As the world descends into a polarising cycle of extremism, nationalism and identity politics, the parallels with 1930’s Europe are impossible to miss. Despite that, you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand existed in some rarefied international security bubble if you considered the various party’s defence policies offered up for the 17 October 2020 general election.
In previous elections, my business partner, Heather Roy, and I have published a detailed comparison of the various defence policy offerings. This year, it’s simply not worth it. The vast majority of parties have none. Few politicians miss the opportunity to roll out the cliched phrase “The first role of government is to protect the people.” But they either don’t mean it or they buy into the campaign team’s advice that “There aren’t many votes in defence.”
Here’s the quick summary:
Labour hasn’t even appointed a spokesperson for the portfolio since Iain Lees-Galloway bit the dust. No defence policy found for this election.
National has a spokesman in the former Minister, Mark Mitchell, but no defence policy for this election.
ACT has no spokesperson and no defence policy for this election.
Greens have a spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, who went mostly silent on the topic after a significant own goal in 2018. The Party does have a policy that was last updated (according to its website) in May 2020. It is a ‘multiple personality policy’ espousing disarmament and the capability to meet NZ’s security needs in the region at the same time.
NZ First have a substantial defence offering, as they always do. They will claim that Ron Mark, as Defence Minister, has made a significant difference this electoral term. Actually, all he has done is used the Party’s leverage over Labour to fund the 2010 Defence White Paper. Well known in defence circles for being far too operational; Ron’s left no mark beyond extending the Limited Service Volunteer (unemployed youth) scheme and enshrining climate change as a reason for Defence capability to assist in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The destruction of the Reserves has continued on his watch. NZ First’s policy offerings on Defence aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. My investigative piece from 2018 shows that.
Maori Party – No defence policy for this election. Ironic given the national love to roll out the 28th (Maori) Battalion history.
TOP – None. New Conservatives – End the NZDF role in the COVID lockdown.
There will be a new Defence Minister soon. No-one is any the wiser as to who that might be but likely someone from Labour.
There are two issues of concern. One is that the Defence portfolio is not usually highly ranked in Cabinet. If you want to make Defence weak then appoint a peacenik like Mark Burton (1999 – 2005). Second, the portfolio is often sought out by those who want to move on to being Foreign Affairs Minister (eg Coleman [2011-14] or Mitchell [May-Oct 2017]) but against that tide was Phil Goff (2005-08) who went from Foreign Affairs to Defence before leading the Labour Party. Then there is the ‘show of force’ when a senior front bencher like Gerry Brownlee (2014-17) is given the portfolio at a time when NZ was vying for a seat on the UN Security Council. After the Op Burnham evidence, I consider Wayne Mapp (2008 – 2011) in the same basket as Ron Mark.
This is a significant problem for Defence (both the Ministry and the Defence Force as well as Veterans Affairs). Politicians of all colours will turn up on ANZAC Day and mutter ‘Lest We Forget.’ They’ll be photographed wearing a poppy, having a beer with a veteran, soothing a wounded soldier’s brow or attending the funeral of a fallen warrior. They’ll spend millions bringing a ninety-year-old dead body back from France to bury in Wellington and there’s a queue of them to get on the flight to commemorations in Gallipolli, Crete etc. For the rest of the year, Defence is just an expensive inconvenience. Meanwhile, our Defence service chiefs don’t even get the surety and security of tenure that is afforded to State Sector comparables.
So, for this election, I say ‘A Plague on All Your Houses.’ No political party in New Zealand, right now, deserves the dedication, loyalty and service that the New Zealand Defence Force provides this country.
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