A formation of Royal New Zealand Navy warships manoeuvring.

Sea Blind

Yesterday, I attended, along with my business partner, Hon Heather Roy, a symposium on New Zealand’s Maritime Security Environment hosted by the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. As I’ve done in previous blog posts, I like to record my initial thoughts while still fresh and leave the way open to more detailed analysis in the future.

In this piece, I’m going to start with my final impressions – the important personal take-outs.

  • ‘Sea Blind’ – the title of this post refers to the lack of awareness and understanding of the strategic importance of the sea that surrounds us. ‘Sea Blindness’ is a term that can be applied to politicians, policy writers, media and the public alike.
  • Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies at Vic Uni, in the final panel of the day, described the maritime threat situation as comprising the three ‘Cs’ – climate, crime and competition. These simple messages resonate and need to be repeated often.
  • Simon Murdoch, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, suggested that the rate of change in our strategic environment might well outstrip our rate of adaptation in capability terms e.g. what platforms we are purchasing for our Defence Force and other security agencies and the way in which we train, support and deploy them. Antarctica was offered as a particular example of potential ‘dislocation’.
  • Kennedy Graham, former Green MP and diplomat, highlighted the link between human security, particularly at an individual rather than state level, and national security. I feel that there is inherent logic in the concept that people shouldn’t feel insecure so that a nation-state can do so.
  • Commodore Stephen Woodall, Royal Australian Navy, spoke of his country’s doctrinal reference to the “Indo-Pacific” (as opposed to Asia-Pacific) strategic outlook with the four pillars of Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington. This is a long way from how New Zealand sees itself in the region and was cause for plenty of discussion.
  • Vast resources are being poured into combatting the importation of drugs to NZ but no policy work (apparently – I asked the question) is being done on the relative economics of making drug use a health issue (decriminalisation) and diverting the vast resources currently used in enforcement to this greater social good of ending addiction and starving criminals of cash flow. Heather Roy has blogged about this today.
  • New Zealand is one of the few countries in our ‘orbit’ that doesn’t have an ‘Oceans Policy’ – covering everything from sea lanes and navigation to fisheries, pollution and science. This is unsurprising given our lack of a national strategy on pretty much everything.

On the admin side of things – over 180 people from a range of backgrounds attended the conference, mostly public sector as well as diplomats, NGOs, current and former academics. It would have been good to have more representatives from the maritime and defence industry there as well as more media. Newsroom and Radio New Zealand (Pacific Desk) covered the day and I was sitting next to the radio guys throughout. We discussed the lack of specialist national security reporters in NZ and I encouraged them to ‘talk to their mates’ and find someone who wanted to become an expert in this field as it’s vital to the national discussion on security. The conference was smoothly chaired by Assoc Prof David Capie, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies. There were 2 sponsors – the NZ Ministry of Defence and the Australian High Commission in NZ. No current Ministers or MPs attended which I found surprising. The quality of the speakers was variable. Some were excellent and others pretty average. Many sat at their question-time microphones and read from notes during their primary delivery and few had any audio-visual support – both really disappointing aspects of the day.

Here’s a quick overview of the day:

Panel 1 – The Evolving Maritime Security Environment: New Zealand and Australian Perspectives. Rear Admiral John Martin, Chief of the Royal NZ Navy and Commodore Stephen Woodall, Assistant Secretary, Pacific and Timor-Leste, International Policy Division.

Panel 2 – Emerging Challenges and Policy Responses: perspectives from policymakers. Chair: Anna Powles. Peter Mersi, Chief Executive, Ministry of Transport; Tony Lynch, Dep Sec, NZ Ministry of Defence; Jamie Bamford, Group Manager, Intelligence, Investigations and Enforcement, NZ Customs Service; Mike Asplet, Lead Advisor, International Security, NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Panel 3 – Cooperation and Contestation in the Maritime Environment. Chair Manjeet Pardesi. Euan Graham, Director, International Security Programme, Lowy Institute, Sydney, Australia – “Indo versus Asia-Pacific: What does it mean for maritime security and trans-Tasman cooperation?”; Joanna Mossop, Associate Professor, School of Law, VUW – “The future of a rules-based order in maritime spaces”; Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, “The blue Pacific: The future of maritime security in the Pacific Islands Ocean Region”.

Panel 4 – Environmental and Resource Challenges. Chair Roberto Rabel. Dave Frame, Director, Climate Change Research Centre, VUW – “The emergence of climate change risks”; Bronwen Golder, Senior Manager, Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Programme – “Ocean guardianship within and beyond boundaries”; Kalolaine Vaipuna, Senior Policy Analyst, International Policy, Ministry of Primary Industries.

Panel 5 – Capabilities and Choices for Future Governments. Chair Melissa Haydon-Clarke. Kennedy Graham, Centre for Global Studies – “Maritime security as a subset of human security: global and national dimensions”; Simon Murdoch, Senior Fellow, Centre for Strategic Studies – “Risk shifts in our maritime periphery”; Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies, VUW – “Local and Global? Capability choices and NZ’s maritime commitments”.

I have mentioned in other posts that I assess these events by whether it was worth attending and I would attend again. On the first point – yes. I learned a few new things and that’s always a good day out. On the latter – a qualified yes. I have to repeat my view that this ‘panel of 15-minute speakers plus 2-3 questions’ model doesn’t appeal. The after-lunch session is particularly problematic. I’d like to see more interactive sessions and perhaps some table-top exercises or other larger scale simulations run as part of or off to the side of the conference to harness the enormous wealth of talent in the audience.

So what was my enduring impression? The discussions at this symposium reflected the ongoing fact that NZ has no national security strategy. If we did then the topic of maritime policy would have a home in which to base itself. It doesn’t and that showed with the obvious policy disconnects between many of the presentations.

Government is a rationing exercise. However, how this rationing occurs can only be with the blessing of the voting public. For too long, the stakeholders in national security have failed to effectively tell their ‘story’ to the public. On April 25, most Kiwis get it. Lest we forget to engage them for the other 364 days a year.