By Chris Trotter*
When New Zealand went to war on 5 August 1914 it was by vice-regal declaration. The Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, chose to announce the commencement of hostilities with Germany from the steps of what is now the General Assembly Library. Although the country’s leading politicians were gathered around him, there wasn’t even the slightest nod in the direction of democracy. Neither the House of Representatives, nor the Legislative Council, saw any need for debate. In London the King-Emperor, George V, acting upon the advice of his ministers, had declared war, and as a loyal Dominion of the British Empire, New Zealand fell in behind the “Mother Country” without hesitation.
Though more than a century has passed since the outbreak of the First World War, there remains a deeply-embedded fraction of the New Zealand state apparatus which continues to regard New Zealand as simply a loyal cog in a much larger and more powerful imperial machine. Like their forebears, these civil servants see no meaningful role for the democratic public in determining matters of national security and defence. Thankfully, they are no longer so arrogant as to sanction a declaration of war without allowing Parliament to go through the motions of democratic debate. The possibility that a solid majority of MPs might decline to follow their advice would not, however, occur to them.
That this fraction remains so sure of itself on matters of national security and defence is rather odd. At least three times in the last 50 years, its expectations have been overturned by a democratically elected government – all of them Labour. The first rejection came in 1973, when Prime Minister Norman Kirk astonished the world by sending a New Zealand navy frigate to protest French atmospheric nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll. The second came in the mid-1980s, when Prime Minister David Lange refused to renege on Labour’s promise to create – and enforce – a nuclear-free New Zealand. The third occurred in 2003, when Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Labour-led Government refused to join the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia in their illegal invasion of Iraq.
In all three cases the reaction of what some refer to as the “Deep State” was one of alarm and embarrassment. Of the five digits making up the Anglo-Saxon fist, New Zealand is obviously the “pinkie finger”. When the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia set out to deliver a geopolitical blow, New Zealand is expected to contribute to its impact – not witter on to the rest of the world about morality and international law.
It was the job of the defence chiefs, the national security apparatus, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to make sure that when the “Empire” (aka “The Five Eyes”) delivered its orders, New Zealand stood to attention and saluted. Any wayward lefties were to be brought into line by the defence and security experts who best understood New Zealand’s permanent interests – and knew who its friends were. Failure to secure the pinkie-finger’s compliance could only mean a huge loss of face for all those Kiwi soldiers and spooks who, for years, had been reassuring their Anglo-Saxon colleagues that everything was under control.
The democratic public (as opposed to the leading financial, commercial, industrial and farming interests, for whom democracy is either an irritating distraction from the all-important job of generating profits for shareholders, or a genuine threat to same) has never warmed to the idea of expending blood and treasure for the greater glory of British and American imperialism.
As a people living in one of the oldest enduring democracies on Earth, albeit a very small one, New Zealanders have long grasped the concept of “soft power”. Going all the way back to the Liberal Government of Balance and Seddon (1891-1912) the democratic public have revelled in their country’s description as “the social laboratory of the world”. In both the League of Nations and the United Nations, New Zealand has taken advantage of the fact that it offers not the slightest military threat to anyone to become a consistent voice for peace, justice and the rule of international law.
It is interesting to note that Sir Robert Jones’ New Zealand Party (1983-93) although resolutely free-market in its economic outlook, also advocated massive reductions in military expenditure and withdrawing New Zealand from the ANZUS alliance. Jones personally favoured following the example of the tiny Central American state of Costa Rica and abolishing the New Zealand armed forces altogether!
Such was the heterodox political environment out of which the Fourth Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policy (and the United States’ angry reaction to it) gave birth to the broadly supported idea of New Zealand operating – and maintaining – its own “independent foreign policy”. That this was essentially Labour’s diplomatic position was strongly reinforced when Helen Clark eliminated the fighter-arm of the RNZAF and refused to participate the invasion of Iraq.
Small wonder, then, that Defence Minister Andrew Little’s release of the latest Defence Policy Review, and New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy, has elicited such a critical response from Helen Clark. As Clark herself notes, the documents bear all the hallmarks of those defence and national security “experts” whose primary allegiance has always been to the “Anglosphere” rather than the democratic public:
“Defence policy and security strategy documents released in Wellington today suggest that NZ is abandoning its capacity to think for itself and instead is cutting and pasting from 5 Eyes’ partners. Drumbeat from officials has been consistent on this for some time.
“This is reminiscent of the Frank Corner-led Defence Committee of Inquiry of 1985 set up by David Lange, which in effect – and in the end unsuccessfully – tried to put brakes on the Govt’s nuclear free and independent foreign policy.
“Now there appears to be an orchestrated campaign on joining the so-called ‘Pillar 2’ of AUKUS which is a new defence grouping in the Anglosphere with hard power based on nuclear weapons. New Zealand removed itself from such a vice when it adopted its nuclear-free policy.”
It is extremely rare for a former Labour prime minister to intervene in a live policy debate with such acerbic force. Clark’s tweet (viewed more than 90,000 times and counting) indicates just how seriously these documents, formulated under Chris Hipkins’ Labour government, threaten the legacies of Kirk, Lange and Clark herself.
On display in Little’s defence of these documents is just how far the centre-left of New Zealand politics has drifted from the foreign-policy and defence shibboleths of even 20 years ago. What we appear to be witnessing is the same moral surrender that accompanied the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s, when Labour abandoned its traditional socialist objectives out of fear of being branded Red China-loving “commies”. Indeed, it would not be surprising, at this point, to hear Little say that he is “neither for, nor against” New Zealand having a nuclear-free and independent foreign policy. (Just as the Labour Opposition leader, Walter Nash, infamously declared that Labour was “neither for, nor against” the Watersiders during the bitter Waterfront Lockout of 1951.)
Those passing the steps of the General Assembly Library late at night should not be surprised to encounter the ghost of Lord Liverpool – smiling.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.