NEW ZEALAND FOREIGN POLICY: Pushing the Big Ideas

By Clark, Helen | New Zealand International Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

NEW ZEALAND FOREIGN POLICY: Pushing the Big Ideas


Clark, Helen, New Zealand International Review


Helen Clark outlines her government's approach to the question of New Zealand's stance in the world.

We are five and a half months now into the life of the new government. In the 1970s and 1980s changes of government in New Zealand led to quite significant shifts in foreign policy. That has not been the case in 1999, but there have been changes of emphasis, of priority, and of style. I will comment here about issues and areas where the government has already been active, or in which it has an active interest, and about where our further interests are likely to lie.

First a word about the issue of bipartisanship in foreign policy and, indeed, in defence policy. Bipartisanship is a good thing if it can be achieved. But we have been through periods in which that has been quite impossible in New Zealand. In my political lifetime, there have been huge differences over three main issues: Vietnam; nuclear weapons; and relations with apartheid South Africa. The differences between the two main parties on these issues were very deep and very bitter.

Labour was probably ahead of public opinion on the stands it took on each of those issues at the outset. Over time, however, public opinion changes. There was no sorrow when Norman Kirk brought home the troops from Vietnam. There was little sorrow when David Lange's new government brought New Zealand into line with the Commonwealth consensus on South Africa. There was near unanimous support at home for the nuclear free legislation. The resolution over time of all these issues did lay the groundwork for a bipartisan framework on foreign policy to be established. Whilst proportional representation has ensured a multi-party Parliament, by and large there have not been significant divisions over foreign policy issues. Divisions do exist though with respect to policy on New Zealand's intelligence relationships, with some questioning why we have such linkages at all, and indeed questioning why we have intelligence agencies at all. At the end of May, for example, Parliament voted on an intelligence related matter: a Green Party Bill to have our intelligence agencies opened up to full public scrutiny at Parliamentary select committees. The vote as I recall was sixteen for the proposal, one abstention or absence, and 103 against. That was a very clear indication of the balance of Parliamentary opinion on the matter.

Defence policy

The cross-party positioning on defence policy is a little more complicated. Tremendous progress on an agreed multi-party direction on New Zealand defence policy for the twenty-first century was made in the last Parliament, in the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee under Derek Quigley's chairmanship. Unfortunately in the late stages of the committee's work the National Party broke with the consensus and ever since has declined to enter into rational discussion on the issues.

The core issue is whether New Zealand continues with a defence force which has breadth and not depth, or whether it opts for depth over breadth. That is a serious debate. The opponents of the depth argument will just have to do better than reciting silly mantras about New Zealand being left defenceless. In reality, when New Zealand projects beyond its land border, its exclusive economic zone, and its South Pacific responsibilities, it does so in conjunction with others, and always has with the exception of intervention in Samoa in 1914. New Zealand is not called on in real life to provide all components of a military operation, whether it be in East Timor, Bougainville, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or anywhere else. We contribute what we can, and we would like to do that rather better.

In brief, we would like the superb professionalism of our army to be backed by better equipment, and we would like an enhanced sea lift capacity to facilitate its deployment. These are the most pressing issues on the capital purchase list for defence. …

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