In the same week that Australia announced it was spending $50 billion on a fleet of new submarines, the New Zealand army admitted it couldn’t muster enough soldiers to fire the traditional rifle salute at an Anzac Day service in the country’s third-largest city, Christchurch. Two weeks before that, it was revealed that two modern patrol ships from the New Zealand navy’s modest fleet hadn’t been to sea for years because of crew shortages.
It’s hard to imagine a more vivid demonstration of the parlous state of New Zealand’s military forces, or of the growing defence capability gap between New Zealand and Australia. But was anyone embarrassed by these disclosures? Not that you’d notice.
In complacent New Zealand, defence ranks so low in the order of political priorities that it’s virtually off the radar. Endangered native parrots get more attention. Politicians take their cue from opinion polls which show that while New Zealanders support their Defence Force, they don’t want to spend any more money on it.
Two generations of Kiwis have grown up with the notion that the military exists mainly to contribute to feel-good operations such as international peacekeeping and relief efforts. Defence policy seems predicated on the hope that in the event of a major conflict, New Zealand will escape the attention of the combatants. Failing that, Australia and the United States will ensure its protection.
The principal function of the navy and air force is to patrol New Zealand’s massive exclusive economic zone, the fourth largest in the world. The air force tries to accomplish this using 1960s-era Orion aircraft that have been miraculously kept flying as a result of endless engine and electronics upgrades. The RNZAF’s Hercules transport planes are of a similar vintage.
No one pretends New Zealand is capable of mounting a credible defence effort if the country came under attack. In 2001, Helen Clark’s Labour government decided to mothball the air force’s only combat aircraft, a squadron of ageing Skyhawks.
Clark famously justified that decision by pronouncing that we lived in ‘an incredibly benign strategic environment’. Only months later jihadists destroyed the Twin Towers, and suddenly the world looked very different. But Labour doggedly stuck to its defence-lite credo, cancelling a deal under which New Zealand would have cheaply acquired 28 F-16s to replace the Skyhawks.
By common consent, the strategic environment now is highly unstable –not just in the familiar flash points of the Middle East, but in New Zealand’s own area of strategic interest. North Korea is ruled by a belligerent madman and an ascendant China is flexing its military muscles with provocative displays of military power in the oil-rich South China Sea, where any conflict would threaten vital trade routes.
If that happened, defence commentators say, New Zealand would be under pressure to help keep sea lanes open. But with just two frigates (one of which has been in port since the end of 2014, undergoing an upgrade), it would struggle to make even a token contribution to a multinational task force.
Even when the navy sticks to its core role of protecting the country’s fisheries, there are doubts about its effectiveness. In January last year, in what seemed a striking demonstration of the navy’s impotence, HMNZS Wellington proved powerless to stop three Equatorial Guinea-flagged ships caught poaching valuable Antarctic toothfish. All this must cause Australians to wonder whether New Zealand is pulling its weight in the defence partnership. Admittedly the two countries have different strategic priorities, partly due to Australia’s size and closer proximity to Asia. New Zealand stayed out of the Iraq War, for example, while Australia assumed the role of America’s ‘deputy sheriff’ in the Pacific.
New Zealand remains excluded from the Anzus Treaty as a result of its anti-nuclear stance, which was initiated by Labour and continued by the centre-right National Party. But as commentators point out, the relationship with Australia remains a cornerstone of defence policy – and the widening capability gap between the two countries has been noted.
In a scathing speech at a symposium in Wellington last year, Kiwi defence analyst Chris Salt – an amateur, but a well-informed one – said New Zealand’s defence plan hinged on buying enough time to run to Australia and America for help. He described it as a policy ‘devoid of honour and integrity’.
So what happened to the notion that defence of national sovereignty is a core role of government? The answer, in New Zealand at least, is that it has been the victim of a profound generational change.
Until the 1970s, the country was led by politicians with painful memories of World War II. The defence portfolio was invariably assigned to a senior cabinet minister and the Returned Services Association was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group. RSA members had personally experienced the consequences of being thrust into war ill-prepared and warned constantly about the danger of running down New Zealand’s defence capability. The baby-boomer generation mocked them as crusty old warmongers.
As the old soldiers died and memories of the war grew dimmer, defence slipped down the priority list. The election in 1984 of a Labour government led by pacifists and idealists who had cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s, and who remained gripped by a mindset that regarded any sort of offensive military capacity as bad, was a turning point.
But it’s hardly fair to pin all the blame on Labour. The National Party, which has governed for much of the post-Anzus era, shows no greater commitment to defence than its left-leaning opponents.
And while NZ defence personnel continue to serve with distinction on the ground (they’re helping train Iraqi troops right now), their political and bureaucratic masters in Wellington often give the impression of being incompetent and dysfunctional, with a long record of catastrophically ill-advised equipment purchases, bitter inter-service rivalry and disruptive shifts in policy with every change of government.
Given the sustained neglect of defence in New Zealand, it’s a strange paradox that attendance at Anzac Day services has never been greater. The inescapable conclusion is that New Zealanders in the 21st century are more comfortable commemorating past wars than dwelling on the possibility of future ones.
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