15 November 2017
I’m often disappointed at the level of knowledge of the media about our Defence Force. The NZ Herald published an article this morning – Climate of change for the Defence Force – and I was left rolling my eyes at what is unfortunately a common view about what our troops should be doing. Safe to say that a whale rescued and climate change are much more important to this particular journalist than the role of the NZDF in providing for the safety and security of our nation.
Although I suspect it wasn’t the journalist’s intention, she has raised the very valid issue of New Zealand having a National Security focus. A conversation about all of New Zealand’s security agencies (Bio-security; Customs; Fisheries; Cyber-security; GSCB and SIS to name a few) to act in a more collaborative and co-ordinated way is long overdue. And yes, I guess that Climate change fits into that brief as well. The 2010 Defence White Paper made reference to a National Security focus, but apart from the formation of a committee that has met but produced nothing, progress is non-existent.
Seven years on and now after election 2017, where are things at with Defence? Simon Ewing-Jarvie published an article – Nervous Wait for NZ Defence – on his blog (unclas.com) earlier this week pointing out Defence Chiefs and officials have an uncertain wait to find out what life under a NZ First Minister in a Labour-led Government means for them. And let’s not forget that the Green Party, with a pacifist approach, will also have a view on defence policy.
While National-led governments are often thought to be more sympathetic to the activities and role of our Defence Force (more hawkish in outlook) recent history shows us that Labour-led Governments have been more generous funders of Defence. So will this tradition continue under New Zealand’s newly elected Labour-NZ First-Green Government? Initial signs are not encouraging for the Defence Force. Pre-election Grant Robertson, now Finance Minister, indicated that Labour’s spending priorities lay in the social policy area and he would not commit to furthering the National Party agenda as outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
As a former Associate Minister of Defence I know what it is like to have to marry two political parties policies to produce a strategy for the NZDF. The National Party and Act weren’t too far apart in policy. We had some quite robust discussions when the 2010 White Paper was being developed. However I’d hazard a guess that these were mild in comparison to those that will inevitably arise soon because of the canyon that exists between NZ First’s policies and the Labour or Green views. The new Minister of Defence, whose pre-election policies included an armed coastguard and reinstating the Air Combat wing disbanded by the Clark government, won’t get the philosophical support or funding to do what he wants to.
It will be interesting to see if Hon Ron Mark will be frustrated by trying, or if he decides to go down another path in stamping his authority on the portfolio. When I look at the three parties in government it seems clear that there is some common ground in areas that aren’t being talked about at the moment. The first is that of a National Security focus – bringing all the security agencies together to contribute towards and strengthen NZ Inc. The second is to concentrate on building a much stronger Reserve Force. At the moment it is tiny and timid and because of many years of funding and policy hits doesn’t provide much utility. Reservists often have civilian skills that are valuable to the Defence Force and they are well connected to the communities they live in. If the Reserve Force was significantly enhanced it would provide skills, experience and flexibility to the full time Defence Force – a great contribution to National Security. That’s where I’d be looking to make my mark if I was Minister of Defence.