The domestic politics of New Zealand’s defence

Anyone reading the media coverage of New Zealand’s defence policy statement might conclude its purpose was to lay out a stronger position on China. That would be a mistake. Its central purpose is to put defence policy into language that can be owned by the new coalition government to justify some major capability investment decisions.

… a bigger and bolder and much more expensive New Zealand Defence Force is about to be called for … this means staying on in Iraq with Australia is a done deal, right?

Signed off by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet colleagues in May, the statement can be seen as a necessary prelude to the very recent decision to purchase P8 maritime surveillance aircraft.

These approvals of policy and capability are no simple things because the coalition government is such an eclectic mix. In the middle sits Labour, which has often been more willing than the National Party to make expensive force structure decisions. But while Ardern’s Labour team is easily the largest in the coalition, the Foreign Affairs and Defence portfolios were both ceded to New Zealand First, whose campaign platform on defence was especially robust.

Defence Minister Ron Mark has not shied away from fulsome rhetoric on the need for a combat-capable defence force. In an interview following the launch of the statement, Mark argued that New Zealand’s army, navy, and air force “require military platforms to carry out their warlike functions”. That’s language most unlikely to be heard from the Greens, who have four Cabinet portfolios and can usually be relied upon to question anything that might go bang.

You’d also be right in thinking that the Greens, and some in Labour, would be unlikely to favour frequent endorsements of New Zealand’s Five Eyes connections. These appear in the first half of the document, which is the closest thing to a New Zealand Foreign Policy White Paper that one will find.

In these early pages, New Zealand’s retelling of the last stand of the “rules based order” is rather bleak, including a very direct recounting of Beijing’s exploits in the South China Sea, which David Capie from the Victoria University of Wellington explores elsewhere. Hence, a logical reader might be forgiven for thinking that a bigger and bolder and much more expensive New Zealand Defence Force is about…

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