Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Defence: Exploring the Silent Consensus: Dale Elvy Examines Public Attitudes to Defence Provision in New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Defence: Exploring the Silent Consensus: Dale Elvy Examines Public Attitudes to Defence Provision in New Zealand

Article excerpt

Are New Zealanders confused about matters of national security and defence? What capability does the average New Zealander believe that the nation has? Do they think this is adequate to meet future challenges? Are New Zealand's current capabilities much like the Emperor's new clothes: everyone knows the Emperor is naked, but no-one wants to point it out?

The expectations and opinions of New Zealanders have an impact on both Policy and politics. Yet despite the importance ascribed to issues of national security and defence policy by politicians and the media alike, there have been few academic studies of New Zealand public opinion in the Post 9/11 era. In the absence of real information, the debate becomes focused on scandal, and speculation, rather than substance. How many doctors or teachers can be employed for the price of an ANZAC frigate? Will our nuclear-free policy, in fact, be gone by lunchtime? What does it say about our nation if our Skyhawks have become little more than expensive lawn ornaments?

When an issue becomes sensationalised, people become polarised towards a particular view. For news cycle after news cycle we hear about little else; every angle of an issue is examined in microscopic detail; experts offer opinions and interviewers push and probe spokespeople relentlessly. We are often told 'what the people think' and how much 'public support' there is for an issue. When faced with such 'evidence' there can be little argument. But are these views, often collected in snap polls or by online voting, truly representative of the wider public mind?


This article attempts to explore the silent consensus, and presents the key findings of a postal survey that was sent to 2000 New Zealand homes in September 2007. Survey questions were drawn from past New Zealand and Australian surveys conducted during the last three decades. The survey is intended to capture a non-sensationalised 'snapshot' of public opinion toward issues of defence and national security in the fourth quarter of 2007. The margin of error for the results of this survey is plus/minus 4 per cent.

Public spending

New Zealand spends less on defence, as a percentage of GDP, than many other nations. New Zealand spends 1.09 per cent of GDP compared to the 8 per cent of GDP spent by Indonesia, the 3.7 per cent spent by Malaysia or even the 1.8 per cent spent by Australia. (1) This parsimonious approach to defence spending, where dollars are the starting point for a national defence debate, not the conclusion, (2) is often bemoaned by critics of current New Zealand defence policy.

Yet, how many New Zealanders would actually be willing to pay more in taxes so that the government could spend more on defence and national security? By asking New Zealanders to put their money where their mouth is, we can try to ascertain the genuine level of support for an increase in funding in this area.

Forty-four per cent of New Zealanders are willing to pay more tax for increased spending on defence and national security, which means that there is a surprisingly strong--if minority--sentiment amongst the public for at least some form of increase in defence and national security spending. However, a comparative analysis revealed that spending in this area is far less supported than spending on social services such as healthcare and education.

An examination of the demographic data, provided by respondents, shows that older New Zealanders (those aged over 65 years), and those who are male, are generally more willing to pay more for defence and national security.

Useful comparison

A comparison with Australia helps to provide some perspective to this question. Although Australia and New Zealand share similar culture and history, we have developed utterly divergent defence policies. Accordingly New Zealand has structured its defence strategy and capability on the premise that there is no threat of conventional attack in the short to medium term, and tailored its capability toward contributing to peacekeeping and dealing with asymmetric conflicts, in marked contrast to Australia's current policy, which is focused around conventional warfighting, particularly sea-air control and denial. …

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