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Newman Column - Defence: An Australian View

Defence: An Australian View

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

It is not often that New Zealanders get to hear first hand what neighbouring governments think of us. Last weekend we had the opportunity to hear exactly what the Howard Government thought of New Zealand's current stance on an issue of national importance - defence.

In a free and frank address to the ACT conference, the Hon Peter Reith, former Minister of Defence in the Australian Federal Government, explained how New Zealand (which he described as economically on par with Tasmania) was abrogating its defence responsibilities.

"I find the comparison between New Zealand and Tasmania very interesting. It is an obvious point, but still worth making, namely if economic management is poor then you will not have the resources to defend yourself.

"Good economic management is a pre-requisite to good defence management because it gives you the financial capacity to acquire the resources both human and capital that are needed for an effective defence force. The two issues are inextricably linked.

"The defence relationship between Australia and New Zealand and New Zealand's defence posture are matters of fundamental importance.

"New Zealand made a dreadful error of judgment in pulling out of Anzus. The decision was taken due to misplaced concerns about nuclear-armed ships. This no longer applies. Concerns about the safety of nuclear powered ships have been addressed in the Summers Report and so it is hard to understand why the errors of the past remain unattended.

"The United Nations will never defend New Zealand. You have to be prepared to do that in conjunction with your trusted friends and allies. You neglect your own national interest if you leave defence policy to greenies and peaceniks.

"United States involvement in our region is critical to Australian security just as much as it is to yours. We share with the US basic values, which make our relationship comprehensive and sustainable. A strong United States is vitally important to both of us. But that does not mean we can leave the hard work all to our friends. New Zealand's defence policy should not be tainted by a tinge of 1970's anti-Americanism.

"The awful truth for New Zealanders is that although George Bush rang your P.M. in the aftermath of September 11 basically your international reputation has suffered since you abandoned Anzus.

"For Australia Anzus has become a bilateral relationship. It is no longer the trilateral relationship it was once.

"The 1991 N.Z. White Paper said that since Anzus the capabilities of the New Zealand Defence Force had atrophied in areas such as exercising and training; collection of intelligence and logistic support. The loss of training had lowered professional standards. It is obvious that this judgment still stands. New Zealand needs to tackle this most basic issue.]

"It should also be said that this is not just a defence issue. By not being in the mainstream on defence as you once were, you no longer have the same clout on other issues such as trade negotiations. And that can then impact, over time, on investment. That really is a loss for New Zealand. You can play above your weight in rugby, cricket, the film industry and other areas of human endeavour so why not play your full role in security issues?

"Ultimately, New Zealand's defence rests on the defence of Australia. If Australia goes down New Zealand will surely go with it. That is not to say that we have identical interests but we do have overlapping interests.

"New Zealand is kidding itself if it thinks that its geography gives it the luxury of considering itself isolated and unaffected by the strategic uncertainties of our region let alone by international issues. New Zealand's strategic environment is not benign. In our region there remains a small but significant possibility of confrontation.

"If you accept these propositions then the issue is how to structure New Zealand's defence forces to meet the strategic environment. The most important point to make is that armed forces should first and foremost be trained, equipped and made ready for war. This is not to say that war is nigh but rather it is essential to understand that an effective military force takes years to put in place and so it cannot be put off until you think you may have a problem. By then it will be too late. Putting money aside now is an investment governments need to make to fulfil their most basic obligation to society namely, the defence of the nation's sovereignty.

"This function is not peace-keeping for some one else who can't manage their own affairs. Important as the peace-keeping function may be it should not supplant the primary role of the defence force.

"Even if peace-keeping were a primary objective for a defence force the neglect of conventional forces would be a mistake.

"Budgets are always tight. New Zealand is not a big economy and priorities must be set. What seems to be lacking is a commitment to a force structure that can give future New Zealand Governments the maximum range of options possible within the budget to deal with the most likely regional scenarios.

"New Zealand's forces lack the mobility necessary for all manner of operations in its area of interest in the South Pacific. New Zealand is short on sea and air strategic lift.

"Informed commentators are saying that there is a significant change now being effected to New Zealand's approach to defence and it seems likely to continue unless there is a strong political reaction and demand for a pro-defence policy."I do not detect much enthusiasm for Anzus or for higher defence expenditure but that is not to say that a constituency for such changes cannot be built. Using 1999 figures, spending per capita in Australia was $US 538 compared to New Zealand's $US225. Since then, in Australia we are spending more on defence and we are able to do so because the Howard Government has been prepared to argue the case.

"Good people will not be attracted to the N.Z. Defence Force unless there is a real commitment at the political level to its future.

"In conclusion, whilst there are many great aspects of the defence relationship between us it is impossible not to be concerned about its future. Throughout our history people on both sides of the Tasman have worked to ensure the best possible relationship between our two great countries. Your party's interest in both economic and defence reforms is not just welcome but important for both Australia and New Zealand".

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested. View the archive of columns at http://www.act.org.nz/action/murielnewman.html Visit ACT New Zealand's web site: http://www.act.org.nz

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