NZ Parliament Debating Chamber

MMP Elections & Defence

This time a year ago, politicians were spruiking their offerings to the voters of New Zealand. Buried in amongst the rhetoric and ‘double downs’ on how many houses would be built and trees planted was an important but largely overlooked policy set – Defence.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Defence is not a vote winner. Ask Kiwis whether they believe in Defence and they’ll nod enthusiastically. They’ll tell you about their GrandDad that was in the war and that they usually go to ANZAC Day services wearing his medals. But for the other 364 days of the year, ‘Lest We Forget’ is forgotten. Veterans know this and I’ve written about it before. Politicians also know this and so, every three years at election time, we are presented with a mish mash of defence policies that either bear no resemblance to reality or are so over the top that they could never be delivered on. Heather Roy and I wrote a piece in the National Business Review during the 2017 campaign which compared the various party’s policies.

Here’s a shortened summary of those 2017 policies:

2017 NZ Party Defence Policies Table truncated

Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is a type of proportional representation system, comprising electorate and List MPs, which has been in use since 1996 in New Zealand. It is a system that makes it almost impossible for a single party to rule outright. Coalitions must be formed and, despite 22 years, it is still poorly understood by politicians and voters alike. In 2017, a minority Government was formed by Labour in coalition with the NZ First Party and with Confidence and Supply provided by the Green Party – meaning the latter need only vote for the Government on the budget legislation and votes of no confidence. Everything else is negotiable. You would think that would put the Greens in a very powerful position but they seem unable or unwilling to use their potential leverage to best effect.

Back to Defence. A three-party Government with Labour seeking to accommodate hawks on one hand and doves on the other is not a great scenario. Concessions must be made around the table. However, there is no reason why the voter should not expect the people they voted for to pursue their electoral policy offerings to the fullest extent. It is reasonable to expect that NZ First (which holds the Defence portfolio) and the Greens would be duking it out over their respective views on national security. I decided to put that to the test by submitting a comprehensive Official Information Act request seeking any documents relating to the long list of 2017 defence election promises.

Here’s what I asked about and the resulting reply:

Policy Summary Party Documents

Exist?

Re-establishment of an air combat force for NZ. NZ First NO
Establishment of a Coastguard as a sub-service of the RNZ Navy, whether armed or not. NZ First NO
Improved pay and conditions for service personnel. NZ First YES
Establishment of an independent Armed Forces Remuneration Board. NZ First YES but withheld
Improving resourcing for Territorial and Reserve Forces. NZ First NO
Better integration of NZDF and civil defence. NZ First NO
Withdrawal of NZ from the Five Power Defence Arrangement or the UK/USA Signals Intelligence Agreement known as Five Eyes. Green NO
Review of structure and governance of NZDF with a view to full or part civilianisation of some functions and roles. Green NO
Development of a centre for the training of international peacekeepers in NZ. Green NO
Phasing out of the ANZAC frigates. Green NO
Remove or non-installation of anti-submarine warfare or other offensive capabilities on current or future maritime surveillance aircraft. Green NO
Increased use of training simulators within NZDF to minimise environmental impact. Green NO
Exemption from income tax for service personnel deployed on operations overseas. NZ First YES
Extension of Reserve Forces and Reserve training to a wider section of the NZ population. Green NO
Development of civilian-based defence employing techniques such as training to resist aggression and active non-cooperation. Green NO

Let’s look a bit deeper into the three spaces where documents exist. The new pay scales were developed last year and first advised to the Defence Minister shortly after he took office in February 2018. They were announced in June by the outgoing CDF, Lt Gen Tim Keating. The cost of approx. $22m is being absorbed within current baselines so no party in the current Government can claim credit for that. The Minister has clearly asked for officials’ advice on the Armed Forces Remuneration Board – a waste of time in my opinion.

For the remainder, there has been no documented activity by either support party. Nearly a year and nothing. In the case of the Green Party, the policy was probably written by Kennedy Graham, who resigned, on a point of principle, in the lead up to the election because of revelations that his Co-Leader, Metiria Turei, had ripped off the Government’s benefit system in years gone by. The party’s latter-day Defence spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, has spent more time misrepresenting herself as NZ’s first female defence spokesperson (she’s actually 3rd or 4th in that queue) than pursuing the party’s 2017 policies.

This is ironic given that there is some overlap between the two parties’ policies. We could do with more investment in the Reserve Forces, for instance. Especially at a time when they are the weakest they have ever been and word on the street is that their employer support council is about to be taken out of legislation. Better integration of not only NZDF and Civil Defence but all the elements of national security is in NZ’s interest. So why no action?

Ron Mark, the Defence Minister, rattled his spanner for years in opposition about things that needed to be done for Defence. These are his party policies, probably written by him and endorsed by his leader on their campaign website. They were presented to the voting public as a clear choice and probably appealed to many of NZ First’s older constituency. Yet no action at all? Not one request for advice from officials on the viability of some of these ideas after nearly a year?

So, it comes back to we voters. If you care about defence and national security, you need to do more than just vote based on a pretty line-up of promises. You need to look at polls and consider likely combinations of parties in government. Scrutinise party lists to know what sort of people your vote might bring in. Contact them all and get them to go on record about their support for a strengthened NZ Defence Force. Talk to others. Get politically active. Only the risk of being out of Parliament motivates most MPs on most subjects. Make Defence a burning platform for politicians. Hold them to account.