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A referendum (with a twist) on Nuclear Free NZ

A referendum (with a twist) on Nuclear Free NZ


New Zealand’s nuclear policy was one of the interesting issues of the 2005 General Election (and keeps popping up as a topical issue – see Don Brash’s discussion on the issue on Agenda, and this news item).

During the election National’s position was never really clear. Did they want to get rid of our nuclear free status or didn’t they? Lockwood Smith apparently asked for US help to convince the New Zealand public it was time to allow nuclear powered ships into New Zealand ports. Don Brash apparently told US Senators New Zealand’s Nuclear Free Policy would be “Gone by lunchtime”.

Various National MPs spent the 2005 Election Campaign promoting Nuclear power in New Zealand (they wouldn’t want the power plant in their backyard/electorate I’m sure). Yet in the last televised leader’s debate Don Brash said that National was committed to keeping New Zealand nuclear free until such time as New Zealanders decided it was time for the policy to be abandoned.

So do National support the policy or not? It’s a bit of a cop-out to simply say we’ll do what the New Zealand public wants without actually taking a position.

Labour made it clear that it is committed to keeping New Zealand nuclear free. The policy is an important part of our identity as New Zealanders. It reflects our courage at taking independent and principled stands on issues and our willingness to oppose the world’s only superpower when it is right and moral to do so. The policy also reflects our unique clean green image that helps promote ourselves to the world as a place worth visiting and helps sell our products (particular dairy) overseas.

I have no doubt that many National MPs and members actually want to get rid of the policy, and like Act would get rid of it in a flash (no pun intended) if they could. The 2004 National Party conference passed two remits against the nuclear free policy. One remit was focused on scrapping the ban on nuclear propelled ships in our ports so that New Zealand could rejoin ANZUS and the other remits was an amendment that would allow safe nuclear technologies (i.e nuclear power) to be used in New Zealand. National wants to improve our relationship with the US in order to improve our chances of getting a free trade deal.

National wants us to tighten our defence and military relationship with the US and rejoin ANZUS to help New Zealand’s security. They also think getting rid of the policy makes sense in terms of science, in terms of risk analysis, in terms of the realities of the kind of ships that the US would be sending to New Zealand.

I disagree with those views, but the above are genuine positions to hold. It would be nice if National was upfront with their views so we could actually debate them.

But they can’t be up front, because too many New Zealanders support New Zealand’s nuclear free policy. New Zealanders, like Labour , see the policy as an integral part of who and what we are as New Zealanders. Jim Bolger understood that. He knew (or at least National’s internal polling demonstrated) that in 1990 if the nuclear free policy was up for debate, National would have lost. Which is why Jim Bolger made the very clear political move of taking it off the agenda. He did so by saying that under National the nuclear free legislation won’t be changed this election, the next election, or the election after that.

I actually agree with National that the New Zealand public should have their say on the nuclear issue. But I think National is asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking should we get rid of New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation? We should be asking how we make New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation endure in the long term.

I support the Government sponsoring a non-binding referendum on the nuclear free issue to be held at the same time as our next election (probably 2008). The question being “Should New Zealand entrench the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987”. And I’d like to see whatever government emerges from that election passing such legislation. And I’d like all the political parties to adopt that position as policy going into the 2008 election.

A referendum could be announced in 2007 (the 20th year anniversary of the policy) along with other initiatives such as a commemorative 20cent coin. A referendum would answer the question, do New Zealanders hold our Nuclear Free policy as an integral part of who and what we are as New Zealanders. And it would allow the next government, if the answer to that question is yes, to entrench the legislation in law. It would also expose the National Party. They would have to adopt a position. Either support, or oppose.

NB: I realize that few pieces of legislation are entrenched (most around the constitutional conventions). But just because general legislation isn’t currently entrenched doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea. Why not entrench legislation that is fundamental to New Zealand values?


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