Election 2023: New Zealand Defence Force says 'entirely appropriate' for National candidate to appear in PR material

The New Zealand Defence Force says it's "entirely appropriate" for a National Party candidate to be featured in its PR content less than five months out from a general election.

The Defence Minister is backing the NZDF, saying it's taken the "correct approach" by not mentioning Tim Costley's party candidacy in the material.

The NZDF released an article on its website on Monday about 11 of its T-6C Texan II planes being airborne at the same time, the first time such a formation has happened. 

The material featured Wing Commander Costley, the Commanding Officer of the Flying Training Wing at Ohakea. The Texans are a part of the Flying Training Wing.

In the article, he speaks about how typically one of the Texan fleet is always in the hangar getting checked. 

"There should always be one or two on the ground for servicing," Costley is quoted as saying in the article. "But the Airbus team have done such a great job that this unique window was open to fly all of our RNZAF Texans at the same time."

Costley is also National's candidate at the October 14 election in the Ōtaki electorate. 

The NZDF said it's "entirely appropriate" for Costley to be featured given his role with the Flying Training Wing.

"No mention was made of his candidacy nor party affiliations, nor did he endorse or mention any political issue," a spokesperson said.

They said the NZDF is aware of his candidacy and "there are rules in place governing political candidacy". 

NZDF personnel are able to join political parties and seek election to Parliament or local bodies, but if they become aware they are about to be nominated as a candidate there are several rules they have to follow.

They include the individual notifying their unit commander or manager, who then advises the appropriate single service chief and the chief people officer. The person is placed on leave during a stand-down period, which commences on the nomination day. They can only actively pursue their candidature during their period of leave.

Considering Costley's social media accounts show he is already campaigning for Parliament, Newshub asked the NZDF whether he was on leave.

A spokesperson said he wasn't and he is only required to be on leave from nomination day.

So is he breaking the rules by campaigning while not on leave?

"No, the Defence Force does not consider this to be the case," a spokesperson said.

"The NZDF is fully aware of Wing Commander Costley’s intentions and has been kept informed.  Wing Commander Costley and the NZDF have an understanding around how such activity is and is not to be conducted."

Newshub sought a statement from Costley via National. But it said questions should be referred to the NZDF.

It said Costley acted in accordance with NZDF's rules for staff engaging in political activities 

On Tuesday morning, National's biography on its website for Costley said he "finished" in his Commanding Officer role with the Air Force, having served for more than two decades in various roles. 

But after questions from Newshub, National said Costley would be in the role until next month. 

"What Tim meant by 'finished' is that he will finish his service with the Air Force in the role of Commanding Officer after holding several other roles over 20 years, his bio has been clarified to reflect that point. He and the NZDF are open that he is still serving, as shown by the media release you forwarded through."

National leader Christopher Luxon wasn't aware of Costley's inclusion in the PR.

Asked if it was appropriate for candidates to appear in such material, he said: "We want to maintain political neutrality. I am not aware of the specific circumstances."

Defence Minister Andrew Little told Newshub NZDF had taken the "correct approach".

"It's included one of its personnel, but made no reference to the political candidacy of that person. We have an MP who came straight from the Defence Force to the Labour Party caucus, Dan Rosewarne, and it caused no problems," he said.

"The material that was produced made no reference to the person's National Party candidacy, that's the correct approach to take." 

Kainga Ora came under scrutiny after the 2020 election when it emerged that it had paid for an advertisement featuring Arena Williams when it knew she was planning to run for Labour, something it tried to cover up.