Bryce Edwards: Are we spending too little – or too much – on the military?

Bryce Edwards: Are we spending too little – or too much – on the military?

New Zealand has once again been ranked the second-most peaceful nation in the world. When it comes to the Asia-Pacific region and the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand is at the top of the peace rankings. This is according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, which recently released its annual Global Peace Index.

Iceland beat us for the top spot once again. In contrast, Australia came in at number 27, the UK 34, France 65, and the United States at 129. Afghanistan is at the bottom with a rank of 163.

In recent years the institute has downgraded New Zealand’s peacefulness due to the Government’s increased military spending. And that looks set to occur again, with some strong signs that defence is about to receive a big boost from the Labour Government.

There are considerable pressures on New Zealand to lift its spending. Partly this is due to global conflicts and tensions heating up in general, but it particularly relates to the Asia-Pacific region, where conflict between the US-led West and China is ramping up. And with New Zealand recently shifting more into line with the US-led security alliances, there is pressure from allies to “play our part” and “pull our weight”. This translates to greater spending on weaponry and the military in general.

With the focus on the Pacific at the moment, and especially with the Pacific Islands Forum occurring this week, we might soon expect to see a greater New Zealand military presence and activity announced for the region.

For example, last week Defence Minister Peeni Henare said that investment in military hardware had to continue: “What I know is New Zealanders are concerned for our security in these particular times. We’ve already seen what’s happening in the Pacific, so we’re hugely in support of these exercises and will continue to support them and so will this government”.

Labour has already increased military spending massively

Labour has come under attack from opponents for not spending enough on defence. For example, in April the Act Party called for spending to be increased by $7.5bn over four years, and challenged the Government to commit itself to spending a full 2 per cent of GDP on defence. At the time the National Party also said it was in favour of much higher spending.

However, the Labour Government can rightfully claim to have already dramatically increased New Zealand’s spending on defence, and has already committed to spending an additional $20bn over the next decade.

As a percentage of GDP – which is the favoured method of international comparison – Labour has increased spending on the military from 1.15 per cent to 1.59, which is an incredibly steep rise. The Defence Minister in the last parliamentary term, Ron Mark, claimed it was the “biggest increase in spending in 60 years”. And it’s projected to go much higher, with more spending commitments on the horizon.

In contrast, the last National Government spent much less. At its lowest point, National was only spending 1.11 per cent of GDP in 2011.

The current spend on Defence is about $2.5 billion a year. And in the latest Budget in May, the Defence vote gained a $525 million boost in operational spending over the next five years.

In the last year, Labour has reconfirmed that the massive increases in defence spending agreed to during the last term of government are largely to be retained. This has surprised some who expected that with New Zealand First gone from government, Labour would be less gung-ho on defence.

The new Defence Minister has stated that although some changes are being made to the details and timing of planned expenditure, it was going to be largely business as usual under the new Labour administration.

However, there are obviously going to be some changes made to the spending on military hardware, and the budgets are likely to be increased. With New Zealand moving closer in its partnership with NATO, and generally becoming more integrated with US-led security alliances, there is an expectation that these relationships will produce pressure on the Government here to lift its military spending.

NATO has an official target for its member countries to spend a full 2 per cent of their GDP on defence. When Ardern has been asked about whether she would agree to any request from NATO that New Zealand also adopts this spend, she’s been non-committal on whether she would accept or reject that.

The Government has, however, announced last week that it has asked the Defence Force to produce a new defence policy and strategy statement, to be delivered in October. This can be seen as a necessary exercise in order for the Government to be able to justify additional spending on military hardware. In announcing the review, Henare has cited the “intensifying great power competition” in the world today, but also given some more liberal justifications around the need for the military to play an increased role in terms of climate change and natural disasters.

There has also been a recent focus on the air force’s 757 aircraft, which is often used for flying VIPs and politicians around, especially internationally. The ageing state of these planes is being used by a number of commentators as an argument for why the Government needs to lift military spending.

Although New Zealand prime ministers and other government figures could use commercial flights, the age and condition of the 757s have become a symbol that New Zealand may not have a credible military. For example, political journalist Richard Harman argued last week that the state of the 757s and other infrastructure “raises real questions about the credibility of New Zealand’s claim to have a viable Defence presence in the Pacific in the event of any conflict.”

Is Labour’s military spend-up enough?

In a normal year, New Zealand now spends about $2.5bn on the military. This is the Government’s fourth-biggest spending area – behind health, transport and education.

And some commentators have calculated that to bring New Zealand up to the international benchmark of spending 2 per cent of GDP would mean adding another billion dollars.

A rapidly escalating militarisation of the Pacific – especially with the recent announcement of AUKUS, in which nuclear submarines will be built by the UK and US for Australia – means that there will be greater pressure for New Zealand to also buy more aircraft and naval vessels.

The increased presence of China in the region also gives greater justification for a spend-up. And it’s making a number of liberal voices increasingly pro-military spending. For example, Bernard Hickey writes this week: “In my view, a truly independent foreign policy needs some high and low flying steel to back it up, particularly when it comes to policing our enormous maritime zone and offering protection to our partners in the Pacific. China’s fishing fleet comes to mind.”

What’s more, New Zealand is now undertaking many more international military training exercises with other countries. And working with the US military is now finally a more possible occurrence. Therefore, if New Zealand is going to have interoperability with its allies, then it stands to reason that similar planes and aircraft are going to have to be purchased.

Is Labour’s military spend-up too much?

The Labour Government has been selling its economic approach as one focused on “wellbeing”. But it’s hard to see how its dramatic increase in spending on war-making infrastructure fits into such a principle. And money spent on defence is at the expense of housing, welfare, education, climate change initiatives and so forth. As some critics have suggested, more spending by Labour would be a case of prioritising “tanks over teachers”.

It also should be pointed out that even though NATO pushes a 2 per cent of GDP target for its members, not all countries actually achieve this. Herald journalist Thomas Coughlan has pointed out that “Canada spends 1.42 per cent of its GDP on defence, the Netherlands and Denmark spend 1.44 per cent and Sweden, which is not in Nato, spends 1.22 per cent.”

Jacinda Ardern has recently made much of the changing international security dynamic. In many respects, her speeches portend a much greater defence budget for the future. And yet she has also given speeches arguing for less militarisation, and calling “disarmament” and “diplomacy” instead.

Regardless, it is clear that as New Zealand becomes more closely aligned with increasingly active US-led military alliances, it seems that New Zealand is going to have to pay the price of membership to those clubs.

There is not a lot of public debate on these massive expenditures. But there should be. After all, the signs are that taxpayers are about to fork out much more for war.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on Defence

Thomas Manch (Stuff): Government to review defence policy amid Covid-19, geopolitical competition, climate change
Giles Dexter (RNZ): Govt aiming to settle ‘big questions’ with defence policy review – expert
Mohammad Alafeshat (RNZ): Navy frigate returns to New Zealand after major upgrade in Canada
1News: Call for fault-prone Air Force 757s to be replaced earlier
1News: Kiwis among world’s largest naval exercise in Hawaii

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