The Government’s $20 billion Defence Capability Plan unveiled yesterday is the biggest Defence procurement programme ever seen in New Zealand, but it is ultimately a personal political triumph for Defence Minister, Ron Mark.
It is clear that it has the support of the so-called “traditional” allies, Australia and the US who were well briefed before yesterday’s announcements at the Beehive.
Even the National Party didn’t bother to put out a statement.
Their spokesman Mark Mitchell had some niggles about processes but told POLITIK that overall the Plan was the same as what National would have done.
But National has traditionally been more sympathetic to Defence than Labour and the Greens; though Mark’s party, NZ First, is strong on Defence.
What spooks all political parties about Defence is the huge bills it entails.
Only last week, National Leader Simon Bridges was taunting Labour by pointing out that his leaked Budget documents showed that “the Government has money for tanks, but not for teachers.”
What is remarkable about this Plan is that Mark has been able to secure the support of all three parties in the Government to spend around $1 billion a year over the next 20 years as New Zealand adds in at least two, probably three, new navy vessels; replaces its current five C130 Hercules and buys drones for maritime surveillance and begins to look at what it could do with its own satellite.
All up the Plan, which was kicked off by the previous National Government is expected to cost $20 billion.
Mark said $5 billion had been committed already on the HMNZS Aotearoa, an enhanced tanker currently under construction and four P8 maritime patrol aircraft.
The decision announced yesterday to buy an unspecified number of C-130J-30 Super Hercules is expected to cost at least $`1 billion.
“That leaves about $15 billion to be spread between now and 2030,” Mark said yesterday.
“You are probably looking at a minimum of about $1 billion a year.”
However, the Budget net capital expenditure forecasts show expected Defence capital spending falling to $500,000 by 2023.
At that point, Defence will have to compete with big capital funding consumers like Health and Corrections for the money.
But there is political support across the three Government parties for Mark’s Plan.
Both the Plan and Mark’s presentation yesterday won applause both publicly and privately from the military and diplomatic audience he launched it in front of.
And what was even more remarkable was that the Greens Defence and Foreign Policy spokesperson, 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.
She told POLITIK that the Plan needed to be read alongside the decision announced yesterday to end the New Zealand arm,y deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She said that would give the Defence force a more civilian focus. And that remains an objection to the Defence equipment being purchased through her opposition is tempered with a recognition of the role that Defence can play in civilian situations, particularly in the Pacific.
“We don’t like the huge spend because we don’t think that the planes have to have a war-making capability and that’s what makes them really expensive,” she told POLITIK.
“But even though they have this war-making capability that we don’t like we know that actually, their 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.”
Mark said it was New Zealand’s values, which would l guide Defence policy and therefore underpin the Capability Plan.
“As a nation, we are compassionate; we act with integrity and loyalty, and we boldly address challenges as they confront us,” he said.
“This Plan reflects those values in their truest sense.
“At its heart, it is a humanitarian plan and readies New Zealand to lead in the assistance of our neighbours and to contribute to the security of our friends.
“I am proud that this Capability Plan places climate change at the forefront of the challenges that our Defence Force is facing right now.
“Managing the impacts of any risk requires not only a reduction of its causes but also a preparedness to respond top its eventualities.”
Mark said the region was already experiencing the impact of climate change.
“Over time, there will be an increased requirement for our Defence and other security forces to respond with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
Ghahraman applauded the emphasis on climate change.
“Credit to the minister,” she said.
“He’s the first Defence minister who has acknowledged climate change.
“That is critical because climate change is the biggest threat to international peace and security.
“And most people in this field and action in Defence now, more and more are acknowledging that.”
Mark, however, acknowledged that for Defence dealing with climate change in the Pacific might also mean “stability operations” which is Defence jargon for peacemaking or peacekeeping work.
It has been Mark’s reframing of our Defence forces as organisations which can play a constructive role in environmental policing and in helping mitigate adverse environmental effects such as illegal fishing.
Ghahraman is full of praise.
“I think we do have incredibly high levels of mutual respect and we’ve come to this from a position of wanting to collaborate,” she said.
“I think, for him, has been dealing with someone who has also seen war in the Middle East. (Mark has served in the Sultan of Oman’s, and Ghahrama’s family were refugees from Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.)
“So we’ve we connected with each other because we both know what the work of Defence is really like.
“He hasn’t I think felt like he’s dealing with some greenie who’s out of touch with reality who’s coming in and telling them what to do.
“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.
“He also has real-life experience. I
“That kind of mutual understanding I think builds up trust.”
Perhaps an indication of intensely Mark, the former army motor mechanic, takes his role, came during a section where he was talking about the importance of providing the best equipment for troops who were going to be sent into harm’s way.
He suddenly stopped and monetarily gulped. This whole Defence Capability plan was clearly personal for him.
Maybe it’s because people see that that they don’t doubt his integrity which is why he is getting such widespread support.