Beware Australians bearing praise: a caution for New Zealand
27 May 2013|

On patrol in North East Bamyian Province, Afghanistan, with Kiwi Team One.It can be rather disconcerting for a New Zealand audience when they are faced with an Australian who wants to praise our defence policy. We don’t quite know whether to celebrate or to question the speaker’s rationality. But there was nothing silly in the talk Andrew Davies gave to our After the Missions symposium  in Wellington last week. And there was more to come. In praising New Zealand’s decision to have a hard look at what it needed to do in defence terms, and what it could reasonably afford, Andrew laid the foundation for a stinging attack on the gap between ends and means in Australia’s policy. An Aussie defence specialist bagging Canberra’s approach? Why that was even better.

 Dr Davies is not the only Australian analyst to have become enamoured of New Zealand’s greater willingness to live within its means. These days very few of his countryfolk bring their Greg Sheridan impersonation kits with them when they travel across the Tasman. Even Paul Dibb, who once teased that a “broken-backed” New Zealand was potentially part of Australia’s arc of instability, came round some years ago to admiring the willingness of New Zealand’s politicians to make hard but often necessary choices about what defence capabilities could afford. The appeal of this logic and the exquisite pinot noir from the same South Island where Phar Lap was born, have made New Zealand a recent place of pilgrimage for Australian analysts concerned that their country continues to live in a defence fantasyland.

But before we New Zealanders get too smug, there are three reasons to be wary about this worrying tendency among our Australian colleagues to respect what we have been doing. First, New Zealand appeals in large part because of what it says Australia is not doing. The kiwi approach was attractive not so much because of the choices we had made but because we had been willing to make choices (ie to occasionally say no). New Zealand appealed as a point of contrast for Australian analysts who dearly wanted their own country to get real about its own capability priorities.

The second point stems from the first. Very few Australians think that New Zealand’s rather modest force structure is in any way a desirable model for Australia. Almost all of Wellington’s admirers across the Tasman firmly believe that Australia needs to retain a capability edge for the defence of its maritime approaches. They may disagree violently on how far out Australia should be able to project those forces, and on what forces are required (including how many new submarines). But they can’t imagine their country deliberately choosing the New Zealand approach, which to many Australians has the appearance of a form of disarmament. Hugh White, another Canberra-based expert who has said favourable things about New Zealand’s willingness to grasp the nettle on strategic objectives, nonetheless uses New Zealand as the ‘unarmed neutrality’ option that Australia will drift towards by default if it is unable to confront its own choices.

And the third point was the sting in the tail in Andrew Davies’ talk at our symposium: if New Zealand didn’t watch things carefully, it was in danger of drifting closer to the current Australian problem where resources and capability preferences were hazardously mismatched. This did not mean he thought New Zealand was going to re-enter the expensive world of next generation fighter aircraft. But he recognized that even New Zealand’s modest set of capability ambitions were in danger of outstripping the restricted levels of defence expenditure that Wellington seems prepared to make.

This is not an imagined problem. Even if the New Zealand Defence Force was able to generate the full level of efficiencies demanded in Chapter 8 of the 2010 Defence White Paper, and it is most unlikely to do so, these would be insufficient to stave off the capital injection required to replace all three of its three big capabilities. These are strategic lift aircraft (Hercules), long-range maritime patrol (the Orions) and the New Zealand navy’s ANZAC frigates (whose replacements might not be two new frigates, either expensive Australian ones or cheaper off-the-shelf options, but could instead be a larger number of able corvettes).

One obvious response to this capability-funding gap is to repeat the dose of the medicine that Australians have been admiring: New Zealand could once again adjust its capabilities to fit its budget. But as Dr Davies warned his Wellington audience, this could well leave New Zealand’s defence force unable to do even the bare minimum list of tasks kiwis would expect of it. Cutting the cloth one more time might leave New Zealand walking around in its defence undies. Even for admiring Australians, that is unlikely to be a welcome sight.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of NZ Defence Force’s photostream