Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

A Missed Opportunity

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

A Missed Opportunity

Article excerpt

Grant Crowley criticises the narrow and backward looking focus of the Defence white paper.

The Shape of New Zealand's Defence, and the defence assessment on which it is based, are both firmly rooted in the past. As such, they fail as signposts for New Zealand's defence needs in the twenty-first century

The usefulness of both documents is based on the assumption that the defence policy set out in The Defence of New Zealand in 1991 could stand unchanged. Neither of the new documents was intended to revise policy. They confirmed existing policy, examined the resource implications of that policy, and proposed an affordable way ahead.

The examination of the larger issues, however, is shallow. What, for example, are the longer term resource implications, and what are the opportunity costs, of continuing to maintain the capability represented by the Skyhawk squadrons? The white paper is silent on such matters.

There is reason to suppose that officials' original proposals to prepare a white paper were based on a fear that a post-1996 MMP government would be antipathetic towards defence expenditure, and that this fear was shared by key government ministers.

The Secretary of Defence, Gerald Hensley, told the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Parliament in June 1996, after Cabinet had approved his proposals for a new defence assessment, that the aim of the forthcoming defence assessment was to maintain, to the maximum extent possible, the current balanced and flexible range of military capabilities. He also told the committee that an earlier defence assessment, which had not been made public, had been submitted to ministers in 1994.

Funding shortfall

Although independent financial analysis had not been carried out, the government's defence advisers decided that the time had come to assert that the cuts in defence expenditure since the late 1980s had made defence, in terms of the existing policy guidance, unaffordable.

Papers were prepared in advance of the 1996 general election to enable any incoming government to be given dire warnings to this effect. What was needed, according to officials, was not less defence expenditure, but more.

National and Labour were considered likely to accept this message. The smaller parties, which depended on constituencies whose priorities were other than defence, and with no baggage of past policy statements and actions on defence and security, were seen as the problem. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was known to draw a line at two frigates.

After the election, National found that it had to face the consequences of officials' advice, and persuade its reluctant New Zealand First coalition partner that more defence expenditure was required. What the government should have done was to revisit the question whether the 1991 defence policy had stood the test of time. It still could do that, and may well have to. If the lower exchange rate continues, the implications for the Defence Force's operating budget will soon become apparent.

The Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, addressing a conference on Future Issues in Public Management in Wellington on 26 March 1997 in her then capacity as Minister of State Services, made the salient point that public sector organisations could not expect to continue just because they were already in existence. This applied not only to the numerous mini-ministries that had proliferated in response to specific political pressures but also, demonstrably, to dinosaurs such as the former Ministry of Works.

Clear message

The message should not be lost on Defence. As Dr Stewart Woodman, of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told the Defence Beyond 2000 enquiry in a written submission last September, while considerable progress has been made in New Zealand's defence policy in recent years, there remains a substantial way to go in terms of developing independent and sustainable force structure proposals appropriate to a smaller nation in the Asia-Pacific region. …

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