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Upton Online: Trans-Tasman Defence Relations

Upton Online - Column

Just What is at Stake with Trans-Tasman Defence Relations?

by Hon. Simon Upton MP

There have been some fairly shrill words uttered by various players in recent weeks. The Prime Minister has accused Wayne Mapp and I of sabotage. Assorted retired defence grandees crossed swords at a full day seminar held by the Institute of International Affairs in Wellington. Paul Dibb at the Australian National University said New Zealand was becoming a strategic liability and The Australian newspaper said we had taken "the bludger's option".

Don't hold your breath waiting for clarification in the wake of the Prime Minister's meeting with her Australian counterpart. Official statements will be cordial and anodyne as they must be.

But what is the reality of the situation? I'm a newcomer to the workings of the bi-lateral relationship with Australia and I don't claim special insights. In fact, coming to grips with it is my number one priority over the next 18 months. But already I'm aware of how much is either over-stated or left unsaid in any discussion. Here are some observations - in no particular order and certainly not definitive.

The Great Sabotage Operation

First, let's get the record straight on Wayne Mapp's and my visit to Australia. As the media has reported, the proximity of the visit to Helen Clark's talks was coincidental. Had we set out on a mission to queer her pitch I doubt whether anyone would have met with us - governments and officials simply don't get into those sorts of games. In arranging the visit we made it clear that we wished to inform ourselves and that we would not be seeking to make political capital out of the visit.

It was not coincidental that we made our visit prior to Derek Quigley's report on the F-16 purchase. But not for the reasons the Prime Minister (and some journalists) seemed to think. Had we gone to ask them whether they were cross about the possible cancellation of the F-16 purchase, we would have been very naïve and very crass. Their position has always been that it is for New Zealand to determine its own priorities.

So what did we want to inform ourselves about? Very simply, how Australia sees New Zealand in terms of its own security thinking. The relevance of the F-16 cancellation to that issue is that it is not simply a decision to over-turn a purchase. It is, effectively, a decision to eliminate any air combat capability on New Zealand's part because the Skyhawks are at the end of their lives. If we're going to do that, we have to understand how that fits into the wider trans-tasman security relationship.

Getting behind the Jargon

As a newcomer to the defence and security debate, I have been amazed by the extent to which it is shrouded in language which has very precise meanings for the experts who, when questioned, can't agree on what their clear understandings are. I have been trying to nail what people mean when they talk about Australia and New Zealand forming part of a 'single strategic entity'.

Most New Zealanders would regard an attack on Australia as pretty serious for New Zealand. (The 1997 Foreign Affairs & Defence Select Committee report on New Zealand's Place in the World stated that "the security of Australia is a fundamental basis for the security of New Zealand" and noted that a survey showed 90% of kiwis were broadly aligned with that view). So you could argue that in purely defensive terms we are a strategic entity.

But of course the word 'strategic' can be used in a variety of ways. And there are pressures that can be brought to bear on Australia (and New Zealand) that fall well short of outright attack - everything from an unfriendly and hegemonic regime somewhere to the north of Australia right through to conflict on the other side of the world that disrupts our trading interests. So the strategic entity depends on which frame of reference you want to adopt.

Helen Clark has nicely muddied the waters by stating that "we're not a single strategic entity. It would be quite wrong for New Zealand to suggest that we have exactly the same interests, we don't". But no-one has ever previously suggested that being a single strategic entity entailed holding identical views. The entity and the interests of the two countries are not the same thing. I should have thought it's blindingly obvious that New Zealand and Australia will not always share identical world views. They're a big country. We're a little country. They're actively involved in a military alliance with the United States. We're not because of our non-nuclear policy.

But does that mean that, for defensive purposes, we're not part of the same entity? Would we really have a soul-wrenching debate about joining Australia if her security were threatened? I doubt it.

But that is what the Prime Minister is not prepared to confirm. The Evening Post reports that she has declined to say whether a security threat to Australia would be viewed as a threat to New Zealand. This is, potentially, the most fundamental change in how New Zealand views the bi-lateral defence relationship in 60 years.

At this morning's Select Committee hearing, Defence Secretary Graham Fortune spelt out what, in practical terms, the concept of a single strategic entity has, at least to date, meant for the two countries:

* An expectation that the two countries would come to each other's assistance if one was attacked (the Ministry's Annual Report used the word threatened); * Maintaining a degree of inter-operability (presumably to be able to come to one another's assistance); and * Consulting from time to time on the joint deployment of forces in situations like East Timor.

So what would eliminating our air combat capability mean for 'the single strategic entity'?

Obviously, the extent to which the two countries are inter-operable is related to the sort of eventualities they might jointly face. So the hard, precise question is: would the absence of an air combat capability preclude New Zealand participation in any eventuality that might threaten the 'single strategic entity'?

Graham Fortune's unequivocal answer was, no. New Zealand would be able to participate in anything that can reasonably be envisaged. We would just increase our reliance on Australia to the extent that there are gaps in our capability.

So what would the Australians think of that?

Australia has been painstakingly careful to insist that New Zealand's priorities are for New Zealand to determine. It has made no secret for some years of its concerns about our overall level of defence expenditure (which, like Australia, is at an all-time low).

The Clark Government has stated that cancelling the F-16s does not mean a reduced commitment to defence expenditure. My surmise is that this has been interpreted in Australia as a commitment to spend the $700 million ear-marked for the F-16s on something else. That is not what I understand the New Zealand Government to mean. It is intending to maintain spending plans (including the army up-grade) but not the $700 million for new planes. Canberra will see that as further evidence that we're not prepared to spend enough. But when it comes to specific bits of hardware, it is the failure of New Zealand to commit to a third ANZAC frigate that looms largest.

Where does all this leave New Zealand?

If the New Zealand Government moves to see through the upgrading of the army's equipment, axe any air combat capability and freeze the navy at two frigates, it will be able to involve itself in fewer elements of any trans-tasman activities. When it does, it will be wholly reliant on Australia for air and sea cover.

The Government will be able to claim (if it still wants to) that it recognises a single strategic entity. But the reality is that we will have less influence over how joint operations are put together.

We will also probably have less leverage within the wider bi-lateral relationship. New Zealanders may not like to acknowledge it but there are two truths about the bi-lateral relationship that are rarely spelt out:

1. Australia is much more concerned about defence than we are; and 2. New Zealand is less important to Australia than Australia is to New Zealand.

The result is that if New Zealand pays less attention to an issue of real moment for Australia, New Zealand cannot expect Australia to spend as much time worrying about things that matter to us as we might like.

So how do we interpret the Government's determination to run this risk?

This can only be surmise. But my hunch is that under cover of arguments about priorities and only doing things if we can do them well, the new Government is very happy to dispense with capabilities that enable us to get involved in various types of military conflict.

Up until now, the view has been that possession of a capability didn't imply that you would necessarily use it: acquiring capability and deciding to deploy it are separate political judgements. Now the Government is saying that to possess capability is to leave open the possibility of deployment - and that's not a possibility it wants future governments even to be able to consider. The block obsolescence of the Skyhawks mean they can impose their judgement irrevocably on the future.

Paul Dibb went too far with his outrageous claim that New Zealand had become "a strategic liability" for Australia. It was an unworthy comment, particularly in the light of East Timor. But it would be correct to say that we risk becoming a strategic irrelevance to Australia.

Australia will secure the "single strategic entity" regardless of our views. If the new Government is not prepared to regard a threat to Australia's security as a threat to our own, then there will be a new distance in our relationship. The question New Zealanders have to ask is whether they feel comfortable with being even closer to the margin of Australian consciousness.

If the Government wants to cancel the purchase of the F-16s, it will have to acquire a good deal of alternative capability to convince the Australians that the Closer Defence Relationship isn't in fact drifting apart.

It is clear from the behaviour of ministers that there have been urgent training sessions to cope with Question Time. While many forest margin dwellers have still to face open fire, those that do have latched quickly onto the tactic of saying 'no' and hoping that the predators will move on.

An exception has to be Phillida Bunkle who is developing an interesting new defensive strategy. She is wearing questioners down with a hail of verbiage. The fact that it is saturated with endless references to democracy and the people makes it all the more disconcerting for the hunters who are used to less loquacious quarry,

The only problem is that Bunkle doesn't know how to switch off the incoming missile defence system. One of the most ecologically sensitive grazers in the herd, Sue Kedgley, was sprayed with words as she attempted to enquire about consumer representatives being part of the negotiating team at food safety negotiations.

"When we eat and drink we are all consumers in an individual sense..." she gushed, as the animals ducked for cover. New offensive measures will be called for if we're not to drown in words.

Different lessons have been learned by Steve Maharey. He has taken to a form of slobbering all over friendly questioners (verbally, of course) by thanking them and saying how much he knows they care. George Bush Jnr couldn't show more compassion.

It was a little different, however, when Mr Maharey was asked whether he had been cautioned by the State Services Commissioner not to talk about his Chief Executives (like Christine Rankin) in a way that opened the Government to a very expensive personal grievance case should the Commissioner ever wish to move her on.

Mr Maharey had received a range of advice from a range of people. But he wouldn't say who despite several point blank shots.

No Minister can be made to answer a question he is determined to avoid. But there have been few more compelling examples of a failure to answer the question confirming the very matter that has been alleged.

Every employment lawyer in New Zealand has known for weeks that Mr Maharey's loose lips have removed any possibility of Ms Rankin ever doing anything other than serve out her full term.

Note: the Valley goes on safari next week so the next report from the Serengeti will be in two weeks' time.

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