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NZ First handed Defence portfolio

Defsec Media, 25 October 2017

On the world stage again: Winston Peters and Condoleezza Rice in 2008. Image courtesy US Department of State.On the world stage again: Winston Peters and Condoleezza Rice in 2008. Image courtesy US Department of State.

 

Defence Capability Plan spends to be scrutinised under a coalition government despite NZ First's grand designs for New Zealand's Defence Force, writes Nicholas Dynon.

 

In media coverage of negotiations between the parties that make up the freshly minted Labour-NZ First coalition, there's been much commentary on the government-elect’s likely policy mix. With plenty of chatter on regional development, education, poverty, housing, the environment, etc, we’ve heard very little on defence.

What we do know is that NZ First has been handed the Defence portfolio, and that Ron Mark will be Defence Minister. We’ve also been told that as part of the Labour-NZ First deal, there will be a re-examination of the Defence procurement program.

But exactly what the incoming government's defence and defence acquisition policy will be remains to be seen. What, for a start, is meant by a "re-examination" of Defence procurement, and just how in sync are Labour and NZ First's defence policies?

 

Does the White Paper still stand?

What we do know from the Labour Party’s 2017 Manifesto is that Labour “broadly supports” the capability upgrades outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper, but “reserves the discretion to examine further” whether the proposed purchases meet capability requirements at the best value for money.

In its manifesto, Labour committed to continuing to “invest in the capital equipment needed to ensure the effectiveness of its Defence Force, to maximise the safety of its deployed personnel and to ensure its interoperability with the Defence Forces of those it trains with and works alongside overseas.”

Nothing out of the ordinary here. The Labour Party position on what types of deployments the NZDF may be called upon to undertake isn’t far removed from that articulated in the White Paper, and its capability position falls in accordingly – albeit with a tighter hold on the purse strings.

Whether the mention of scrutinising defence spending is a mere device to appease areas of the party that might prefer the spending be directed elsewhere, or whether it leaves open the potential to dip into the additional $20 billion earmarked for Defence in the White Paper for other things remains to be seen.

When he was Labour leader earlier in 2017, Andrew Little made it clear where the White Paper's $20 bn sat within his party’s priorities.

"We want to support our armed forces " he said, "but there's no point in saying we'll have state-of-the-art equipment if the people that are rocking up to be recruited into the armed services don't have a good education [and] good foundation that enables them to do that."

On the other hand, it’s just possible that it is actually all about assuring the procurement plan.

Fiscal restraint around defence has been something of a rhetorical thread for NZ First leader – and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister-designate – Winston Peters.

Mr Peters said yesterday that the incoming government will “seriously examine” how defence spending is being allocated. Several months ago, he referred to the figures quoted in the Defence Capability Plan as “preposterous in their size”, suggesting the amount would obliterate a budget surplus.

So, it looks like the coalition partners see eye-to-eye on the need to keep defence spending on a tight leash. But do they?

According to its defence policy, NZ First is keen to see the development of a “full-spectrum defence force capable of expeditionary warfare and Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) within New Zealand’s Maritime Area of Responsibility.”

It wants to return offensive capabilities to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and to “enhance the offensive capabilities” of the New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), but to do so within the fiscal parameters of the Defence Capability Plan.

NZ First also wants to “re-establish and expand the Territorial Force of the NZ Army and to re-equip the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve with its own vessels for inshore patrol, maritime SAR, pollution control and anti-mine warfare.”

The party also wishes to replace the five-yearly White Paper with a four-yearly Strategic Defence and Security Review “to take into account geopolitical factors”, and to establish “as a minimum” the 1:1 replacement of major defence materiel.

The NZ First policy paints the picture of a self-sufficient NZDF bristling with enhanced offensive capabilities and expanded reserve forces achieved – at worst – at no extra cost.

Confused? So are we… and we haven’t even mentioned the Greens.

Hopefully Mr Mark (a former NZ Army Captain, and no stranger to the defence portfolio) will be able to clear thus up for us shortly.

"Since 1992, we have seen the effective disarmament of this nation," he told The Listener back in April 2006 as NZ First's Defence spokesperson. "And I would say... that part of the reason is that we have had a succession of politicians who have failed to see any threat, have been totally anti-military anyway or have failed to have any understanding of what the defence forces' real needs are."

Ten years later, he was questioning the National Government's splashing out of $493m for the Royal New Zealand Navy's new 24,000 tonne tanker, asking “Why is our Hyundai costing us twice what the Royal Navy is paying for its Daewoos?”

Mr Mark appears to be well across the need for budgetary scrutiny, but for him it's about getting more bang for the buck rather than allowing Defence to run out of bang.

 

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Similar thinking on cyber and personnel

Is cyber protection likely to remain a priority? In short, the answer appears to be yes.

Labour has specific views on cyber capability, stating that electronic and digital communications are “increasingly important and integral to New Zealand’s economy and day-to-day life” and that electronic and cyber capabilities also play a key role in supporting the work of the NZDF.

“As more systems are networked and connected to the internet, it is imperative that they are protected from cyber threats, both criminal and nation state,” its manifesto states. Labour thus supports the initiative outlined in the 2016 White Paper to boost the New Zealand Defence Force’s cyber capabilities.

More broadly, Labour plans to undertake a "comprehensive review of the integrity and efficacy" of New Zealand’s electronic, communications and digital Infrastructure, which is aimed at informing reforms that will "ensure New Zealanders have confidence in cutting edge security that protects their communications, intellectual property and online footprint.”

For its part, NZ First has indicated it would establish a tri-service Cyberwarfare Special Operations Unit.

In relation to taking care of Defence personnel, both Labour and NZ First share similar positions.

In June 2016, the then Labour Defence spokesperson Phil Goff commented that the White Paper gave too little emphasis to the importance of personnel. “New equipment is of limited use unless there are skilled personnel to make use of it," he stated in a media release. "The Auditor-General warned that in key areas of new capital equipment the problem was ‘worsening’ and that it was ‘critical that Defence takes steps to mitigate this'."

Labour says it will look to improve morale and working conditions for Defence personnel, and recruit and upskill personnel to the level required for the NZDF “to carry out the roles expected of it.” Labour also want to improve workplace safety and the treatment of women and minorities in the Defence Force.

Like Labour, NZ First is also concerned about attrition rates among Defence members. It's looking to “reverse falling numbers and increase budgets for recruitment, pay, operations, training and live-fire," and wants to establish an independent Armed Forces Remuneration Board to set pay and conditions.

 

In summary

From what Labour and NZ First have said on defence, it’s difficult to envisage significant spending cuts around the corner despite the fiscally responsible rhetoric. On the contrary, we could expect a NZ First defence ministerial portfolio to balk at any Labour impulse to significantly restrict defence spending.

Whatever the case may be, the ink is still drying on the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement, and with a fresh government in office and limited time until the end of the parliamentary year, we’re unlikely to see much movement on the Defence acquisition front this side of Christmas.

 

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