Richard Prebble: Defence, security, climate bigger threats than Covid, review states


The pandemic is diverting our attention from serious threats that have the potential to cause far more damage.

The independent five-yearly Defence Assessment Review delivered in December states “New Zealand faces a substantially more challenging and complex strategic environment”. Our security is at risk from “strategic competition; and the impacts of climate change”.

China is challenging the US supremacy of the Pacific. China has the world’s largest navy and growing.

Climate change presents “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. Frequent climate emergencies plus increased fishing for a reducing resource may cause weak Island governments to collapse resulting in “uncontrolled migrations”.

The review warns our Defence Forces are not designed to meet these new threats. It was assumed the South Pacific is stable and secure, so in the Pacific New Zealand only has a Civil Defence capability. Our sophisticated capabilities are to enable defence to operate in foreign theatres such as Afghanistan.

The Review says defence needs to be refocused to “protecting New Zealand’s interests in its immediate region” and needs to be re equipped to handle threats like cyber warfare.

The options are not easy. China is our biggest trading partner. The Foreign Minister’s advice that exporters find new markets is very hard to achieve. New Zealand does not have a free trade agreement with the United States. America has refused to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

US President Joe Biden is following President Donald Trump’s America First trade policies.

Security issues are happening now, not just in the Ukraine but closer to home. It is reported that Kiribati is in discussions to opening its marine reserves to commercial fishing, which could lead to a Pacific naval base for the Chinese.

The foreign policy and the defence implications of the Defence Assessment require rigorous analysis and urgent action.

It is too late to purchase defence equipment after security emergencies arise. Defence needs years of training.

Hon Peeni Henare is Minister of Defence. His great grandfather was an MP. His grandfather was the colonel of the Māori Battalion. His father was the head of the Māori language Commission. His maiden speech reads like an application to join the House of Lords. Apart from his ancestors, the only personal qualification Henare cites is he attended pre-school, a Kohanga Reo.

He is completely unqualified to be in charge of New Zealand’s defence.

Henare’s four priorities for defence read like guidance from a guru.

“Angitu (success, effort, striving)”. “Kotahitanga (unity, togetherness, solidarity, collective action)”. “The principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi”. “Mana. Pono (influence, prestige, authority; to be true, valid, honest, sincere)”.

One can just imagine what the defence chiefs made of this nonsense.

Here is Henare’s response to the Defence Assessment.

• “People – we will ensure our people are safe, well-trained and effective. Defence will also lift its focus on culture and diversity.

• Infrastructure – ensuring our personnel can live and work in buildings that are healthy, safe and fit-for-purpose.

• Pacific – Assist Pacific partners to address security challenges to their livelihood, security and well-being, such as climate change and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing”.

Our Government’s response to the most serious security threats in decades is to “focus on culture and diversity”. The Minister thinks the way to protect the Pacific is warm, dry housing.

The only threat the Minister has acknowledged is illegal fishing.

Labour is a poll-driven Government. Defence and foreign affairs do not feature in the polls. Labour gave the portfolios to New Zealand First. Now the ministries are given the Māori Caucus. Did the Cabinet even read the Defence Assessment or the Minister’s response?

In any New Zealand government the real minister of foreign affairs is the Prime Minister. As our Prime Minister has not travelled overseas in the pandemic, her effectiveness in foreign affairs is greatly reduced. In contrast, President Biden and other leaders are traveling. World leaders attended the Climate Conference. We sent James Shaw.

New Zealand is dangerously isolated. We are not invited to join the new alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS). The Government did not know it was happening. Perhaps more significant is the QUAD, the summit between India, Japan, Australia and the US. We were excluded. New Zealand has never had less influence.

New Zealand’s only defence agreement is with Australia. Should Australia’s trade war with China escalate, will Australia tolerate New Zealand trading with China?

Australia is responding to the security assessment by building a fleet of nuclear submarines. New Zealand’s response is to install some pink bats.

Our Prime Minister should be using her international reputation to lead a campaign to get the US to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A good start to persuading nations that New Zealand is taking security seriously would be to appoint a capable defence minister.

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