Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Back to the Future

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Back to the Future

Article excerpt

Stewart Woodman finds New Zealand's 1997 Defence white paper tied to a vanishing rationale.

Defence Minister Paul East's rhetoric was certainly confident. The new Defence white paper, he insisted, fulfilled the government's commitment `to strengthening and rebuilding the country's Defence Force'.(1) It followed an exhaustive review of New Zealand's defence capabilities and promised an additional $663 million in new expenditure over the next five years. Proposed force enhancements included upgraded weapons and sensors for the ANZAC frigates, Skyhawk fighter and Orion maritime patrol aircraft, new armoured personnel carriers and vehicles for the Army, and an additional rifle company for each of New Zealand's two infantry battalions. The worst fears of those who had seen the new multi-member proportional electoral system as the death-knell of an effective New Zealand defence capability appeared, for the moment at least, to have been allayed.

But if the white paper, entitled The Shape of New Zealand's Defence, stood as a tribute to East's own commitment in difficult political circumstances, others were less convinced that it really delivered an effective future defence capability. Labour spokesman Geoff Braybrooke suggested that the additional expenditure would provide little more than `an expensive new coat of paint and a set of retreads'.(2) Others, including Australian Defence Minister Ian McLachlan, saw the decision to reduce the surface fleet from four to three frigates as disappointing. It appeared out of step with the strong maritime character of New Zealand's, and indeed the emerging regional, strategic environment. The disclaimers of New Zealand First Treasurer, Winston Peters, that the programme was locked in beyond the first two years did little to improve confidence in its implementation.(3)

How then is one to evaluate the 1997 Defence white paper? Was it a success because it finally stemmed the 30 per cent decline in defence expenditure over the past decade? Or was it a failure because it did little more than `polishing up the relics of our past'? Perhaps most importantly, how well does it equip the New Zealand Defence Force to be an effective instrument of New Zealand's security and wider foreign policies in the future? The critical factor is not just the actual decisions which the government took but the underlying questions which it should have been attempting to answer.

Troubled past

The reality is that New Zealand's defence capabilities have been struggling to retain their footing on a slipping slope for more than two decades. While the Defence Force had entered the 1970s well equipped with Skyhawk fighters, Orion LRMP aircraft, relatively modern Leander-class frigates and a battalion based in Singapore, external economic factors were quick to undermine this comfortable position. The oil crisis of the mid-1970s and the inflation that followed, the dramatic collapse in the price of primary produce on international markets, and sharp increases in the costs of advanced defence technologies threw into question New Zealand's ability to upgrade its weapons systems and to exercise with its major -- but, apart from Australia, distant -- Western allies.

Furthermore, New Zealand's ability to manage these pressures was significantly complicated by several other factors. First, New Zealand itself did not have a tradition of independent defence policy development. Its priorities and force structure had been driven by alliance considerations; many of its allies had more pressing defence needs and could expect more robust public support. Second, any prospect of a bi-partisan political approach was quickly undermined by the rift which arose between the Labour and National parties over nuclear issues. Whereas the Kirk-Rowling government had protested strongly against French nuclear testing, supported the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone concept, and moved to ban nuclear armed and/or powered warships from New Zealand ports, the National administration under Robert Muldoon remained staunch devotees of the US alliance and its obligations. …

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