25 Jun 2015

Testy exchanges at Iraq hearing

6:16 am on 25 June 2015

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has revealed the Defence Force aims to train 1800 Iraqi soldiers in their fight against Islamic State.

The minister has recently returned from a visit to camp Taji, north of Baghdad, where New Zealand troops are stationed.

National MP, Gerry Brownlee.

Gerry Brownlee (file) Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr Brownlee appeared before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee yesterday and during heated exchanges he questioned the patriotism of Labour's David Shearer.

When Mr Shearer questioned him over the effectiveness of New Zealand's involvement in Iraq, Mr Brownlee accused the Labour MP of being disrespectful of the New Zealand effort.

Labour MP David Shearer.

David Shearer Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

"These are real people, real New Zealanders, on the job trying to make a difference," he said. "Trying to degrade the efforts of the soldiers on the field, I think, is pretty reprehensible."

Mr Shearer said he took exception to that and told Mr Brownlee he was obliged to answer questions.

"You have the audacity to turn around and ask me that I am somehow being derisory about our own people out there. I'm not.

"But what I would like to know, as New Zealanders would like to know, is why they are there and whether in fact they are able to do the job because that is about Government policy."

After several questions about the Government's targets for training, Mr Brownlee finally gave a number, saying New Zealand aimed to train 1800 Iraqi soldiers in two years.

But he told the committee that figure might change.

Chief of the Defence Force Tim Keating explained how he would measure New Zealand's success in Iraq.

"That we leave Iraq in a better place than when we arrived...the numbers - the piece of string argument - is quite valid because the situation changes.

"We have gone in there with a goal to train as many Iraqi forces as can be made available."

Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating

Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating (file) Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

As the committee session ended, Mr Brownlee had some closing comments.

"Well, I just express some regret for the testy moments. These matters can always get quite emotive...In the end, our guys are out there doing a pretty hard job."

Afterwards, committee members Clayton Cosgrove said Mr Brownlee was evading questions by attacking the opposition.

He defended his colleague Mr Shearer, saying he did not deserve an attack on his patriotism.

"It was a cheap shot, which everyone saw through. Maybe it was a diversionary tactic. But I think the way the CDF, the Chief of the Defence Force, actually tried to address and answer the questions was helpful to the committee...

"It didn't need the theatre and it didn't need the minister blowing up like a 25-pound shell."

Everyone in the select committee respects New Zealand's troops and the job they do, he said.

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