Imagine if the Government had announced the $20b new spend on the military on Budget Day. Or if yesterday's announcement had occurred before the declaration that New Zealand was pulling its troops out of Iraq. It would have been much less palatable to supporters, some of whom are already questioning the priorities of this Labour-led government.
The announcement came in the form of the New Zealand Defence Capability Plan 2019, which projects details on new military expenditure for the next 11 years. This is best reported in Jason Walls' article, The Defence Force $20b spending plan includes a commitment to 'space-based activities'.
Here's the key part: "Big ticket items include more than $3.5b for new and replacement naval vessels and maritime helicopters, and up to $2.5b for upgrades to New Zealand's Air Force. The Government also plans to bolster New Zealand's army personnel to 6000 by 2035 – up from the current number of 4700 troops. As well as the traditional land, sea and air funding, the plan includes money for 'space-based systems' as well."
At the top of the spending list is a decision to purchase "a fleet of so-called Super Hercules planes… costing more than $1 billion" – see RNZ's NZ Defence Force spends $1 billion on newer aircraft fleet. And, light "tanks" (or "armoured vehicles") are also high up the military's wish list that is being steadily ticked off by Defence Minister Ron Mark.
Such a massive military spend-up doesn't really fit with the Government's stated new "Wellbeing" approach, especially when so much of the reaction to the Budget was about the perceived inadequate spending on health, education and housing. As National leader Simon Bridges was self-righteously able to point out, the Government seems to be prioritising "tanks over teachers".
Indeed, according to Zane Small, "National's defence spokesperson has labelled the Government's $20 billion defence spending plan 'disingenuous' and questioned how it fits into its 'wellbeing' mantra" – see: National questions how $20 billion defence spend is 'wellbeing'. However, spokesperson Mark Mitchell also claims the Labour-led Government is simply continuing what National had been planning, saying the spending announcement "is reconfirming that we were on the right track with our 2016 Defence Capability Plan – they've confirmed that".
Will Labour and Greens supporters be troubled by the Government falling into line with National's pro-military plans? A backlash is unlikely. As with this government's last big military spending announcement – see my column from last year, Where are the protests over the Government's new 'submarine-killers'? - opposition will be muted. Peace Movement Aotearoa and other progressive and protest groups are likely to be soft on this expenditure because it's coming from a government "from their side".
It's more than tribal loyalty that might prevent a backlash though. The spin and framing of the military spend-up means that the essence of the escalating militarism is well camouflaged.
This can be seen in the almost Orwellian attempts to recast the military as some sort of "peace", humanitarian, or environmental force. This is brilliantly conveyed in Stacey Kirk's opinion piece in which she channels the military's thinking on why they need more money, with a justification for liberal concerns – see: Why does NZ need a military? For more reasons than you might think.
Summing up why the military spending can be sold as being part of a "wellbeing" approach, Kirk says: "Guns, ships, planes and drones don't bring 'wellbeing'. Peace and security do though. Sustainable food sources do, ongoing climate science hopefully will, disaster and humanitarian relief does in a very direct and measurable way".
Kirk concludes that the Government is therefore doing the right thing: "A $20b spend on defence equipment is a lot of money. Personal politics is likely to dictate whether that's seen as wasteful or necessary. But New Zealand relies on the defence force for its protection in more ways than may be obvious. A defence force is necessary. Having one ill-equipped to do what it needs to would arguably be a more definitive waste."
In another article on the spend-up, Kirk points to the more traditional – and perhaps, accurate – reasons that the Government is giving for building up a stronger military: "rising tensions between competing super powers, resource competition and plays for military dominance in the region and further abroad. New Zealand's military had to be able to meet international obligations with coalition partners, and the Government expected the defence force to operate in the South Pacific on the same level it does in New Zealand territory. It would be a key plank of supporting the Government's Pacific Reset" – see: NZ military $20b shopping list: Planes, boats, soldiers, satellites and drones.
Clearly the supposed threat of China looms large in the spending decisions, as Gordon Campbell explains: "this latest round of Defence purchases is our membership fee for defence alliances that were conceived way back during the Cold War era of the 1950s, some 70 years ago. The force configurations and related projections of military power belong to a bygone era, and the steeply mounting cost of the hardware can no longer be justified by any realistic threat scenarios in the Pacific, or the South China Sea. The only conceivable 'enemy' to justify these expenditures is China. Are we really planning for war with our main trading partner?" - see: On the military withdrawal from Iraq.
Campbell suggests the decision, together with the announcement on Iraq and Afghanistan, shows "the Greens have been fobbed off, once again". The Greens, have indeed, largely come on board with the escalating military expenditure, which is explained today by Richard Harman in his column, How Ron Mark persuaded the Greens to support our defence forces. Interviewing the party's defence spokesperson, he says "Golriz Ghahraman was full of praise for Mark, for his approach to policy and for the way he has undertaken the review of the Plan."
Clearly the Greens have been been won over on the basis of the justification of climate change and a military that takes on more humanitarian work. Ghahraman explains that the military's "core work is going to be much more focused on things that are not to do with violence and war which is what we've been advocating for really strongly over the years".
But have the Greens fallen for the green-washing of the military? According to Harman, the Greens' traditional opposition "is tempered with a recognition of the role that Defence can play in civilian situations, particularly in the Pacific".
Ghahraman also seems to have found a connection with the Defence Minister, which has enabled them find common ground. She says: "I think we do have incredibly high levels of mutual respect and we've come to this from a position of wanting to collaborate".
Ghahraman explains: "I think, for him, has been dealing with someone who has also seen war in the Middle East… So we've we connected with each other because we both know what the work of Defence is really like." She adds, "We've been able to kind of have a conversation at a really detailed level and also a really human level…. And I really do respect him."
Nonetheless, despite defending the general plan, the Greens have still argued for lower spending and some different military priorities. Ghahraman has gone on RNZ today to say: "That is a lot of money and defence equipment costs a lot – but again we could have invested in smaller planes and done without the war-making capability that we're renewing" – see Jonathan Mitchell's Defence Force's $1b spend unnecessary – Greens.
Ghahraman also told Richard Harman, "that the Plan needed to be read alongside the decision announced yesterday to end the New Zealand army deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan." And surely that is precisely why the Government made sure the troop departure was announced prior to the spend-up report. The "good news" departure announcement will have helped inoculate the Greens and Labour against criticism for then being so gung-ho on militarism.
For the announcement on New Zealand's departure from its military deployments in the Middle East see Jason Walls' 'Time to go': NZ to pull troops out of Iraq by June 2020, says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Here's the key detail: "There are 95 non-combat Defence Force personnel in the Taji Military Complex – their job is primarily to train Iraqi Security Forces. Following cabinet's decision, that number will be reduced to 75 next month, then to 45 in January next year. The remainder would withdraw by June 2020."
The Greens have claimed victory with the decision, despite the decision to extend the deployment for the time being. This caused some strong push back from the Deputy Prime Minister, who said: "It's a bit hard to argue you've won when the troops are still there until June of next year – let's be logical about it… How can it be a win if they're still there?" – see Jason Walls' Winston Peters: 'A bit hard to argue' decision to bring Kiwi troops home was a 'Green win'. Furthermore, on the idea that the Greens had influenced the decision, Peters said "first time I had ever heard that".
Finally, former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has written a thoughtful response to the (delayed) decision to withdraw troops from the Middle East, suggesting that, in the end, this shows that Labour – despite its protests to the contrary – actually has a similar approach to National on foreign affairs and war – see: This belated withdrawal suggests the 2015 Iraq controversy wasn't all it seemed.
Mapp says that this episode illustrates that "Labour is not nearly as radical as their rhetoric would sometimes indicate. There is much more continuity with this government than some of their members would like to pretend."