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Interview: Opposition Defence Spokesperson Mark Mitchell

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017

Hon Mark Mitchell visits deployed NZDF soldiers in his previous role as Minister of Defence.Hon Mark Mitchell visits deployed NZDF soldiers in his previous role as Minister of Defence.

 

In this exclusive interview, former defence minister and current opposition defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell talks with Nicholas Dynon about his concerns over softening on defence spending, and why he’ll be keeping Government to account.

 

LoD: How have the first few weeks in opposition been?

MM: The transition has actually been pretty seamless. We retained a lot of our top staff, which has made it much easier and the portfolio allocations were done early on so that people could get organised in their portfolio areas.

I retained defence, which I was very pleased about, because it’s a portfolio I’m very passionate about.

At this early stage, we feel like we’re up and running and that a good, healthy parliament will run well with a very strong opposition, and we’re off to a pretty good start.

During the election campaign, Grant Robertson, when asked where he’d make cuts to find money for some of the promises they were making, highlighted defence, which didn’t surprise me. I always felt that defence was somewhere they would look.

If you look at the statements he made in opposition, Ron Mark wanted to see an immediate increase in defence investment and funding, and I fully support that. But when Grant Robertson came out a fortnight ago and said this is a $20bn program that the National Government hadn’t made provision for, it was language starting to soften a position around not making commitments or big procurement investment decisions that they’re going to have to make within the next 12 months.

 

LoD: Is the Government going to renege on some of those and lay blame the previous Government?

MM: That’s the sort of messaging they’re trying to get up. Steven Joyce reacted pretty quickly and said well that’s just ridiculous because we’ve come out publically and said that we’re committed to our plan and via year-by-year appropriations you’ll see that investment come on line in the next 15 years.

To turn around and say the money hasn’t been allocated 15 years out is stretching it a bit. All it was, we believe, is someone trying to search out a way to start to look at defence to make cuts.

They’ve got some big decisions coming up. They’ve got the P-8s in March and they’ve got the Frigate Systems Upgrades and the heavy lift capability, which need to happen. There’s a big program of investment coming up in terms of replacing equipment, upgrading equipment and investing into defence property and personnel.

 

LoD: Do you think that may result in any lag in relation to some of those projects?

MM: I think the replacement for the P-3s is at serious risk. There’s a lot of work that’s already been done, some very good work by Mike Yardley [Deputy Secretary Capability Delivery] and his team in Defence, and both the Americans and Australians have been very cooperative and assisted us. The P-8 without a doubt is a very good platform. It closes the capability gap with our partners and it provides that very good interoperability that is highly valued by our partners.

LoD: What about the defence estate regeneration? Things appear to have slowed somewhat. Do you think we’re going to see anything happening in that space over the next little while?

I hope so. I opened a new purpose-built facility at Whenuapai and there’s still quite a bit going on. For that to continue, of course, requires resolve and commitment. If there’s pressure being felt then maybe there’s a need to look at some different options, such as a public-private partnership.

Defence are very good at being able to keep things going, maintained and operational but the P-3s are well and truly getting to the end of their operational life and the buildings that many in Defence are operating out of just need to go.

 

LoD: To what extent are the recent indicators of softening on defence spending potentially a point of difference between the Labour Party and NZ First? Is there the same concordance between them as might have previously appeared to have been the case?

I think you’ve got a coalition government with very different priorities and views on defence. From NZ First, with an incoming minister that says we need to move investment to two percent of GDP (a doubling of the current rates of investment) and reinstate a strike capability, through to the Green Party who basically want to see a light defence force capable of maritime security operations and looking after the EEZ and not much more.

Labour is somewhere in the middle and, without a doubt, will not be committed to moving GDP spend from one to two percent. That’s not going to happen, and I think it’s going to create some real issues.

 

LoD: What are you hoping to get out of your time as opposition defence spokesperson?

MM: My focus is going to be relentless on holding the government to account in ensuring that they don’t start making cuts in our defence forces. It’s as simple as that. The minute I feel that something is going wrong there then you’ll see me come out in strong opposition against the government.

From my time as minister, I’m very confident in what defence is doing. I know that we’re asking them to do more than ever since the end of the Second World War in terms of deployments in what is increasingly becoming a complicated world. You only have to look at what’s happening in the Philippines at the moment.

Now is not the time to be cutting the defence spend. Now is actually the time to be investing into it, and so I’ll be watching very closely for any signals that they may be losing their resolve.

 

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LoD: It’s been said that defence got run down under the previous Labour government. Is this a possibility under the current government?

The potential is definitely there, without a doubt. I guess it will be wholly dependent upon how effective NZ First are in Cabinet in terms of ensuring that they are able to deliver on their commitments and promises.

Although there’s a great deal of effort going on at the moment to make it look like this is a very cohesive coalition government, we know that in reality these are going to be pressure points.

 

LoD: It’s early days, but do you get a sense that Defence is receiving the prioritisation that it should be receiving under the new government?

There are papers that should have been in front of Cabinet as a priority in the first month. The P-8 Poseidon should be in front of Cabinet right now for final approval and sign-off.

 

LoD: What would you say to the New Zealand defence industry at this point, who would have good reason to be just a little nervous?

MM: I attended an industry function just before the election and there was an overwhelming sense of optimism. Defence and Industry are working so well and closely together now. There are genuine partnerships that have sprung up everywhere.

New Zealand companies make a big investment and carry a bit of risk to support our defence forces. I want to see our defence industry grow not just in terms of servicing our local defence forces but looking offshore for opportunities as well. I think that there’s genuine opportunities to do that.

 

LoD: What do you think internationalisation of the local industry might require?

MM: There would need to be initially a government-led initiative working with industry to bring everyone together to look at what opportunities exist – it’s about a $1.7 trillion pipeline – and to come up with a strategy to bid for and win some of this work.

In the short to medium term its very tough for New Zealand companies that tend to have issues around cash flow and capacity. It costs a lot of money to get a proposal to the stage that you’re in the running to win. I believe it presents a real opportunity for us, it’s just going to take real leadership and focus.

 

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