Andrew Little is pretty frank about how he got his portfolios following Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ first reshuffle.
When Little added the Defence portfolio, formerly with Peeni Henare, to his existing GCSB and NZSIS intelligence portfolios, many remarked on the fact that Hipkins appeared to be aligning defence with intelligence gathering.
That’s exactly what he was doing, Little said, sitting down for a post-reshuffle interview with the Herald.
“When the Prime Minister asked me to take on the Defence portfolio, what he wanted to see was an alignment between the intelligence responsibility that I’ve had, and defence,” Little said.
Little said this was a “recognition that the geopolitical situation, at the very least in the Pacific, has changed quite dramatically and changing quickly even in the last two years”.
It certainly has.
Little has held the portfolios for the intelligence agencies since Labour took office in 2017. There’s no denying that since then the geopolitical situation has worsened and tensions, particularly in the Pacific, are high. Last year, saw China attempt to woo Pacific island nations with a wide-ranging security and data deal - an attempt that failed.
China was able to ink a security pact with Solomon Islands, seen as alarming by some in the region and which caused New Zealand to reiterate its position that it is keen not to see the militarisation of the Pacific.
The China-Solomon Islands agreement appears to have convinced the United States to reopen an embassy in Solomon Islands, reported earlier this year.
New Zealand’s 2021 Defence Assessment warned one of the “most threatening” potential developments would be “the establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests”. This was widely assumed to be a reference to a potential Chinese base in the Pacific.
Little said he agreed with that assessment (although he did not mention the name of any country).
He said that the intelligence-defence link-up is important because the Government is currently making “long-term future decisions about Defence Force capability” and it was important “we get a good alignment on that”.
“I think the objective is to make sure that our thinking is takes account of everything that’s going on and we have a good hard look at what we expect of our Defence Force,” Little said.
The Government is currently undertaking a Defence Policy Review, billed by Hipkins in a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as “quite a significant transformation”.
The review will look at what is needed from Defence policy, strategy and investment and whether it continues to be fit for purpose.
Defence has been quite open about its resourcing struggles.
Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Kevin Short told North and South that the Defence Force “would struggle” to maintain a peacekeeping operation in the South Pacific.
Problems are everywhere: from kit and infrastructure, to substandard housing on the Defence estate, to poor pay leading to high attrition.
All this has reduced the Defence Force’s capability.
Little has said attrition is his “top priority”.
“That’s what’s taking a lot of my time at the moment,” he said.
Little actually wants to accelerate the Defence Policy Review, currently set to wrap-up by mid-2024.
“I was a little concerned to see the timeframe we’ve got for that is pushing it right until next year.
“I think we need to accelerate some of that work,” Little said.
“I think circumstances are changing quickly. We’ve got assets that are coming to the end of their life very soon and I think we need to make some commitments about that for our own sake,” Little said.
He said acting early, would also help to send a signal to other countries with interests in the region with whom New Zealand may wish to partner.
“If we want to commit to partnering with the likes of Australia and the US and for that matter France and the UK and others who are developing or have interests in the Pacific, we need to send some signals probably sooner rather than later about what we’re prepared to do on that Defence Policy Review,” Little said.
Little said that with Australia in particular, it made sense to have a “seamless sort of interoperability” allowing the two countries to operate defence forces together with ease.
“We don’t have that on every front at the moment and I think we can and should move further down that path,” he said.
Little said the “assumption has always been that we will have a contingency available within our Defence Force to do humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery in the Pacific have called upon to do so and make a contribution overseas”.
He said the Cyclone Gabrielle deployment was “stretching” the Defence Force, but “if we were called upon for another significant disaster recovery exercise in the Pacific we would do it or they would do it but it would be at a stretch and I think that’s just a reflection of the level of attrition that we’ve had”.
Whether Little can fix that - particularly as the cyclone cleanup puts pressure on Government finances - is a question that will be party answered at the Budget in May.
Is it easy to actually procure all this Defence kit at a time when manufacturers are busy filling orders to replace stock sent to Ukraine?
Little seems less worried by this, and gives a wry answer that might have come from Peter Fraser, the former Labour leader jailed for his “seditious” anti-war comments during World War I, but who then led New Zealand through World War II and whose portrait is among those hanging in Little’s Beehive suite.
“I think the Defence manufacturing industry and the military industrial complex has never found difficult to supply to those who are willing to pay,” Little said.