The Need for a Better Conversation about New Zealand’s National Security

Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie

13 June 2016

Today’s Chris Trotter article that suggests getting rid of the Defence Force, is a great piece of political Cosplay. (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/80986483/chris-trotter-how-many-houses-could-we-get-for-20-billion-spent-on-defence). By that, I’m referring to the “Clever Old Socialist” that he is and not making reference to what he might have been wearing at the time of writing the piece.

Housing is, without a doubt, the hot topic in New Zealand politics at the moment and, in responding to Chris, I’m in no way disputing the need to get on top of the problem. A solution to the cost and availability of housing appears to be eluding this government. As with national security, there is no ‘one right way’ to solve social issues and multi-party accords, though elusive, offer the only real prospect of long term progress. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen when we can’t even get to that point on a subject as compelling as how to care for our ageing population.

Chris has made effective use of the recent Defence White Paper announcement of $20b over 15 years to replace ageing Defence platforms in order to throw the spotlight back on housing. I give him credit for that because it should, by all logic, bring the conservatives out screaming blue murder and add more fuel to the housing debate. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen or at least not in a constructive way. Therein lies the problem – a lack of a decent, balanced and ongoing conversation about national security in New Zealand.

I know it’s fun to move the counters around on the board and imagine different ways of organising functions within the context of Government. I’ve indulged in it myself plenty of times. I don’t believe for a second that Chris doesn’t know that the various ministries he has proposed for current Defence functions would still require the hardware that is on the table. MPI would still need to sail fisheries patrol vessels and operate surveillance capabilities. Police numbers would bulge and Civil Defence would become one of NZ’s biggest ministries. We would still need to be able to assist our Pacific neighbours during times of disaster. The list goes on and the net effect is, with the exception of getting rid of a few tactical armaments, little capital monies would be saved for housing or anything else. The main difference would be that these capabilities would be operated by Kiwis who could choose to go home at the end of each day, or when they’d had enough of the rough conditions or their family was missing them. Operating costs, particularly through personnel, would skyrocket.

The nature of service in the Defence Force is unique. Whether conscript or volunteer, full time or part-time, there is simply no equivalent anywhere in society and I don’t believe that we would be better off by seeking to emulate Costa Rica or the other 20 countries that achieve security through Police paramilitaries or arrangements with ‘protector states’. It’s true but irrelevant that Costa Rica hasn’t had a military coup since disbanding its armed forces. Neither have we experienced one and the constitutional arrangements we have make it likely that we never will.

Chris is absolutely right when he notes: “Though the outcry against homelessness grows louder every day, hardly a voice has been raised in protest at this monstrous outlay on the NZ Defence Force.” It is also true that hardly a voice has been raised in protest against the running down of Defence Force capabilities. We now have ‘hollow’ units with large numbers of people acting in roles above their rank. We cannot crew our navy fleet. Our deployable land forces are essentially a ‘one-shot’ battalion battle group on a good day, or a couple of company groups that could be sustained longer in a low-threat environment. There is no air combat force.

Largely through politically unwise commentary by the PM and other MPs as well as breathless mentions of the SAS by some media, a section of society equates our most deployable, useful and, in some cases, only operational capability with special forces. That is not the case. It is true that they are very well trained and equipped personnel but they are not there to do everything. Armoured reconnaissance is a cavalry task and we have a unit that trains to do that. Kicking in doors and clearing houses is an infantry task as part of their training for fighting in a built up area.

In any other force in the western world, there are large numbers of reservists to provide specialisations deemed too expensive to hold in standing forces. They provide a medium term response to personnel surge requirements in combat and support functions. Reserves also provide a vital link between the armed forces and society. However, in NZ, the Reserve Force, particularly in the case of the Army, has been decimated through inept restructures and throttled funding for training over 2 decades and now numbers around 1650 personnel. Once those on the standby reserve are deducted, the active reserve figures make grim reading.

Thank you, Chris, for publishing this polarising article on Defence and giving me the opportunity to use your technique to draw attention to my points. National security is a subject that we need to have a better conversation on as a country. A few hundred public submissions to the latest White Paper is not enough. We need commentators from across the political spectrum like Chris, Nicky Hager and Paul Buchanan – to mention just a few –  to argue their corner in a way that ordinary Kiwis can engage with.

Finally, I agree that we also need to have a proper national conversation and take some action on our extraordinary social problems.

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