out in support of an investigation.
Statements from former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp also support Hager and Stephenson’s claims. In direct contrast to the government, Mapp accepted the reports of civilian casualties. He would also not deny a previous statement he gave saying that the NZDF was doing too much that he did not know about.
The reluctance of English and the government to seriously address the claims is surprising. While there is certainly no love lost between Hager and the National Party after the Dirty Politics revelations, the allegations in this book are far too serious to ignore any longer.
Labour Māori MPs
The battle for the seven Māori electorates continues to heat up with the surprise announcement that Labour’s Māori MPs will forgo their party-list status and contest the election as electorate-only candidates.
This means that high profile members like Nanaia Mahuta and Kelvin Davis will rely entirely on winning their respective electorate seats. If they fail to get the votes needed, they won’t be eligible to enter parliament based on their list ranking, as is usually the case.
The move is a strange and unprecedented one, leading many to speculate why Labour would take such an unnecessary risk.
The official line is that Labour’s Māori MPs made the decision as a “show of strength” and commitment to their electorates, while also allowing other Māori MPs to take their place in the list rankings.
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis said that this could substantially increase the Māori presence in parliament if Labour are elected. Andrew Little was less tactful, calling the move a direct challenge to the Māori Party.
While Davis may well be correct, the move is an unusually risky one. Labour won six of the seven Māori electorates at the last election, but they are by no means safe territory. The recent MANA-Māori deal could well be enough to lose Davis Te Tai Tokerau, and the announcement of Rahui Papa in Hauraki-Waikato, backed by statements from Kīngi Tuheitia, could be the first real challenge to Nanaia Mahuta in years.
There is also no guarantee that the move will get more Māori MPs into parliament, even if Labour wins. Labour’s list rankings will not be finalised until April, and while Andrew Little can make strong suggestions, he does not have the final say on where MPs are placed.
The policy also adds fuel to speculation over Little’s treatment of Labour’s Māori members and his commitment to Māori representation. After his controversial claims on the term “kaupapa Māori,” he essentially doubled-down last week, saying that the Māori Party had “neglected their people.”
Most unusual of all is that these risks are entirely self-inflicted. While it may be gracious of Labour’s Māori electorate MPs to be concerned about their list-based colleagues, the strategy relies on a huge range of unknown and largely uncontrollable factors.
Whether this really is a “show of strength,” or further evidence of Little’s wheeling and dealing, remains to be seen.