One thing New Zealand is never accused of internationally is throwing too much money around on defence. Those impressions aren’t about to be challenged any time soon, but Defence Minister Jonathan’s Coleman’s recent speech to an annual industry conference indicates that a bit more spending may be on the way.
Since the publication of the government’s 2010 Defence White Paper (PDF), the New Zealand Defence Force has been embarked on a quest to release up to NZ$400mn (A$350mn) in annual efficiencies by 2014/15, which can then be redirected to ‘front office’ activities. Most of these savings had been identified in a piece of creative writing known as the Value for Money Review (PDF). A big part of the aim was to allow financial room for upgrade (and ultimately replacement) of the three big ticket items—the two Anzac frigates, the Hercules strategic lift aircraft and the long-range maritime patrol Orion aircraft—without the government having to dig deeper into its pockets.
Some of these efficiencies have come at a real price. Not a huge proportion of savings was to come from the civilianisation of many ‘back office’ military positions, but this morale-sapping element has generated almost all of the publicity. Earlier this year, the Auditor General concluded drily that the ‘NZDF should have found out how many and what kind of military staff it would need before telling the Government that it would convert 1,400 military positions into civilian positions.’
Dr Coleman’s speech appears to reflect a desire to put a line underneath this less than happy phase. ‘Even with the full delivery of the NZDF Savings and Redistribution programme’, he said to his audience in Wellington, ‘we always knew that new money would still be required to deliver on policy intent’. If the Cabinet always knew that, it wasn’t really what they were saying at the time. But rather than dwell on that still rather recent past, the Minister’s focus is now clearly on something called the Defence Mid-point Rebalancing Review’ (DMRR), an interagency process (including those generous people from the Treasury) out of which the ‘Government has committed to a sustainable long term funding approach for the NZDF out to 2030’.
We’ve heard those nice phrases before on both sides of the Tasman Sea. But I reckon John Key’s Government feels that it has wrung about nearly all the efficiencies it can reasonably expect from the NZDF—perhaps nearly half of what was initially promised. In terms of how much extra funding will now be injected, Dr Coleman offered few hints. But he specifically noted that DMRR will allow New Zealand to maintain ‘credible combat capabilities, such as the Naval Combat Force’. That’s of course code for the frigates, which were always the most vulnerable of the big three. If the government really wants to give its successors a good chance to replace them (with frigates or even something smaller), along with maintaining the other kit already coming into service, it will need to write what for New Zealand is a fairly big new cheque for defence. The historical record would suggest this is a rather rare occurrence.
Robert Ayson is on research leave from Victoria University of Wellington at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.