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Q+A: Defence Minister Ron Mark interviewed by Corin Dann

Q+A: Defence Minister Ron Mark interviewed by Corin Dann

Defence Minister Ron Mark - ‘whatever we purchase has to be for military purpose.’

Defence Minister Ron Mark was on TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme where he defended the need to spend billions of dollars upgrading New Zealand’s air force.

‘The fact of the matter is we have an army, a navy and an air force. They are military. They require military platforms to carry out their warlike functions. It is our responsibility as a nation and as a government to equip and resource and train our defence force personnel so that when we deploy them into an operational theatre, they are able to complete their mission successfully with distinction and come home safely.’

When asked whether that is likely to mean the purchase of Boeing P-8 Poseidons in order to be compatible with the US and Australia, the Minister told Corin Dann, ‘We have a commitment and obligation, should Australia need us, to go to their defence, for our defence forces to be able to operate together jointly as they have always done going back to 1914, 1918. We have to be able to interoperate.’

And ‘we have had too many examples in the past where procurement decisions have been the wrong decisions, where we have taken a commercial option only to find that it doesn’t work there in the military role. In fact, some of them don’t even work in the civilian role. We’re not going to cut corners.’

When asked why he spoke out on China’s growing influence in the Pacific, the minister said, ‘What we can do is make clear what we think, frank conversations to their face, not behind their back, and at the same time, keep doors open, make sure we have good, solid bilateral relationships with China. Keep our engagement going within defence.’

And, ‘the reality of what we are facing, and to ignore the reality of what we are facing with non-traditional actors seeking to influence Pacific Island nations would not be to do justice to any risk assessment, any strategic defence policy statement.’

Q + A
Episode 17
RON MARK
Interviewed by Corin Dann



RON Well, I’m not speaking out. The government has actually made its views around certain matters very, very¬ well known–

CORIN Not in a public way like this before.

RON Well, I think if you look at what the Prime Minister has said, what the Minister of Foreign Affairs– And let’s be clear – Defence Force’s strategic policy is based on this government’s foreign policy. We have signalled already through Pacific reset our concerns as to how some of our Pacific nations are working–

CORIN Yes, but with respect, Minister, I had an interview with the Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, on this precise issue, and he didn’t want to name China, whereas your report has.

RON Well, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has had direct involvement with this report, as have other government agencies, as had the Prime Minister’s office–

CORIN I guess I’m just curious as to what has prompted a– because language is very important with defence and foreign affairs. What has prompted this slightly more explicit language about concerns about what China is doing, for example, in the South China Sea?

RON The reality of what we are facing, and to ignore the reality of what we are facing with non-traditional actors seeking to influence Pacific Island nations would not be to do justice to any risk assessment, any strategic defence policy statement. It is in very much the same way that a New Zealand government in the past expressed its concerns about nuclear testing at the time, and they were not shy. I think it was Norm Kirk. He was not shy to let the French know that what they were doing was not in New Zealand’s interests and was not supported by New Zealand.

CORIN So what can we actually do about it? Because–

RON Well, we can do what we’re currently doing. We want good relationships, and we have very good relations. Let me assure you, my bilateral conversation and discussions with the Chinese delegate at Shangri-La was frank, honest in both directions and was warm and, at the end of the day, we spent quite some time together. What we can do is make clear what we think, frank conversations to their face, not behind their back, and at the same time, keep doors open, make sure we have good, solid bilateral relationships with China. Keep our engagement going within defence, keep our exchanges going, welcome into New Zealand, welcome the Chinese military in in such exercises as the humanitarian disaster relief exercise which we just completed with them. It is about dialogue. It is about being open and honest with each other. It is about where we have concerns, being frank about those, and it is through doing that, we actually enhance our relationship.

CORIN Okay. Let’s talk about, then, in terms of what we do as a Defence Force. You have talked a bit about the need to be combat ready. Why?

RON Well, at the end of the day, the reason a nation, any nation, has a defence force is to protect its sovereign interest, to protect its territory, to be able to project forward in those spaces where it is right and proper as part of the international community to lend assistance to other nations. For whatever reasons, we are doing that. We have been deployed in many places–

CORIN But the issue is it costs money, doesn’t it? There’s a difference.

RON Well, yes, it does.

CORIN So, let’s take– You’ve got a purchase to replace the Orions, which is a purchase coming. You’re due to announce in the next week or so that decision. Would it be fair to say if you were to take a less militaristic option with those planes, it would be a lot cheaper? Whereas if you have the submarine capability in those planes, it’s going to cost you a lot more money. Billions for New Zealanders.

RON Well, you don’t know that, actually, and you don’t know the cost of taking kit out. But fundamentally maritime patrol, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance is a military function. We have military platforms for our military to operate for military purposes. We also pick up the responsibility of protecting our environment, of enabling other government agencies like Fisheries and Ministry for the Environment, MPI, Department of Conservation to do the work they need to do. The wonderful thing about military capabilities is they deliver a higher level of capability to NGOs and other government agencies.

CORIN But it could be the difference between hundreds of millions of dollars when we’ve got nurses, teachers on strike, looking for more money, and yet you’re having to go to your cabinet colleagues and argue for war planes when maybe we could have planes that don’t need that capability.

RON Name me an aircraft that would deliver that capability. I mean, there is a lot of conversation in general terms about apparently how much money one would save. The fact of the matter is we have an army, a navy and an air force. They are military. They require military platforms to carry out their warlike functions. It is our responsibility as a nation and as a government to equip and resource and train our defence force personnel so that when we deploy them into an operational theatre, they are able to complete their mission successfully with distinction and come home safely.

CORIN And how much of it is about our allies and our relationships? In this report, you make it pretty clear we must acquire assets that can be relevant to our partners, not just some also-ran. And that would suggest to me you’re looking, for example, at the P-8s, the Poseidons, the Boeings. Those are the ones the Australians and the US use. That’s not an unreasonable assumption. What’s the point in us having a plane if it doesn’t work with them?

RON Well, that’s precisely the question. We are an ally of Australia. The defence of New Zealand is tied to Australia’s interests, and the defence of Australia is tied to New Zealand’s interests. We have a commitment and obligation, should Australia need us, to go to their defence, for our defence forces to be able to operate together jointly as they have always done going back to 1914, 1918. We have to be able to interoperate.

CORIN But the point I’d come back to is $2.4 billion potentially, isn’t it, for four planes?

RON But if you add into that– At the end of the day, part of that purchase will be for infrastructural reasons as well when that decision is made and when that decision is advised. So whatever we purchase has to be for military purpose. But I think one of the great things about this government – and I mean all of this government – is that it totally accepts and understands the need to equip our men and women in uniform well, to look after them. We have had too many examples in the past where procurement decisions have been the wrong decisions, where we have taken a commercial option only to find that it doesn’t work there in the military role. In fact, some of them don’t even work in the civilian role. We’re not going to cut corners.

CORIN You’re saying, essentially, you’re not going to get something untried.

RON Oh, no, absolutely.

CORIN Which means the Japanese planes are out, right?

RON The one thing the Defence Force has learned, unfortunately the hard way, is that we have made procurement decisions in the past that have been a compromise, that have been a shortcut based on the amount of money available – all these things that you raise – and they’ve proven to be bad decisions. Where we have got ourselves into purchasing products that were not tried, not tested–

CORIN So this, to me, looks like a critical purchase, these P-8s, for many reasons. One, because you say we’re not going to cut corners, but also it sends a very clear signal, doesn’t it, to our partners and allies that if we go down that road, and, granted, I get that you haven’t made the final cabinet decision, but if we go down that road, we are signalling a closer working relationship, a relationship where we can work with Australia and the US in a constructive way. So that signals, to me, quite a critical shift.

RON Well, and you look at people that we partner with and other nations. I guess if you were to look at a procurement decision based on the performance of that platform in theatre, how many of them exist there? What is the current historic maintenance record? What is the record of availability? What is the record of reliability? How have they performed? Have they underperformed on spec or are they now exceeding spec? Those are all the questions. If it also happens it aligns perfectly with interoperability, the ability to cross-train, to share pilots and crews, then that is a very good thing, and that fits also with the procurement policy decisions that were made under the last term of government.

CORIN So, just finally before I move on from the planes, what do you say to New Zealanders who will hear at some point in the next week a purchase, whatever it is, of billions of dollars that has to be booked upfront, from my understanding. You can’t just weave it out over 15 years or whatever. The accountants want it booked upfront. That’s money that cannot be spent for nurses and teachers. What do you say to those people?

RON I think New Zealanders have a broader view than that view. I think New Zealanders understand that when they send their sons and their daughters offshore in peacekeeping missions that are increasingly fraught – whether they’re going to Mali or South Sudan, whether they’re going to the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai, Iraq or Afghanistan – New Zealanders want to know that Kiwis, when they’re placed in danger, have the right equipment to come home safely. That’s what New Zealanders focus on, and I’m proud of them. I’m proud of this government for being bold enough. See, the problem we have had is that when you have timidity in the ranks of cabinet, such as we’ve seen in the last nine years, you end up kicking a can down the road, and then aircraft are either grounded or, at worse, they fall out of the sky. We are facing reality, and every New Zealander knows that. We deploy to Papua New Guinea for a two-day operation, and the aircraft is grounded for 50% of that time because it fails. The Prime Minister deploys on Pacific reset, and the crews are working overnight to get the aircraft operational so it can fly out the next morning.

CORIN Are you going to get the $20 billion that was promised? Are you going to get that?

RON We have an agreement in the coalition agreement with Labour, and I have no reason to believe that that will not be honoured. But that is $20 billion over 30 to 35 years–

CORIN Well, it was over 15 years, wasn’t it? That was National’s plan.

RON Well, you’re looking at capabilities that deliver over 30 to 35 years.

CORIN Hang on. Let’s be clear here. Are you saying that could the timeframe on that $20 billion be extended?

RON No. So, the capability plan is out to 2030.

CORIN Sure.

RON Correct. It may well be that under the review that we’re going to kick off this month, it may well be that we might end up stretching that to 2035. But the equipment we buy, its whole of life will be 30 to 35 years. Now, if you take what sounds like a large sum of money, if it’s $2 billion for a platform, and factor that over the 35 years of its life, it’s quite a small amount, really, isn’t it?

CORIN Okay, let’s put it in another way. You’ve talked as a NZ First Party, with your NZ First hat on, that you want to see the amount of spending on Defence doubled to, what, 2%. Similar to Australia.

RON Yes.

CORIN Have you looked at what that would cost to do that? Have you lobbied for that?

RON We don’t need to. We don’t need to.

CORIN So what are we at at the moment?

RON It’s not in the coalition agreement.

CORIN So what are we at at the moment?

RON We’re under 1%.

CORIN And are we going to get over 1%?

RON Well, it’s not in the coalition agreement. People need to understand. Corin, you’re a man I respect. Media needs to understand this is a coalition government with a coalition agreement. It’s is not the Labour Party manifesto. It is not the NZ First manifesto. It is the coalition agreement. NZ First would dearly love to have expenditure up to 2% of the GDP. Let’s be clear about that–

CORIN But you ain’t gonna get it.

RON It didn’t come through in the coalition agreement. It’s not there.

CORIN But there’s nothing to stop you, for example, asking Defence to have a look at whether we could bring back the strike capability for air force.

RON Oh, yeah, I know–

CORIN Which you want.

RON Absolutely. Our party would like that, but that’s not going to happen in this term and nor am I focused on that.

CORIN Are there other ways to save money? Could you look, for example, with our maritime surveillance, at drones?

RON Look, if you look into the capability plan and if you look at other papers that were produced by the other government, that whole compatible capability mentions the potential use of drones, the potential use of satellites, the potential use of smaller aircraft designed to meet that lower level of surveillance you were talking about. These are all things that are still–

CORIN So you’re open to drones, open to satellites?

RON The review of the capability plan which we’re going to kick off this month will look at all of those avenues, and I fully expect Defence Force personnel to be talking about that and what opportunities exist in there.



Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


Please find the full transcript attached and you can watch the interview here.


Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.
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