Peeni Henare 'had no involvement' in removing controversial Defence Force essay

It was a decision of the Defence Force, his office says.
It was a decision of the Defence Force, his office says. Photo credit: Newshub.

Peeni Henare wasn't behind the removal of a controversial essay rallying against "identity-based" diversity in the Defence Force from a website, his office says.

On Wednesday, it emerged an essay titled 'Can the Army Afford to go Woke, Benign Social Progress or National Security Threat' had won the Chief of Army Writing Competition, only to later be removed from the Knowledge-Enabled Army (KEA) website. 

The essay, which was the winner in the Private Soldier's category and published last week, was written by "Mr N. Dell" and argued an increasing focus on "identity-based notions of Diversity only sews greater division and discord in society" and would also do so within the Army. 

It rallies against "woke culture" and suggests the Army "cannot reconcile a more diverse and inclusive workforce with the maintenance of a warrior ethos and war-fighting culture".

The text is no longer available on the website and was on Tuesday replaced with a message from Chief of Army Major General John Boswell saying that he had asked for the essay to be taken down. 

"I made this decision when it became clear that publishing it was being seen as an endorsement of the views contained within it, which could not be further from the truth."

He said the Army "strives to be inclusive and values diversity" but the "views that were expressed in this essay are not compatible with the culture we are building".

"I unreservedly apologise to all those who saw publication of this essay as an endorsement of the views that were contained within it."

Asked about the essay on Wednesday, Minister of Defence Henare reportedly said he had spoken to Chief of Defence Air Marshal Kevin Short about it and expressed that "we're better than that, and have values that don't align with the essay".

NZHerald reports him as saying he was "unsure" if he spoke with Short before or after the essay was pulled. 

Henare's office told Newshub on Thursday the minister had no involvement with the Defence Force's decision to remove the essay and clarified it was taken down before he and the Chief of Defence spoke. 

It said the decision was made by the Defence Force in accordance with its own codes and that Henare reminded Short of the force's commitment to diversity and inclusion. But he gave no instructions.

After his comments were reported on Wednesday, opposition MPs criticised Henare. 

ACT's Dr James McDowall said it was "cancel culture in camouflage" and showed Henare "spending too much time in the wrong foxhole". 

"The Minister should be ensuring the Army is fighting for our freedom, not against it."  

Chris Penk, National's Defence spokesperson, said Henare should be spending his time championing the Defence Force rather than "singling out a member of the Army's lowest-rank". 

"Our troops sacrifice so much to serve New Zealand. They deserve a much stronger advocate than this Defence Minister. He shouldn't be commenting on the political views of service personnel when he's achieved so little on their behalf."

Asked about the removal on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern didn't appear to be fussed.

"I make nothing of it. I have zero opinion on the matter. It is a matter for the Defence Force," she said.

"I have no opinion. Ultimately, the Defence Force can do as it chooses. It can run an essay competition. It can choose not to run an essay competition. As it happens, I don't happen to have an opinion on every single matter."

Boswell says in his message that the essay was chosen as the winner as "it was the most well-written of the submissions received within that category".

"The intent of the Chief of Army's writing competition is to encourage Army personnel to think deeply about subjects, to gain experience in writing formal essays and to encourage debate.

"I will always listen to the opinions of others, particularly those of our soldiers. And I think it is important that we seek to understand where other views exist. 

"In this particular case however, it has been made clear to me that publishing this essay was viewed as undermining both the inclusive culture we are seeking and the work that is being done across all ranks to effect this change – work that is incredibly important, not just to me, but to our organisation."