Meet the new Defence Minister Mark Mitchell
Monday was a very good day for Mark Mitchell — he was promoted to Defence Minister and his runaway dog Stig was found after five days AWOL.
Mitchell made a video for his Facebook page to mark the occasion. He spoke of the privilege and honour of being in Cabinet but spent most of the time talking about the return of Stig, a black Labrador his family had since it was a puppy in 2011.
Such is Mitchell’s reverence for Dogs, he uses a capped D whenever he uses the word.
Mitchell, 48, is a genial, unassuming bloke who looks like a big softie. Do not be fooled. A former police Dog handler, he spent 14 years in the Police Force, dealing with the Mongrel Mob in Gisborne and getting painfully acquainted with the blade of a samurai sword in Rotorua.
He quit in 2003 and intended to pursue a gentler career training polo ponies. Instead he ended up in the Middle East, working in the volatility of Iraq in 2004 straight after the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces.
All up he spent eight years in the Middle East, first working for a British contractor providing security to the Coalition Provisional Authority and training Iraqi security forces.
Mitchell is yet to get his briefings for the new role, but said his own experience in the Middle East would help including high level contact with the defence and State Departments in Washington.
US President Donald Trump yesterday warned a major conflict with North Korea is possible in the standoff over its nuclear and missile programmes in a further sign of heightened tensions.
Mitchell said New Zealand had a longstanding relationship with the United States and it was “a natural ally”.
“There are strong, enduring relations. We’ve fought side by side and both countries hold pretty strongly to the same values.”
However, if Trump says jump we won’t be asking how high. “No, I think we should be proud we have an independent foreign policy — and defence policy as well.”
On the uncertainties around North Korea and Trump, Mitchell said there was a need for stability and “clear minds, in terms of rational and properly thought-out decisions.”
He believes there are lessons that can be taken from the mid-2000s.
“I guess something we need to be conscious of and careful of is that we don’t take things on thinking we can achieve something when actually it can’t be achieved. We have to be very realistic about what can be achieved. That always has to be part of our decision-making process.
“In terms of the invasion of Iraq there could have been some decisions made at the start of that process that were wrong, because countries got trapped into these thoughts of achieving what actually couldn’t be achieved. I think we’ve learned a lot.”
Mitchell eventually set up his own security firm based in Kuwait but working across the Middle East and further afield, where he developed expertise in kidnap and ransom negotiations, as well as extricating hostages.
One of his most terrifying experiences was a five-day siege on the rooftop of the An Nasiriyah compound holding back Shi’a militia.
“We were heavily outnumbered and the most likely outcome was that the compound would be overrun and it was unlikely there would be any survivors. That was a very difficult time for me because my children were constantly in my mind. There were times when the outcome was uncertain that I was terrified of not seeing my kids again.”
He also talks about getting caught up in IED attacks “which are always a bit tough on the system”. He lost mates “and that’s very tough”.
There are things he will not talk about. He is likely the only MP who will not confirm or deny whether he has killed anyone. “I don’t answer that question. All I will say is I worked in conflict zones where there were times there was engagement, and there are always casualties on both sides.” He won’t go into detail about his work as a kidnap and ransom negotiator and recovering hostages because of concerns it will put others in harm’s way.
That time in his life has attracted criticism from some, including Auckland Peace Action spokesperson Virginia Lambert who said Mitchell had been a “mercenary fighter during the bloodiest period of the US occupation”.
“Mark Mitchell not only went freely and willingly to fight in an illegal war of aggression, but he made a profit out of it. It is disgusting,” she wrote in a press release after the announcement of Mitchell’s position.
Such comments frustrate Mitchell, who says he was not a mercenary and has no qualms now about the work he did. “I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done. I’m… quietly proud, I’m not someone that shouts it from the rooftops — I’m a Kiwi after all. But I’m proud of the difference we made in people’s lives in terms of their security and ability to get on with their lives.”
He points to work he did such as opening mass graves with scientists from the Hague gathering evidence for the war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein. “When you’re opening mass graves and you’re finding the remains of babies clinging to mums, it’s a pretty clear reminder of the atrocities which were taking place. That was a very, very tough job for everyone involved. Instead of questioning why we were there, all it does is provide more resolve in terms of knowing there had to be changes made.”
Asked if he is attracted to danger, he replies he is driven by public service rather than danger.
“I don’t go out looking for dangerous jobs. Fundamentally, I don’t really like bullies too much. Something triggers inside me when I see people who can’t stick up for themselves facing atrocities some times.”
His view on the personal danger is that he knew the risks when he signed up for both the police and the Middle East security work.
That does not mean he will be gung-ho when it comes to making decisions about troops in his new role — all of whom made similar decisions at one stage.
“I have an educated and clear understanding of what they are being asked to do. You have to be careful before you ask people to put themselves in harm’s way. Before you ask troops to deploy anywhere you have to make sure they are given every opportunity to have the equipment, the training and ability to be successful.
“Having worked and operated in a lot of these areas that now we find ourselves as being important to us, I’ve got an understanding of the complexities of the situations we are dealing with and the challenges we face.”
It’s quite the career path for a school dropout who left at 15 to be a shepherd. It is also not very surprising.
His grandfather was Frank Gill — a former Air Force pilot who saw action in France and England during World War II before becoming a National MP and cabinet minister from 1975 to 1980 — including as Defence Minister.
One of Mitchell’s first dangerous experiences was spilling a cup of tea over Rob Muldoon when he was at Gill’s house.
Mitchell says Gill was a massive influence on his life and when he died. “I went off the rails a bit”.
Mitchell left Rosmini College to work, first as a dairy farmhand in Reporoa, a job his principal got for him. He changed jobs to a sheep farm, which also trained horses. “He’s the guy who really straightened me out. He was just a hard, typical Kiwi farmer.”
And that was where he got his first Dog.
Mitchell is married to Peggy Bourne, whom he met at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore about nine years ago. Peggy, the widow of Possum Bourne and Mitchell’s third wife, moved to Kuwait with her children in 2008. In 2011 the family returned to New Zealand.
He was elected in Rodney, the seat vacated by Sir Lockwood Smith. Since then, the closest he’s got to mortal combat was helping out in the Siege of Winston Peters in the Northland byelection in 2015.
He says he had always hoped to go down the international relations route in politics, rather than be pigeonholed as a former police officer. The role of Defence Minister was a natural fit, he says.
He has not planned his own extrication from politics yet — but does not intend to cut and run if National ends up in Opposition after the election later this year.