One of Gerry Brownlee’s inner Cabinet colleagues was talking about yet another barrage of criticism from Brownlee directed at Treasury.
“You’ve got to remember that Treasury is very process driven,” he said.
“And Gerry is very un-process driven.”
Who can forget his proposal to mine Great Barrier Island?
Or there’s that image of him, as Transport Minister, fed up with the slowness of airport security in Christchurch simply going through a secure door on to the plane.
Brownlee’s blunt approach to life gets plenty of headlines, and it’s tempting to regard him as the odd man out in the slick National Government machine.
But, in fact, Brownlee’s “un-process driven” approach may work.
In short, he gets things done.
And this has been the case since he has been Minister of Defence.
Usually, a semi-backwater for a Senior Minister, Brownlee has picked the portfolio up, shaken it about and ended up overseeing big changes within the Ministry, obtaining a commitment to a huge procurement budget and at the same time developing a strategic outlook for Defence which redefines the geo-political environment within which New Zealand finds itself.
But perhaps surprisingly, in the process Brownlee has acquired some diplomatic skills. This week he has been on the phone with President Trump’s Defence Secretary, James Mattis — just one of a long list of big international names who Brownlee regularly talks to.
This new personna as a diplomat is evident when you ask him to sum up his year and he goes straight to that strategic overview.
“If you think about why you have a defence force, it’s always to pursue peace,” he says.
“That means that you tend to use the defence force to foster better relations between the nations that we have a similarity to; the nations that we trade with and the nations that we can offer some assistance to.
“So on the one had you have the big powerful US economy, it makes sense that we have a relationship with them.
“We’ve got those traditional links with Britain that will always be there.
“And inside the five eyes, Canada and our only formal ally, Australia, are equally important. “
It’s an interesting re-definition of New Zealand’s overall strategic position — inside the five eyes but with only one formal ally.
It’s a long way from ANZUS.
And it’s a long way from the Bolger Government who in their Defence reviews indicated that New Zealand hoped one day to be able to resume its formal alliance with the US.
There is, however, an elephant in the room; China. And it’s an elephant which has seen Brownlee have to forgo his usual blunt, in-your-face approach to politics in favour of uncharacteristically diplomatic and careful talk.
He has previously described China as a strategic partner and has pointed to the way New Zealand army officer trainees spend time in China during their training as evidence of a growing relationship.
He likes to regale visitors with accounts of his relationship with China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army who greeted him with a bear-hug at last year’s Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore
, evidence says Brownlee of the depth of their friendship.
He has walked a very careful line on the big Chinese defence issue – the construction of islands in the South China Sea.
That has meant keeping New Zealand’s activities in the region very low key.
Though RNZAF aircraft participated last April in the Malaysian-led exercise Operation Bersama Lima, by patrolling in the South China Sea it appears that our surveillance in the area has been much more extensive.
“From the outset, we have a taken a view on the South China Sea that we don’t express a view on the territorial claims made by any countries but we do assert that it is open waterways.
“So for some years we’ve had our P3 Orions flying surveillance exercises there out of Okinawa, and we also have had frigate patrols going through there.
“This year they will be going up through that part of the South China Sea and will actually be calling at two ports in mainland China as well as other South East Asian ports.
“So all that does is indicate that we do have an interest in keeping those sea lanes open.
“These are international waterways, and we don; ‘t expect to be challenged when we sail through them.”
But on the delicate issue of sovereignty over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, Brownlee treads a very careful line.
Brownlee says New Zealand wants to see the International Court of Justice decision on the islands “respected”, but he also acknowledges China;’s argument that the disputes should be sorted out bilaterally.
“In the end all the countries that are subject to the territorial disputes will, on a bilateral basis, work out exactly where all this lands,” he says.
But Brownlee’s positions subtly differs from that of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who reacting to the International Court of Justice decision called on the Philippines and China to abide by the ruling, which she said was final and binding on both parties.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman later said that China had protested against the “wrong remarks” and a Chinese newspaper called Australia a “papercat”.
It’s a delicate balance which sees Brownlee having to keep both the United States and our five eyes partners on side at the same time as he doesn’t alienate New Zealand’s largest trading partner.
It’s not always popular.
For example, Dr Mark Thomson from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute speaking at a Defence White Paper symposium in Wellington last year was incredulopus that the country was so unwilling to regard China as a threat.
It would be fair to speculate that that position might have been at least partly sympathised with among Australian diplomats in Wellington.
But the strategic balance is only one part of Brownlee’s portfolio.
Because most of New Zealand’s key defence assets — the C130 Hercules, the P3 Orions, the frigates and some other naval vessels — will all reach their use-by date within the next 13 years the Government has had to undertake one of the biggest defence procurement programmes in its history.
That has come with an upheaval within defence which has seen more emphasis go on how the forces use their capital assets.
In turn that is leading to a review of the so-called Defence estate.
But the key element is the $20 billion procurement plan which will see total defence expenditure go to one per cent of GDP and put Defence up with social welfare, education and health as one of the big spending parts of Government.
That means all of the expenditures forecast in the White Paper and the Capability Plan launched last year will be subject to business cases before Cabinet will sign them off.
That will expose Brownlee to the rigour of Treasury who previously have been critical of his management of big spending proposals in the Christchurch earthquake recovery process.
All he will say is that “all Ministers deal with Treasury and some have more friendly relations with them than others.”
What makes his caution over the South China Sea and Treasury all the more remarkable is that in his other portfolio areas he has been happy to be far less diplomatic.
Before Christmas, he was hitting the headlines again after an exchange with a Kaikoura farmer over what the farmer claimed was Brownlee’s tardiness in getting recovery work going.
(Since the Christchurch earthquake Brownlee has become the Cabinet’s go-to man on disaster recovery and relief.)
“it just staggered me, all the tut-tut brigade came out and said you shouldn’t have said that to a poor stressed farmer.
“Well, he was representative of a group there who were a little bit embarrassed by the fact that he went a little bit too far.”
It was typical of Brownlee’s pragmatic approach to problems that aside from heated debates with farmers, his real frustration during the Kaikoura-Hurunui earthquake was the cumbersome civil defence structure he had to deal with.
“There was Civil Defence headquarters in the bunker here in the Beehive.
“There was Civil Defence headquarters —- though there was no state of emergency – here in Wellington.
“There was a Civil Defence headquarters in Hurunui, another in Kaikoura, another in Amberley and a Civil Defence headquarters in Christchurch.
“What came out of all that?
“I think some interesting decisions about access into Kaikoura.
“What it tells you is that these structures were probably put together in times when we were not facing a disaster, and in the end, they need a bit of a straighten out.”
Others may call it “un-process” but “a bit of a straighten out” seems, to more accurately sum up Brownlee’s approach to management; a practical look at the problem and an equally practical solution.
It can have surprising effects, as his comprehensive overhaul of Defence is beginning to show.
And if it is required — he can even be diplomatic.