Defence Minister: ‘Independence is not isolationism’

Foreign Affairs

As debate grows over the future role of New Zealand’s military, Andrew Little says we shouldn’t confuse independence with isolation when it comes to foreign policy. Sam Sachdeva speaks to the defence minister about fixing high attrition, finding money for more investment, and rethinking the risks around us

After butting heads with doctors, nurses and other medical professionals during his time as health minister, Andrew Little’s move into the world of war games and geopolitical conflict could almost be viewed as a more peaceful calling.

Appointed to the defence portfolio in February after Chris Hipkins succeeded Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, Little has wasted no time in seeking to put his stamp on the role.

The defence minister speaks to Newsroom having recently completed a tour of the country’s military bases, “a bit of an eye-opener in some respects” as he puts it.

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There’s the good – the strong culture within the defence force, as well as the passionate people he met – and the bad, such as “very tired and dated” facilities in dire need of an overhaul.

“I know there’s a longer term investment plan to upgrade some of that, but the environment that you work in – the physical environment – is important to get the best out of people…we’ve still got more to do to make some places a pleasant place to work.”

In some ways, those shabby buildings are symbolic of the wider disarray in which the NZDF finds itself. Attrition rates are at their highest level in decades, with military personnel leaving in droves in the face of low pay, dilapidated housing, and the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on deployments.

Asked by North & South whether the NZDF could maintain a peacekeeping operation in the South Pacific, Chief of Defence Air Marshal Kevin Short conceded it “would struggle”.

At the NZDF’s annual review hearing earlier this year, Short told MPs almost 90 percent of military personnel were being paid at rates up to 18 percent less than what they could receive on the open market.

“There wouldn’t have been many, at any rank, who didn’t mention to me attrition and the impact of the loss of personnel, particularly over the last couple of years,” Little says of his tour of the bases.

As a former trade unionist, it is no surprise that the inability of uniformed staff to join a union or bargain collectively is high on Little’s agenda when he speaks to his colleagues about military pay.

“That really puts it on the leaders, both military and political of the day, who have a moral duty to make sure that pay and conditions don’t get so far adrift of what we’re seeing elsewhere, whether it’s private sector or public sector, that it starts to look exploitative of those people in the situation they’re in.”

Turning around those attrition rates is his top priority, although the minister is coy when asked whether the Government can find the money in this year’s Budget to attract departed personnel back into the fold.

“I can’t get ahead in terms of what we’re doing at the moment…what I can say is, pretty much from the week I became Minister of Defence and with the briefings I had at that time, it has been my number one priority engaging with a range of colleagues in Cabinet.”

‘Ultimately trained for combat’

Pay isn’t the only issue: the absence of overseas deployments during the pandemic, in favour of acting as glorified security guards at managed isolation facilities, did little for morale.

“Sometimes we’re afraid to say it, but our NZDF personnel are ultimately trained for combat. That training means they are suited to a number of difficult environments and [doing] some pretty hard stuff, even when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery,” Little says.

He cites the military’s role in responding to the devastation by Cyclone Gabrielle as an example of just how valuable its skills can be.

But the scale of the NZDF deployment, and the knock-on effect for its ability to send humanitarian support anywhere else, also served as a wake-up call. 

“If there had been a major cyclone in any of the islands at the same time as Gabrielle, we would have struggled to provide the level of response that our Pacific neighbours would typically expect: that reflects the impact of attrition, but it also ought to cause us to reflect that these cyclone events aren’t going to get less frequent, and are probably going to get more intense.”

That is among the reasons the minister has sought to fast-track a review of New Zealand’s defence policy announced by his predecessor Peeni Henare, initially due to report back in mid-2024.

Little is still awaiting advice – due to land within weeks – on what can be done to expedite the process, but says he is keen on starting a public discussion about our security challenges, and the potential responses, ahead of October’s election.

That debate has been accelerated thanks to confirmation that New Zealand is considering whether to join the non-nuclear aspects of the Aukus security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“When you look at what China is doing and their hugely significant additional spend on their military capability…we can’t stand aside and say, ‘Nothing to see here and we’ll kind of just carry on what we’re doing’ – it is a debate we have to have as a country.”

– Defence Minister Andrew Little

The deal’s centrepiece – Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines – has attracted most attention, along with its eye-popping $400 billion price tag. But as Little notes, our trans-Tasman neighbours are far from alone in ramping up their military spending, with Japan and the Philippines among Asia-Pacific nations putting more money into defence.

“Even when you look at what China is doing and their hugely significant additional spend on their military capability over the last 20 years, with a much, much larger military, and particularly maritime capability, we can’t stand aside and say, ‘Nothing to see here and we’ll kind of just carry on what we’re doing’ – it is a debate we have to have as a country.”

Little is relatively candid – at least by the standard of New Zealand ministers – when it comes to Beijing’s aspirations and the consequences for our country.

“China’s ambitions in the Pacific and around the rest of the world, well, they’re on a path and they want to achieve those sorts of things. The way in which they achieve them is something we need to reflect on, and the way they conduct themselves, and the effect that that has on our relationships with our old friends and allies, we need to think about that as well.”

There are some non-negotiables in terms of that public debate, however, New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance among them.

“It’s enshrined in legislation, but it’s a collective moral commitment that we as a nation have made, and we should stick with it.”

But Little has no time for the suggestion that the country’s anti-nuclear policy should expand into a broader strategy of non-alignment or neutrality, a “Switzerland of the South Pacific” as Te Pāti Māori recently put it.

“I don’t think anybody thinks that an independent foreign policy is an isolationist foreign policy. We work very closely with partners and allies and friends, we always have done and we always will do because we have to…

“My expectation is that they will start to say, ‘This is what we’re doing for these reasons, how are you responding to a changing geopolitical situation?’, and we have to have some credible responses.”

Depending on how Little and his colleagues define credibility, and whether they secure another term to embed that response, a significant shake-up of our military architecture could be on the way.